What is the purpose of a single-player campaign in a multiplayer shooter? It’s not exactly a new debate, nor does it have a singular answer. Respawn’s Titanfall famously ditched the single-player campaign for its first outing, before boasting an absolute banger of a campaign in the sequel. This year, Treyarch dropped the campaign for Call of Duty: Black Ops 4—the first time in the series’ history. Some have seen CoD's singular focus on multiplayer as the death knell for shooter campaigns, but DICE doesn't seem to think so. Battlefield 5 has followed in Battlefield 1's footsteps, offering multiple mini campaigns, each telling a different story of WW2. So how does DICE feel about single-player campaigns in shooters, and are they still important in an age when multiplayer seems to be king?
”What it gives us is an opportunity to portray historical events,” DICE Creative Director Lars Gustavsson explains to me. Gustavsson has seen it all in his time with the Battlefield series. Starting out with a prototype of Battlefield 1942 in March of 1999, some 20 years later he’s now hugely influential across all parts of the Battlefield franchise, particularly War Stories, the single-player component of Battlefield 5.
”We’ve been trying multiple ways of doing the single-player campaign for years, from Bad Company to Hardline,” continues Gustavsson. “What struck us with Battlefield 1 was the anthology format of war stories, basically breaking it up into a number of war stories, portraying human stories, it’s not superheroes. It’s meant to be personal stories of people caught up in the war, rather than being the lone warrior and winning the war.”
In playing several of the Battlefield 5 War Stories earlier this week in Stockholm, it’s clear how small-scale and personal the action is. The first of these, Nordlys, takes place in Norway in 1942, following the stories of a few Norwegian Resistance fighters, struggling against the might of the German occupation force. The story never evolves into anything too grand, like pushing the occupying force out of Norway entirely, and this is where Battlefield 5 differs from Call of Duty. The single-player action never devolves to all-out war, and instead keeps a very tight focus on a few characters, making Nordlys memorable and strangely relatable—for an event that happened over 70 years ago.
It's perhaps not surprising that Gustavsson has a very personal connection to Nordlys: “If you go there—my father lived there for 30 years—it becomes quite apparent how close the war still is, and the scars that it leaves,” Gustavsson explains. “As a Swede it’s hard to grasp what it really meant for them, just being under the German rule for quite some time. And through that came the Norwegian Resistance, and that’s part of the story we wanted to tell, inspired by real events but also we are portraying female resistance fighters that was part of what was taking place.”
Tirailleur, the second War Story I played, takes place a year later in France. Gustavsson explains that although “everyone knows about D-Day and Omaha Beach,” there was another major operation that took place merely two months later, featuring a platoon of soldiers entirely from Senegal. “It’s never really depicted in books, movies, or anything,” says Gustavsson, and I wasn’t aware until I played Tirailleur, of just how badly the Senegal soldiers were treated by the French forces, being sent into warzones with zero hope of making it out alive.
And in Tirailleur, there’s no room for error, let alone a pause or respite in the onslaught. It’s definitely the more chaotic, relentless of the two headline War Stories, as your young and fresh-faced Senegalese soldier struggles to keep it together while comrades are getting torn apart in a hail of bullets all around him. This stark realism and historical inspiration is certainly something that the Call of Duty franchise has veered away from since the more grounded efforts of Call of Duty 2 and 3, with WW2’s depiction of Omaha Beach the closest its come in recent years.
But all this is not to say that DICE views the Battlefield War Stories as a “history lesson,” as Gustavsson puts it. “Already with Battlefield 1 I think we managed to break through and put the war into perspective. We showed that it was a global war, from the Falklands to God knows where, but it sparked a lot of interest in the First World War. Hopefully this time we can spark a lot of interest in finding out more and what happened in World War Two, so I wouldn’t like people to see us as a history lesson, but hopefully we can spark people to read up more about these events.”
Earlier in the year we asked DICE design director Eric Holmes about the continued inclusion of a single-player campaign. Holmes offered a slightly different take on the purpose of the War Stories in Battlefield 5, saying “Multiplayer is a bit more like jazz, where everyone is playing their instruments and doing their own thing. But with single-player, there's a song just for you.”
In my time so far with Battlefield 5, it’s clear that the War Stories are exactly that: The individual stories of war, and how it reaches and affects the lives of individual people. Each is brief but brutal (the two I played each took less than two hours to complete), but manage to portray realistic events of soldiers, instead of superheroes. Nordlys and Tirailleur are the headline events for the single-player portion of Battlefield 5 (the third, Under No Flag, follows a covert British operation in Africa), and DICE isn’t leaving the War Stories there, with plans for The Last Tiger to arrive later this year, depicting further harrowing events from a German perspective.