If you're one of the many people out there who enjoy nothing more than diving into battle with dozens of other hopefuls and then fighting it out until only one remains, then you're pretty spoilt for choice right now. There are some stellar battle royale shooters out there at the moment, and in a lot of cases, you don't have to spend a penny to get at the base experience as there are a handful of really good free-to-play options to choose from. That said, not all games are offering these popular modes for free, but that doesn't have to be a barrier for games with a large enough following - just ask Treyarch after the launch of Blackout for Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. EA, DICE, and Criterion are trying the same trick with Firestorm, the new multiplayer mode for Battlefield V that landed yesterday, and because we can't resist a shiny new battle royale, we jumped in and took a closer look.
Firestorm is an apt name, it must be said. The ring of flames that surrounds the map at the beginning of each round is a thing to behold, and we've never seen a battle royale circle shrink with such crackling ferocity. It really does look like the end times are chasing after you when you're forced to sprint away from the relentless wall of heat that marks the shifting boundary of this expansive arena. Despite the fire and brimstone, however, this is is a very straightfaced interpretation of the sub-genre; Firestorm takes itself rather seriously, something made evident by things such as the realistic positioning of scenery and muted overall level design.
Speaking of which, the map doesn't have too many surprises up its proverbial sleeve. Halvøy is, by some way, the biggest map in Battlefield history and it's a textured environment with a fair degree of variety. It's filled with bodies of water and mountainous areas linked by a mixture of grassy stretches of land and snow-covered hills, with buildings of various types sprinkled throughout. There are some more densely packed areas with more structures to explore, and light vehicles are strewn everywhere. What you won't find here are zombies or grapple hooks or anything else particularly outlandish. Instead, the developers have gone for a more skill-focused contest, and that's achieved by stripping away all class abilities to create a more level playing field (you still choose one, but it's only cosmetic).
Of course, this being Battlefield V, there's plenty of stuff you can blow up - if you can find the explosives. We didn't see too many rocket battles, but the game's signature destructible environments ensure that these over-powered weapons make a big impact when they are used. Because Firestorm leans into realism as opposed to preposterous gimmicks, the devs clearly went easy on the heavy arms, although we still saw rockets put to expert use, and if you've got the right gear you can flush an opponent out of a building in a way you simply can't in other games in the genre, and that alone makes Firestorm uniquely satisfying.
The gunplay itself translates well into both the solo and squads modes. This is a polished and precise shooter, and in terms of weapon handling and boots-on-the-ground traversal, it's up there with the best in the business. During solo play, it's the usual free-for-all where your success depends entirely on having a good aim, a bit of luck, and taking up clever positions at the right moments. In the four-player mode, things get more tactical thanks to a simple marker-system, although that said, we think that a bit more could have been done to improve comms between strangers.
Like we've seen a number of times before in this space, each round starts with players - up to 64 of them in this case - jumping into action from the skies above. This intro is at least contextually relevant here, even if the subsequent battle doesn't make much sense from a thematic perspective. The game starts with players bailing from planes and heading down in search of a safe place to land. Straight away there's the usual emphasis on scavenging for weapons, and it's utterly essential that players ransack buildings and grab whatever they can. Picking up weapons and ammo wasn't the smoothest we've ever experienced, but all told there seemed like a solid arsenal to find and utilise, with harder to access crates and safes there to tempt you if you've got the time and space to crack them open.
If you grab a pistol during your search for gear you can use it should you get downed during a squad battle later on, although you've got a finite period of time to be revived before you go the way of the dodo. Beyond that, you've got two main weapons slots, so should you get to see enough of the map to have to make decisions, you can grab a shotty or machinegun for close- to mid-range combat, or pick up a rifle for engaging enemies at distance. This being Battlefield there are vehicles to be found dotted around the place too, but we're not sure that more lightly armoured units really suit Firestorm and a team in a light chopper or small armoured personnel carrier can be extremely vulnerable, as we discovered firsthand.
If you pull back on Battlefield's destructible environments, what have you got left? You've certainly got a polished and engaging shooter that's hard to fault mechanically, but on the other hand, it's also one that's hard to get excited about either. There are occasionally objectives to compete over that grant generous weapon drops, and when the tanks roll in it can get chaotic, both of which gives the whole thing a bit more series-specific flavour, but these moments don't seem to happen all that often and for most of the time it's business as usual. As a bonus for Battlefield V players, it's a fun addition and we'd be lying if we said we didn't enjoy ourselves, but Firestorm doesn't do enough to really set itself apart and this is not the definitive battle royale experience we were hoping for.
It's not a disaster, though, and we hope to see DICE and Criterion explore the concept further and maybe look more to the traditional strengths of Battlefield and then amplify them either in Halvøy or another arena in a different era. Perhaps it's also that the WW2 setting isn't the right one for a larger-than-life battle royale experience, and the need to handle the period with care has muted the things that would have made Firestorm feel like its own thing? It's hard to say based on our hours with it so far, but one thing that is clear is that this Battlefield V mode plays things a bit too safe and steady at times, which makes this a promising start that could lead to better things, but not a battle royale that's going to make the competition sweat just yet.