This week, EA released “The Last Tiger,” the final mission for Battlefield V’s single-player campaign. Unlike the rest of the game, which has you fighting Nazis from various perspectives throughout World War II, “The Last Tiger” actually puts you in the jackboots of a German tank commander as he tries to defend western Germany from an American invasion. It’s an odd choice, considering the recent rise of far-right fanatics in the political world, but video games are no different than any other medium, and they should be able to tell stories from controversial perspectives, just like a film would. Of course, if games want to be respected like other mediums, they’ll have to do a lot better than “The Last Tiger.”
Each of Battlefield V’s four mini-campaigns varies wildly in terms of quality and tone. The first, “Under No Flag,” is sort of a rollicking, darkly humorous adventure story about a British criminal who gets drafted into a secret military machine because he’s good at blowing stuff up. The second, “Nordlys,” is largely stealth-focused and has you play as a teenage girl in Norway rescuing her scientist mom from a Nazi facility. “Nordlys” in particular is phenomenal, and it makes a strong case that you should be able to ski in every first-person shooter. The third is “Tirailleur,” and it’s about Senegalese soldiers who join the French army to hold back the invading Nazis. It’s the most straightforward of the campaigns, having you fight from point A to point B as the narrator explains that war is bad and foreshadows that the sacrifices you and your fellow soldiers make will be ignored by the rest of the French army.
The one thing that unites these campaigns is that they’re all about people who were willing to give everything for what they believed in, whether it’s stopping the Nazis from building an atomic bomb or defending the honor of Senegal, and “The Last Tiger” is no different—except for the fact that the belief its characters will die for is that the German people are the master race and deserve to rule the world. The mission starts with your character, Peter Müller, reminding his tank crew that the German people are all great and they will be unstoppable if they stay united. These words are immediately called into question when the tank rolls past a group of captured deserters, who are all clearly being marched to an execution. It gives Müller pause, but not enough to convince him to stop blindly following orders.
In fact, Müller never stops blindly following orders until the last second of the story, when it becomes clear that the German army has abandoned them, the Americans are closing in, and the tank crew is truly fucked. The driver runs off and gets shot in the back by your gunner for disrespecting the whole “master race” myth, prompting Müller to remove the Iron Cross around his neck in disgust and surrender, which leads the gunner to shoot him as well. It’s clear that this is meant to be an indictment of the fascist ideology that led all of these soldiers to be killed, but then there’s some onscreen text about how countless real-life German soldiers refused to surrender that is presented in such a reverent tone that it implies that doing so was somewhat heroic. Müller and most of the tank crew died because they started to lose faith, the soldiers who wouldn’t surrender died because they chose not to lose faith, and the epilogue of “The Last Tiger” indicates that both options are equally noble.
If Battlefield V were telling stories about almost any other war, that might be an interesting direction to take, but these are actual Nazis we’re talking about. As in the other campaign missions, Battlefield V wants players to feel bad for the tragic stories of these soldiers, but do we really have to? There are no swastikas to be seen in “The Last Tiger,” and it doesn’t mention Adolf Hitler by name (only referencing an unnamed “leader” in its epilogue), but it’s impossible not to think about the atrocities the Nazis committed while you’re playing as one and hammering American troops with a big tank gun. These soldiers didn’t just die for the belief that they were the best; they also died for the belief that other, unworthy people deserved to die. Battlefield V tries to have it both ways, highlighting honorable German soldiers like Müller alongside others that were simply duped by this dangerous ideology, but it never reckons with just how truly evil that ideology was.
The problem isn’t that Battlefield is letting us play as Nazis, as you can get randomly assigned to the Axis during any old online game. The real problem is the “gotta hear both sides” narrative presentation—particularly in our current political moment. It was August of last year when the standing U.S. president said that there were “very fine people on both sides” after a neo-Nazi hit and killed protestor Heather Heyer with a car in Charlottesville, Virginia, and while Battlefield V certainly isn’t trying to pander to racists the way Trump was, this still seems like an absolutely awful time to be making the argument that some Nazis were fine people who deserve sympathy. The game is clearly saying that fascism is wrong, but it’s letting the fascists themselves off the hook, just like how Trump claiming that some neo-Nazis are fine people who don’t murder protestors gives all other neo-Nazis a pass.
Battlefield V presents a surprisingly nuanced take on World War II that is very far removed from the dull, “rah-rah” heroism of the Call Of Duty: World War II campaign from last year, but it falls flat in “The Last Tiger.” There may very well have been German soldiers in World War II who were good people like Peter Müller, but it’s hard to give a shit about that in 2018. Nazis are bad, and there are far too many people in the world today who don’t even believe that.