Battlefield 2042 should have been a slam dunk. A few years on from the troublesome release of Battlefield V and a first stab at a live service game, the return to a near-future war setting, the expansion up to 128-player battles and the power of the PS5 and Xbox Series X pushing it to new heights sounds on paper like a blockbusting hit. Instead, it’s another polarising game with a range of odd decisions, changes and lack of polish at launch.
Jumping forward to the year 2042, the world is in crisis. Climate change has led to extreme weather events and billions of climate refugees as states fail. Amongst them are countless soldiers, willing to fight to secure their own safety and future with the two remaining world powers: Russia and the USA.
Instead of generic and faceless soldiers, Battlefield 2042 instead turns them into characters, EA and DICE trying to sprinkle some of the hero shooter magic onto their gritty war shooter. Having Specialists means the classes of old have been ditched, each character having a specific ability that ties into a class archetype, but then having free choice of weapons, gadgets and throwables. There’s some neat abilities that can enhance certain playstyles, Sundance’s wingsuit great for breaking through lines and reaching camping snipers in the backfield, Navin’s new hacking tool able to disrupt and disable enemy vehicles, Boris’ turret helping with defensive duties (though struggling in more freeform combat situations).
Yet, you can’t help but feel it’s all a bit unnecessary, like DICE is chasing a zeitgeist that has largely passed in favour of purely cosmetic choices. They’re meant to inject some character to the game, but there’s none that are particularly engaging (outside of returning Battlefield 4 character Irish, played by the recently deceased Michael K. Williams), their dialogue more likely to get a roll of the eyes at the match-ending awards screen, and a current lack of meaningful cosmetics to diversify your look. Not only that, but this is a game where many battles are at distance, so there’s next to no potential for character silhouettes to help out your strategic approach to a situation..
Step onto the huge battlefields of All-Out Warfare, and you see both sides of Battlefield come together in both Conquest and Breakthrough game modes. Conquest’s maps are huge on PS5 and Series X|S, the capture points spread out and now with new multi-point sectors, so you could easily stay in one corner of the map for a 20-30 minute match. The fights for capture points can often feel a bit quieter than in previous games, though there’s always been the ability to avoid the main fight that’s going on and try to secure a quieter point. The issue is that the distance between objectives is now often bigger, the number of vehicles available not enough to allow for quick rotations through the map. Meanwhile the maps all seem to have fewer opportunities for the series’ penchant for meaningful destruction and ‘Levolution’.
Breakthrough, on the other hand, is absolute chaos, each stage of battle in the attack and defence mode featuring between one and three capture points that must be held together in order to progress, as defenders try to cling on and drain respawn tickets. With 64 players on each side, it’s carnage – a meat grinder where you can spawn and die in moments.
DICE has kept things narrowly focussed on these two modes for the main Battlefield 2042 experience, ditching modes like Frontlines, Rush, and the multi-map battles of Operations. Instead you have Hazard Zone and the fan-placating Portal mode.
Hazard Zone is an interesting one. It’s here that Specialists make the most sense as you head into a map covertly with your team of four players – you can only have one of a particular Specialist on your side, and so only one of their special gadgets. You have to purchase your equipment at the start, deploying and then trying to secure and escape with data drives from fallen satellites, battling patrolling AI and other four-man teams as you do so. It’s surprisingly high-paced, with encounters with other teams happening almost from the get-go, and a real struggle and tension to make it out with data drives in hand. It’s a very, very different type of experience to the main Battlefield, and I’m not sure it can be the breakout hit that EA and DICE are looking for to match the popularity of battle royales like COD Warzone, but there is something to it that will certainly appeal to a subset of players.
More universal is Portal, which features remastered and remade content from Battlefield 1942, Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3. There’s two maps from each, the classes, weapons and vehicles, and three takes on the classic Battlefield experience. While EA and DICE have focussed on the ability to mod the game with Portal’s simple scripting tools, cooking up some wild alternate modes and supporting them with AI enemies, it highlights an immediate difference between 2042’s gameplay and the tighter knit, more necessarily cooperative style of play in Bad Company 2’s Rush mode, the balance between classes in Battlefield 3.
Without that reminder, Battlefield 2042 and its many changes might come out in a more favourable light. Of course, that’s before we come to the signs that Battlefield 2042 was pushed out the door a few months too early. The weapon balance is off in a number of ways, with assault rifles suffering from a horrible degree of randomised inaccuracy at any kind of range. You also have bizarre bugs like players getting stuck crouched and being erroneously marked as enemies, hovercraft being able to literally drive up the sides of skyscrapers, and the kinds of server and stability issues that you probably expect from a Battlefield game at launch – technically this is still early access ahead of a full release on Friday, so expect a hefty “day one” patch.
Then there’s the UI. It’s not as bad as it was in the beta, but the match status bar that comes in at the top of the screen is oppressive. The ‘big map’ view they’ve added takes up the whole screen, but it’s difficult to tell where you are on the map at a glance and feels far less useful than the ‘big map’ from previous games that would simply expand to the lower left quarter of the screen. When you die and are respawning, it’s an absolute chore on console trying to pick a respawn point – every time I flick the analogue stick and am unsure of how it’s meant to work. Want to see how you’re doing in the match? The old scoreboard is gone, the game following games like Overwatch in removing that core kill/death ratio stat. There’s also the lack of of voice comms at launch, which is simply baffling. These are things that the series has done well or perfected in the past, but here they’re being fumbled.
One new system is the Plus Menu, letting you swap attachments on the fly. Do you want to understand how to configure those weapon attachments? Well, the game isn’t going to tell you. Your attachments when spawning are the ones at the centre of the Plus Menu, and it’s these that will be used in Portal mode when Plus Menu is deactivated. Adjusting the Plus Menu is also a chore.
While 128-players is an impressive feat, the game is far from a technical showcase in other ways. Shadows and screen-space reflections have an ugly dithered and smeared effect to them on PlayStation 5, and there’s quite a few visual glitches to be found that should have been buffed out. I’ve absolutely no idea what’s going on with the water in Battlefield 3’s Noshahr Canals, either. This doesn’t feel like a big step forward for a new generation of game engine and console.