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Battlefield 2042 review: The future of warfare is meaningless

There’s a compelling game buried in the weather-ravaged wastes of Battlefield 2042‘s grim, apocalyptic premise that has almost nothing to do with hectic firefights and chaotic vehicular blowouts the series is known for.

Instead, the setup—which is practically nowhere to be found within the game proper—reads like something out of Metal Gear Solid: in the near-future, extreme weather events and environmental disasters from climate change destabilize countries across the planet, causing more than a billion fleeing refugees to coalesce into a new class of nationless exiles called “No-Pats.” Without homes to return to, they form private mercenary groups to protect themselves amid rising tensions over resources.

Already on the brink, civilization is struck another blow when an unknown event knocks out most satellites. That leaves America and Russia (the only two superpowers left standing) pointing fingers at each other over the ensuing blackout and global economic collapse. Each side responds via a proxy war, covertly deploying No-Pat task forces to safeguard its interests in climate conflict zones. You come in, boots on the ground, as one of several special-ops personnel, fighting meaningless battles ad nauseam in a ruined world for whichever side pays you.

Too bad actually playing 2042 doesn’t feel much better than its setup.

Here we go again…

When DICE announced the game’s launch would be pushed back by a month rather than moving to sometime in 2022 like many other titles facing pandemic-related delays, the plan felt like a red flag. Last month’s drastically undercooked beta, supposedly a build that was already months old, didn’t help the perception that something may have been wrong. Still, for all the bugs and balancing issues I saw, it felt possible that enough bits of Battlefield‘s DNA were baked into 2042‘s to salvage a competent multiplayer-only sequel… eventually. (It’s not like this is new territory for the developers—Battlefields 4 and V launched in similarly unfinished states over the past decade.)

Yet, after putting the retail release through its paces, I’m not at all sure “fixing” some of the fundamental decisions made here is possible without a full-fledged reboot. 2042 is a muddled mess that leaves a nagging sense of pointlessness. For all its supposed innovations, few do much to encourage teamwork—arguably the whole reason Battlefield‘s multi-tiered, large-scale warfare has ever worked—with moment-to-moment design decisions that are bafflingly conceived and bungled in execution. It’s disorienting, absurd (not in the positive, frenetic sense you’d hope), buggy, and generally a chore to play.

Some of those issues will surely be ironed out in the coming weeks and months. But waving a magic rebalancing wand over weapons, vehicles, and map terrain might not be enough. For now, 2042 offers a thin collection of disjointed, sometimes nearly broken multiplayer experiences that manage to technically check the gameplay boxes you’d expect from the series’ explosive online sandbox. But like the No-Pats themselves, whether you’re given much incentive to care is a different story.

2042 tries to have something for everyone across its three distinct modes. Its attention-grabbing freeform Portal suite in particular grants relative freedom to make all kinds of crazy crossover multiplayer sessions. All-Out Warfare, the most authentically Battlefield-y of the trio, is made up of two traditional capture-the-objective-point staples: the series’ classic Conquest mode and Battlefield 1 and V‘s offensive-front-pusher, Breakthrough. Hazard Zone and Portal take alternative approaches: one pares battles to a limited 32-player team survival contest (à la Escape from Tarkov); the other operates as a granular game editor that can mash up weapons, equipment, and maps between 2042 and multiple earlier games.

DICE also attempts to shake up gameplay more drastically than its last two period sequels. The series’ signature anarchic battlegrounds are now significantly blown out in scale, with player counts upped to 128 on current-gen consoles and PC, while character selection has changed, too. In place of the four-class system of previous games, 10 playable No-Pat specialists make up a Modern Warfare 2019-style revision. Each soldier is given a unique weapon or tool, plus an exclusive ability. Toss in a dynamic weather system, on-the-fly weapons mods, and mass-scale environmental hazards that occur at random, and you have the makings of a shooter that sounds exciting on paper—if any of it worked.

Days of defeat

All-Out Warfare is probably where the bulk of players who stick with 2042 will flock—and it’s where you’ll most acutely feel the game’s flaws. The first thing you’ll notice is the general lack of polish, and 2042 is plagued with it: visual hitches; glitchy, ragdolling models; inconsistent, ropey shooting; vehicle and weapon imbalances; levels that are visually less detailed and drab than BF1, V, or 2042‘s allegedly “in-engine” debut trailer; the overly finicky, hard-to-read deployment map. Hardly excusable for a triple-A launch, many of these are no doubt already being queued for fixes down the line.

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Some of the more integral issues I discovered are harder to quantify. For starters, having 128 players at once isn’t effective for the colossal real-estate upgrade per map. As in past games, you’re free to spawn in any area occupied by your team in Conquest, which pits rival factions against each other in a contest to take and hold as many capture points as possible. But there are a lot more points to capture per map than in earlier entries, and like clockwork, your team will soon splinter off in any number of directions because of it.

This wasn’t much of a problem in older Battlefields. That’s because the capture points were generally close enough that, wherever fights for supremacy organically popped up, it was straightforward enough for your team to concentrate or respawn nearby. With more players and a wider array of points, your team will inevitably be split up across several sectors.

Without organization, the battle flow is erratic and confused and rarely sets you up for the kind of controlled mayhem that Battlefield excels at when it’s done well. These ideal momentswhen players’ class choices complement each other and attackers and defenders are working broadly toward a common objectivebecome the rarest glimmers of a better game only to give way to unhinged pandemonium. You’re unlikely to stumble across another soldier from the four-member squad that 2042 sticks you in, so you’ll almost never use Battlefield V‘s buddy-revive system, which makes a somewhat useless return here.

And spawning into the breach with a squadmate blipping in and out of active combat is frequently an instant death sentence. Why? Because it’s next to impossible to get your bearings before stumbling into a hornet’s nest of enemy players; a two-pronged assault of tank shells and rockets raining hell from above; that sniper’s bullet you never saw coming; or a hovercraft carving an irregular path through the middle of the incoherently crisscrossing fire. If you do manage to make a dent in a killzone capture point while it’s seesawing between teams, don’t expect to hold it for long.

Matches typically run 40 minutes, but they sometimes feel like an eternity. Though each side’s reserve of respawns is finite, the number of “tickets” are plentiful enough that death loses all relevance. (It might matter more if 2042‘s limited weapon selection didn’t feel so uneven, but here we are.) The maps themselves are another culprit: vast stretches of them are devoid of cover, which can make you an easy target if you don’t happen to cross paths with other teammates in a vehicle.

With the right telemetric player data, you could probably study the nuanced tides of skirmishes to figure out exactly why the ebbs and flows over 2042‘s battlefields don’t work. I spent most of my time ping-ponging between different sectors in a vain effort to feel in control of, well, anything. This tack was rarely effective. Aside from empty struggles for offense and defense, half the time the overzealous weapon bloom around my assault rifle or light machine gun meant I couldn’t even hit enemies at near-contact range. From what I could tell, most other players were having similar experiences.

You dropped team classes for this?

A number of these problems seem compounded by the existence of the specialist classes themselves, undermining the game’s balance before you even exit the deployment screen. Each of 2042‘s motley crew of No-Pats is differentiated by an exclusive skill and gadget. Take Casper, one of the available recon class types. He’s armed with a movement sensor and a remote aerial drone that can mark enemies from afar. By necessity, he varies in style to assault characters like Mackay and Sundance, who carry a grappling hook and bandolier of varying grenade types, respectively, with Mackay boasting increased movement speed and Sundance auto-equipped with a wingsuit upgraded from everyone else’s standard slower, sniper-attracting parachute. The sticking point is that, outside of such specifics, your loadout is completely customizable.

That means a support class like, say, Falck (a combat surgeon) can choose to carry an engineer type’s light machine gun and FXM-33 AA missile launcher. That means she can fully revive any teammate, bring serious heat to infantry skirmishes, and take down marauding attack choppers or transports, if you want her to. But once you’ve entered a firefight, it’s immediately apparent that giving players the freedom of broad versatility—and launching without voice chat—destroys any notion of working in tandem. Who cares about sticking together when you can have an army of Mackay clones all individually grappling up every available surface in all directions?

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Though that’s an exaggeration (if a slight one), allowing you to kit out any character you want with whatever equipment naturally tilts combat from decisive to unwieldy. Players can access whatever tools necessary for self-sufficiency or going off solo, guns blazing. Don’t expect to get many revives from your teammates even when medics are around. Meanwhile, this half-exploit system exposes several character gimmicks as same-y, underwhelming, or borderline useless—this is absolutely a game that plays favorites. Combined with the level design, it becomes painfully clear how disorganized and thoughtless the bulk of 2042‘s systems really are.

A separation of battlefields

You’d think some of the worst aspects of 2042—whether they stem from characters or development choices—would be mitigated in All-Out Warfare’s secondary option, Breakaway. Here, an attacking team with a limited reserve of respawns must take an entire map, sector by sector, point by point, pushing the defenders back until there’s nowhere left to go. In other words, it’s a focused, team-based assault. While Breakaway may be ultimately redeemed with rebalancing, every time I tried a round, the other team (often the attacking side) landed in one of two extremes—hopelessly overpowered or hardly worth the fight. To be honest, I couldn’t figure out why there was no middle ground in the balance of power. Without the wrench-in-the-works jolt of either Battlefield 1‘s monstrous Behemoth assault vessels or the squad reinforcement call-ins of Battlefield V, both of which could turn the tide of matches by evening the odds for the losing side, this new Breakaway doesn’t strike me as very interesting or built to last.

Hazard Zone, the single bright-ish spot in this marred package, may be another matter. I say that with a caveat: after clearing a handful of tense rounds (and dying in several more), I wasn’t sure how much staying power something this straightforward might have. Nevertheless, there’s a genuine engagement to this mode that’s absent elsewhere. Unlike the madness of All-Out Warfare, your squad in Hazard Zone is a lifeline. Your squad is thrown onto one of 2042‘s maps, but now the size works in your favor, with a scant 32 players on the ground apart from groups of AI you can stumble into. Your orders are to gather as many data drives of intel as possible before rendezvousing with a dropship for extraction at the designated time.

Like Escape from Tarkov, the stakes are that you and your squadmates are confined by limited loadouts and a single life each, assuming you don’t find any uplink laptops scattered around that can call in vehicles, ammo, or a team redeployment. You have 15 minutes to find as many data drives as you can, and it’s always a high-strung gamble whether you’ll encounter other teams near a drop point. Everyone’s gunning for the same supply of macguffins, and every kill, if you can survive, is significant.

The difference produces some thrilling moments. No one in a squad can afford to be stupid or foolhardy, and with the round’s points depending on drives collected, kills, and extraction—die and you get nothing—the timer between two dropships ratchets up the pressure while simultaneously forcing you to take an active role. (Catching the end-of-round dropship against several other teams is a rare kind of stress-hell rush, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

I realize Hazard Zone isn’t exactly the most apt concept compared to the normal insanity of Battlefield, so your mileage may vary. I have reservations about the rewards for surviving a run being limited to currency to buy gear and perks to use in future rounds, as well, considering the mission is always the same. It’s too early to know whether or not players stick with this mode or whether DICE will add any additional wrinkles to keep things fresh. That said, this is probably the most fun I had with 2042. Your actions really feel impactful, and that’s worth something.

Portal to disappointment, so far

And then there’s Portal. Marketed as the mode-to-end-all-Battlefield-modes, this one is less “true game type” than tool. Players are able to mix and match old-school player classes, weapons, vehicles, and maps from Battlefield 3, Bad Company 2, and 1942 to create multiplayer matches with a wide range of custom logic, down to effects like weapon-speed multipliers, fall damage, and AI behavior.

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So if you want to, say, throw 2042‘s No-Pats into Battlefield 3‘s Iran versus Bad Company 2‘s soldier classes with a damage factor of 0.3 percent, you can do that. Or maybe you want a slow-mo sniper-only battle between a platoon of BF3-era AI who can move at lightning-fast speed facing a playable faction of 1942‘s British army through a muddy ship graveyard in 21st-century India. You can do that, too. The major marketing push featured a showdown between the specialists (and their Boston Dynamics-esque robot dogs) and the cast of 1942 scrapping over the Battle of the Bulge map. A mashup like that sounded fun.

Portal, then, is a great concept—and one that right now falls pathetically short. For one thing, DICE doesn’t bother to provide any explanation whatsoever for how to use the editor. On PS5, there’s an option to create a custom match, with the ability to customize the name of your game, the type of mode, and the description. Without so much as a menu notification saying I had to go to a separate website to design and deploy a hosted match, I was forced to look up how to operate Portal’s editor at all. (It’s portal.battlefield.com, if you’re lost.)

The fact that you have to use either a PC or phone to set up a game is in itself a little ridiculous. As far as console-shooter comparisons go, this is essentially DICE’s take on Doom 2016’s SnapMap level editor, which afforded a lot of freedom to design almost any kind of Doom level you could dream up, right down to an impressively malleable logic system—all handled in-game. It’s unlikely there was a good reason Portal’s editor, which consists of text drop-down menus, value fields, and a few visually oriented tools to manipulate design code, couldn’t be included in 2042‘s files. It may just be one more reason to think 2042 suffered from a rushed development schedule.

The developers didn’t bother to make the Battlefield-era combos that were so heavily advertised available as official experiences, either. Players can choose accurate recreations of each included title’s individual multiplayer via the Portal hub, but if you want that robots-in-the-Bulge fantasy, make it yourself. A creation tool like this will ultimately live or die by who uses it, and so far, Portal’s operators appear content with a wasteland of fake XP farms, “zombie” modes (with one team being weaker and armed with knives), and unimaginative map rotations with a handful of tweaked parameters. Swing and a miss.

Maps, maps, m—oh wait, there’s only seven

On the subject of level design, 2042‘s paltry selection of maps—there are seven, not counting the additional six from Bad Company 2, BF3, and 1942 remade for Portal—are a disappointment. Nearly all of them favor certain player types over others, and their landscapes or structures typically don’t give you much variety to inspire varied, creative strategies.

Nor do those landscapes and structures come anywhere close to the bar of environmental destruction that DICE pushed back in 2014 with Battlefield 4‘s “Levolution” system. Beyond a few explode-y one-offs or the occasional set-piece like Orbital’s rocket launch pad, very little that you see can be destroyed. When artillery does punch holes in some of the narrow range of buildings on hand here, it feels more like breaking prefab segments from something like a Lego set rather than a realistic depiction of dynamic wreckage. In fact, far from the paradox of 2042‘s environmentally dangerous world, the in-game can be outright boring, with some maps going as far as feeling like retreads.

For instance, the most alluring part of the sand-sunken Hourglass is a ruined multi-layer stadium, solely a point of tactical interest, because different teams can hold points on separate floors. Kaleidoscope and Manifest are essentially bite-sized variations on different chunks of Orbital, minus a few minor changes. Only the Antarctic oil rig of Breakaway feels sufficiently diverse enough that I usually could find some reliable fun playing matches through it (though it rarely came up in my uneven play rotations), and as the largest landmass of any 2042 map, it also isn’t perfect.

And if you’re wondering how the game’s dynamic weather features might be a saving grace, I have more bad news. As static levels that ignore the devastation of climate change, environmental danger factors are all but nil. Assuming you’re lucky enough to even witness a tornado or sandstorm come rolling through a map, you would have to go out of your way to “get caught” in them—I can count on one hand the number of times I even witnessed one appear. If you do see one, you’ll be severely underwhelmed with how they drift through with all the destructive power of a whirlwind of flower petals.

Similarly, sandstorms are decidedly sad. Confined to Hourglass, they look like palette-swaps of the standard tornado with a different skybox, and standing near the funnel of one doesn’t kick up a significant amount of dust or impair your vision. I like the idea of the dynamic weather—starting a round on a cloudless day just for a storm front to roll in halfway through is a nice atmospheric touch, but it’s not as though lashing rain and strong winds have any effect on gameplay. With climate change being pushed as the touchstone for 2042‘s anemic fiction, it’s a letdown that its extremes aren’t a threat in the slightest.

If it wasn’t clear by now, Battlefield 2042 is a mess in more ways than should be reasonably expected, with the laundry list above barely scratching the surface of its wreckage (I didn’t even mention lag, persistent server issues, no game search, or other concerns). But for all the failures, missing elements, and bizarre revisions, the most telling thing I can say about it is also one of the simplest: I rarely wanted to keep playing.

Verdict: Brave souls can check back in a year to see what, if any, efforts DICE has put into saving this disaster. For everyone else, pass.

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