Playing Battlefield 2042 this past week, those magic moments can still be found if you know where to look for them. I’ve squeezed alongside my squad into an elevator and ascended some 60 stories to a skyscraper’s roof, quietly waiting for the doors to open before going loud and wiping out two other teams, capturing the point then parachuting down to capture another for good measure. I’ve sprinted through sandstorms, vehicles thrashing past as debris tears through the air, only to come through the other side and see a helicopter in flames spiralling noisily towards my face. I giggled and gawped as the huge map around me spins up into a catherine wheel of carnage.
Battlefield 2042 is, in some ways, a celebration of all that. A major component of its three part offering is Portal, a mode that zooms back and gives players the sandboxes themselves to play with. Here there are classic maps culled from Battlefield 1942, Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3, with rules and movesets lifted from each title. Mix and match as you fancy, pitting a mass of WW2 soldiers against a smaller squad kitted out with modern day equipment, or maybe just stick to the old faithfuls: a round of Rush at Arica Harbor with Bad Company 2’s tools and rules, or Conquest at Noshahr Canals using Battlefield 3’s toybox.
Playing around with these much loved old toys, now all polished to a modern sheen, is more than just a nostalgia rush. It’s a reminder of the potency of the Battlefield formula, the reason so many players endure the series’ sometimes rocky patches and the reason it’s always maintained such a strong community. Placed next to All-Out Warfare, the mode where you’ll find Battlefield 2042’s new suite of toys and tricks as well as its five colossal new maps that support 128-players across Conquest and Breakthrough modes, you’ll see exactly how far the series’ formula has changed. And some of those changes are more than a little strange.
The headline addition are the Specialists, hero-like characters that bring their own unique abilities to the battlefield while replacing the class system of old, and perhaps the biggest surprise is how little lasting impact they have. Built loosely off the existing classes, there are some neat wrinkles they introduce – as someone who prefers to play support, I’m a fan of Casper’s recon options as well as Falck’s long-distance healing ability – but they seem to stunt the balance of squads rather than enhance them. The freedom you’re afforded is fantastic, but given how limited the weapon count is at launch loadouts soon coalesce until every build feels pretty much the same.
There’s room for the system to come into focus, but right now it feels like one of a number of fuzzy design decisions. The removal of the scoreboard is still, after over 20 hours with Battlefield 2042, something of a sore point. I get that it’s to encourage teamplay and discourage lone wolves, but it’s counter to the camaraderie and rivalries that emerge when you spend an evening in any particular server, seeing the same usernames at the end of your sights or getting steamrolled by the same tight-knit squad. The lack of in-game voice chat, while again understandable, seems counter to the teamwork necessary to enjoy a game like Battlefield.
In All-Out Warfare, the maps can sometimes seem counter to an enjoyable Battlefield experience too. It’s no doubt down to the 128-player count that means when it comes to marketing points Battlefield 2042 can go toe-to-toe with the big Battle Royale games, but those wide open spaces only exacerbate the problems newcomers tend to find with the series; that you’re running endlessly from one point to another with not much by way of action in between, only to be cleanly sniped as soon as you reach your objective and you’re made to sprint endlessly again.
Being squadded up by default helps, of course, as does the ability to airdrop vehicles (including a truly devastating hovercraft that can lollop over entire mobs and even scale skyscrapers – one of the most crushingly powerful additions to Battlefield for years). There’s some wonderful tools in All-Out Warfare, such as the cross menu that lets you customise your weapon on the fly, snappily swapping out sights and attachments to best suit the situation. It feels, and runs – after a patch smoothed out some of the problems of the early launch experience – at a decent lick, and even if the near future setting gives it a somewhat anonymous aesthetic it’s still capable of providing some real spectacle.
It’s just a shame it’s so thinly spread right now. There’s a stark contrast between the snappy action you’ll find on the classic maps over in the Portal mode to the flatter tempo of All-Out Warfare. Indeed, the most fun to be had with the modern toolset is in Hazard Zone, the Escape From Tarkov inspired squad-based mode that funnels teams together alongside AI hostiles as you fight to retrieve and extract data packs. When it all comes together it’s a tense, hugely enjoyable thing, though I’m not sure it currently has the stickiness to be a lasting prospect or steal away players from any of its competitors.
Indeed, I’m not sure if there’s anything in Battlefield 2042 just yet that’s going to convert newcomers to the series – Hazard Zone is fun but limited, and All-Out Warfare has too many issues at launch to be worth the investment. Which leaves Portal, where the old Battlefield magic is, quite obviously, at its brightest. There’s a concern here, though, that the more player made modes and mods are introduced the more thinly spread the player base will be. With 128 slots to fill in many of its modes this is a game that’s hungry for players, and there’s already a sense some modes just won’t be sustainable. For a game that’s got a widely available 10 hour trial, I’ve encountered some worryingly lonely matches where the emptiness of those maps is only compounded.
Not to mention, of course, the bugs and glitches that are still a regular occurrence even after the day one patch. They’re part of the territory when it comes to a new Battlefield, unfortunately, something returning fans will be familiar with but will likely prove off-putting to newcomers. There’s every chance it’ll be a smoother experience after the first few rounds of patches, but given how fierce the competition is in the first-person shooter space that might just be too late. It’s not as if that’s the only problem facing Battlefield 2042 either.
For all its breadth and scope, Battlefield 2042 feels like the most muddled, compromised and confused entry in the series yet – a more existential problem than faced by the likes of Battlefield 4 through its similarly troubled launch. There’s a chance, though, that DICE can do what it’s proven to do so well in the past, with Battlefield 4 and then Battlefront 2 which faced controversies of its own. In Battlefield 2042 there are enough moments of that old magic – matched by some smart if unrefined new ideas – to suggest that, with a bit of finessing and focus, it might yet have a promising future. For now, though, chalk this one up as another slightly botched Battlefield launch – only at least this time it’s been botched in new and interesting ways.