'Battlefield 2042' Offers Unfinished Experiments with the Series' Formula

Is franchise's past something to resurrect, reject, or reinvent? 'Battlefield 2042' says yes.
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'Battlefield 2042' Screenshots courtesy of EA

Battlefield 2042 feels like a game made by and for people who don't like Battlefield games. It grabs at ideas that have become popular elsewhere and flings them into a game so uncertain of its identity that it has none at all.

There are caveats, extensive ones. These impressions are based on about six hours' playtime during a very rocky review event, plus a few hours of play on the servers after they went live. The live version of the game is considerably more stable than what we experienced during the review event, though it still feels like a rough work-in-progress. I didn't experience display or performance issues, but a number of people in the review event did and that appears to have held true with the "early access" version that's currently live prior to a "worldwide launch" version slated for November 19. I have observed a lot of familiar but still annoying glitches, like broken spawns and character models getting sucked into level architecture.

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But that's not really what has depressed me about BF2042. My relationship with the series has waxed and waned, but I've never been left entirely indifferent. It's a series that even when it doesn't totally work, I still associate with memorable settings and images, vivid and distinctive weapons, and sweeping pitched battles. I may not always have loved the mural, but I always found plenty of terrific details to get lost in. With this entry, EA and DICE have passed over Battlefield with sandblasters and left in its place a caricature amidst an awkward collage of other shooters.

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I have never played a Battlefield where I didn't care what weapon I used, where I didn't have a favorite rifle or SMG, but Battlefield 2042 has such boring weapon characteristics that not only do none of the weapons within classes move me, but I barely felt like the classes themselves had particularly interesting distinctions. Take away the extremes of shotguns and long-range sniper rifles and this is a game where everything from an SMG to a marksman rifle seems to exist within a narrow band of accuracy, recoil, and damage. They did different things, they played very different roles... but in a way that suggested different columns on a spreadsheet, not different pieces of hardware that asked for or rewarded any specific relationship or technique. They are just collections of stats to apply to a target.

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Except of course you're supposed to care, passionately, about the details of your equipment loadout because Battlefield has jettisoned its traditional class system in favor of specific "specialists" who are unique characters who fit within broader class archetypes. If this seems a bit like Apex Legends or Siege you'd be kind of right except that your specialists feel incredibly inessential. They are still Battlefield soldiers, after all, just that now some familiar gear and itemization options have been removed and attached to specific characters so that one character can pass out fresh ammo without spending an item slot on an area-of-effect ammo box, or one character can pop a large shield for their teammates. The differences are meaningful, but only because BF2042 ties familiar abilities to uninspiring individual characters.

As the micro, so the macro. The size and scale Battlefield 2042's maps was a major selling point in early presentations but the overall effect is to create maps that feel like several different, concurrent games taking place at once. While it might affect the score in Conquest mode that my team is getting evicted from a series of skyscrapers in one corner of the map while mounting a deadly defense of a small plaza in another, the two battles don't inform or reshape each other. Players die, respawn near a different objective and go fight in that battle while ignoring the previous one.

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This is alleviated a bit in Breakthrough, in which the map is isolated to a sector-by-sector advance by an attacking army against a defending army. But there's very little to force coordination or even encourage it. Too often, the attacking team ends up laying whack-a-mole because they abandon one objective to retake the second objective, only to see the defenders steal it back. It's annoying mostly because everyone knows this is a risk but there isn't any way for a team to coordinate the combination of attack / defense that's required. You're not part of an army working together, you're visitors in different corners of an inconvenient and slightly boring theme park, one that (in a series first) does not even look particularly impressive as a technical or aesthetic achievement.

It's mediocre for everyone but two types of players: sniping campers and people who just want to drive and fly around in vehicles. Battlefield 2042 is absolutely made for these players: every single vehicle is fast and agile as it blitzes between regions of the map and effortlessly runs circles around objectives, pasting them with inaccurate but effective heavy weapons fire. As infantry I almost felt like one of my pieces of equipment had to be an anti-tank or anti-air missile because their presence was so constant.

The solution to these military bumper-car parks has been to create areas of these maps where vehicles basically cannot operate: large enclosed buildings like an exhibition hall or isolated skyscrapers that tower above the tanks and hovercraft doing donuts elsewhere on the map. But it's an inelegant and brute-force solution that funnels infantry into the kinds of tight, maze-like spaces that Battlefield once represented such an exciting departure from. More to the point,while previous games have always wrestled with this tension between open ground and close-quarters battle areas, this is probably the most ham-handed solution I've seen from a Battlefield game. BF 2042 simply throws up its hands and creates levels around the idea of divorcing the two types of combat.

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Maybe different game modes could solve this problem except, at the moment, there's just Conquest and Breakthrough. It's an abysmal offering next to the current state of Battlefield V, where different game modes transform the experience so much that they encourage starkly different approaches and dynamics. By comparison, BF 2042 is out here leading with its big glass jaw.

There is one mode where Battlefield 2042 seems to have gotten things right, and that is its PvP / PvE heist mode, Hazard Zone. Here, squads of four are dropped all around a map and sent in search of data drives they need to be recovered from crashed probes, then extracted from the map. The map is filled with AI enemies like in Titanfall, though these are much tougher and meant to serve as a real opposing force as opposed to set-dressing on a multiplayer match. Their persistence is also meant to make it harder to sneak away with your loot without drawing the attention of other teams who will track your progress and location by the gunshots moving across the map.

Here, the mix of vehicular and infantry combat is much more interesting and because the fights end up having a real center of gravity based on whether the teams involved want to escape or steal. The vast, empty maps go from being dead ground to a wilderness that can hide both your squad and your enemies. Those moments when you're literally counting the seconds until the extraction chopper arrives feel like enough to keep you coming back in spite of all Battlefield 2042's flaws.

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With all these issues, it's little wonder that so much has been made of Battlefield Portal, with EA's and DICE's mawkish appeals to series history and fans' love for old games and maps. And this might end up being what moots Battlefield 2042, because while the new game is mostly a misfire, Portal as a platform holds the promise of becoming the definitive Battlefield collection.

For me, the greatest Battlefield has ever been is just this: Rush mode on the Valparaiso map in Bad Company 2. It's my favorite experience in my favorite game in the series, and I was able to play it on the final day of EA's misbegotten review event. After a long day of showing off other Portal features (to somewhat poor effect, but we'll get to that in a second) we played a series of throwback experiences. One of them was Valparaiso Rush.

It wasn't just the map or the mode. The Bad Company 2 rules were in play as well. You could not strafe while running. You could not go prone. Destructibility and bullet penetration through walls seemed very close to what I remembered from that game. Suddenly my squad, all of whom by chance were Bad Company 2 die-hards, got lost in the fun of a match for the first time in the entire event. We stormed past the first objective on Valparaiso and began the long fight up the hill toward the lighthouse and it was basically just as I remember it. I'd have to go back to Bad Company 2 to see how perfect he re-creation is in terms of the ways the weapons behaved or how quickly enemies were brought down, but it was recognizably Bad Company 2 and more importantly, it definitely was not Battlefield 2042.

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The entire game is not in Portal. It's a selected experience and obviously while one would hope that eventually all the old games and maps would make their way into the system, right now the platform functions more like a jukebox than a library. But the notion of keeping all this old material available alongside the new to the entire audience at once is incredibly exciting, though obviously one major reason these old games have waned is due to ruthless sunsetting from EA and the stripping-out of true community-owned dedicated servers. It's also undeniable that multiplayer audiences splinter with new releases and older games naturally wane, and Portal at least presents a good attempt to address the issue and resurrect some classic experiences.

Portal goes beyond resurrection, however. It's built to allow players to customize game modes and create new ones. The options get pretty granular to the point where you can create hybridized Battlefield experiences that draw from multiple games' classes and kits, and then put all that into a game that effectively operates according to completely different rules from any standard Battlefield game mode. As an example, we were shown a silly mode where you could create a knives-and-rocket-launchers-only free-for-all mode, with the twist that rockets would only reload after a player had jumped 5 times. It was a pretty dull mode, but the specificity of the rule hinted at how granular the custom games could get. Far more impressive was a VIP Hunt mode where each team had a marked target that the other teams was trying to get, and players were assigned preset gear and kits with each spawn. One team was WW2-era and the other was the modern Russian side of Battlefield 2042, and the match was pretty tense throughout. The possibility that you could create your own perfect twist on Battlefield and pull in a steady stream of players for it is maybe the most enticing thing about Portal. Or in my case, maybe I'd just take every available map and apply Bad Company 2 rules, the intentions of the level designers be damned.

However, to make all this work, people need to be willing to play it. Perhaps not surprisingly, player counts were extremely low in Portal mode games I tried on launch, though they may have been low with 2042 as well, it's just that AI squadmates mask the issue. But compared to the review event, Bad Company 2 Rush was far less enjoyable on launch day because the servers were so sparse and unbalanced that it was hard to sustain a good match. Hopefully this becomes less of an issue as more players get access and start taking breaks from the what’s on offer in the “main” parts of the game.

It was wise of EA to end the press event with Portal and specifically with throwback games, because that's exactly how Portal seemed to function for me and the people I was playing with: it was an escape from the mediocrity of Battlefield 2042 into the greatest moments of the series' past. Next to that, Battlefield 2042’s may never have stood a chance, but without Portal, I'm not sure Battlefield could survive its latest entry. As it is, both have a long way to go before either leads to a good Battlefield experience, much less a classic one.