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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.

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.

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