GameCentral takes a first look at Battlefield 2042 and its three very different modes, as the franchise tries to regain its former prominence.
We’ll start this with a brief explanation as to why this is a review in progress, as opposed to a fully scored review. EA hosted an online review event this past week, where we got to play everything the game has to offer alongside several hundred content creators and members of the press. However, it was a closely managed experience that often only allowed us to get one or two good hours with most of the game’s modes.
As a result, we want to spend a little longer getting to see how Battlefield 2042 behaves in a non-controlled environment and with a public player base. However, there’s already a lot to talk about and it’s pretty clear that this Battlefield is a considerable improvement on the last few entries.
Battlefield has always felt like a unique franchise. It’s been at its best when marching to its own drum, rather than trying to chase market trends. Which has not necessarily been the case for the last couple of sequels. It’s always seemed strange when Battlefield tries to copy other games, because so few other titles do what Battlefield does.
The scale of warfare Battlefield depicts, and the heights of chaos it brings, is still unique almost two decades after the franchise first appeared. The space it occupies as a bigger, but also stranger and slower, franchise than its contemporaries is what makes it distinctive.
That is one of Battlefield 2042’s most defining features too. For all of its polish as a massive AAA military shooter, it’s also a weird, experimental multiplayer package. And that’s (mostly) what’s best about it.
Let’s get this out the way at the start, as this will be a dealbreaker for a lot of players: Battlefield 2042 doesn’t have a story campaign. Battlefield 5 was developer DICE’s best storytelling work so far but it’s still not what they’re best at and it’s no surprise that this time they wanted to focus on creating massive multiplayer experiences, with up to 128 players on PC and next gen formats.
There is a storyline underpinning the two main multiplayer modes though. The game is set in 2042, obviously. As the future so often is, it’s a bleak, war-torn world. Environmental disasters have brought society to its knees, with the world’s superpowers now in all-out warfare over basic resources like water. This is all superfluous flavour text around the matches, but it serves as the backbone for the game’s seven enormous maps (as well having been researched in worryingly plausible detail).
Seven might sound like a small number of maps, and it is, but there is a lot of fun to be mined from these spaces. Hourglass has you fighting over Middle Eastern sand dunes that shift into neon skyscrapers, while Discarded starts in pretty rural fields that transform into ship graveyards of dried up water masses.
Breakaway takes place on a gorgeous snowy mountaintop that is surrounded by burnt landscapes caused by oil extraction. At the same time, Renewal is half desert, half man-made agricultural areas split by a massive wall. The point is, each of the maps lives in the memory, and each has a real sense of progression and place that varies depending on where you are in it.
That progression really helps the maps sing in the Breakthrough game variant. As the attacking team pushes through the map, there is a sense of the world-changing around you as the landscape morphs from defensive spot to defensive spot. Of course, the franchise’s staple, Conquest, is also present and correct. It provides less of that constant sense of progression, but it does create distinct pockets you and over a hundred other players are fighting over.
These matches are enormous and are less about personal glory and more about thrashing against the enormity of war. If you work with your squad you can make a difference, but you are an exceptionally small cog in a massive hurricane. Battlefield 2042 makes you feel small, often looking on dumbfounded, running towards an objective as tanks fight each other, dozens of people battle over a patch of land in the distance, and planes and helicopters dog it out to establish aerial supremacy.
While online games are often about elevating you and making you feel powerful, Battlefield’s matches often feel indifferent to your presence. You are meat for the war machine and that’s oddly refreshing.
Not content with the enormity of 128 people wreaking havoc in a military toy box, Battlefield 2042 adds a gambit exacerbating the situation: extreme weather. Every once in a while, a natural event will join the chaos and transform it into all-out mayhem. Often in the form of massive tornados or sandstorms, these tear apart surprisingly destructible buildings and fling players from the ground.
Battlefield 2042 is a gorgeous game, as DICE games reliably are, but throwing a tornado into these beautifully rendered locations is a powerful audio-visual experience. If the enormity of war is meant to make you feel inconsequential, the power of nature is there to dwarf even that. It doesn’t care for the petty squabbles of 128 players. It will just drop in and fling them, and their powerful military vehicles, out like toys from a pram. The point is clear: mother nature is queen.
Elsewhere in the package, Hazard Zone is the new alternative mode, taking the place of Battlefield 5’s lacklustre battle royale mode Firestorm. Instead of taking cues from battle royales though, this draws its inspirations from less obvious sources. A match has you and your four-man squad drop into a map with seven others. You’re then tasked with finding hard drives, often protected by computer-controlled enemies. You’ll be competing with other teams to get the drives – and yes, they will be trying to kill you for yours too.
If your whole team dies, you’re out. However, if you manage to hold onto the drives long enough an extraction zone will open up, which you have to navigate to. Your objective is to get as many hard drives delivered out of the map. However, all teams will be trying to leave on only one of two extraction planes. If you do the maths, that means while two will ride to glory, six teams are either going to die or be stranded.
For those that have played Hunt: Showdown, this mode borrows a lot of that structure. Obviously, Hazard Zone doesn’t have the same survival horror atmosphere, but the PvPvE aspect is surprisingly similar. And still, the extraction point creates a tense standoff as several teams try to leave at once, creating a suspenseful endgame that is a ton of fun.
As enjoyable as it is, Hazard Zone does come with a caveat. The new mode is awesome in a pre-made group of four who are all talking to each other. Often decisions have to be made about the pace you want to engage, where you want to go, any enemies you see, and the team composition you want to bring. The flipside of that is if you don’t have three friends to play with, and are curious enough to drop in alone, Hazard Zone will be a brutal experience. Without conversation or synergy, it’s hard to imagine having many games where you succeed.
That’s a serious issue, as Hazard Zone’s biggest problem is how it intends for you to progress outside the mode. Taking further inspiration from Hunt: Showdown, if you lose, you likely lose all of your equipment, perks, and weapons. Before loading into a match you have a currency you can spend on upgrades and weapons. If you succeed, you will earn significantly more credits to spend in your next game, as well as more perk slots. If you don’t, you lose everything you bought in the previous round. The game really wants you to be stringing together streaks of extractions, but that’s hard to do as they can get very messy at the end.
The economy is brutal. It only offers a gun or two for free and it’s relatively expensive to choose another. That means that unless you are on a streak you are likely going to be running around with a gun you hate, with no perks, while teams on streaks will be drowning in upgrades. It’s a real ‘the rich get richer’ situation. The core idea here is great, and the buying system and a preference for streaks are cool. However, the economy is so stringent, it’s easy to get into a cycle of bad games due to your restricted loadout.
It’s a shame too because, at its height, the thrill of killing a team loaded up with drives, stealing them and getting them out on an extraction ship, amidst a hail of gunfire, is heart-pounding. It is as good as Battlefield 2042 gets. The worry is that that it will just be too hard to experience for those not in pre-made teams, with an economy that is too punishing for those who aren’t getting out every round. Although the latter at least is something that should prove fairly easy to rebalance once the game is out in the wild.
The final pillar of the Battlefield 2042 experience is called Portal and it really encapsulates the weird, experimental nature of the whole title. Portal is, at its simplest, a game editor. However, the breadth of it is somewhat staggering. Battlefield 2042 offers a deep creation suite geared towards players constructing their own game modes. While that can be something simple like a Team Deathmatch or a Free for All mode, that’s just child’s play. The toolset comes alive with the logic-based coding players can get into. It’s an impressive construction that seems like it will have endless applications in the hands of fans.
Portal is oozing with potential. When the community has really figured out how to wield the tools available, it’s exhilarating to think what kind of unique and wonderful ideas might come to the forefront even just a couple of months down the line.
That’s all in the future though, and if you’re buying Battlefield 2042 at launch you will likely want to know what it offers right now. Thankfully, it has a pretty big draw. As part of the Portal sandbox, players have access to guns, maps, and other aspects of Battlefield 2042, as well as elements from Battlefield 1942, Bad Company 2, and Battlefield 3. All of the maps included have been remastered and are impressive spectacles considering the age.
This also helps to compensate for the small number of maps in the core game. Taking it a step further, you can mix and match all these elements as you see fit. So you can have a team of Battlefield 1942 players take on a team of Battlefield 2042 players on a map from Battlefield 3. You can recreate nostalgia-driven trips back to each of these games or throw them all into a blender and see what comes out the other side.
At launch, Portal is an unknowable mess of systems, logic, and assets that, at a minimum, houses fun nostalgic matches. Over time though, it has every chance at becoming the biggest thing in the game, as the community realises its power. It’s a platform with potential seeping through its pores and the embodiment of the surprisingly adventurous and creative spirit of Battlefield 2042.
Due to the restricted amount of time we’ve had with each of the modes, we’re going to wait and see how the game evolves after the first few days. Battlefield 2042 is hard to judge right now, because it will live and die by player engagement. Seeing what the broader player base does with the tools and spaces it provides will be important in trying to gauge exactly how good the overall experience is.
We’d also like to take more time with each of the game modes in a live environment and see how they sit in a less contrived situation. However, it’s safe to say, Battlefield is shaping up to be a fascinating title. For those that want to get lost in its systems it’s bursting with potential, although it remains to be seen how more casual players will take to it. It would be very surprising, though, if this didn’t quickly end up as one of the most popular entries in the entire series.
By Patrick Dane
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