What is it? The latest in a long running series of large-scale multiplayer war shooters.
Expect to pay: $60/£50
Reviewed on: Intel Core i5-9600K, 16GB RAM, Nvidia RTX 2070 Super
Multiplayer? Yes, up to 128-players. Singleplayer and co-op are possible with bots.
Link: Official site
I wasn’t sure whether or not Battlefield 2042’s randomly-appearing tornadoes could pick up vehicles until my squad’s ATV was inhaled by one. As we tumbled skyward, I had to make a choice: Ride it out in the gunner’s seat or eject? I bailed. Our driver remained at the wheel, trusting that “all-terrain” included the sky. Two seconds later the vehicle fell into a field like a bomb and incinerated him.
Even after two decades of streamlining, Battlefield still has great comedic timing. And even though the modern FPS scene is now stacked with big maps and whimsical vehicle physics (hi, Halo Infinite), Battlefield continues to feel distinct from the milsims and battle royale games that have encircled it. With Battlefield 2042, DICE stands its ground as the king of large-scale military shenanigans much more convincingly than it did with Battlefield 5, ditching singleplayer campaigns to focus on the two original pillars of the series: objective-based multiplayer and scale. What was a 64-player game for 20 years is now a 128-player game, with proportionally bigger maps, putting Battlefield back in the category of games that push technical boundaries.
The increased acreage isn’t an across-the-board improvement to the Battlefield experience, but if it’s wrong to make a PC game bigger and more technically complicated without designing for all the possible consequences, then I don’t want to be right. This is a bolder Battlefield than we’ve had in a long time, and I’m having far more fun working through what’s good and bad about its extensive changes and sloppy new ideas than I ever did arguing about what Battlefield 5’s average time-to-kill should be.
There is some trend-chasing here, but it’s handled better than it was last time, when the ultimately doomed Firestorm battle royale mode was airdropped into Battlefield 5 after launch. From the start, Battlefield 2042 includes Hazard Zone, a more coherent mode for four-player squads. It’s similar to Hunt: Showdown in that multiple teams enter a map, compete to grab thematic MacGuffins, and then try to get out alive, but the stakes are lower and there’s 100% less bayou. It’s shallow by comparison and lacks a reason to really care about surviving the hazarded zone, but once the tornado squad and I got the hang of seeking out respawn and vehicle call-ins and keeping each other alive with our specialist abilities—another of Battlefield 2042’s modernizations—we started to get into fun protracted battles with other squads, reviving and re-reviving each other as they did the same.
To the left of Hazard Zone on the main menu, All-Out Warfare encompasses Battlefield’s standard big-team warfare: the classic Conquest point capture mode and Breakthrough, its simple but fun attackers-vs-defenders mode. Finally, on the right side of the menu is Portal, a tool for creating and hosting custom game modes with the maps, guns, gadgets and vehicles from Battlefield 2042, plus a bunch of material from Battlefield 1942, Battlefield Bad Company 2, and Battlefield 3. It’s no replacement for modding and custom dedicated servers, but those ships have sailed for big multiplayer games. Even Left 4 Dead successor Back 4 Blood is without mod support. As a compromise, Portal is a powerful tool that can even be used to whip up co-op experiences with friends. I hope every big live service shooter steals it.
Room to stretch
There’s a lot to experience in Battlefield 2042, but it feels like Swedish minimalism has won a victory here. Outside of the granular accessibility and graphics settings, the menus feel sparse. There are fewer unlockable guns than usual (although I’ll still never use some of them), simpler progression systems, and no battle pass. The only extra EA is selling right now is a year-long pass that promises four new specialists who’ll bring exclusive gadgets and perks to the battle. The menu and microtransaction hygiene is largely a good thing, though it comes off a little icy, and the unsettling musical hits—no inspiring horns here, just ominous pings—aren’t inviting. Battlefield 2042 leans hard into its climate disaster mood.
And yet the world of 2042 has all the presence of an eye floater. Most of the time I’ve forgotten that there’s a fictional war going on at all, and then a Russian voice will mention Western imperialism and it’ll briefly drift into focus. The gist is that we’re “No-Pats,” a made-up word for stateless mercenaries who are fighting for the US and Russia across a series of climate change flashpoints. One map is half desert and half agriculture, split down the middle by a wall, another takes place around an Antarctic oil rig.
Even on medium settings, which I’m using to hover at 80 to 100 fps on my RTX 2070 Super, Battlefield’s sunlight and atmospheric effects remain uncannily good. When I was first caught in a dust storm on Hourglass, set in Qatar, I felt sympathetically short of breath and worried I’d overlooked some kind of gas mask item.
In infantry warfare terms, though, the gorgeous vistas equate to large tracts of mud, grass, or sand filling the space between landmarks, sometimes without much cover. The new vehicle call-in system makes it hard to become truly stranded—on a cooldown, you can ask what I presume is an orbital parking garage to drop a ride—but long treks through uncontested territory can happen if you accidentally spawn on an AFK squadmate. I missed that downtime. Squad and vehicle spawning took a lot of the cardio out of the Battlefield series, and sometimes I want to take a break from shooting and spend a moment feeling surprised by the knowledge that the little dots running around on top of a distant skyscraper are other players. Some of the awe I felt when I first played Battlefield 1942 is recaptured here.
That also means that the maps have returned to a cruder form than we were getting from the 64-player maps DICE has spent nearly 20 years designing. Battlefield 2042’s skyscrapers and facilities aren’t nearly as detailed or characterful as Battlefield 1’s French chateau or the grand St Lawrence church in Battlefield 5. On the old maps that have been remade beautifully for Portal, such as Battlefield 1942’s Battle of the Bulge and Battlefield Bad Company 2’s Valparaiso, tanks can blow big holes in the sides of buildings, but Battlefield 2042’s new maps protect what little cover there is by making most buildings indestructible. Some of these regressions are disappointing, but I can’t think of a better reason for a Battlefield game to make sacrifices than in the name of largeness.
Getting to the points
In Conquest, two 64-player teams compete to capture and hold control points the same way they have for 20 years, by standing near a flag until it changes color. However, points can now appear in clusters of two or three, forming sectors that give some structure to the giant maps. I can easily spend an entire match duking it out in a single sector. Entirely separate war stories were playing out over at the rocket launch pad while I was repeatedly dying on a grassy hill, for all I knew. Winning as a team in Conquest often feels like a secondary goal in Battlefield games, and that’s even more true here.
It feels odd, then, for Battlefield 2042 to present itself as more team-focused than its predecessors. It’s without a traditional scoreboard where you can see how you stack up against your teammates and enemies. Instead, you get a squad-centric view that emphasizes cooperation and doesn’t reveal death counts. I miss comparing myself to others. It’s basic, but making personal stat numbers go up is a powerful intoxicant.
When I’m in a semi-coordinated squad talking on Discord (there’s no built-in VOIP at launch, not that I’d use it over Discord anyway), I can better appreciate the reasoning behind the decision. I gave up on playing Battlefield 5 with friends because we always ended up on opposite ends of the map, but in Battlefield 2042 I’ve been able to get a much more productive rhythm going with squadmates. Give me something useful and I’ll want to use it, and that’s how the new specialist gadgets encourage squad play for me. So far, I like to bless my crew with intel from a spotting drone and transparent fortifications to hide behind.
Solo players are more than catered to, though. Sundance’s wingsuit is a blast. They can leap out of helicopters or off of skyscrapers and maneuver in the air like a manta ray. It’s not as satisfying as skiing in the Tribes games, which is essentially using a bug to accelerate forever, but if you master the physics of it you can keep them airborne for a long time. Mackay’s grappling hook is useful in fewer situations, but likewise adds to the intrinsic fun of moving around skillfully. I once chucked a smoke grenade over a shipping crate, zipped onto the top of it, and then leapt into my smoke plume to emerge like a stage magician, surprising a squad that could’ve sworn I’d been much further away just a few seconds ago.
Guns and loadouts
Battlefield games are like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater in that a lot of the fun is derived from chaining impossible physical feats together in a way that looks pre-planned, even though you’re actually teetering on the edge of failure at all times. A problem I often experience in Battlefield games is that they can be too precarious. When I suffer death after death due to random-feeling surprises, such as someone spawning or parachuting behind me, I start to feel like I’m just there to make the game fun for other players.
When I’m in the squad mindset, however, maintaining the imaginary combo counter becomes a group project that isn’t interrupted by a single death. If an enemy calls in a vehicle drop that I can’t deal with on my own, I start formulating a plan to help my squad keep our combo going with whatever I brought with me, even if that just means hiding until they can spawn on me. That’s not a new experience in Battlefield, but Battlefield 2042 makes some smart changes that simplify and clarify the squad dynamics.
The most radical change is the decoupling of utility gadgets from gun selection. It’s the right decision. Battlefield 5’s subclass system was needlessly complicated, and while it made sense to restrict primary weapons by class when the series started with Battlefield 1942, those rock-paper-scissors-medic dynamics were far less complex. Multiply that chaos by whatever factor you’d assign to weaponized robot dogs and a woman who can scan enemies through walls, and Battlefield 2042’s freeform mixing and matching feels essential. The ammo capacity tuning feels just right, too, such that putting an ammo crate in one of my loadouts is useful enough to not feel like a downgrade next to toys like rocket launchers and AA missiles.
Regarding guns, I like that the assault rifles don’t feel like the default stars. They perform poorly in the long range engagements that are common on Battlefield 2042’s big maps (maybe too poorly right now), meaning that lugging an LMG around no longer feels like an affectation. The marksman and sniper rifles remain difficult to counter if you’re caught in open space, which can be frustrating. I’m a reformed Battlefield sniper, so I get why they do it, but unless I commit to counter-sniping, it’s difficult to enjoy fighting high-powered specks on the horizon. One thing I do like about the contentious scoreboard change is that players are no longer awarded points for hitting long-range kills, removing the numerical gratification for spending entire rounds trying to hit people across the map without stopping anyone from doing that if they really want to.
Visually, these are the most gun-colored guns I’ve seen outside of Valorant, but a modest number of unlockable skins do a lot to brighten them up. Battlefield 1’s armory still feels more imaginative than 2042’s near-future guns, but there are some standouts. The giant NTW-50 anti-materiel sniper rifle that’s “able to destroy dreams at up to 1,500m” has a fun firepower-above-all personality, although it’s not unlocked until Level 60. The new on-the-fly weapon attachment switching is slick, though I rarely use it.
Blasts from the past
My complaints about Battlefield 2042 can, to a degree, be addressed in Portal. It’s a Battlefield potpourri that features official recreations of Battlefield 1942 Conquest, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Rush, and Battlefield 3 Conquest, with two remade maps per game and most of their guns, vehicles, and gadgets, as well as free-for-all and team deathmatch modes, plus servers running custom, player-made modes that mix and match Battlefield maps and weaponry.
If you wanted a custom Battlefield experience in the past, you might’ve run a dedicated server directly on your PC, or rented one from a specialist company. For Portal, EA slices off a piece of one of its own servers when you launch a custom mode. Sometimes it doesn’t work—you’ll get an error about server capacity—but otherwise, being able to start a private, password-protected server whenever I want without an extra fee has me looking for a catch. It won’t last forever, and yeah, we’ve lost the degree of software ownership we had back when we ran our own servers, but here in 2021 I’m excited to have any custom game system, never mind one as customizable as Portal.
I’m disappointed that Battlefield 1942 tanks don’t lurch a foot-and-a-half and go tumbling down hills after firing shells—the original physics haven’t been preserved—but lots of other old Battlefield rules and restrictions can be brought back in the Portal web tool where you can define custom map rotations and server rules. You can turn off squad and vehicle spawning, reinstating the 100m dash to the airfield to grab a plane. Regenerating health can be turned off, spotting rules can be changed, and damage modifiers can be tweaked for hardcore modes. Or you can make things weird, designing asymmetrical modes in which a team of Battlefield 2042 soldiers fight Battlefield 1942 soldiers, or one team is full of aggressive, knife-wielding bots that swarm toward the human players like zombies.
I’m frustrated by Portal restrictions that feel unnecessary, or like they exist to stop me from making a mode that’s broken or unfun. I’ll decide where the limits of FPS design lie, thank you very much. The physics can’t be tweaked, for example, unless you count the fall damage multiplier. You can’t give one team Battlefield 1942 soldiers but let them select from another game’s weapons, for no good reason that I can identify. The visual logic editor, which opens many more possibilities than the built-in toggles and sliders, can only be used to modify free-for-all and team deathmatch modes, which don’t contain any vehicles. You can’t set up a mode that, for instance, spawns 10 players into jets for a free-for-all dogfight.
With the logic editor, I did manage to build a free-for-all mode that doesn’t let players touch the ground, teleporting them high above the Kaleidoscope map’s skyscrapers whenever their altitude drops too low. I then built crude collision detection so that they can score kills by flying into other players with the wingsuit, and made it so that if they opt to use a sniper rifle from rooftops instead, they get on-screen messages declaring that they’ve violated the way of Bushido. So, Portal is powerful. I hope DICE loosens up some of the restrictions. If I can make a mode that crashes my PC, I’ll consider that a feature, not a bug. I also hope for more classic maps. In both Battlefield 2042’s main modes and Portal’s classic map remakes, naval combat has almost entirely been snubbed, which is disappointing.
Battlefield 2042’s little disappointments stack up. There’s no cross-team text chat, for instance. I only ever used /all to say “lol” after getting my helicopter blades tangled up with an opponent’s, but acknowledging those shared moments is part of the fun. The manual leaning from Battlefield 5 is gone, which feels like losing a couple major muscle groups after getting so used to shimmying in Rainbow Six Siege over the past several years. There are funny bugs, like hovercrafts being able to climb up vertical surfaces, but there are also irritating bugs, like reviving sometimes not working. There’s no stats page in the menu, which is a surprising omission. I hope devs take a cue from Naraka: Bladepoint and give us the unnecessarily granular stats we so greatly desire (that game even shows how you stack up next to players in your city, which is cool).
Taken together, All-Out Warfare, Hazard Zone, and Portal are a substantial videogame warfare toybox, enough to get me to reluctantly accept a newfangled scoreboard and some disappointing omissions. The specialist abilities, gun tuning shakeup, and Portal custom modes introduce new ways to play Battlefield, while some of the old ways don’t feel the same, for better and worse. It’s buggy, and server problems have caused downtime around the launch, but it’s finally a modern Battlefield I want to get my Forza Horizon and Rainbow Six Siege-playing friends into. That might not happen until EA makes Battlefield 2042 available on Xbox Game Pass, if it ever does, but that’s OK. I’m happy to spend the intervening months trying to break the game with Portal’s logic editor so that I have a library of nearly unplayable mutant FPS modes ready to go. Even if it’s now integrated into a controlled live service environment, an ember of PC gaming spirit still glows in Battlefield.