Words almost fail to capture what a profound waste Battlefield 2042 is. I’ll try anyway, though.
The latest installment in the long-running multiplayer series jumps forward two decades, pitting you as a soldier in a pointless future war brought on by climate change and its progenitors. When that disaster ravages large swaths of the world, the refugee survivors, or “No Pats,” are forced to weather the collapse of the environment around their homes. Due to an astonishing amount of pollution, the Earth’s orbit becomes so dense that the satellites in it actually crash back down onto the planet, causing a global blackout. Rather than come together to help each other, the nations of the world instead accelerate tensions and a global war breaks out. How apt.
This is the setup that Battlefield 2042 establishes, only to completely drop it at the first chance. It’s been a constant point of frustration for the entirety of my time with the game. I’ve no notion of games being the thing that will save the world, but in 2021, I think what I needed least was for an incurious blockbuster game to completely throw in the hat about the grim future we’re staring down and use it as a playground. The games I most love are pieces of fiction that have worked as some affirmation of myself or the world I wade through, or even as just plain fun; Battlefield 2042 is just a cold, unflinching void. I actively hate it.
This game leaves behind single player entirely, despite the pretty explicit narrative I’ve outlined, favoring an online suite of experiences crafted from the wreckage of its story. Instead, there are three multiplayer playlists of varying depth, the most familiar of these being All-Out Warfare, consisting of the classic Conquest mode and the return of Breakthrough. These modes focus on large-scale campaigns, quite ridiculously support up to 128 players at a time, and are, for better and worse, exactly what you expect of Battlefield to the point of parody. Vehicles and on-foot soldiers are bountiful everywhere you look, and squad-based skirmishes come to define most of the experience, but it’s all set against almost complete, dizzying chaos. This exact spectacle that Battlefield has constantly leveraged over its competition seems to have finally undone the game itself in this latest installment.
Matches of either mode don’t communicate grandiosity. They instead signal ineptitude. Every fight feels like you need to trip over yourself to make something happen, making what precious few “Battlefield moments” you can wring from the experience bittersweet. The dynamic map changes (read: the tornadoes or dust storms that climate change hath wreaked) are cartoonish fun for a split second, and an empty gesture at real-life consequences of irresponsible politics, as well as a hollow mechanic, every other one. The majority of the maps feel too spacious to favor any playstyle but sniping and vehicular combat, rendering countless approaches moot at worst and a pain in the ass at best. A particularly obnoxious hovercraft has been a thorn in my side for the week I’ve had to play the game and the only way I’ve been able to solve the problem is by luck, because any sensible action I can take against the threat is either insignificant or too slow. Other vehicles like attack choppers just seem to have infinite range and zero damage dropoff over said range, making it a punishment to exist and be subject to the game’s shit fiction and balancing issues. If Battlefield 2042 was trying to fetishize the future of technology and advancing weaponry, I’ve emerged from its hellmouth a luddite ready to attack and dethrone Silicon Valley.
Battlefield 2042 is so thoroughly unbalanced that it’s a wonder someone deemed it appropriate for launch like this. The poor state it’s in is especially laughable because, more than any other title in the series before it, it’s taken steps to make character classes stand out and make a difference on the battlefield—only for that to all be largely snuffed out in favor of the absolute anarchy that ensues everywhere you look. It’s like the game wants to operate at two levels and could not find the common sense middle ground between them, settling for the mess it currently is.
In Battlefield 2042, there are specialists whose abilities cover a range of possibilities thanks to the advanced tech of the time period, seemingly the only good thing going on in 2042. The assault specialist Sundance, for example, has a grenade that serves as a cluster bomb, EMP or anti-armor homing missile and a wingsuit, letting her fly across maps from high enough points until she gets caught in one of the many vortexes that sweep through any given map. The late Michael K. Williams returns from Battlefield 4 as the Engineer specialist Irish, who has additional armor and can place down fortifying barriers for his allies. Another can disrupt enemy tech and vehicles, while a support specialist has a syrette pistol and can revive allies with full health. None of it is anything you haven’t seen before, as Battlefield 2042 borrows these concepts from other games, but because 2042 is also a unique mechanical mess, almost none of it comes across well.
While the chaos of All-Out Warfare drowns out most of the function of these specialists, Hazard Zone presents the rare opportunity for them and Battlefield 2042 to shine. A much more focused mode, Hazard Zone pares things down to 32 players for an objective-based, Battle Royale-like mode where squads need to locate fallen pods with data drives to extract. In this mode, your choices big and small actually do make the difference between you dying early and surviving all the way to extraction because you’re forced to work together and carefully. While playing Boris, a defensive engineer specialist with a deployable turret, might net you a small bonus in Conquest, throwing it down on an objective everyone is racing to in Hazard Zone is a godsend. Pairing that with an anti-armor kit makes for a force to be reckoned with when defending an extraction point. Hazard Zone is also impeccably well-paced, dropping you alongside your squad and encouraging you to get into fights that ratchet up in intensity together, rather than divvying up over an abundantly large map. The way the action swells in the tight skirmishes that emerge from scrounging for data drives, and especially the standoffs that pop off as teams race to or hold down extraction points, all make for genuine thrills that reminded me of the kind of action I’ve traditionally loved Battlefield for. I can imagine myself getting deeper into Hazard Zone than any other aspect of Battlefield 2042, even if it depresses me how little of its DNA is in the rest of the game.
Things unfortunately come back down in Battlefield Portal, the last available mode that lets you play souped up versions of various older titles, from Battlefield 1942 up to Battlefield 3. Featuring playlists that are crafted throwbacks to experiences from those games, the real selling point of Battlefield Portal was that it was billed as a custom mode creator for users to mess around in. For now, you can play Rush on Battlefield: Bad Company 2 maps, for example, or Conquest on Battlefield 1942, while custom servers are being made that allow for a mix and match of player-made combinations of rulesets and settings. Much like All-Out Warfare, it embraces an unfiltered sense of chaos as motivation for the player to dip their feet in, and the results are appropriately mixed. The shame here is the same one that you find almost anywhere you start turning up rocks in Battlefield 2042 this early: there’s very little under that surface. Most custom games you find are just XP farms as of now, though it’s hard to imagine this situation remaining as such forever. Nonetheless, the experience of playing Portal, or even looking through it for something exciting, is a disappointing one that I’m sure can be salvaged down the line, like most of the game. For now, it is a cold serving of the series’ greatest hits, delivered lifelessly in the service of greed and for the purpose of shoveling shit into this otherwise barren and unfinished game, only now it’s devoid of any heart or functionality it might’ve once had.
Altogether, these modes assemble a hell of a game that feels a bit like Hell itself. I get the contrasting ends that are supposed to round off the edges of others, like All-Out Warfare’s blown-out and messy scale compared to Hazard Zone’s more calculated approach, but sometimes they just exacerbate each other’s shortcomings rather than complement a whole package. There’s too much in some places and too little in others, making for one of the most uneven releases I’ve ever played. Every piece of this game feels jagged in a way that makes me believe it’ll never entirely come together, meaning that what is there is a largely shallow game that drops the ball at most every turn and likely always will. The multiplayer suite feels too incomplete, like it needed months more of fine-tuning. The game’s narrative, if you can call it that, could’ve used an actual campaign that tried to unpack the very role military has played in the destruction of the world, from the places it’s ravaged to the ideals it’s historically enshrined and projected in its wartorn path. Maybe I’m a fool to think something like that should exist or that anything great could come out of its potential existence. Instead, I have Battlefield 2042 and know that the opposite is the most cynical and bleakest possible thing.
The grimmest part of this all is that I see how we got here and where we can still go. I don’t think there’s a number these companies won’t try to hit at whatever cost, especially since consumers and fans pushed for exactly this. I don’t think there’s a situation so bleak they wouldn’t try to render in service of people-pleasing and making sales climb higher. Battlefield 2042 represents the pinnacle of a feedback loop that told its creators that bigger is always better. Now that we’re here, I’m sure we were never right to think that and I don’t think we’re stepping back from it anytime soon.
Battlefield 2042 was developed by DICE and published by Electronic Arts. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X|S version. It’s also available for PlayStation 5, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.