They say war is hell, don’t they, and also that hell is other people. So perhaps we should all have seen the chaos coming, when Electronic Arts proudly announced that 128-player matches were coming to Battlefield. We should have learned from trying to board the tube at rush hour what 128 people all vying simultaneously to complete an objective feels like, and it’s not often pleasant. Battlefield 2042 has many problems, but much potential. The ingredients for awe-inspiring war games are here, but don’t always come together – at least, not yet.
This venerable shooter series’ characteristic bombast and spectacle is alive and well. 2042 is set under the extreme weather conditions that ravage our near future, trigger the dissolution of most nation states, and begin a war fought by stateless “no-pats” what resources are left on Earth. Running headlong into a tornado with 63 other players while another 64 await you on the other side of its vortex will leave you feeling awestruck the first time. But it doesn’t serve a match of Conquest (capture control points) or Breakthrough (capture control points, but this time in order) particularly well.
On a server filled to capacity, there’s simply too much chaos to carve out a satisfying personal story. That’s always been the difficulty for Battlefield as its player population has grown: how do I feel as if I’m effecting change within a vast conflict? The scale only serves to dilute individual accomplishments, not to mention increase the odds of a random death at the hands of remote unseen opponents.
Since Battlefield 2042 was released last week, players have complained about wobbly netcode, bugs too numerous to detail and missing features from previous games. I suspect, like many other shaky big-budget games of the recent past, it will eventually evolve into something more stable and feature-rich. At present, it’s not unusual to see soldiers in endlessly looping death throes, like some interactive anti-war art installation, or vehicles that appear to be obeying lunar physics, or bullet spray so wild that you might as well brandish an aerosol at your foe instead.
There’s no single player campaign this time, so it falls to the new Hazard Zone mode to provide light relief from the large-scale fracas. Here, a squad of up to four players hunts down data drives from satellite pods dotted around the map and then extracts them, fending off waves of disconcertingly ferocious AI soldiers. Rather than the treasure hunt itself, the rewarding loop of earning points and spending them on better kit for your next try proves most engaging. That persistence gives your team a reason to specialise, and there’s joy in cultivating co-operative efficiency. It doesn’t offset the broader disappointments, but is a worthy diversion.
There is a silver lining around 2042’s storm clouds. Bots have been enlisted to make up server numbers, and they’re available to spar against in solo and co-op versions of the game’s multiplayer battles. If you play against bots, the game gives us all the keys to the kingdom. I’m not too proud to admit that I will never, never ever, not even if I devoted the next five years of my life to it, get 92 sniper kills in a single round of Battlefield against other humans. But against 2042’s easy bots, I can and I have. I am a warrior king. Objectives topple and fall under my control in one concerted push. I fly fighter planes, unashamed of my terrible piloting, and I largely ignore the bugs because my K:D ratio is biblical. This is what it feels like to be absolutely brilliant at Battlefield, and Dice is both letting you feel it on your own terms and (if you use harder bots) training you to at least attain some fraction of that sense of achievement online.
There’s still more hope here in the form of Portal mode. Not only does it give you a set of tools to build your own game modes, but it also gives the community the maps, weapons and vehicles of Battlefield 1942, Battlefield 3 and Bad Company 2. It’s the Abba Gold of the franchise, and while that classic content is still at the mercy of technical issues, it’s a generous addition.
My hope is that we’ll look back at this launch and laugh, remembering that a great game began on such a shoogly peg. For now, the best fun is found in the sideshows. On the main stage of its chaotic 128-player showdowns, it stumbles.