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The problems of ‘Battlefield 2042’ go beyond its bugs

(Washington Post illustration; EA; iStock)

Battlefield 2042

Available on: PC, Xbox Series X | S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4

Developer: DICE | Publisher: Electronic Arts

Release: Nov. 19, 2021

At the core of most video games is a feedback loop. Play the game, progress in it, earn rewards and unlock new features or some item to help the player in their quest. It’s a kind of measuring stick to tell the player, “Look at you! You’re really achieving something! Keep playing, and I bet you can achieve even more!” It’s a mechanism designed to encourage a player to keep at it.

The biggest problem with “Battlefield 2042” — more than the bugs or the ever-present, homicidal hovercrafts or the assault rifles that can’t seem to hit anything outside of 10 meters — is that it has one of the least satisfying feedback loops of any game I’ve played in the past three years.

When reviewers first gained access to “Battlefield 2042,” we only were able to play through a curated experience, one managed by the developers to ensure full servers. Reviewers also had access to fully unlocked loadouts, so progression wasn’t something we got a chance to experience. Since the game entered early access Nov. 12, we’ve been able to spend more time independently examining the game. And while there remain a litany of bugs that need to be tuned and tweaked via patches in the days ahead, there’s a more foundational problem with the game’s construction that’s more vexing than any clipping glitch.

There is joy in playing “Battlefield 2042,” but it feels sporadic. Part of the reason is that the experience the game provides between those “Oh wow, that was cool” moments is a slog unlike any in comparable FPS games or past installments of Battlefield. Most of this seems to stem from the game hiding more than it reveals about your performance and your character’s progression.

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Feedback loops require feedback. But right now, console players (like me on a PS5) can’t tell how well they’re doing during a round. There is, mystifyingly, no scoreboard. There is just a list of players and squads. The only time I can see how many kills I had is at the end of the match, and then they’re combined with assists. And the only way to judge how you performed relative to other players is seeing where your squad ranked in performance relative to others. There’s nothing for individual players. On PC, at least, you can see how you’re faring relative to your squadmates by hitting tab during a round, but console players don’t even have that ability.

Leveling up your soldier delivers another set of frustrations. The “grind” is usually a welcome part of most FPS titles, using the tools at your disposal (in this case, weapons and gadgets) to improve and unlock more. The new weapons and attachments, in turn, add options for customization and new ways to approach the game, fostering a desire to play more. A good system makes the hard work feel rewarding; a bad system, by contrast, makes you the tool, sanding down a game’s imperfections with the side of your face.

Progression in “Battlefield 2042” feels far too much like the latter system. Accruing XP for weapons feels unusually difficult, especially when XP isn’t given out for suppression as it was in past games. You need to register kills, but that is quite difficult given the game’s hit registration and weapon bloom issues. This makes it very tedious to unlock weapon mods, which only become available by reaching a certain number of kills. In the first 20 or so hours of play, I had unlocked exactly three attachments for the M5A3, the game’s default assault rifle. Because my shots with it didn’t seem to be hitting, I spent a lot of time in vehicles and swapped weapons often to try more accurate options like the DM7 and, once I unlocked it, the PP-29. Once I came back to the M5A3 and finally cleared 30 kills, I received a relative deluge of three more attachments along with a new skin. It finally felt like progress. How close am I to more unlocks? At first I didn’t even know; there’s no way to check your progress with weapons I could find in the game’s main post-round screens. Eventually, I found the information by going into the collections menu, then the weapons menu, then the menu for the specific weapon, then the menu for attachment type, and then I could highlight the next attachment and see my progress: I needed another 30 kills.

The fun of Battlefield is hopping from one experience (I’m driving a tank) to another (now I’m sniping from a rooftop) to another (now I’m scrambling around reviving my teammates). However, in each you’re using different weapons and different equipment. So focusing on one particular weapon, like you can easily do in Call of Duty, limits the variety of experiences I have in a given round, one of the main aspects that has made Battlefield more appealing to me, overall, than Call of Duty. In the current system, there’s an unsatisfying lack of gear alongside a similarly unsatisfying lack of information.

The progression issue detracts from the game in other ways as well. The most fun I’ve had playing “Battlefield 2042” was in a user-created server via Portal mode that hosted games of Rush on old Battlefield maps using “2042′s” operators and equipment. But since I’ve already hit the XP cap implemented by the developers to prevent users from farming XP in Portal against bots, I have to decide between spending time playing an enjoyable part of the game without gaining any progression benefits or continuing to level up. I understand why the developers have an XP cap for user-created Portal experiences, but choosing between fun and progress is a lousy decision to have to make.

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To level up my character’s arsenal, I’ve mainly spent time in the All Out Warfare modes. It’s not that matches of Conquest or Breakthrough are bad, per se. Both deliver a lot of what has made the Battlefield franchise so enjoyable over the years: epic clashes marked by the chaos of “did I just see that?” levels of spectacle. But when matches end and you can only see that your squad ranked 12th of 36 and you contributed two captures and 14 combined kills and assists and didn’t unlock a single attachment, it feels pretty unfulfilling. The matches all start to feel the same: indistinct and easily forgettable.

Some other factors sap the fun from those modes as well. First is the prevalence of the massively overpowered hovercraft. In virtually every match, you’ll find at least one or two enemy hovercrafts perpetually zooming through your back lines, mauling unaware players. That wouldn’t be so bad if destroying the hovercrafts didn’t seem to require the same amount of damage it would take to disable an M1 tank.

The disparity in environments is the source of another gripe. Some of the “2042″ maps — Breakaway, Hourglass and Kaleidoscope in particular — feature a stark contrast between wide-open expanses and close-quarters areas. The amount of open ground between capture points makes running between them on foot a virtual death sentence. Then there will be some points placed in utterly inaccessible locations. For example, two of the final capture points on Hourglass and Kaleidoscope are on the top floors of skyscrapers, and the only way up is either through a handful of elevators (whose doors consistently open to reveal an enemy firing squad) or via air transport. The problem with the latter is that you can only fit around six players into the largest helicopters or VTOLs, so even if a rooftop has some 12 defenders (and it’s usually way more) the odds are against the attackers. And that’s assuming the transport can get close enough when savvy players defending those locations will consistently carry antiaircraft launchers.

I give Hazard Zone points for creativity. It’s an interesting combination of risk and reward, delaying extraction to acquire more drives (and, in turn, money to purchase better equipment). That said, as noted in our initial review (which can be found below), it remains nigh impossible to play effectively with your squadmates unless you are using Discord or another third-party voice chat program. If I’m going to play solo, I’d much prefer to spend my time on a mode like Breakthrough (or better yet, Rush) where players have a simple, clear goal, rather than trying to coordinate with strangers using the ping wheel.

Then there are the bugs, which mar every mode. As noted, the assault rifles don’t hit at range, but SMGs seem to (especially the PP-29). Helicopters can fly inside a building on Hourglass. Sometimes players can’t be revived. The wingsuit can make you fly like Superman even when you jump off an eight-foot cargo container. The running animation stalls sometimes on other players, making them look like they’re sliding on one foot across the ground like a bubble hockey figurine. I consistently ran into “persistence data” errors loading into games whenever cross-platform play was activated. (Disabling it seemed to stop the issue, but also severely reduced the number of players on Portal servers or playing Hazard Zone.) The missile lock display sometimes won’t appear for the AA launcher. Navigating the deployment screen with a controller sometimes moves the cursor in unintended directions. Etc., etc., etc.

The good news is that just about every one of these issues — from the bugs (of which DICE seems to be aware) to the scoreboard to the absent in-game voice chat — is fixable in time. And the developers are already working on two patches in the game’s first 30 days, the first of which was applied earlier this week, reducing the damage hovercrafts can take and aiming to address bullet spread issues. Even the feedback loop can be made more palatable by tweaking a few user-interface elements and speeding up XP progression a little. There is still plenty of potential for this game to realize its ambitions. And if those changes are made, I will gladly embrace this title the way I have previous installments in the franchise. Despite all the issues, I see promising flashes, but that’s not really enough to recommend the game in its current state. Bugs aside, the game feels fundamentally flawed in the feedback department.

In the run-up to “2042′s” release, the developers at DICE would frequently speak of “Battlefield moments,” the sort of highlight clips that — due to the sandbox nature of the Battlefield series compared to something like Call of Duty or Halo — could only happen in a Battlefield game. I’ve had several of those during my time with the game. Battlefield moments are improbable, memorable, delightful, clipable, shareable and so much fun to behold. The problem with “Battlefield 2042” isn’t a short supply of those moments, it’s the flimsy and frustrating connective tissue between them. The Battlefield moments are great. But right now with “2042,” the overall Battlefield experience is sorely lacking.

Original post from Nov. 11, 2021: ‘Battlefield 2042’ should have been delayed again

“Battlefield 2042” is brimming with all of the experiences fans of the war sim series have enjoyed since its debut nearly 20 years ago. Infantry hurling themselves at objectives while tanks blast away buildings and fighter jets and helicopters rain fire from above. The series has always offered some of the most immersive experiences in gaming, but in packaging up this latest installment, it’s clear there was a shortage of one key component: time.

That holds for both the game’s developers at DICE, but also reviewers. If you’re looking for a comprehensive review of “Battlefield 2042,” you won’t find it here. For that matter, you probably won’t find it anywhere on Nov. 11, a day before the game releases to the public for an early access window. To date, the game has been available to reviewers only through curated experiences: First, via a beta that showcased just one mode on just one map and then this week, across three several-hour long sessions for reviewers. During those windows, participants could only play the mode and map served up by the game’s developers, and only on PC, in part to ensure full servers for a game that can host up to 128 players in a given match. But while it was useful to get a glimpse of the live “Battlefield 2042” experience, the sessions produced more questions than answers. And the biggest question for me is, “Why wasn’t this game delayed again?”

That may come across more negatively than I intend; the foundation of the game is very good. But after a review window marred by bugs and glitches, it’s clear the current version of the game will not debut in all its intended splendor. Most of the issues could be classified as nuisances more than fundamental problems with the game, and all of them seem like they could be easily solved with more time. So again, why not give it to the developers and let them deliver the product they intended?

The intrigue of “Battlefield 2042” has always stemmed from its potential. The game’s development positively dripped with ambition. There was the introduction of a new squad-based mode, billed as a twist on the battle royale genre. There was the sandbox mode, Portal, that puts the tools of creation for original Battlefield experiences directly into the hands of players. That mode also delivers remastered versions of beloved previous entries “Battlefield 1942,” “Bad Company 2” and “Battlefield 3” by including two maps from each title. Heck, the new content even included a tornado and a robot dog. This wasn’t just a blue-sky vision from the developers. They were shooting for the moon.

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From what we’ve seen though, at launch, DICE is going to fall short. At present, there are a litany of issues that sap the game’s immersive fantasy, limiting the enjoyment of a game that, at its core, is quite good. But the most vexing issue of all is a design decision that undercuts a full third of “Battlefield 2042.”

Battlefield games revolve around players coordinating closely with their squadmates. But when the game goes live on Nov. 12 for early access, it will do so without in-game voice chat. Yes, you read that correctly: “Battlefield 2042″ will launch lacking an industry-standard feature for multiplayer first-person shooter titles. During a media Q&A this week, the developers said they found most people use party chat via Discord or through Xbox and PlayStation party making and that it would be looking to add voice chat “shortly after launch to help with this.” Later, through a spokesperson, the company said in-game voice chat is “on the road map” and could be introduced as early as “Day 25.″

That’s a shame, since the game’s new mode, Hazard Zone, is practically unplayable without comms. Hazard Zone relies heavily on relaying information to your teammates and coordinating so that their characters’ loadouts and special abilities can complement one another. Unless you’re in a party via another VOIP platform though, it’s nearly impossible. There is a ping wheel and in-game text chat (good luck using that during a gunfight) but neither is a true substitute for a feature that is a staple in squad-based games.

During the review period, I was unable to join my squadmates’ party so I had to solo queue, where I was paired with three EA staffers. Our squad never made it more than 3 minutes into the mode. No one could communicate which way to go, no one could call out threats. We died in short order. And that will be the experience for anyone not playing in a previously assembled party.

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The mode itself is interesting. I just wish I’d gotten to experience it properly. The goal is to deploy on a map in search of hard drives in fallen satellites. Both player-led enemy teams and AI forces are present to stop you, and an incoming storm limits your time to achieve your objective before you have to exfiltrate. If your team doesn’t make it to the extraction point, you get nothing. Succeed and you can swap those hard drives for “dark market credits” which you can use in a buy phase to upgrade your loadout — a la “Valorant” or “Call of Duty: Vanguard’s” Champion Hill mode — before deploying on another quest for more hard drives.

Hazard Zone features a one-life-to-live format like other modern battle royales, which makes it all the more frustrating when you’re eliminated early when an enemy team ambushes you without warning. Or maybe there was a warning; I just couldn’t hear it, because there’s no voice chat.

One of the aspects that makes the game different from various battle royales, though, is that you’re not trying to eliminate the other players. You just want to get in, get the drives, and get out. To that end, teams can opt for an extraction at the midpoint of the round if they feel like they’ve gathered enough drives. In theory, you could play a whole round without seeing another human-controlled player. While fighting over the two extraction vehicles could be intense, it’s going to take some time to see whether this holds the same appeal as the adrenaline rush of winning a final gunfight at the center of a shrinking circle. Certainly, it will take more than the time allotted to reviewers, even the ones who got to play the experience as intended.

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The Portal mode provides the other big advancement for the latest iteration of Battlefield. It serves as both an archive for fan favorite modes (like Rush) and maps (including Al Alamein, Arica Harbor and Caspian Border). It’s also a workshop for creators who want to mold their own experiences from Battlefield’s ample materials. For reviewers, the DICE developers showcased a trio of examples, including a VIP mode in which both sides attempted to take out a randomly assigned VIP target on the other team, a fast-paced free-for-all and a tweaked version of FFA that gave every player a rocket launcher and one rocket. The catch in that last version? To get another rocket to load, players had to jump five times, a rule placed into the mode by its creator.

Reviewers then played in three remastered classic modes from past games, Conquest on the included maps of “Battlefield 1942,” Rush on those of “Bad Company 2” and another Conquest game on “Battlefield 3′s” battlegrounds. True to the description, they all played like the original versions of those games, with the same behaviors. For example, players could not go prone while using the classic build of “Bad Company 2” and only defib paddles could revive fallen players in “Battlefield 3.”

This just scratches the surface of what the mode could ultimately deliver. And it’s a virtual guarantee that the best mode we’ll see from Portal hasn’t been made yet. The details creators can adjust via the Portal website, which anyone with an Origin account can visit and check out for themselves, are staggering. This may be the ultimate sandbox for “Battlefield” fans. But again, we’ll need more than four hours of curated experiences to know for sure.

The third core pillar of “Battlefield 2042” is All Out Warfare, the home to Conquest and Breakthrough modes, two Battlefield standards that require players to secure or defend various objectives. Reviewers played through six of the seven new maps on those settings, which offered a mix of the familiar (massive scale, vehicles firing frantically while infantry scrambled for cover) and the new. The latter elements included the awe-inspiring tornado weather effect, as well as operators with unique traits and gadgets, like a grapple gun, a sentry turret, defensive fortifications or the ability to hack enemy vehicles and equipment. One operator even features a wing suit that allows her to ride the outskirts of that twister.

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But dotting it all were a number of blemishes you wouldn’t expect from a beauty about to make its public debut. At the start of the review event, in fact, EA’s media relations team circulated a document of known issues that spanned four pages. Some were rather innocuous (body parts clipping through walls) while others were more troublesome (sniper scopes losing their magnification). Even with all those instances already reported, reviewers found more throughout the week. One mouse-and-keyboard user’s weapon kept firing even when they weren’t pressing the left mouse button. Others reported their mouse and keyboards completely stopped working at random. Another player reported driving a tank into the water only to have their character launched into the sky. One member of my squad kept crashing out of the game.

My own experience included a number of oddities as well. A tank I called in with an airdrop disappeared under the map. A helicopter I piloted appeared to simply disappear midflight, with the game informing me and my deceased squad mate that we’d been “terminated.” Most problematic of all, after being swept into the tornado and killed, it locked me into the game’s revive state — I couldn’t return to play without closing the game entirely or waiting for the round to end. None of that, however, frustrated me more than not being able to communicate with my teammates via game chat.

What also makes a true review of this game nigh impossible as it stands is that I can’t confidently tell you if these problems will dissipate by launch day. It seems highly unlikely. This is particularly troubling to me, since the preview I participated in was played only on PC. I have no idea what the experience will be like on current-gen consoles, much less on a PS4 or Xbox One.

Put it all together and you have to wonder why on Earth an event like this, which felt very much like a beta test, wasn’t actually a beta test and the game’s release wasn’t pushed back another month or so. I have to imagine this is frustrating for the developers, as there are glimpses of greatness in “Battlefield 2042.” In one instance during the review window, a gunman appeared atop a concrete wall, firing down on me and my teammate. Suddenly, he rocketed skyward. An allied tank had obliterated both our assailant and the wall he was standing on. Moments like that definitely triggered memories of the Battlefield I remember. But it’s likely those instances will be overshadowed by the issues, known and unknown, that seem certain to plague its launch. If reviewers are aware of all these unbecoming hiccups, I have to assume EA and DICE know as well. So again, why launch like this?

I asked through a press relations contact how DICE and EA arrived at picking the Nov. 12 launch date. They declined to comment, pointing to the statement issued when the game was initially delayed in September. It read in part “we feel it is important to take the extra time to deliver on the vision of ‘Battlefield 2042’ to our players.” Personally, I wish they’d taken a little more.

Rather than developing new content and iterating on a finished product with the upcoming live service portion of the game, it feels like DICE will instead be playing catch-up. Hopefully when the game gets patched, the developers — and Battlefield players — will get to realize the ambitious initial vision for “Battlefield 2042.”