THey say war is hell, don’t you, and also that hell are other people. 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 how 128 people feel like trying to get on the subway during rush hour, all vying for a destination at the same time, and it’s not often comfortable. Battlefield 2042 has a lot of problems but a lot of potential. The ingredients for impressive war games are there, but they don’t always come together – at least not yet.

The characteristic bombast and spectacle of this venerable shooter series is alive and well. 2042 takes place under the extreme weather conditions that devastate our near future, trigger the dissolution of most nation-states and begin a war waged by stateless “no-pats”, which resources are left on earth. If you run headfirst into a tornado with 63 other players while another 64 are waiting for you on the other side of its vortex, you’ll be in awe the first time. But it doesn’t lend itself particularly well to a match of Conquest (capturing control points) or Breakthrough (capturing control points, but in the correct order this time).

A busy server is simply too much chaos to write a satisfactory personal story. That has always been the difficulty for Battlefield as its player base has grown: How do I feel like making change in a huge conflict? The scale is only used to water down individual accomplishments, not to mention increasing the likelihood of accidental death from distant, invisible opponents.

Since Battlefield 2042 was released last week, gamers have been complaining about shaky netcode, bugs too numerous to be detailed, and missing features from previous games. I suspect that, like many other shaky big-budget games in the recent past, it will eventually evolve into something more stable and feature-rich. These days it’s not uncommon to see soldiers engaged in endless death throes, such as interactive antiwar art installations or vehicles that seem to obey lunar physics, or bullet spray so fierce you might as well wield an aerosol at your enemy instead.

There is no single player campaign this time, so it falls on the new Danger Zones mode to provide some relief from the large-scale fracas. Here a squad of up to four players chases data drives from satellite pods scattered around the map, then extracts them to fend off waves of disturbingly ferocious AI soldiers. Instead of the treasure hunt itself, the rewarding loop of collecting points and spending those points on better equipment for your next attempt turns out to be hugely appealing. That persistence gives your team a reason to specialize, and it’s fun to cultivate collaborative efficiency. It doesn’t make up for the wider disappointments, but is a worthy distraction.

Battlefield 2042.
Key to the Kingdom … Battlefield 2042. Photo: Electronic Arts

There’s a silver lining to the storm clouds of 2042. Bots have been recruited to create server numbers, and they can be played against them in solo and co-op versions of the game’s multiplayer battles. When you play against bots, the game gives us all the keys to the kingdom. I’m not too proud to admit that if I spent the next five years of my life I would never, ever, not even get 92 sniper kills in a single round of Battlefield against other people. But I can and I have against the simple bots of 2042. I am a warrior king. Targets tumble and fall under my control in one push. I fly fighter jets, am not ashamed of my terrible pilot, and I largely ignore the mistakes because my K: D ratio is biblical. This is what it feels like to be absolutely brilliant at Battlefield, and Dice lets you both feel it on your own terms and (if you use tougher bots) train you to get at least a fraction of that sense of achievement online.

There’s even more hope here in the form of portal mode. Not only does it give you a range of tools to create 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 during that classic content is still exposed to technical problems, it is a generous addition.

I hope we will look back on this release and laugh as we remember a great game started on such a shabby stake. At the moment, the best fun can be found in the sideshow. It stumbles on the main stage of its 128-player chaotic showdowns.

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