Battlefield 2042 hands-on – it’s back, and more tactical than ever

In the distance, a skyscraper towers above the island foliage, its lights flickering on in the stormy twilight. This is the target, the final objective our side needs to take to achieve total dominance of the map. The only problem is, we have to get to the top of the tower and from the silent muzzle flashes erupting from its rooftop, it is well defended. We will need air support as well as coordinated infiltration by a range of skilled operatives. Meanwhile, I have got my jeep lodged between two garages.

This is the world of Battlefield, really as we have always known it. A vast landscape, a range of different character classes, aircraft zooming overhead and moments of both astonishing skill and ludicrous incompetence. But judging by the hands-on session I attended two days before the public beta, Battlefield 2042 takes all these elements and seeks to ramp up the tactical possibilities and disparities even further.

The map we played was Orbital, described by developer EA Dice as a medium-sized location, set in Kourou in French Guiana. There is a giant rocket launch site, a few skyscrapers dotted about, a cryogenics laboratory and an industrial centre with complex buildings entwined by raised metal walkways. The mode we’re playing is Conquest – the classic Battlefield option, where two huge teams battle to control objective points all over the map. The difference now is that that the map is split into sectors which each contain more than one objective point, so teams have to control them all to claim the sector.

It’s an interesting evolution, no doubt intended to encourage more coordinated attacks rather than the chaotic mass brawls we tend to see over specific points. What’s clear is that Battlefield 2042 is about tactical agility. It’s set amid a futuristic global conflict where a combination of ecological disaster and a satellite-killing space storm has plunged the world into anarchy, but the tech is still cutting edge. So now we can call in vehicles to our position wherever we are on the map – that might be a light-armoured vehicle, a tank or a scout robot, which looks like one of those terrifying canine things that Boston Dynamics has made, and it trots happily after you across the landscape spotting and firing at enemies.

You’re also able to change your weapon loadout on the fly within the game. Hit a button and an AR display pops up on screen from your character’s wrist, showing all your gun’s current add-ons. Right there, you can change the scope, the barrel, add a grip, suppressor or a flashlight, all in a couple of quick moves. There’s already some debate over how useful this will be, but I found it advantageous when packing a sniper loadout. While you’re running through the field to get to a good vantage point, you can switch to a standard scope and use your gun like a standard one-shot rifle, which will keep you alive longer than a handgun. Also, wrist-based AR interfaces are fun and make you feel like you’re in a Tom Cruise movie.

The four character classes – recon, assault, support and engineer – are very familiar but they bring some new benefits. The assault operative has a neat grapple gun that lets him reach vertical positions at lightning speed, while the support character has a S21 Syrette Pistol which lets her fire meds at teammates from distance. More standard are the engineer who has a sentry turret and the recon chap who can control an armed drone over the field – he also has a sensor which warns you of nearby enemies, which is useful amid heavy foliage or inside dark buildings.

On the PC the conquest mode is going to support 128 players at once (64 on consoles), but EA Dice has said that matches may well utilise AI bots to fill in spaces if they are short of players. I don’t know how many were playing in my matches, but they weren’t hard to spot or kill, moving deliberately, and reacting with treacly nonchalance when under fire. Perhaps they will improve as they’re exposed to more player data.

EA has also made a big deal of the game’s live scenic events. There are tornadoes that swirl in from the sea, ripping up buildings and vehicles as they go – and it’s a truly mesmerising sight. The Orbital map also has a space rocket that will prepare for take off during a match. Players are apparently able to damage it with heavy fire during this process so that it explodes on the launch pad causing catastrophic damage. We’ve seen both Call of Duty and previous Battlefield games experimenting with these sorts of in-match events and it’s always difficult to know if the initial novelty will lead to anything strategically interesting or just get in the way.

As for visual performance, EA Dice is touting the latest iteration of its Frostbite game engine as a groundbreaking move forward and on my PC (Intel i7-9700F, 3Ghz, 32GB ram with a Geforce RTX 3060 graphics card) the world looked sharp and filled with detail, from birds scattering amid the trees to astonishing mid-air fighter jet explosions – all on the highest graphical settings. There were a few sluggish moments during intense firefights, but I didn’t get chance to really interrogate the settings menu which is extremely comprehensive. The game also supports Nvidia’s DLSS and Reflex Low Latency modes to improve responsiveness, but again, with only three hours of play it was tough to figure out how much this was doing. What I do know is that the dynamic weather is pretty incredible, the rain coming in over the hills turning the sky slate grey, leeching out all the light and leaving you squinting into what was just a few minutes ago, a well-lit goods yard.

One thing is certain: this is wholeheartedly a classic Battlefield game. The map is large and varied, with clustered pinch points and vast open areas for tank battles; it even has a long tunnel section like the old Damavand Peak map in Battlefield 3 so you reach the frontline at considerable speed. You can play close to your four-player squad, spawning in on each other and working as a team, or you can go off by yourself, circling behind enemy control points to sneakily claim them without anyone noticing. It has a similar gritty documentary look and feel as the last two titles, with its high-pitched gunfire and the instant deadliness of some weapons. Often you don’t know where the fire came from.

The gaming world has been so caught up in battle royale dynamics over the last two years, it is refreshing to be back here in the world of Battlefield: two big sides, lots of multi-level combat with vehicles everywhere, and those moments where seven strangers suddenly come together in an instantenously choreographed attack, and you can forget about that moment, a few minutes before, when you accidentally drove your tank off a cliff.

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