For 2042, forget everything you know about Battlefield—again

There was a moment during my early hands-on session with Battlefield 2042’s open beta when I was pinned down by an attack chopper at the F capture point on Orbital, one of the game’s “All-Out Warfare” maps. I had already fired all of my anti-air rockets at it and none of my squadmates were even on the same objective point as me. There was literally nothing I could do besides cower inside a building and hope that it got bored.

At least, that’s what my brain had been trained for the last decade-plus of playing Battlefield games to believe. My neural pathways, imprinted like tank treads, could only perceive one conclusion: I was going to die to this attack chopper.

But that’s when I remembered that this isn’t Battlefield 3 or Battlefield 4. I didn’t just have to fire easily avoidable rockets at the attack chopper. I could call its nemesis, an anti-air tank, down from the freaking sky.

So that’s what I did. I used the new vehicle call-in tablet, requested an anti-air tank, picked a landing marker right outside the building I was hiding in, and waited a few seconds. An anti-air tank parachuted down, with the thrusters that slowed its descent blasting smoke thick enough for me to use as visual cover as I entered the vehicle. As the chopper circled back for another strafing run, I filled it full of machine gun fire then finished it off with a lock-on missile.

I have a feeling that it will take a while for certain fans of the franchise to come to terms with Battlefield 2042. Sure, on the surface it might look like a natural evolution of Battlefield 4, but there have been three other Battlefield games since then that DICE has learned from. Some people might expect the gameplay to feel like the more recent, historic titles, albeit in a different time period. That would also be wrong.

After playing a handful of matches, it’s clear to me that Battlefield 2042 is very, very different from any of the other recent games in the series.

The most obvious change is the inclusion of “Specialists” as playable characters instead of the standard four-class system that’s dominated the series for the last 10 years. Each Specialist has their own specific gadget as well as a character trait, but they can otherwise equip whatever weapons, secondary gadgets, and throwable items they want. The four Specialists available in the open beta are Mackay, Falck, Casper, and Boris.

The impact that Specialists will have on the final version of the game is still unknown, but their effect on how I played was strange, and not necessarily in a bad way. Because the Specialist I played as didn’t determine what weapons I could use, I tended to pick the Specialist whose gadget best suited whatever goal I gave myself. If I was trying to defend a point, Boris was the obvious choice, as his automatic sentry gun gave me some extra firepower, but more importantly alerted me if an enemy was in my blindspot. If I was attempting to capture a point, I tended to favor Mackay and his grappling hook, which allowed me to reach higher places more quickly and gain a positional advantage on my enemies.

However, sometimes the Specialist still influenced what weapon I wanted to take. Playing as an aggressive Mackay, it didn’t make sense to bring a bolt-action sniper rifle. Likewise, defending Boris with a short-range SMG made less sense than being able to keep enemies at bay with a sniper rifle or LMG. Despite the “freedom” that the Specialist system offers, I still felt that I favored certain weapons as certain characters over others. Still, it will be really interesting to discover what the more creative Specialist/weapon combos are as players begin to settle into the game and learn its eccentricities.

This will undoubtedly get even more complicated as players team up with their friends and create interesting group compositions. If you’re attacking, it probably makes sense to have at least one Falck staying back to heal those on the frontlines, but if that’s the role you want to play, what weapon best suits it? Likewise, playing as Casper could give your squadmates a huge advantage as they’re moving in to capture a point, as you can use your drone to scout and spot enemy positions. In that sense, maybe Casper—who is a character in the “Recon” class—would still probably use a traditional recon weapon like a sniper rifle or a DMR.

The amount of potential for strategy and “meta” squad compositions that this new Specialist system offers is mind-boggling, especially when you consider that the four Specialists available in the beta aren’t even half of the total Specialists that are launching with the game. There is so much to discover with this new character class system, and that sense of discovery just wasn’t possible with the more restrictive classes in previous Battlefield games.

Another aspect of the weapons that will throw old-school fans for a loop is the new Plus System, which lets players swap out attachments on the fly. It’s still not entirely clear how each attachment is earned or whether you can choose specific attachments to be available in the Plus System, but what is clear is how satisfying it is to quickly switch scopes or barrel types depending on your current situation. There are a lot of open spaces in Orbital, and if you choose to travel on foot, swapping out a red dot for a magnified sight is not a bad idea. But after reaching the objective, you might encounter more close-quarters situations, so you’ll want to change back to the red dot.

Battlefield purists might say that the Plus System completely misses the point. They might say that choosing the right loadout for the right situation is something that separates the good players from the bad. But the direction that Battlefield’s map design has taken over the last several entries, favoring scale and scenery over structure, means that even the best players were limited over what they could do and where they could go. The Plus System goes a long way to minimizing that problem.

The other new feature that helps give players more ways to deal with Battlefield 2042’s open beta map, Orbital, and its massive scale is the aforementioned vehicle call-in system. This is, without a doubt, the single biggest change to the franchise’s formula since the Frostbite Engine introduced destructibility. Previously, you would have to either retrieve a vehicle or spawn into one from predetermined points on the map. Now, you can call whatever ground vehicles are available on the map anywhere you want. And yes, that includes tanks.

Vehicle call-ins drastically changed the way I perceived the map and my relationship to it. Instead of feeling like I had to stay put or risk getting shot while crossing an clearing, I could simply drop a truck at my feet and be on my merry way. But more than that, it changed the way I thought about my loadout. I generally dislike using AA infantry weapons like stinger missiles in Battlefield games because I just find the gameplay that comes with them boring. Now, I can just call in an AA tank if it’s available like I did against that chopper. Or, if the point I want to attack is home to an enemy tank, I can just order my own tank for instant delivery. Better yet, I can call in a truck, throw my C4 on the front, and ram it into the tank like the good old days.

It took me a few rounds to get used to how much more freedom I had in Battlefield 2042 compared to its predecessors. While previous games in the series promised a true sandbox experience, there was always the sense that you had to compromise in one way or another, whether it was what class you chose or where you went. But Battlefield 2042 seems to truly deliver on that promise. But what’s really satisfying is how it gives that freedom. It doesn’t tell you what you should do; it still leaves the creative problem-solving up to the player.

I’m already seeing comments online, before players have even gotten a chance to get their hands on the game, that whatever game mechanic should be more like one Battlefield or another. Fans of the franchise have certain expectations, certain ways of thinking and conceptualizing, based on previous titles. This happens every single time a new Battlefield game launches. There’s always a period of growing pains when it comes to figuring out how to play the new Battlefield title, and people will inevitably worry. What if everyone has rockets? What if everyone has sniper rifles? What if, what if, wah wah wah.

I’m interested in getting more hands-on time with the beta, especially on the platform—Xbox Series X—that I will most likely be spending the majority of my time on. (I’ve already read “leaked” feedback about the beta that says performance is spotty on PC. For what it’s worth, I have a Radeon RX 5700XT GPU and a Ryzen 7 2700X CPU with 32 GB of RAM and was able to get a consistent 60 FPS in 1440p on all High graphical settings.) I’m interested in playing it more and testing the limits of its sandbox. Can Mackay grapple onto Casper’s drone? Can you plant C4 on Casper’s drone? What else can you do with the drone?

But what really interests me is how much players will be willing to adapt to this new form of Battlefield. I’m reminded in particular of the last time this happened: Battlefield V’s beta received a ton of criticism for its attrition system, which enforced the idea that playing as a squad was your best chance for survival. For me and my group of friends, all dedicated team players, we had a blast all playing our respective roles. But it was so different from what Battlefield players were used to that DICE pretty much eliminated attrition from the game altogether. Let me reiterate that: Based on fan feedback, DICE eliminated what was a fundamental part of the game’s design about a month or two before it was supposed to launch.

What I really hope is that, if fans don’t immediately gel with Battlefield 2042’s significant and fundamental design changes, DICE doesn’t completely nuke everything it’s created. Battlefield 2042 will work, and it will be fun. Its players just have to get used to it first.

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