Battlefield 2042 has its problems, but going free-to-play isn't the answer

Battlefield 2042
(Image credit: EA)

Battlefield 2042 is in rough shape. Just two months after the launch of its new-generation first-person shooter, developer DICE is battling a rising tide of consternation from all corners of the community. There are signs that server population is waning, while highly-requested featuresets remain MIA and the list of untreated issues continues to grow. What Battlefield 2042 needs now more than anything else is stability – the damage can be repaired, but it will take time.

Perhaps that's why many players felt blindsided when uncorroborated rumors surfaced last week, suggesting that EA was considering taking Battlefield 2042 free-to-play. The embattled FPS is a tentpole release for the publisher, designed to evolve over time and generate evocative experiences for years to come. It's easy to understand why such a model may seem attractive to the powers that be, although I'd argue that free-to-play isn't the answer to Battlefield 2042's problems

Assessing the damage

Battlefield 2042

(Image credit: EA)

There is logic behind a shift towards free-to-play. PUBG Corporation took a calculated risk with PUBG: Battlegrounds and it appears to be paying off – the studio reports a 486% increase in new players since it made the switch, with PlayStation players recording a 400% increase in playtime. By expanding the player base, the battle royale progenitor is making a renewed push into territory that's become fiercely contested by Apex Legends, Fortnite, and Warzone. With its stable servers, finely-tuned systems, and a vast array of freely available content, it's likely that PUBG will thrive as a F2P experience so long as it can keep cheaters in check. 

The problem DICE has right now is that it isn't standing on stable enough ground to launch or support a more open platform. And that's a shame, because Battlefield 2042 should have been a decisive victory for the studio. While the FPS genre remains one of the biggest in the western world, BF2042 arrived with very little direct competition in the market. If you want an all-new, more broadly-focused FPS experience, outside of the more restrictive ruleset of battle royale, then your options are slim.

Say what you will about Battlefield 2042, but the truth is it's operating at a scale quite unlike anything else around it. The 128-player battles dwarf the 24-player skirmishes seen in Halo Infinite and the 48-player maxcap of Call of Duty: Vanguard. 100 soldiers can pile onto a single Hell Let Loose server, but developer Black Matter is claiming dominion over niche territory – offering a blur of unforgiving combat, real-time tactical planning, and open-ended battlefields which doesn't presume to be enjoyable for all playertypes. 

Battlefield Portal

(Image credit: EA)

"Battlefield 2042 is frustrating, because there's clearly a phenomenal shooter buried beneath the rubble of yet another troubled Battlefield launch"

Two months in, and it is that scale which seems to be working against Battlefield 2042. Weapon handling can be unwieldy, while hit detection and time-to-kill can be unpredictable in the sprawling sandboxes. The maps are large but barren, with skirmishes quickly losing focus as soon as you step away from the tightly defined frontlines of Breakthrough. Specialists have expanded the scope of opportunity at the cost of the functional balance that Battlefield's team-focused structure relies upon to properly function. The servers are unstable and  game-disrupting bugs appear to have the resilience of cockroaches. These problems were present at launch and have only become exacerbated over time. 

What Battlefield 2042 needs more than anything right now is a chance to settle into its rhythm without further disruption. I understand the impulse on the part of DICE and EA to make server vitality priority number one, but stability really is key should this game want to make it through year one without bleeding out before our eyes. There are other ways to bolster the player counts in the short term – free trial weekends, or a rotation through Xbox Game Pass, although this would only serve to expose a more casual playerbase to the problems that the series' biggest fans are currently enduring through gritted teeth.

There's work to be done

Battlefield 2042

(Image credit: EA)

DICE is working to deliver highly-requested changes: expanded matchmaking options in All-Out Warfare, All Platform VOIP, a refreshed scoreboard, and optimizations focused on improving performance and server stability. Some of these will arrive in mid-february, and there's a good chance that the game will be in much better shape because of it. Others, like VOIP, have no release window, but are essential additions should DICE want to make Battlefield 2042 a viable cross-platform multiplayer game – why would groups of friends cast across PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X migrate from Call of Duty and Fortnite when there's no viable way for them to communicate in-game? 

I'd have no problem with Battlefield 2042 going free-to-play later down the line. Truth be told, given the live-service stylings to the game's roadmap – it's worth noting that the Season One battle pass is currently MIA, existing without detail or release date – I was a little surprised that EA didn't embrace the model to begin with. However, right now, we need to see a focused few months of fixes, improvements, and optimizations. Would I like to see more maps and new weapons? Of course, the limited pool at launch is disappointing, but I'd be just as happy to see map rotation function properly – I recently played a four-hour session and cycled through the same three maps out of an available seven. 

Battlefield 2042 is frustrating, because there's clearly a phenomenal shooter buried beneath the rubble of yet another troubled Battlefield launch. There are moments where it all comes together and you can see flashes of brilliance. The crack of lightning which illuminates waves of players rushing through a sandstorm as a MI-240 Super Hind buzzes closely overhead, dispersing sparks of anti-missile ordnance. As you storm a chokepoint with 40 players beside you, with whirring defibrillators and bullets slicing through scenery dominating the soundscape. When you hold a control point with nothing more than a SVK marksman rifle in hand, desperately hoping that, when reinforcements do finally arrive, one of them has an Ammo Kit equipped. 

Battlefield 2042 is a solid game with the potential to be something truly special. But exposing more players to its unstable foundations could do lasting damage. I've had a perfectly enjoyable time dipping in and out of Battlefield 2042 around sessions on Halo Infinite, PUBG, and Call of Duty Warzone, but in its current state it just isn't the sort of game that can sustain long-term investment of my attention. It's going to take time, but BF2042 can still turn this around. That's going to require patience on our part as players, a lot of hard work from DICE, and a bit of confidence from EA.

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Josh West
Editor-in-Chief, GamesRadar+

Josh West is the Editor-in-Chief of GamesRadar+. He has over 15 years experience in online and print journalism, and holds a BA (Hons) in Journalism and Feature Writing. Prior to starting his current position, Josh has served as GR+'s Features Editor and Deputy Editor of games™ magazine, and has freelanced for numerous publications including 3D Artist, Edge magazine, iCreate, Metal Hammer, Play, Retro Gamer, and SFX. Additionally, he has appeared on the BBC and ITV to provide expert comment, written for Scholastic books, edited a book for Hachette, and worked as the Assistant Producer of the Future Games Show. In his spare time, Josh likes to play bass guitar and video games. Years ago, he was in a few movies and TV shows that you've definitely seen but will never be able to spot him in.