During a hands-off demonstration of Battlefield 2042 Hazard Zone, the latest multiplayer mode and third pillar of the war series’ latest guise, developer DICE made a bold statement. “Your main objective is not to kill,” said the game’s senior design director Danny Berlin. And then, in Hazard Zone’s first trailer that premiered today, we’re shown a cinematic of a sniper head-shotting two unsuspecting enemies from afar, a wing-suited operative swooping onto a rooftop and brutally stabbing another soldier in the throat, and a smattering of in-game footage wherein the primary concern of the ones behind the guns very much appears to be killing the folk in their cross-hairs. All in the pursuit of radiation-hardened Data Drives.
To be fair to DICE, collecting the latter is your main objective in Hazard Zone, but it’s clearly inextricably linked to the virtual murder Battlefield does so well that I fail to see the distinction. In doing so, one statement I do agree with the developer on, however, is that Hazard Zone is not a battle royale mode.
“We’ve been very clear since our reveal that Hazard Zone is not a battle royale mode,” said Berlin quite explicitly. “But what is it then? You and your squadmates will not only battle rivaling squads, and forces like the tornadoes which can strike at random times, but also deadly occupying forces attempting to protect the Data Drives and also stop you from extracting.”
In practice, this sees 32 players split into eight squads of four (for PS5, Xbox Series X, and PC players; 24 split six ways on last-gen hardware), and dropped into any one of the seven maps confirmed so far for All-Out Warfare, Battlefield 2042’s flagship mode. Line-ups are restricted to one Specialist per squad, with a diverse team of multi-skilled operatives said to “give you an edge in the various phases of the match”.
To this end, each Hazard Zone encounter comprises five key stages: Strategize and Equip, Insert, Retrieval, First Extraction, and, finally, Last Extraction. In the first phase, you’re given a wee briefing about your mission, before selecting your crew and the bespoke kit they’ll take to battle. In the second, you’re deployed to your pre-determined insertion point. In the third, you set off in search of crashed satellites that contain the all-important Data Drives, using an intel scanner that reveals their approximate locations up and down the map.
Halfway through matches, satellites housing extra-valuable Data Drives crash land – expect some fierce fire-fighting if you decide to go after those – and it’s around this time that phase four, First Extraction, kicks in. Here, a randomized extraction point lets you secure the Data Drives you’ve gathered till now, at which stage you’ll fight other squads to board a plane and get the hell out of there. If you decide to stay, however, you’ll spend the remainder of the match attempting to gather even more intel, you greedy sod, before entering the Last Extraction phase – which is the same as the previous stage, but with much less time left on the clock.
Die or get left behind, and you lose everything you’ve previously accrued. Live, and you’ll trade your Data Drives in Hazard Zone’s so-called ‘Metagame’ for new weapons and tactical upgrades.
There’s a reason for me splitting hairs above with regards to DICE’s killing isn’t your main objective in Battlefield 2042 Hazard Zone. I get what the developer is saying, that this segue is different from the rest – both in terms of its own offerings in its separate multiplayer modes, All-Out Warfare, and Portal, and also against the external competition, like, say, Call of Duty: Warzone. But, in doing all of this, I can’t help but wonder: who is Hazard Zone actually for?
Since its inception, Battlefield has revelled in its large-scale, circumstantial warfare, where the explosive but unscripted scenes that unfold around players at any given moment are the ones that stick with you, and ultimately keep you coming back for more. In All-Out Warfare’s Conquest mode, Battlefield 2042 has increased its player count to 128 (for those on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X), which is a lovely jump that’s sure to produce more of the war-torn hedonism series fans crave. Battlefield 5’s dedicated battle royale mode, Firestorm, was hardly revolutionary, but the Battlefield formula lent itself well to the genre – scenery destruction was as good as it's been since Bad Company 2, for example, even if its maps were far too big for its 64-player limit.
And even then, with Battlefield 2042 in mind, pockets of isolation were common away from the immediate action on the maps made available in the recent beta, and I worry that reducing that count by three-quarters in Hazard Zone will see us legging it around sparsely populated areas for long spells, or will see all of the action funnelled into one centralized hotspot of activity. Which defeats the purpose of the game’s sprawling maps in the first place.
That’s not to say DICE won’t employ checks and balances to prevent this hypothetical scenario, but with All-Out Warfare’s Conquest slant offering so much in the way of what makes Battlefield games work – sprawling maps, loads of players, umpteen explosions, unbridled chaos – I can’t see myself straying too far from that blockbuster experience. For broader context, I’m an avid GTA Online player and have spent a good bit of time mucking around in its fan-made 1,000-player roleplay servers of late. Now, whenever I revert back to the crime sim’s standard 32-player servers, San Andreas suddenly seems so empty and vast – and I can’t help but feel Hazard Zone is setting itself up for a similar deal, especially against the success of its inevitable rival, Call of Duty: Warzone.
Which also isn’t to say I’m down on everything Hazard Zone is proposing. I like the tactical and strategic nuance it promises when picking your squad of Specialists, and the tangible impact, for better or worse, this could have on the battlefield. Growing a stronger squad via the mode’s Metagame system also sounds interesting, and I love the idea of short and sharp 20-minute long battles that are driven by risk versus reward.
DICE is clearly trying something different with Hazard Zone, and that should be applauded, I just hope it receives the same support as its flagship mode moving forward, lest it wind up in spectator mode for the long-term.