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Battlefield's ongoing identity crisis could be what saves it this year

Or how Portal looks to be the best part of 2042's package.

The last three nights I've been pottering about with Battlefield 2042's various modes, from traditional Conquest through to the all-new squad-focussed Hazard Zone and the roll-your-own Portal mode editor. What do I make of it? It's near impossible to tell after three nights of action of a game that's all about grand scale and near limitless ways to play (and even harder when we've not seen the progression system or much by way of how the battle pass works, with all specialists and items unlocked from the off in the review build).

A weekend with the final release once it's out in the wild on Game Pass and EA Play should help that come into focus - at least I hope it does, because we're planning the full review for early next week - but even before then one thing is abundantly clear. I've never played a Battlefield that's quite as all over the place as this one. Whether that means it's a rich tapestry of different experiences or whether it means it falls apart as it's torn in countless directions I'm not really also sure, as from those three nights it seems this does seem a very mixed affair.

First of all, Battlefield's bread and butter mode Conquest works. And it can work extremely well. The new maps ushered in under the near future premise are perfectly accommodating for the increased 128-player count, the abundance of vehicles and increased aerial options enabled by some brilliant new helicopters. Squad up in one of those, have a friend ascend to the heights of one of Kaleidoscope's skyscrapers to capture a point before parachuting down to sneak another from out of the grasps of a rival squad. Get the gang into a tooled-up hovercraft and go cause havoc over the expanses of Renewal. Maybe just sit back and watch as a tornado rolls in, picking up players and their mounts and tossing them this way or that. Or just go wild, have fun - it's Battlefield, complete with a toolkit that's begging to be messed around with to conjure up new sorts of chaos to help you win.

Cover image for YouTube videoBattlefield 2042 Gameplay | New Look At Battlefield Portal

Is it Battlefield at its best? Again - and I'm sorry if you're seeing a trend occurring here - I'm just not sure yet, with those all-new specialists that have joined the fray and replaced the class system of old muddying the picture somewhat. On the one hand they're supposed to inject a bit of variety into the fray, with abilities like Webster's grappling hook or Espinoza's ballistic shield introducing even more ways to play, and on the other they allow you to not be locked into set weapons as with the previous class system - but right now it's hard to see their purpose beyond helping justify the battle pass that's a part of post-launch plans. Perhaps I'll grow to love them, but even after a dozen hours of play they still feel very much out of place.

The traditional class system is available in Portal, with classes culled from all the key games. Maybe it's nostalgia talking, but playing them next to playing with the new specialists made me feel like the old ways were best.

Likewise, after an evening in its company I'm not entirely convinced that Hazard Zone won't go the way of Battlefield 5's Firestorm - unloved, unplayed and tossed aside within months. The idea's a neat one - it's basically a stripped back take on Escape from Tarkov, with squads working against each other and a scattering of AI to retrieve data packs, extracting them to earn credits that can be invested in your loadout so you can go again and go harder and louder. It's got neither the snappiness or stickiness of the games it's going up against, though - too much time in our one evening with the mode was spent getting wiped by encroaching squads as we engaged bots surrounding a data pack, which truthfully wasn't much fun at all. It's not a disaster, and might yet spark into life under the right conditions - it's just that, right now, it doesn't really play to Battlefield's strengths.

The nostalgia is strong, mind.

Neither did the first two modes EA and DICE used to showcase Portal, the mode editor that folds in maps, weapons, rulesets and so much more besides. If you've ever wondered whether Battlefield would work as a quick-paced free-for-all deathmatch with whippet quick TTK, let me tell you that 40 minutes was more than enough in its company. The 40 minutes spent playing a fussy rocket launcher only mode in which you had to jump five times to get more ammo was, frankly, painful. It proved that anything's possible, though - I just hope the community comes up with some slightly more engaging modes with the toolset and editor that's just gone live online.

But then, the classic maps roll up in rotation, and everything's good again. Playing conquest on Battlefield 1942's El Alamein with contemporary tech is enough to get the hairs on the back of your neck tingling; by the time Rush rolled around on Valparaiso using Bad Company 2's toolkit and moveset you could hear other squads screech in delight. These takes on classic modes are remarkably accurate - the double sprint is removed, while there's no prone in the likes of Bad Company 2 - and incredibly focussed. It's not overstating it too much to say this is the best fun I've had in Battlefield for years, and it's the mode I'll be heading to first once 2042's out in the wild.

Exp towards unlocks is dished out across all three game modes including Portal - but how exactly it works EA wasn't willing to divulge, which is a tad worrying a day before launch.

It's faintly damning that by far the best part of this Battlefield package are some exacting remakes of games that are over 10 years old, while elsewhere the series seems caught in the same muddle it's been for a while. But maybe it's best to look past the lumpier parts of the package and focus on what really works, because if you know where to look Battlefield's special lure is still there, better and brighter than it's been for a while, the sandbox enabling carnage on a bigger, broader scale than before. EA and DICE seem to continuously struggle with what to do with Battlefield's brilliant toolkit, but at least they've been smart enough to hand those toys over to the players so they can craft their own fun.