Battlefield has always been unique in its love of bodily and architectural destruction. Its battles, whether set during the First and Second World Wars or contemporary and near-future conflicts, are large-scale collisions of flesh and metal. Huge numbers of opposing players charge toward bits of important territory on a map to shoot or explode one another while on foot, driving tanks and jeeps, or flying helicopters and planes.
A typical match is chaotic on a scale beyond most first-person shooters. A player may lie on their virtual belly, in one instance, sniping opponents while mortar rounds and aerial bombs cause the ground to erupt like dirty geysers all around them. Then, perhaps, a tank races into view, sputtering oily black smoke and blazing violently in the moments before it explodes into a fireball, punching a hole through the wall of a nearby building in the process. The game is noisy with the snap of passing bullets, the clatter of automatic fire, the thud of explosions, the roar of machinery, and the pre-programmed shouts of fellow soldiers calling out requests and orders to one another. It’s disorienting, attention-grabbing design.
The aesthetic clamour of Battlefield’s matches fits uneasily next to the low stakes of play, though. The dramatic shock of an explosion and the ensuing sight of a player’s avatar clutching at the sky as their life fades away becomes incongruous as the game switches to an overhead map of the terrain and shows a ticking counter biding the time until the next respawn. The stirring music that swells as one group of soldiers nears victory and dominion over a contested stretch of territory instantly deflates once an all-caps VICTORY or DEFEAT pops up on screen and the next combat zone is loaded in without reflecting any real change in circumstance. The essential game-yness of the experience butts up against the sprawling destruction and slaughter that Battlefield’s best moments depict, making the combination of frivolity and mortal drama eerie and, sometimes, uncomfortable in a manner fairly unique for competitive shooters.
All of this makes it seem like a dystopian climate collapse setting would be a poor fit for Battlefield. The horrors of the fast-approaching real world environmental apocalypse and the superficiality of multiplayer shooter trappings don’t appear, at least initially, as if they’d go together well at all. Battlefield 2042, though, ends up portraying a world of endless, pointless warfare whose nihilism is an apt reflection of the general feeling that we’re a species drifting mindlessly toward our own extinction. It may not have any worthwhile arguments to offer as to how we’re closing in on the wasteland decade it imagines or, for that matter, anything to say about how we might avoid its horrors, but that hardly matters when the statement it does create is so inherently cautionary.
The game opens with an introductory movie that explains why 2042’s maps are filled with so much natural devastation and empty of everyday people. Wildfires, sandstorms, flooding, and hurricanes have swept the planet. We learn that nations are experiencing mass migration crises because of this—that the European Union and other international alliances have fallen apart, bringing an unprecedented economic collapse. Global trade routes are destroyed, satellites have fallen from orbit, and widespread blackouts leave cities plunged into darkness. Everything is, in short, absolutely terrible.
Russia and the United States are, improbably, the only remaining superpowers. (China goes unmentioned; maybe the entire country has put giant electric fences around its borders and opted to sit all this out.) Stateless soldiers pulled from the world’s masses of refugees—the “non-patriated” or “no-pats” in one of the few, goofy sci-fi terms 2042 employs—now travel from battlefield to battlefield, fighting on behalf of forces they have no allegiance to beyond the paycheque they’ll earn for killing each other.
One map’s opening narration tells us that losing the upcoming battle means the vanquished no-pats’ families will go hungry. Each one of the warzones, whether set along a stretch of Antarctic glacier or in a South Korean city centre, is abandoned. People cannot live in this world anymore, at least not comfortably or easily. The maps themselves are not homes or workplaces, even if they include apartment buildings and offices. They’re bits of cover, areas of differentiated height from which to snipe; the geometry of the world is meant for purely tactical, not living considerations.
Fittingly, the conflict itself is entirely impersonal aside from the named “specialists” mugging for the camera and spouting catchphrases when picked from a line-up before each match begins. These characters make quips when they use one of their pieces of special gear, their Saturday morning cartoon jokes intended to help us better remember each of their personalities but ultimately working more to contextualize a nonsense world where inflicting and witnessing mass death leaves no real imprint on the soldiers’ personalities—other than the kind of cool nonchalance required to go forth into the inferno by glibly stating action movie one-liners.
And why shouldn’t they act this way? These characters die and are reborn endlessly. They kill and destroy in the ruins of human achievement and the death spasms of the Earth. They are engaged in a stupid, loud, ugly war that will continue until total annihilation. We feel no differently when controlling them because we, too, recognize the void they exist within.
Further context would only interfere with the effect. Instead of properly explaining itself, 2042’s fiction follows a hazily sketched logic, fine details appearing and then receding to leave behind only an ultimate impression of bleakness and gloom+. It’s the same trick that the similarly multiplayer-only Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII pulled before it. 2042, too, envisions its future as an impressionistic blur of eternal deathmatches between soldiers alienated from the ideology of the wars featured in their series’ past, motivated now only by the need to survive.
This is nightmare art, pointless and cruel and all the better for it. Rather than turn the wars of our past into sandboxes for endless entertainment, 2042 positions itself more suitably in a future where our bloody history has imparted no lasting lessons. All of that is fair. It looks like the world we live in.
And players can take what they want from it. 2042 is not prescriptive. It does not offer any solutions to the dystopia it envisions. It, in fact, wants audiences to go forward and have a good time splashing around in the muck, taking little away from their time with it other than images of horror that grow more contextually numb as their playtime increases and the serotonin bursts of new weapon customization options and level-ups begin to fade from overuse.
No specific nation and no concrete ideology or political platform are to blame for the grim visions that accompany all of this—other than, of course, the aggregate failures of all current ones that have led us to a present day where a future like 2042’s seems plausible. Instead, players are left with a more general kind of malaise, their frustrations diffuse and directed nowhere in particular. This lack of clarity may make the game a fairly hollow work in the end, but it doesn’t diminish its initial impact as a suitably grim cultural reflection of the chaos, evil, and mindlessness that’s prelude to the coming collapse.
+ There are bits of extra narrative available, but they’re presented outside of the game or as short paragraphs of text tied to the completion of specific challenges, making what they add feel pretty inconsequential to the experience of playing 2042 itself.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.