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‘False choice’: is deep-sea mining required for an electric vehicle revolution? | Deep-sea mining

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At the Goodwood festival of speed near Chichester, the crowds gathered at the hill-climb circuit to watch the world’s fastest cars roar past, as they do every year. But not far from the high-octane action, there was a new, and quieter, attraction: a display of the latest electric vehicles, from the £28,000 Mini Electric to the £2m Lotus Evija hypercar. Even here, at one of the biggest events in Britain’s petrolhead calendar, it’s clear the days of the internal combustion engine are numbered.

As countries strive to meet stringent carbon-emission targets, and vehicle-makers phase out combustion engines, 145m electric vehicles are predicted to be on the roads within a decade, up from 11m last year. The car batteries they require, along with storage batteries for solar and wind power, have sent demand for metals soaring, taking mining firms to the bottom of the sea in the hunt for those metals.

Thousands of metres below the ocean’s surface lie millions of potato-sized rocks known as nodules: a rich source of nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt. In June, an application was filed to start mining these deposits in two years’ time. As well as the demand for minerals for smartphones and other electronic devices, and the difficulty of extracting them from the land in a sustainable way, the companies behind deep-sea mining say we have no choice: if we want to make the transition to renewable energy, we must plumb the ocean depths.

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What is deep sea mining?

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Deep-sea mining involves retrieving mineral deposits from the area of the ocean below 200 metres down to the sea bed, which is the largest and least explored environment on Earth, occupying 65% of the planet’s surface. Mining firms say that metals found there, such as copper, nickel, aluminium, lithium, cobalt and manganese, are needed to make batteries, smartphones and solar panels. 

When will it happen?
So far, 31 exploration licences have been granted by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN body, and 1.5m sq km has been set aside, equivalent to an area the size of Mongolia, in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as well as along the mid-Atlantic ridge. The decision by Nauru to trigger a rule forcing the ISA to approve a Mining Code – a set of rules “to regulate prospecting, exploration and exploitation of marine minerals in the international seabed area” – will likely lead to full exploitation contracts in less than two years.

Why is it a problem?
Mining could do huge damage to the deep sea and the creatures and ecosystems that exist there. Underwater ecosystems such as volcanic mountains, hydrothermal vents and deep-sea trenches are still poorly understood. Many endemic deep-sea species could be wiped out by the creation of a single large mine, and many other creatures will be affected by noise, light pollution and plumes of mining sediment. 

What can be done? 
An immediate moratorium on deep-sea mining must be instituted while scientists assess the potential damage to biodiversity, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Fundamentally, the IUCN also says people need to recycle and reuse products so there is less demand for extraction of natural resources. New types of batteries are also being designed that do not require metals from the sea bed. 

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“We now have the technology available to us to explore more of the ocean in the next 10 years than we have had in the last 10,000,” says Oliver Steeds, founder and chief executive of Nekton, a deep-sea research foundation and a participant at Goodwood’s Future Lab. His team uses technology such as autonomous underwater vehicles, or robots, to map the deep sea – not for mining, but to promote ocean conservation. Nekton led a deep-sea mission to the Indian Ocean in 2019, which broadcast live from a submersible 200 metres below the waves.

Manganese nodules on the seabed off the Cook Islands.
Manganese nodules on the seabed off the Cook Islands. Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that we have no choice but to exploit these minerals as we move towards a zero-carbon future. Photograph: USGS

The advances in mining and exploration technology represent “an extraordinary opportunity for progress”, Steeds says. “But also it represents a threat, whether through deep-sea mining or further industrialisation and overfishing.

“Too often, the ocean is out of sight, out of mind. But we need to discover what’s there before we destroy it.”

More than 90% of the estimated 2.2 million species in the ocean remain undescribed. And the two-year countdown to deep-sea mining has prompted warnings from scientists that we have not sufficiently understood its potential impact on biodiversity and ecosystems.

Douglas McCauley, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative, says the potential impact of deep-sea mining keeps him up at night.

Electrification of vehicle fleets is a “positive pathway” to reduce carbon emissions, says McCauley. But he accuses deep-sea mining companies of a “false narrative” that we must mine the ocean to meet renewable energy’s demand for metals.

“There are some very significant questions being raised by scientists about the impacts of ocean mining,” he says. “How much extinction could be generated? How long will it take these extremely low-resilience systems to recover? What impact will it have on the ocean’s capacity to capture carbon?”

Campaigners highlight the uncertainty in assumptions behind often wildly different projected metal demand. In July, Greenpeace researchers showed many projections for metal demand by 2050 assumed ongoing use of cobalt and nickel-dependent lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and storage, despite alternatives being developed, including Tesla’s use of lithium iron phosphate batteries, which require neither metal.

Kevin Bridgen, senior scientist for Greenpeace Research Laboratories, says: “People are saying ‘we are not going to have enough metals if we carry on doing as we’ve always done’, but changes are already taking place.”

Increasingly, car companies are joining in the revolt. In March, BMW and Volvo, with Google and Samsung, became the first global companies to sign up to the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) call for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. In backing the call, WWF says, the companies committed to not sourcing any metals from the seabed, to exclude them from their supply chains and not to finance deep-sea mining, until the risks are better understood and the alternatives exhausted.

In calling for a ban, Claudia Becker, BMW’s expert in sustainable supply-chain management, says she fears mining the deep sea could have “irreversible consequences”.

“We came to the conclusion we are missing an understanding of the biodiversity impacts of deep-sea mining. We wanted to send a clear signal to the industry that until these issues are resolved, minerals from the deep seabed are not an option for us.”

The safety car for a Formula E race
The safety car for a Formula E motorsport race. It is estimated that there will be 145m electric cars on the roads within a decade. Photograph: CJM Photography/Alamy

Alternatives

One of several alternatives being explored is to build batteries using widely available metals, instead of the rare and expensive minerals used today.

Becker believes mining the seabed could be avoided by turning to alternative, less damaging metals, or by designing batteries that require fewer minerals. She cites China-based BYD (Build Your Dreams), the world’s second-largest electric vehicle manufacturer, which announced this year it would no longer use cobalt in batteries.

Claes Eliasson, senior vice-president of media relations at Volvo, says that its AB Volvo division – which makes lorries, buses and construction equipment – is betting on three vehicle types: electric, hydrogen and biofuels. It is collaborating with Daimler Trucks to produce hydrogen fuel cells for long-haul vehicles.

There are also growing calls for better recycling – including taking old batteries from rubbish dumps. “We are accumulating metal-rich lithium-iron batteries,” McCauley says of these waste sites. He is optimistic about recycling, seeing “exciting developments” in recovering minerals from batteries, and because he believes there is a “huge amount of money to be made” from pioneering a cheaper, energy-dense battery.

Researchers are tackling how to recycle the millions of electric vehicle batteries manufacturers expect to produce over the coming decades. Electric vehicle (EV) batteries are not designed for recycling, says Andy Abbott, professor of physical chemistry at Leicester University. “Most EV batteries have very small cells, which are put into modules and the modules put into packs. To give an idea, the Tesla Model S has got 4,600 cells in it,” he points out.

The difficulty, he says, is to find a cost-effective way to separate the cells, which are held together with tough and highly toxic glue, to access the metals inside.

“Some people are suggesting glue-less cells and making disassembly easier,” says Abbott. “We’re looking at using robots that can pull apart batteries. We’ve shown that, economically, it’s better if you can disassemble it.”

Product design and “planned obsolescence” is another major hurdle for metal recycling. In 2019, 53.6m tonnes of electronic waste was generated globally, only 17.4%, or 9.3m, of which was recycled. But this too is set to change, with the International Telecommunication Union setting a target of 30% recycling by 2030.)

In 2018, China began to hold vehicle manufacturers responsible for ensuring that batteries are recycled and the country now recycles more lithium-ion batteries than the rest of the world combined. Last year, BYD launched the blade battery, which stores flat cells directly inside, allowing them to be removed by hand.

Abbott predicts lithium-iron batteries will be recycled more efficiently in the next “10 to 15 years”. But he adds that they almost certainly will not be the main technology in 20 to 30 years’ time. “It’s an evolving market,” he says.

Robots assemble cars in the BYD electric car factory in Xi’an, Shaanxi, China
Robots assemble electric cars in the BYD factory in Xi’an, Shaanxi. China now holds carmakers responsible for recycling batteries and the country now recycles more lithium-ion batteries than the rest of the world combined. Photograph: Alex Plavevski/EPA

The Metals Company, formerly DeepGreen, one of several companies planning to mine nodules in the Pacific, has accused BMW, Volvo and the other companies of “irresponsible” claims. In a statement in March it asked: “Where exactly will BMW get the battery metals it needs to fully electrify its products, and with what impact to our climate?”

But its claim that mining metals from the ocean had the “least planetary impact” has been called into question.

In July, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, Greenpeace USA and Global Witness sent a letter to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, questioning DeepGreen’s environmental impact and feasibility statement.

“DeepGreen is offering a false or dystopian choice” between destroying the rainforest or the ocean environment, says Matthew Gianni, co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. “We don’t need to do either. We, as a society – whether consumers, private companies and/or, in particular, governments investing in renewable energy technologies – can and should use substitute materials and metals in the construction of electric batteries for vehicles and other energy storage technologies.”

TMC declined to comment for this article.

It is not just activists who are concerned. BMW’s Becker says that at least mines on land, although often beset by allegations of child labour, deforestation and pollution, can at least be inspected and held to account.

“I’m not saying that every mine in the world is perfect,” says Becker. “But we have tools, like due diligence standards, that we can apply to mines operating under these standards and we can improve them.”

“Looking at the machinery involved in deep-sea mining, it has hardly been tested at all, smaller versions maybe. But without testing, how do we trust these methods?”

Eliasson, at Volvo, says: “If all the specialists were telling us deep-sea mining is a simple easy option with no impacts on biodiversity, we would have no problem with it. But to date, the research is not there.

“Deep-sea mining in a very sensitive environment is not a good idea until science has come up with a good way to do it. We’re not there yet.”

McCauley agrees. “We have an exciting opportunity, and obligation, to harness the full power of science and human ingenuity to accelerate the mass production of electric vehicles in a way that doesn’t create a new environmental disaster in our ocean, and that minimises the impacts of mining on land.”

TMC were approached for comment but did not respond.

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From pollutant to product: the companies making stuff from CO2 | Greenhouse gas emissions

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In a warehouse laboratory in Berkeley, California, Nicholas Flanders stands in front of a shiny metal box about the size of a washing machine. Inside is a stack of metal plates that resemble a club sandwich – only the filling is a black polymer membrane coated with proprietary metal catalyst. “We call the membrane the black leaf,” he says.

Flanders is the co-founder and CEO of Twelve, a startup founded in 2015, which received a $57m funding boost in July. It aims to take air – or, to be more precise, the carbon dioxide (CO2) in it – and transform it into something useful, as plants also do, eliminating damaging emissions in the process. Taking the unwanted gas wreaking havoc on our climate and using only water and renewable electricity, Twelve’s metal box houses a new kind of electrolyser that transforms the CO2 into synthesis gas (syngas), a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen that can be made into a range of familiar products usually made from fossil fuels. Oxygen is the only by-product. This August, the pilot scale equipment made the syngas that went into what Flanders claims is the world’s first carbon neutral, fossil-free jet fuel. “This is a new way of moving carbon through our economy without pulling it out of the ground,” he says.

Twelve is one of many companies beginning to make stuff out of CO2, captured either from industrial emissions or directly from the air. High-end goods such as vodka, diamonds and activewear, industrial materials such as concrete, plastic, foam and carbon fibre, and even food, are all beginning to be created using CO2. In addition to jet fuel, which is a partnership with the US air force, Twelve has been using its syngas to explore making parts of car interiors with Mercedes-Benz, laundry detergent ingredients with Tide and sunglasses lenses with Pangaia. Online marketplaces such as Expedition Air and SkyBaron are even springing up to sell consumer goods made with CO2 emissions.

“We are at the very early end of a new carbon tech industry,” says Pat Sapinsley, of the Urban Future Lab at New York University, who oversees a new accelerator programme to help fledgling startups get a foothold. While the industry is still only emerging – most activity is only at bench or pilot scale – it is estimated by the Lab there are now about 350 startups hoping to deliver so-called carbon-to-value. Venture capital investment has sharply risen. This year, over $550m had flowed in by the end of September according to research and consulting firm Cleantech Group; that’s more than in the previous five years put together.

The sector could have the potential to reduce the world’s CO2 emissions by more than 10%, according to analysis by the University of Michigan’s Global CO2 Initiative, which aims to help the sector emerge (fuels and building materials such as concrete and aggregates are considered to hold the biggest CO2 mitigation – and market – potential). That contribution, advocates argue, firmly makes carbon utilisation part of the suite of technologies we are going to need to reach the net zero commitments governments and corporations have been making and which, it is becoming clear, can’t be met by renewable electricity alone. “I don’t see a path to net zero without these kinds of technologies,” says Richard Youngman, CEO of Cleantech Group.

Air Company vodka.
Air Company vodka.

Premium running shoe brand On – which went public this September – realised that if it was going to reach its aggressive net zero targets it would need to rethink its materials. Its vision is now that half of all its shoe bottom foam will be made not from petrochemicals but captured carbon. Last month, it announced plans to team up with US-based startup LanzaTech – an early pioneer of the sector, which uses a patented fermentation process to make ethanol out of waste carbon monoxide collected from factories which would otherwise be burnt to emit CO2 – and chemical manufacturer Borealis, which makes the foam by polymerising ethylene (to which ethanol can be converted). On is hoping to unveil its first pair of shoes made wholly from captured carbon sometime next year (it has separate arrangements to make the shoe uppers). That first pair will cost about $1m to make, says Caspar Coppetti, On’s co-founder and executive co-chairman. It’s a lab endeavour to prove viability – but, eventually, when it scales, he doesn’t expect the shoes to cost much more than a regular pair.

It’s not that CO2 isn’t already used industrially (think carbonated beverages). But those uses either put the gas unchanged back into the atmosphere or, in the case of enhanced oil recovery, where injected CO2 pushes out oil and then remains underground, still perpetuates the extraction of new fossil fuels. What’s different here is that waste CO2 is chemically transformed to make new products. Some, such as building materials, eliminate emissions by locking the carbon away permanently; others, such as jet fuel, prevent new emissions by recycling already emitted carbon. Often grouped with utilisation is CO2 sequestration, which promises to store large amounts of captured CO2 permanently underground, but the two are quite different, as advocates point out. “It’s almost a sin to throw away a valuable resource,” says Volker Sick, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan who directs the Global CO2 Initiative. “The beauty of carbon is you can make so many different things.”

New York-based startup Air Company, launched in 2017, is selling CO2-made vodka and perfume, and produced hand sanitiser during the pandemic. Like Twelve, it starts with CO2, water and renewable energy but combines them in its reactor to make alcohols such as ethanol. A litre of vodka removes a pound of CO2, and it may soon even use CO2 captured from the heating systems of Manhattan office buildings (in a collaboration with capture startup CarbonQuest).

A SkyBaron watch featuring a face made from carbon infused concrete
A SkyBaron watch featuring a face made from carbon infused concrete

But, like Twelve, Air Company has jet fuel in its sights – which can also be produced from ethanol. It is a crowded field – others pressing ahead with CO2-made jet fuel include LanzaJet, a spinoff from ethanol maker LanzaTech, and SynHelion, which uses solar energy to transform CO2 to syngas.

Typically, it is small amounts – think litres per hour – of jet fuel being made at this stage, says Ian Hayton, a materials and chemicals analyst at Cleantech Group. But countries are beginning to introduce quotas for sustainable aviation fuels, which could move things forwards. And the advantage of making it from CO2, rather than biomass or waste vegetable oils, is that it uses far less land.

Canadian company CarbonCure, founded in 2012, is one of the pioneers on the building materials side. Backed by investors such as Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Bill Gates’s investment firm, its technology involves injecting CO2 into concrete as it is being mixed. The injected CO2 reacts with the wet concrete and rapidly becomes permanently stored as a mineral, the same one as in limestone. Between 5% and 30% of the concrete is derived from CO2, says co-founder and CEO Robert Niven. CarbonCure’s business model is to license its technology to concrete manufacturers themselves. CarbonCure retrofits their systems, transforming them into carbon tech companies (the CO2 is supplied by waste emission sources in their region). It gives them a green sales advantage, but really what the concrete producers like is the economic benefit, says Niven. It means less cement is needed to make the concrete – most are able to reduce their cement content by about 5% – and the addition of the CO2 also strengthens the final material.

It is hard to imagine that food in the form of protein could be mass produced from CO2, but that is exactly what another subset of carbon tech companies are working on. Some, such as Solar Foods in Finland, and Air Protein in California – which uses the tagline “meat made from air” – intend their products for human consumption, while others, such as UK- and Netherlands-based Deep Branch, are focusing on animal feed ingredients. With inputs typically of CO2, water and renewable electricity along with ammonia and nutrients, their proteins are produced in bioreactors from naturally occurring microbes. The microbes grow and multiply and are then dried out to produce a protein powder with all the essential amino acids. “It is somewhere between dried meat, dried soy and dried carrot,” says Pasi Vainikka, Solar Foods co-founder and CEO, of its product Solein. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound very appetising, but, says Vainikka, the taste comes in the final product and Solein is versatile. It could replace pea and soy protein isolate in processed foods or even be used as a feed for the cultivated meat industry. Treated with heat and pressure, it can be eaten like a tasty slab of steak or tofu. Two kilograms of CO2 makes a kilogram of the product and it has been submitted to food regulators in Europe and the UK for novel food approval.

Proton single-cell protein made by Deep Branch from recycled CO2.
Proton single-cell protein made by Deep Branch from recycled CO2. Photograph: Deep Branch Bio

Yet the field also faces many challenges to come to fruition. First, if the technology is really going to serve the climate, it has to be scaled up for mass production quickly and offer price-competitive products. “There’s no point unless we can deliver on scale,” says Allison Dring, CEO of German startup Made of Air, which is focusing on plastics replacements. Many of the companies have plans for their first commercial facilities – Twelve, for example, which has designed its equipment to be modular so it can easily be added to to increase capacity, a bit like a solar farm, hopes to have its first shipping container-sized plant by next year and predicts significant commercial volume by 2023. But scaling up is capital intensive and takes time.

One specific roadblock is finding customers. The startups need bigger companies to pair up with to buy their CO2-made raw materials, but it can be hard for them to break into established supply chains. A big focus of the startup accelerator programme run out of the Urban Futures Lab, called the C2V Initiative, is on making inter-industry connections but, really, more early movers like On are needed. CarbonCure is proud of the fact that 450 concrete plants have been retrofitted with its technology – accounting for virtually all the carbon utilisation project deployments to date, says Niven – but it is only a tiny fraction of the more than 100,000 concrete plants there are worldwide. “Right now, what we need is partners,” he says.

Another bottleneck to scale may be providing the large and low-cost quantities of CO2 needed. While technologies are certainly established to capture CO2 from industrial sources, it is only done on a minuscule scale at present, experts note. Direct air capture is less technologically developed and more expensive. And infrastructure will be needed to move the CO2 if, for example, it is being captured in a different place from where it is being used.

Massive government intervention and support are required for rapid growth, say advocates – be that by setting a carbon price, through procurement policies in government contracts that require CO2-based alternatives, or by infrastructure investment. “This needs to be exponential growth… and we need policies to support it,” says Peter Styring, an expert in carbon capture and utilisation at the University of Sheffield, who directs its Centre for Carbon Dioxide Utilisation. And while recent US efforts are welcomed – the US infrastructure bill, for example, includes over $8bn for direct air capture and CO2 transportation and storage – “there is space for governments to be braver,” says Cleantech’s Youngman.

More detailed guidelines for carbon accounting might also be needed to aid consumer acceptance. Life cycle analyses for the products need to take the whole of the supply chain into account, but companies can set the boundaries in a way that excludes some processes. “We studied concrete production and, in some cases, it actually was worse than just making regular concrete,” says Sick. Both he and Styring are working on improving how companies might perform their assessments as part of an international effort.

A ring by Aether Diamonds, whose stones are not mined, but made from excess carbon dioxide.
A ring by Aether Diamonds, whose stones are not mined, but made from excess carbon dioxide. Photograph: aetherdiamonds.com

And just how controversial carbon utilisation will be remains an open question. Not everyone is gung-ho. Innovation has a role to play in curbing climate change, says Mike Childs, head of policy at the environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth, but such “wonder technologies” are “unproven” to work at the massive scale envisaged and are therefore a “huge gamble” with both people’s lives and the planet. “We know that driving down emissions at source is the best and cheapest way to limit global heating,” he says, adding that the technology also risks providing political and business leaders with justification to keep burning fossil fuels.

The transition away from fossil fuels is a must, say the advocates of CO2 utilisation. But if we want modern life to go on as normal without sacrifices, we’ll need to find new ways of continuing to produce the goods fossil fuels have given us. This industry, they argue, will not only help mitigate climate change but provide the carbon-based products we will always need. “There’s a lot of ‘climate don’ts’,” says Flanders. “[But] you can actually continue to use products that you like, just made in a better way.”

This article was amended on 5 December 2021. Syngas is short for synthesis gas, not synthetic gas as stated in an earlier version.

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The death knell of the FPS franchise? • The Register

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The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the “endgame”. Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 “watermark” system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it’s time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise’s return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision’s Call of Duty (COD) series and EA’s Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here’s where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It’s flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

Whatever the title, COD is gaming’s most toxic community. If it’s not racial slurs being screamed down poor-quality mics by tweenagers, it’s threats of sexual violence against not just your mother but your entire family and their ancestors.

Hourglass is set in a sandblasted Doha, Qatar

Hourglass is set in a sandblasted Doha, Qatar

Battlefield, on the other hand, is for grownups. While COD’s multiplayer scene mostly favours modestly sized team deathmatch, Battlefield is epic in scope with 64-player objective-based gameplay, soldier classes (scout, assault, medic, support), enormous maps, air and land vehicles, destructible environments, “levelution” (actions players can take to drastically change the terrain), and somewhat realistic projectile ballistics (as opposed to COD’s hitscan programming). It is also home to the insanely powerful Frostbite engine.

Like Call of Duty, Battlefield started out as a Second World War game, establishing the rivalry we have today. But it too has bounced around different settings to varying success, with the modern-era Battlefield 3 and 4 (2011, 2013) held as the defining games of the series. It even took a major risk with Battlefield 1 (2016) focusing on the First World War. It paid off – and, as things stand, Battlefield 1 is probably the last great entry in the franchise.

Pressing T on PC allows you to change attachments

Pressing T on PC allows you to change attachments

On 19 November, Battlefield 2042 came out, again going back to the future after the mediocre WW2 title Battlefield V. The reveal trailer is a gratuitous appeal to fans of 3/4, focusing on what came to be known as “Battlefield moments” by fans – instances of absurdity enabled by game mechanics, like a player ejecting from a jetfighter mid-flight to twist in the air and take out a pursuing jet with a rocket launcher. This was something famously achieved by the player Stun_gravy back in Battlefield 3. It also introduces extreme weather events, which appear to be 2042’s alternative to levelution. It’s wicked – fun to watch, visually stunning, and deftly designed to get the hype pumping.

Youtube Video

If only it played like that.

The reality is Battlefield 2042 has predictably arrived in an unfinished state, marred by bugs, a paucity of content, and baffling design decisions that threaten to alienate the core fanbase. If we look at what makes Battlefield Battlefield, much of that has been irredeemably screwed with.

Breakaway takes place in the Antarctic

Breakaway takes place in the Antarctic

The experience hinged on large-scale, class-based warfare. The scout/recon was the sniper, feeding intel to the team on enemy movements and taking them out at range. The medic healed soldiers in sticky situations while support could lay down suppressing fire and resupply other players. Assault had the fire rate and explosives to press forwards and capture objectives. It was simple and effective. But DICE thought: No, let’s scrap that and have actual characters, called “Specialists” in game, each of which have certain abilities exclusively available to them, kind of like in the “hero shooters” Overwatch or Valorant.

View from the jetfighter cockpit

View from the jetfighter cockpit

On top of that, you can equip each of the 10 Specialists in whatever class style you like, creating flexible hybrids but ultimately watering down team play and forcing every match to be full of clones. At the end of a game, the top-performing player characters will spout corny, cocky little quips. Why? Never mind that we just sat through half an hour of ultraviolence, now you have to joke about it? It’s crass, irritating, and totally unnecessary.

The character Sundance has a wingsuit for traversing great distances at speed

The character Sundance has a wingsuit for traversing great distances at speed

Then there’s the map design. OK, the flagship modes of Conquest and Breakthrough have been cranked up to 128 players, the maps have never been so vast. Fantastic. But you have to do it with some nuance. It feels like 2042’s maps are only huge because they are mostly empty space – and this has dire consequences for gameplay, particularly if you are stuck with or happen to enjoy an infantry role.

A capture point on the Renewal map is a lab full of butterflies

A capture point on the Renewal map is a lab full of butterflies

Although the seven new maps in the base game are impressive on the surface, without much cover and objectives being up to 600 metres away from each other, the gameplay loop for those on the ground becomes run > run > run > shoot > miss > die > repeat. All the while, vehicle players are making hay, and there is a huge balancing issue here. At launch, hovercrafts were a nuisance with their high-calibre mounted machine guns, extreme durability, and the sheer numbers in which they were allowed to spawn. Likewise, helicopters and tanks have an all-you-can-eat buffet of infantry to dine on just laid out in front of them.

The Hourglass map is reminiscent of BF4 – with more empty space

The Hourglass map is reminiscent of BF4 – with more empty space

Yes, infantry have countermeasures but they often seem weak or need some degree of team cooperation to pull off. For example, one player hacks a helicopter so it can’t flare while another uses the window to fire off a guided missile. But here we get to the missing features present in earlier titles – there’s currently no in-game voice chat so player squads can better organise themselves.

Incoming tornado viewed from a tank on Discarded

Incoming tornado viewed from a tank on Discarded

There’s no real class system, no server browser, no smaller-scale game modes (something 2042 could really benefit from), no persistent lobbies so players from the prior game can play together again, fewer in-game assignments, no proper scoreboard, no spectator mode, no firing range, limited destruction and levelution… honestly the list goes on. Again the question is: why?

Choppers ... I don't know how people fly these things and get kills

Choppers … I don’t know how people fly these things and get kills

The selection of guns that can be unlocked is dwarfed by previous entries and progression isn’t interesting – simply get kills for new attachments, reach this level to get this gun etc. Gunplay was also rubbish at launch, with random bullet spread making everything but snipers seem wildly inaccurate even if your crosshairs were glued to the target. It got to the point that submachine guns, typically short-range weapons, were more viable choices than assault rifles because of their higher fire rate. As of last week, a patch was rolled out to improve on some of these early complaints, and the game does feel better – though there is still a huge amount of work to be done.

Soaring over the Manifest map

Soaring over the Manifest map

While an Nvidia GTX 970 could run Battlefield 4 on ultra settings, it looks like the days of pristine optimisation are behind us. Don’t expect to have much fun with 2042 if you don’t have an extremely powerful and contemporary rig, and even console players are reporting lacklustre performance. DICE has confirmed that it is working on this, though a “fix” could be months down the line. On an RTX 3070 and Ryzen 9 3900X, I have had to turn many graphical settings to their lowest to get a tolerable 50-80 frames per second at 1080p, with severe lag and frame drops sucking the life out of the experience.

As for another missing feature, there’s no single-player campaign – though there is the ability to play solo with and against bots. This feeds into the Escape From Tarkov-esque extract-’em-up mode Hazard Zone, which pits player squads against each other as well as AI. Notably, playing 2042 solo results in far better performance than online. I was able to pull passable frames with every setting on full whack – meaning that performance issues are firmly in DICE’s court. Let’s hope this is sorted out soon.

Perhaps Battlefield 2042’s saving grace is the Portal feature, which enables players to program their own game modes in browser via a low/no-code approach. It also includes a number of favourite maps, weapons, and vehicles from Battlefield 1942, Bad Company 2, and Battlefield 3 all recreated to 2042’s graphical standards. It certainly seems like DICE hopes players will fill in the gaps from the base game via Portal; why else would they release it in this state? It is also a desperate ploy to capitalise on nostalgia for games long out of support. However, what really happened was that players made AI bot farms where they could amass experience points without the skill needed to overcome real people. In response, DICE nerfed the amount of XP awarded in player-made modes.

Orbit is set at a rocket launch pad

Orbit is set at a rocket launch pad

The thing is, Battlefield usually has a litany of launch issues with each release. It was game-breaking bugs that made me drop V very early on, never to return, and even fan-favourite Battlefield 4 was a hot mess to start with. It ended up the series’ peak. In this era of live-service games, we can only hope that DICE is capable of making 2042 everything its marketing material promised, but it looks like the rewritten Battlefield experience is here to stay for the time being. ®

Bootnote

Rich played and will hopefully play Battlefield 2042 again on Twitch as ExcellentSword – once performance has been improved. Chuck him a follow for more video game impressions as they happen! Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from around 8:30-9pm UK time.

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EU official warns data rules may need to change – putting Irish DPC in the spotlight

Voice Of EU

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Enforcement of GDPR has attracted a lot of criticism since the regulations came into force in 2018, with a great of deal of that placed on Ireland’s DPC.

Ireland’s role in policing Big Tech on data protection is coming under scrutiny, as a senior European Commission official has warned that the bloc’s privacy rules may need to change if enforcement is not effective.

Politico reports that commission vice-president Věra Jourová said more power may need to be put in the hands of EU institutions when it comes to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

“Either we will all collectively show that GDPR enforcement is effective or it will have to change and … any potential changes will go towards more centralisation,” she said at a conference this week in Brussels.

Under GDPR’s ‘one-stop shop’ mechanism, tech giants such as Facebook and Google are currently able to handle much of their GDPR responsibilities in one EU country. This means that many data protection investigations fall to regulators in countries where Big Tech companies have European headquarters – namely Ireland and Luxembourg.

Any changes would likely give more power to the EU executive or Europe’s network of privacy regulators, Jourová said.

DPC in the spotlight

Enforcement of GDPR has attracted a lot of criticism since the regulations came into force in 2018, with a great of deal of that placed on Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC).

The DPC acts as the EU’s lead data supervisor for several major US tech players that have European headquarters in Ireland, including Facebook, Google, TikTok and Twitter. In September, WhatsApp was issued the DPC’s largest ever fine for breaching GDPR.

But this has created a hefty workload for the regulator. At an Oireachtas hearing earlier this year, the DPC faced criticisms over how it has been handling GDPR complaints against Big Tech companies.

Dr Johnny Ryan, senior fellow at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said Ireland had become a “bottleneck of GDPR investigation and enforcement”, and privacy campaigner Max Schrems claimed there was a “spiral of unresolved complaints” being created.

In response, Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon said much of the criticism was unfounded and that the complexity lies in “an enormous range of stakeholders” involved.

“The complexities of the decision-making involved in the ‘one-stop shop’, which multinationals may avail of under the GDPR, means that the pace of delivery is not solely within the domain of the DPC,” she added.

‘Time to revisit’ the DPC structure

But Dixon could be getting further support at the DPC. It was recently reported that the Department of Justice has asked officials to consider expanding the number of data protection commissioners from one to three.

Privacy advocates are encouraging the Government to do so. Digital Rights Ireland has recently written to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, TD, saying it is “now time to revisit” how the DPC is structured.

In a letter first reported on by the Irish Examiner and later posted on Twitter, the group said the appointment of additional commissioners would be an “opportunity to develop the global role of the DPC”.

“A stronger DPC is needed to protect human rights and uphold Irish and EU law, and the appointment of new commissioners is an opportunity to develop this,” the letter concluded.

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