When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in late 2012, it brought a hammer down on the Star Wars Expanded Universe, rendering hundreds of books, comics, and video games non-canon. In the process, beloved game studio LucasArts was more or less disbanded, with at least three in-production Star Wars games cancelled just like that. EA was swiftly contracted to take charge, and the question arose: what is the vision for Star Wars video games moving forward? With the release of the first AAA Star Wars game of the post-LucasArts era, the Rebels-vs-Imperials online shooter Star Wars: Battlefront, that vision has begun to become clear.
A key design pillar evident in Battlefront is accessibility. It may seem odd that DICE, the developer of hardcore shooter Battlefield, produced as simple a game as Battlefront, but it makes sense when you consider its audience. The audience for Star Wars is insanely broad, ranging from kids to seniors, of (particularly under Kathleen Kennedy’s guidance) all genders and races. The Battlefield audience just isn’t.
So Battlefront is a curious step back from the complex movement and shooting mechanics of prior DICE games. Iron sights don’t make your gun any more accurate than hip-firing. You can’t mantle onto or over objects. You go into battle with a single weapon only. Many now-standard shooter mechanics must be unlearned for Battlefront’s arcade-y play style.
DICE has also included a number of features that make Battlefront more yielding to newcomers. The gentle, friendly menus ease players into the action, guiding newcomers towards the solo training missions that help to teach the game’s basics. Power weapons are now abilities with cooldown timers, meaning players can’t spam the map with sniper rifle headshots. Even if you are killed rapidly, the time to respawn is short, with little punishment for death. Importantly, players can pick from a range of appearance options far greater than most military-based shooters, spanning a range of ethnicities in male and female options, across both Rebels and stormtroopers.
Simplified core gameplay doesn’t mean there isn’t any depth. Star Cards – Battlefront’s equivalent of equipment loadouts – get unlocked as you play, and the use of these timed abilities makes all the difference in matches. Items like grenades and firepower upgrades are vital for ensuring quick kills, especially given the longer time-to-kill when using ordinary blasters.
The best and most fun Star Card, the jump jet, inexplicably only unlocks at level 13, but once it does, it offers great mobility and escapability in the often multi-level maps. The game’s radar and active reloads add a couple more wrinkles to gameplay, but ultimately, skill-based play seems more tied to knowing how the maps, modes, vehicles, and items work than to twitch reflexes – great for newcomers.
Battlefront offers nine competitive multiplayer modes and three two-player co-op modes, and as with any game of this sort, players will undoubtedly gravitate towards two or three in particular. The wave-based Survival missions are great fun for players looking for a purely co-operative experience, while Hero Battles are the closest the game gets to 1v1 duels. But multiplayer is where the meat of the game lies, and as expected, it’s a mixed bag. As an only occasional shooter fan, I tended to enjoy the objective-driven modes.
Droid Run is the best of the multiple capture-point modes available, largely thanks to its mobile – and hilariously stupid – Gonk droid capture points. But Supremacy is also fun, a throwback to Unreal Tournament’s Onslaught mode, but with vehicles used entirely as damage-dealers rather than transportation. Heroes Vs Villains, one of the more ridiculous modes, pits Han, Luke, and Leia against Darth Vader, the Emperor, and Boba Fett, with other players backing them up as infantry, resulting in delightfully canon-breaking chaos.
Hero Hunt is a little less satisfying: everyone hunts down a single Hero player, and whoever kills them takes the role of the Hero. It’s frustrating to do a ton of damage on the hero only to have the player who gets in the killing shot take the role of the hero.
Fighter Squadron, while delivering enjoyable dogfights, feels a little empty with only ten players a side. Shooting at AI enemies just isn’t as satisfying, and the occasional attack/defend objectives don’t offer enough to mix up the gameplay. Meanwhile, Cargo is a capture-the-flag mode with a zero-sum twist, while Blast is a standard and frankly boring team deathmatch mode.
The real action is in the epic, frenzied Walker Assault, which despite its roots in The Empire Strikes Back’s battle of Hoth, can be played on Tatooine, Endor, or Sullust as well. It’s where all the gameplay elements – heroes, vehicles, infantry, and capture points – come together, with twenty players a side. Depending on the match, it can be the best mode around, or it can be kind of terrible. It’s definitely the most fraught mode, particularly when playing as the Rebels, who must destroy the Empire’s towering AT-AT walkers encroaching upon their base.
It’s unlike the other modes in that if neither side did anything, the Rebels would lose, something which adds extra urgency for them and can occasionally unbalance the game. The Rebels do have the ability to use airspeeders for the most played-out Star Wars video game mechanic, harpooning down AT-ATs, but the minigame used to do it is unintuitive and doesn’t control like ordinary piloting. Playing Walker Assault requires teamwork and an eye on the big picture, something made more difficult by the game’s lack of voice chat, presumably removed due to abuse concerns.
But honestly, the shootery gameplay probably comes in second place to the majority of Battlefront’s audience. For many players, the key question will be, “Does Battlefront feel like Star Wars?” and the answer is a resounding "yes".
It starts in the map design. The Battlefront team used photogrammetry data from the original shooting locations for Tatooine, Hoth, and Endor, and it shows – the environments are gorgeous. The pretty graphics come at a cost, namely some noticeable pop-in (particularly when in vehicles), but in terms of actually feeling like you’re there, there’s a grit and authenticity that can’t be measured in polygons. The 13 maps (some of the smaller maps are sections of the four larger ones) are packed with fan-pleasing details from the movies, while offering gameplay elements like verticality and multiple paths to objectives.
Combat also feels like Star Wars. There’s a charming innocence to the bloodless, dramatic death animations, the pew-pew of the blasters, and most of all the inclusion of hero characters. While it makes no sense for, say, Emperor Palpatine to personally get involved in ground combat, having the heroes involved invokes the movies’ sense of fun and contributes greatly to the fantasy of fighting a Star Wars battle.
The heroes, and the hero vehicles, are ridiculously overpowered, and they should be. Boba Fett’s jetpack is a game-changer, for example, while the three Force users’ powers just utterly lay waste to their opponents, and the Millennium Falcon feels as elegant to fly as it does to watch in the movies. And even Han and Leia, while not as flashy as their fellow heroes, still pack a punch and can capably win out over the Sith.
I only wish DICE could have gotten voice actors who sounded a little more convincing. Temuera Morrison’s the only genuine article on board, and the only true soundalike amongst the rest of the cast is The Force Unleashed’s Sam Witwer as the Emperor. The rest let down the side in an otherwise laser-accurate Star Wars imitation.
It’s the little details that really do the Star Wars license justice. Ewoks and jawas make appearances as NPCs; the Rebels can play as a wide range of species, including the best species, Sullustans; and yes, there’s a sarlacc pit you can fall into. The unlockable emotes are loaded with highly amusing Star Wars in-jokes, most notably the Tusken Raider battle cry and Darth Vader’s “Nooooo!” from Episode III.
All the sound effects are drawn directly from the Lucasfilm archives. And John Williams’ music weaves through the game seamlessly, with the original movie scores blended with new compositions and recordings. The attention to detail – and to the spirit of Star Wars – makes it clear that this is a game made with a great deal of love and affection for its source material.
Playing online, my experience has mostly been a smooth one, though the occasional match has been marred by lag. With no server browser, it's impossible to tell what kind of connection you'll get before you connect, which makes finding a solid server a matter of luck. I experienced solid gameplay on both local and US servers, so it's hard to tell what the issue was when the connection was bad.
Star Wars: Battlefront is a welcome new entry in a series that vanished just as the modern age of shooters started to emerge. In harkening back to that era, it makes itself a curious entry in the online shooter pantheon: an old-school shooter with new-school tricks and graphics. It’s much like Titanfall: a terrifically fun game, but one whose longevity is questionable.
For the hardcore, its simplicity of play may not keep them sufficiently challenged; for newcomers, the novelty of its Star Wars tourism could easily wear off after a few hours. But it’s impossible to predict that. Under ideal circumstances, Battlefront is the Star Wars online shooter many have been waiting for. We – and EA – must merely hope that the Star Wars brand keeps the player base thriving.
◆ Andrew was flown to San Francisco to review Batlefront by EA. His flights, hotel, and meals were all paid for. He played the game alongside dozens of other journalists from around the globe on EA's private servers. There were no extra-curricular activities offered.