The first thing that strikes home, as both Stormtroopers and Rebels dart every which-way across Sullust's wasteland, is just how well it all comes together visually. Not only in seeing the latest PC build running this unseen map at tip-top settings, bringing to life a charcoal-black network of rock pathways and ruined spacecraft. But it's also in the style - how DICE works finer touches into its Star Wars shooter to separate the game from its Battlefield legacy.
Having gone hands-on with three maps at a recent Stockholm event, Battlefront's audio-visual design is an obvious triumph. A lot of time has clearly been spent poring over Lucasfilm's original materials to match every setting, and in the latest map, Sullust - alongside Tatooine's deserts and the snowy Hoth - it becomes three for three. The level design, vehicles and everything in between strike a nostalgic note as they're paraded across each area's opening cinematic (bite-sized tasters of a solo adventure that could have been). In terms of scene setting, between the iconic, high-pitched squeal of a blaster ricochet, to the vintage 'screen-wipe' camera effect that kicks in with each respawn, it's all there.
It's an authentic front, but it's also fair to say its mechanics aren't adapted to quite the same degree. Even in smaller, 16 player battles on this map, capturing escape pods leads us to a familiar rotation of play; run, shoot, die, and respawn. Even divorced from vehicles on this smaller map, a certain debt is owed to Battlefield's overall rhythm. John Williams' classic motif keeps us anchored to a world occupied by Luke, Leia and Han, but the ebb and flow of its shoot-outs is unmistakable in origin. It's a DICE sandbox shooter based on Star Wars' fiction, but on that premise, it perhaps doesn't need a radical overhaul to work.
One area of change from Battlefield is in weapons and abilities. We have four guns in the beta to start, each differing in range and accuracy. In close keeping with its style, the first-rank A280-C blaster fires a slow, colour-coded beam across the map, while rocket launchers are found via tokens during battle, for one-time use. Curiously, we're missing the more granular means to customise weapons in-between games. It may be in service of a broader, perhaps younger audience in need of a gateway shooter - but there are no equivalents to scope, flashlight, or likewise upgrades here.
It feels stripped back on that front, limiting offensive options. However this does put more emphasis on your ability load-out. The twist is in a choice of unlockable 'star cards'. Each rank entitles you to a new option, ranging from jet packs, deployable force-fields, to a sniping Cycler Rifle. Every card has a cool-down appropriate to its strength too, and up to four can be assigned at once to hotkeys (numbers 1-4 on PC, and presumably d-pad directions on console). These go some way to make up for the lack of tweakery to weapons, if not entirely, though the more exciting power-ups are those salvaged from the battlefield itself.
The second map on rotation shows this best. It's the sprawling, snow-blitzed Walker Assault stage with 40 players, as shown at this year's E3, with play weaving between the trundling feet of giant AT-ATs. Chaotic as you can expect, it's a battle of attrition that keeps us charging soldiers into the sandbox. DICE's pedigree in larger map layouts is clear here, as with the large canyons of the wave-based survival mode on Tatooine (played in solo or co-op). But the distinction is clear: rather than stumbling across a chopper and letting rip, vehicles are instead found as tokens and activated ad-hoc.
Once discovered, these tokens must be triggered within a short period to claim their benefits. From here you're handed the big guns after a fade-to-black; the X-Wings, AT-STs or - the holy grail itself - control of Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader. It's one way to keep the balance between air and land assault even, and in theory helps avoid a monopoly in map control. But, more often than not, battles steered clear of vehicles entirely in my sessions, with newer players seemingly favouring direct, up-close skirmishes to stack points.
The hero characters have a universal draw though. Players who strike gold here get several boosts; a bespoke suite of attacks for each character, plus a life-span that extends based on your performance (though constantly depleting). There's a united moment of glee, from both sides, as two of these classic characters collide at a battlefield's centre. But in a strange turn, a defeated Luke or Darth eventually kneels down in an uncanny, unflinching state as the battle rages on around them. After a few seconds of sullen meditation, they then simply pop out of view. It's a jarring exit for such an iconic cast, and a point that, uniquely in the grand scheme of Battlefront's successes, stands at odds with its authenticity everywhere else.
Otherwise, DICE's direction with Star Wars Battlefront is encouraging. How later abilities and weapon unlocks affect the flow of an already frenetic pace (particularly in 40 player battles) remains to be seen. But at the very least, it's fair to say the Swedish developer is cooking up one of the most authentic looking Star Wars games in the franchise's history - a project in which the love of the source material is clearly strewn across the maps shown so far. It's a standard that, I hope, holds for the all seven tiles in its multiplayer mode, blocked off as they are in its beta.
Even with its resemblances to the Battlefield line, of which there are many, it's still an on-point concoction of engine and franchise. It's an obvious win on paper, and the impression so far is it also succeeds in practice. The only point to be answered is whether there's enough in the final package to hold us for the long term. In launching ahead of the upcoming J J Abrams film, there's a sense that development hangs on a firm November 20th target that could dictate its range of features. But provided it ships with enough variety to back its strong, core gameplay, it stands to be the Star Wars shooter fans have always wanted.
This article is based on a press trip to Stockholm. EA paid for travel and accommodation.