DICE goes big in a Call of Duty-baiting package that's as maddening, uneven and spectacular as the Star Wars films themselves.
Let's get straight to the burning issue, shall we? Towards the tail-end of Star Wars Battlefront's release, EA made noises that it was thinking about doing away with the traditional season pass that accompanied its big ticket console games, a model its multiplayer shooters had been stuck with for some time - with numerous associated problems. The base games often felt a little lacking, and more painfully the player base was split - an issue that had an impact on long-term players as numbers dwindled and were spread too thin.
The answer? In Star Wars Battlefront 2, EA and DICE's first big step away from that older model is loot boxes. Given the fire and fury that's surrounded the game in the run-up to release, both parties may well wish they'd have kept things as they were.
It's hard to make too many excuses for how they've been handled. In Battlefront 2 all future content drops and updates will be free, but its loot boxes most certainly are problematic, offering more than mere cosmetic enhancements, and instead giving players a chance at earning credits, crafting parts or Star Cards - all of which proffer an advantage on the battlefield. Pay to win? If you're flush enough, and impatient enough, you can spend your way to a suite of Star Cards and a horde of cash that could well give you the edge in a firefight.
Cynical? Perhaps, though I think it's more about wrongheadedness and poorly thought through design, with EA looking to its own Galaxy of Heroes - an incredibly popular and no doubt lucrative free-to-play Star Wars mobile game - rather than the likes of Overwatch, which are much more sensible in their implementation of loot boxes. Free-to-play mechanics don't sit too comfortably in £50 video games, though, and there's a very strong case to suggest they shouldn't be there at all.
So yes, Star Wars Battlefront 2's loot boxes are far from great, exacerbated by an unlock system that can feel painfully slow and doesn't offer the shower of rewards you see in something like Call of Duty. Such has often been the way with DICE's shooters, it's worth remembering, only here there's an added and unwelcome friction that can leave you feeling a little suspect. It's not exactly ruinous, but it's not something to be reveled in either, and it'll take more than a handful of tweaks and a few weeks of the planned free content drops to wash away the sour taste that's been left by this messy launch.
The game itself, though? Well, it can be quite splendid, thanks for asking, although it does suffer from other frictions elsewhere. Star Wars Battlefront 2 is ultimately as maddening and uneven as the films themselves, and just as likely to wow you with a moment of unparalleled spectacle as it is to fall flat on its face. Such is the way with this series, where the Force is always kept in balance in some mysterious way; for every Boba Fett there is a Watto, for every Battle of Hoth a Dex's Diner.
Battlefront 2 casts its net further afield than its predecessor, taking in the prequels as well as the Disney generation of films. The result is a dizzying delight for those whose heart has ever skipped a beat at the fizzing crackle of a lightsaber, a deep toybox of fan favourites ready to be bluntly wielded in battle. What exquisite toys they are too, all brought to life with a real fan's nerdish attention to detail. Witness the swagger and coiled aggression of Kylo Ren as he scythes through mobs with his crossguard lightsaber; admire the way Han Solo's trailing arm hangs back in a pose of old school Hollywood insouciance as he wields his blaster. Then there are the playgrounds themselves, beautifully crafted recreations of already stunning locales that are impeccable in their authenticity. Run through the cantina of Mos Eisley or Maz's Castle on Takodana and it's like being treated to a virtual set tour; battle through the storms on Kamino and it's like being transported to another world. DICE's first Battlefront was always a fine looking game, and the sequel offers a lot more spectacle to lose yourself to.
As well as relying on icons of the series, Battlefront 2 does a decent job of creating its own moments in a short, shallow, but enjoyable campaign. You're Iden Versio, daughter of an Imperial admiral and commander of Inferno Squad, the Empire's own special forces unit. The moment to moment action might not be much to marvel at - at heart it's an appropriation of the blunt shooting found elsewhere in the package, enlivened by set-pieces at the controls of various starfighters and a handful of playable cameos - but there's enough drive, character and charm in its story to push you through to the end with a broad smile on your face.
The fan service is first-rate, as are the production values, and while it relies heavily on old favourites - as is the way, it would seem, with much of Abrams-era Star Wars - it adds to them in its own way, too. Iden Versio herself is nicely sketched, a fiery and motivated individual with just enough rough edges to make her believable. Also neatly drawn is an Empire in disarray; with its story primarily taking place after Return of the Jedi's Battle of Endor and the pivotal Battle of Jakku, there's a look inside Imperial forces rudderless without command, giving in to hubris and a darker edge that would lay foundations for The Force Awaken's First Order. One playable scene, on the surface of the Imperial planet Vardos as it suffers its own self-inflicted apocalypse, deserves its own place among the series' greats - and given some of the repercussions Versio's story has for the wider Star Wars universe, this campaign is, for series aficionados, nothing short of essential.
Yet it suffers from its own frictions, whether that's how its action remains largely one note or how it climaxes with an open-ended cliffhanger, leaving threads to be picked up in further installments that'll be drip-fed (for free, it's worth reiterating) over the coming months. It's hardly the most satisfying way to wrap what's an otherwise well told story - though it's a great way of stopping trade-ins, which you feel is where the true intent lies.
Previously the hook of the multiplayer alone would have been enough for that, and this time out you can't fault DICE when it comes to building upon its original Battlefront. This is a broader, more nuanced and more detailed brand of online warfare than what went before, though the new direction can rub both ways. EA's first attempt at Battlefront, for all its faults, was an unashamedly shallow affair - a more elegant weapon for a more civilised age, perhaps, in what sometimes felt like a throwback to simpler times - whereas this time out it's every bit a modern multiplayer shooter, for both better and for worse.
In line with player feedback from the first game - and with the path taken by the various expansions that came in the wake of 2015's Battlefront - objective team-based play is doubled down upon, with the headline mode Galactic Assault offering multi-phase and intricately designed 20 v 20 skirmishes. They're a little more chaotic than what went before, but they do excel at telling some wonderful player-driven stories over the course of a match with more than enough room for your own personal heroics.
There are heroes, too, now available in-game alongside vehicles by spending battle points acquired over the course of a round rather than the collectible token system of old. It's certainly a more elegant solution, the reinforcements that are available to players as a match progresses feeding into the sense of escalation and ever-increasing stakes. There's a rise in complexity, as well as in chaos, and in the middle of all that noise - perfectly sampled from Ben Burtt's own soundbanks, of course - it's easy to get swept up by it all.
And yet there's the nagging sense that Battlefront 2 moves away from some of the unabashed simplicity of the original towards something that's a bit scrappier and can never quite resolve itself. The new class system is welcome - even if the Star Card system accompanying each of them, giving you access to various perks once unlocked, is overly fussy - but in my experience it never quite sits comfortably with a foundation that's wilfully light, and squads often fail to slot neatly into place. Rather than leaning into the wilful, sometimes brilliant simplicity of the first Battlefront, this sequel makes a mad scramble elsewhere in order to justify itself. The results aren't always particularly dignified.
When it clicks into place, though, there's nothing quite like it, and all the drama and dubious decisions made elsewhere shouldn't eclipse DICE's often incredible achievements. Play a round of Starfighter Assault, an aerial mode that's been positively emboldened by its adoption of objective-based play and is blissfully free from comparisons with other more grounded multiplayer games, and it's simply astounding. As players lead merry dances with their perfectly realised A-Wings and Y-Wings and TIEs, it's hard to think of any toybox as luxurious as this. It's the stuff of my childhood dreams.
And it's there, and in numerous other places in what's a relatively broad package, that you reconnect with the sense of wonder that's at the heart of this series. Star Wars Battlefront 2, for all its faults, remains a game that can get to the kernel of what makes the series so beloved. It's just a shame that, for now, it's also inherited some of its uglier excesses too.