I'd like there to be something intelligent, perhaps analytical, in my head when I see the trappings of Episodes One through Three on my television. But all I can do is listen to the Vader-scream looping in my brain: "NOOOOOO!"
Incredibly, some of my friends and peers have informed me that the third Star Wars film in the most recent trilogy was the best of the three. Is the 'best' of three kicks in the stomach the one that actually bursts your kidneys?
I was surprised at the sheer audacity of Episode III's awfulness. Entertaining, yes, but in some tortured, ironic sense of the word I'd not been expecting. In fact having recently watched the original Star Wars for the first time in many years, it seems as if the two trilogies are barely related at all. The originals were a pleasing fluke of entertaining cinema that somehow captured greatness, while the latest were little more than a CGI debauch, a cynical cash-venting exercise of the kind that the original films were probably supposed to have been back before Lucas stumbled into the Light and Magic of the big franchise.
Anyway, that pre-ramble goes to say that no matter how much of a slack-jawed geek I can be, no matter how superb I believe TIE Fighter to be, and no matter how many times I watched The Empire Strikes Back on that crummy VHS tape when I was a kid, there remains no residual fondness for the world of Star Wars in my mind. The land of sci-fi goodness has been despoiled and poisoned. Nothing remains.
Battlefront 2, then, is without the aura of 'fantasy fulfilment' that I've heard so many folk refer to with reference to these games. Apparently we were supposed to forgive the rubbishness of the original Battlefront because it allowed us to take our place in the Star Wars battles around which our tiny imaginations were clustered. I can't see it like that. Instead there is simple the skeleton of a sci-fi combat game, something sat between the Unreal games and Battlefield on the PC. (And the original was rubbish, a zillion-xillion units sold or otherwise.)
So let's do the basics: Battlefront is a multiplayer-focused third-person shooter which pitches multiple players and AI bots on a Star Wars battlefield, complete with FPS standards such as soldier-classes (sniper/shooter/medic/bazooka) and respawn points. While most of the action involves running around, shooting, getting killed and respawning, some of it involves running to a vehicle, zooming around and then exploding. And respawning. Occasionally you'll capture a strategic point on the map, and that helps you win the battle, if you're lucky. Battlefront 2 is the same, but more so. The clones are here, and they have new toys.
This sequel raises the slow meandering of the original to a determined run, as almost everything gets a tweak and a fiddle from Pandemic Studios. The focus of the fiddling is on extra stuff for the single-player modes, which are now heavily ornamented with objective-based minor-cast-member-narrated fighting. The classic Rebel Alliance galaxy-conquering mode is the most entertaining, with various fleets moving about the galaxy, assaulting entrenched planets and occasionally engaging the opposing fleet in space.
There are a selection of battles to oversee, each one based on events from various Star Wars laser-squalls; from those of the original films, bless their lost souls, to those of the clone-based sequels. Some of these are quite spectacular, others rather patchy. This is the oddest thing about Battlefront 2: while it's significantly more interesting than the original, some sections are excruciatingly bland. The battle for Yavin 4 provides plenty of foliage fun amongst the jungles and ruins, because Battlefront does vegetation and pools and rebel troopers quite well. A space battle at the same location, however, will be rather more disappointing. The clash of X-Wing and TIE lacks intensity, with just a few ships whizzing between near-featureless capitol ships. The barrage of laser fire which characterises Star Wars space battles is conspicuous by its lumpy absence. See that advert on TV? Yeah, well they used editing to make it look exciting. Shame the same can't be true of life. If the bloke who directed the adverts was in charge of your brain (as I'm sure he'd be pleased to be) then a perpetual barrage of just the exciting bits might keep you entertained. (And when playing the game.)
Anyway, there's also now a flourish of buzzing laser swords as Jedi take to the field. The dashing space-knights look very pretty, even if they don't add the profundity deserved of a galaxy's ultimate warrior to the proceedings. Their wild flailing seems rather at odds with the 'precision' idea of force/sabre powers. Furthermore they lack the utilitarian satisfaction of any of the standard footsoldier classes. I found it far more worthy to be a standard rebel trooper than I did to play Mace Windu, which just doesn't seem right.
This problem is particularly acute in multiplayer, with hero battles being something of a skill-free farce. That's troubling because despite all Pandemic's efforts to inject steroid-derived bulk into the flab of the original single-player, most folk want multiplayer combat against real people with Jedi. The Force combat is just a mess of melee, bound to end in hurled joypads and some unwarranted cussing in TV parlours across the continent. It's a shame.
(Also, and I think this might be true of all Star Wars games, there's occasions in which a nearby soldier will say "it's just like shooting Womp Rats, eh kid?" If that's true then would 'Star Wars: Rat Shooter' actually be an ideal concept for a future title? Or is it the case that Battlefront's combat is actually much better than simply shooting some rats, and which case shouldn't the soldier try to avoid dissing his own game by continually making the easy rat-cull comparisons? Hmm.)
So then there's the Padawan-free possibilities of vehicular entertainments. Like pneumatic slaves forced to give us piggyback rides for our slight amusement, the vehicles of the Star Was universe have been forced to serve Battlefront's nefarious ends, and make up the most amusing portion of the game. Walkers and stompy metal gun-hippos dominate the shooting, although perhaps without the all-powerful finality of the vehicles of the original game. It's fun to watch the simple AI drive the vehicles around aimlessly, driving up to each other shooting like the mindless figments of algebra that they are. Yes, the bots remain numbingly stupid and regularly wander into walls and fail to do anything tactically worthy. Of course you'll have plenty of human players to provide their own brand of mindlessness too, thanks to Xbox Live (or PS2 and PC online stuff for you Sony and Miscellaneous brand consumers), which is a mostly good thing, because the single-player game plays out with a sense that you barely effect the course of the battle, even if you try really hard. At least in a multiplayer game the loss (or victory) isn't solely your responsibility, and that's a comforting feeling.
I'm probably going to be seen as the grumbling bastard of the Battlefront 2 reviews, I know. But while it was never truly horrible, it's hard to exult it above dozens of other possible game experiences this year. With my PC bias I can see that the real sense of battle-fun war-intensity was delivered best by Battlefield 2, while the throbbing heart of Xbox action still remains in the armoured torsos of Halo and Halo 2. Living up to the achievements of other games is one of Battlefront 2's biggest problems: The acute sense of excitement and precision in combat of the Halo games is absent, likewise the intensity of being in a firefight delivered by Battlefield 2. All the explosions and laser-fire feel a lot like window-dressing, even if the game does have some attractive scenery. If the original Battlefront was an X-Wing crashed in the swamps of Dagobah, then Battlefront 2 is that same X-Wing raised by The Force powers of Pandemic's Yoda onto dry land. It's in a better position, but it's still stuck on the mud-planet of a green-skinned hermit dwarf. And we all know how that feels.
There's potential here, like a thermal detonator tucked deep in the bunker of the whole Battlefront concept.
But none of that matters, because all I can think is: "NOOOOO!"