Given just how much fighting goes on across the five Star Wars films we've seen to date, it's surprising that it's taken this long for someone to marry the films' vast, iconic battles to a Battlefield 1942 style premise. It seems, in hindsight, like the obvious thing to do. Although, to be fair, it's not entirely accurate to say that nobody's thought of it before - many have tried to emulate the sprawling conflicts of Hoth, Endor and Naboo, but the key thing is that outside of the space combat genre, no one has succeeded to any significant degree. With Star Wars Battlefront though, Pandemic Studios crushes those pretenders with a sinewy, Force-ified claw. And a Sarlaac pit. And Droidekas. And AT-ATs and snowspeeders. And so on.
Then name the system
It's a remarkably simple and effective idea. Mine the original trilogy and the recent prequels for decent locations - Mos Eisley, Kashyyyk, Endor, Yavin 4, Rhen Var, Kamino, Hoth, Naboo, Bespin - and then create a couple of sprawling maps out of each, and populate them with disparate but defensible command/spawn points that change hands depending on who's controlling the nearby area. Whack in a few secondary objectives (defending a shield generator, for example, or capturing a carbon freezing chamber), and then channel a few cherished memories (like the Sarlaac pit's tentacles and pig-like squeaks) to complete the picture.
Then split players and/or bots between the goodies of the appropriate era (be they Rebels or the Republic Clones) and the baddies (the Empire, or the Droids and Geonosians), and throw in the occasional bonus character, like AI-controlled lightsabre-wielding Jedi NPCs (stand up Luke, Dooku, Windu, and even Vader), or playable Wookiees. Oh, and sprinkle some vehicles around. And make them good ones, like AT-ATs, AT-STs, X-Wings, TIE Fighters, snowspeeders, hover bikes and, why not, tauntauns. Then just make sure there's enough action on screen most of the time to stave off that creeping sense of isolation that sometimes penetrates the Battlefield veneer, and Vader is indeed your uncle's brother.
Although in this case, he actually isn't. You'll occasionally band together with noted Star Wars characters, and Pandemic takes advantage of the freedom afforded to it by LucasArts and sprinkles plenty of memorable scenes from the film in and about the single-player pursuits, but on the whole the idea is that you're just one of the troops. (Which is probably just as well - it wouldn't do to have Vader running around yelling, "Who's your daddy? I am your father," would it?) You're one of the guys in oily overalls and rags and odd-looking hats fighting against a demented grey despot with lightning fingers and an intergalactic armada; or one of the white-helmeted Stormtroopers clubbing and clanking together to stop them. Or a Republic Clone, one of the precursors to the Stormtroopers, armed with Jango Fett's gravely tones and a fleet of drop-ships and primitive walkers; or one of those slightly irritating Trade Federation Droids.
This had better work
What's distinctly clever about it all though is the way the game handles scoring. Whereas Battlefield 1942 and Vietnam saw your team's points total fall depending on how long you were without a decent clutch of control points, Battlefront ties the number directly in to your 'reinforcements' - the amount of times units can spawn. If you have control of more spawn points, your enemy's chances of keeping up with you are limited, they are easier to cut down in thinning numbers and their spawn count drops quicker as a result. You can win battles either by taking them down to zero units, or by controlling all the command points on a map for 20 seconds. You are not the hero, but notch up a few kills without succumbing yourself, and maybe capture a wayward control point, and you will be in the eyes of your team-mates.
What's surprising though is how ordinary it feels to play, at least initially. When it's just you and your gun, you'll probably feel a little aggrieved as you run around pointing and shooting. Graphically there's a lot of detail, and everything looks right, but it's not doing anything demonstrably different. FPS and even third-person control is average-to-good, the weapons are a pretty standard bunch, and even some of the vehicles can be a bit underwhelming. But then you start to play as a team, working towards shared objectives. You realise that while it's not groundbreaking in mechanical terms, it is engaging and easy to pick up - thanks partly to a stabiliser-style auto-aim option that steadies your hand until you're efficient enough to work without it, and a choice of third and first-person views - and that it's suitably epic in scale.
Before long, it really starts to hammer this Star Wars fan's buttons. If you're fighting for control of Hoth, you expect to see AT-ATs and snowspeeders clogging up the horizon, ships hurtling around overhead, tauntauns prancing around and laser fire peppered back and forth between turrets and advancing troops constantly like a thousand simultaneous tennis matches. And you do. And, although the developer will probably argue it wasn't deliberate (if only to save themselves a smiting from the Lucas Empire), putting the player on the Droid side of the Droids vs. Gungans conflict on Naboo was definitely a good choice for the first single-player mission. Most people's first memory of Battlefront will be slaughtering Jar-Jar Binks again and again. Pandemic's clearly onto a winner there.
If this is a consulate ship then where is the ambassador?
Not content with that, Battlefront's single-player offering flies somewhat in the face of accepted multiplayer shooter wisdom by virtue of being a lot of fun anyway. You can opt just to dive into any battle you like on any side with Instant Action mode, but the other options - Historical Campaign and Galactic Conquest - are a better way to see all the sights and between them should keep you occupied for as long as the average single-player first-person shooter does. And that's "happily occupied", incidentally.
That said, Historical Campaign is a bit higgledy-piggledy in places. It's split between scenarios from the Clone Wars and the Galactic Civil War (the original Star Wars trilogy), and touches on every map in the game once or twice, giving you a fair run at the Droids, the Clones, the Imperials and ultimately the Rebels, and a chance to find your footing as the challenge ramps up and you find yourself up against it from the start - by the end you often begin levels with a reinforcements figure a quarter less than your enemy.
However, while the gradual introduction of new units (Super Battledroids, Droidekas, the vehicles, etc, start to appear after a few levels) and the whistle-stop tour of galactic hotspots is welcome, the intermingled Star Wars footage feels forced and unnecessary. We all know the story inside out anyway, and since Battlefront sensibly makes no attempt to augment proceedings, it's not a convincing fit. (Particularly when you find yourself yelling "That's Endor not Kashyyyk for Tarkin's sake!" when a level is book-ended with the wrong footage.)
There will be no stopping us this time
And yet you still soldier through it, and gladly, only to discover that Galactic Conquest is a much more impressive offering. It's split into various campaigns and involves taking over the galaxy planet by planet. Before the first round, you pick a planet you want to attack. If you win, you can choose another planet to attack. If you lose, the enemy can attack one of yours. There are two battlegrounds on each planet, and with control of a planet comes a choice of planetary bonuses. Take control of Kashyyyk, for example, and you can add an extra garrison of troops to your reinforcements, meaning you have more troops to work through in battle. If the enemy controls Rhen Var, though, he can jam your sensors so his troops won't show up as red blobs on your mini-map in-game, and you'll have to fight entirely by sight.
Between Historical Campaign and Galactic Conquest, it's hard to imagine even the most talented sharpshooter mastering the various classes (snipers, repair-capable pilots, basic troopers, Droidekas with their shields and Monkey Ball-esque roll-around modes), vehicles and map strategies in less than weekend of more or less solid play, and when the going gets particularly tough, the option to tackle levels co-operatively, split-screen, or via System Link, is another boost to the game's offline value.
Not that it's particularly hard, but anybody who tells you it's too easy is playing it on the wrong difficulty level. Of course it helps that the bots, while rarely genius, are perfectly capable of holding their own, and take advantage of vehicles, Jango-style jet packs, and hiding spots just as often as you do. Even if they sometimes ignore your single-player squad commands, meted out with the D-pad, and run off on their own.
You said it, Chewie
However, the fact that Battlefront is entertaining enough played solo is a bonus rather than the point. If there were an offline-only Cube version (and there isn't), it would probably rank some way above Pandemic's previous Star Wars offering, the disappointing The Clone Wars, but it wouldn't trouble Rogue Leader for Star Wars-related kudos, let alone dethrone it. Playing Battlefront online though adds immeasurably to the experience. Suddenly battles become a lot more balanced and yet, simultaneously, unpredictable. You may find that you can control the Bespin mines level in single-player by racing towards the uncontested spawn point in the centre of the map, and then clogging the Imperials up at a nearby choke point until they're sufficiently depleted, but played over Live you'll have difficulty lasting with so many enemies piloting TIE Fighters across the skyline, and even taking advantage of them to go round the back and flank you.
Even though many of the maps are relatively straightforward in terms of objectives and strategies, the sheer number of units (particularly if, as it should be, the server operator's totted up the numbers by throwing on a smattering of bots) means that you can't take things for granted, and some of the design decisions here are extremely clever. On Hoth, for example, you'll need a pilot and a gunner in a snowspeeder if you plan to tow-rope yourself an AT-AT; otherwise you can just expect them to waltz up to your base without too much hassle. Remember Han's line in A New Hope as they close in on the remains of Alderaan? "It'd take a thousand ships with more firepower than I've..." He's cut off before he can finish. You will be too, if you don't get your snowspeeding in order, and you're left to try and take down an AT-AT with some blasters. The interruption will be a bolt of red laser to your soon-to-be-frazzled face.
Then of course it's always a good idea to keep someone around to deploy and repair turrets - which, while more powerful, also leave the gunner susceptible to well-aimed headshots - and to take advantage of higher vantage points, repair droids (just press Y to have your health gradually refilled), and natural advantages. Like the Sarlaac pit. During one multiplayer game on Tattooine, we banded together with a couple of like-minded Imperials and drove countless Rebels into reach of its tentacles as they came charging over the hill from a nearby command post.
Evacuate? In our hour of triumph? I think not
But it's the overarching sense of war that gives Battlefront the most points. Pandemic delivers on the right scale. Environments and vehicles are vast and sprawling, and somehow - heaven only knows how considering the smoothness of frame rate - the hardware manages to keep up. Even though all the units and locations - the Stormtroopers, the AT-ATs, the Rebels, the Droids, Mos Eisley, the map room on Geonosis, the bloody Sarlaac pit - all look exactly as they should, within reason (the Xbox can't really compete with Industrial Light & Magic, after all).
Of course, there are flaws and little discrepancies here and there, and there is certainly a sense that Pandemic can improve on this for what now - in light of the game's success both critically and commercially - looks like an inevitable sequel. For a start, we'd like to see a wider range of ways to secure victory; it feels a bit silly that secondary objectives are only really optional, particularly when you win the battle of Endor by controlling command points, while the shield generator remains intact and the Death Star above presumably well defended.
And when certain maps boil down to whichever team can affect the obvious battle plan most efficiently, it takes some of the shine off. We'd also like to see slightly more refined character movement and viewpoints - the first-person view, for us, seems a bit pressed-up-against-the-glass, which can make it unwieldy on tight maps like Mos Eisley - and we'd like some "Get off my vehicle" bound to one of the D-pad arrows. And for the bots to pay attention.
Great, kid, don't get cocky
But on the whole, Star Wars Battlefront is a success, and the best Star Wars action game we've played since Rogue Leader, delivering the sort of galactic conflicts we've long marvelled on the big-screen in a balanced and inviting manner that continually satisfies. PC first-person shooter fans might think differently - Battlefield 1942 clearly still has the edge over this in terms of depth and scope - but in console terms there's nothing like it at the moment, and it's yet another reason to keep an eye on Pandemic. The force is definitely strong in this one.