Artoo detour: the original Star Wars Battlefront had anarchy and soul
Back to 'Front.
By now, of course, it's official. A new version of Star Wars Battlefront will arrive later this year, in time for JJ Abrams's seventh instalment of the biggest space opera of them all. The galaxy might have got its first proper look at how veteran Battlefield developers DICE have revived the franchise at this weekend's Star Wars Celebration event, but we've known about it since 2013 thanks to a steady drip-drip of Imperial intelligence from publishers EA. No Bothans died to bring us this information.
DICE will undoubtedly do an extremely professional job. In a reverential E3 teaser trailer last year , the Stockholm-based developers outlined their ambition to "stay as true to the films as possible", scanning original models and props from the extensive Lucas Cultural Arts Museum archive. They also yomped to key filming locations, from the (relatively) nearby Hardangerjøkulen glacier in Norway where tauntauns once roamed to the lush Redwood forests of northern California that stood in for the moon of Endor.
DICE's stated aim was not just to accurately recreate the look of these environments - and you'd hope their proprietary Frostbite 3 engine would make a decent job of Hoth - but to capture "the emotions they invoke" as well. (Perhaps somewhere there exists an early cut of the teaser with a design lead standing in front of a green background yelling "so here I am in Naboo!")
Striving to create the most authentic version of the Star Wars universe possible is an admirable goal. But so far, there hasn't been much talk about the original game. By using the exact same title, there's a suggestion that Star Wars Battlefront 2015 will be so advanced, and so comprehensively supersede the 2004 version created by (now-defunct developers) Pandemic, that the universe simply won't need it any more.
Which would be a shame. Because even if the 3D environments don't hold up particularly well a decade on, the first Star Wars Battlefront is still capable of invoking some surprising emotions. In short, Star Wars Battlefront has soul. And anyone obsessed with a franchise built entirely around an invisible energy field created by all living things should be able to appreciate the intangible.
Previous Star Wars games put you firmly in the space-boots of Luke, Han or some comparable chosen-one hero, sweeping aside hordes of anonymous grunts en route to galactic glory. But in Battlefront, you don't get a lightsaber - you're thrown in among the spear-carriers and forced to make the best of it. For the uninitiated, it's a slightly overwhelming experience, witnessing familiar large-scale Star Wars battles from the perspective of a very small cog in the military machine.
It also might require an adjustment to your usual playing style, especially in single-player mode. Make a beeline for the largest concentration of enemies on the mini-map expecting to slaughter them willy-nilly and you'll likely be blasted to smithereens by Stormtroopers whose aim has suspiciously improved since the original movies. You might yearn to be Luke Skywalker, but you're really his snowspeeder gunner Dack, the enthusiastic noob who talks a good game - "Right now I feel like I could take on the whole Empire myself!" - only to get stomped by an AT-AT within five minutes of kick-off.
Of course, as you get to grips with Star Wars Battlefront, you become wilier and deadlier. There's a certain satisfaction to surviving an entire battle as a lowly Snowtrooper or Rebel pilot thanks to judicious use of the healing and ammo droids (or, perhaps most effectively, just hiding). But you can also get zapped a dozen times and still ultimately triumph. Every skirmish is a chaotic, teeming, unwieldy mess. It's your mission to keep swimming against the tide of battle - by sacking command posts, commandeering vehicles or just thinning out the opposition's numbers - to try and tip the needle toward victory. It's a numbers game determined by blaster calculus, as you whittle away at opposition forces through solo surgical strikes or massed blitzkrieg tactics.
Each clockwork battle will also play out regardless of your actions, and you're constantly reminded of it each time you die - while pondering which class of soldier to select for your next sortie, you can watch the conflict unfolding on the map, an alien ant farm of colour-coded dots representing infantry movements and vehicles creeping round the battlezone, each individual icon flashing in real time as they discharge their weapon. It's supposed to a tactical aid, to give you an idea of where best to re-enter the action. But it's equally tempting to take a breather and just watch how things play out on Yavin, Kashyyyk or Naboo, each side's reinforcement counter ticking down as cannon fodder troops are frazzled, stomped or splattered by thermal detonators.
This sense that war simply won't wait for you will be familiar to anyone who's ever played an online shooter. Star Wars Battlefront was designed primarily as a multiplayer experience, with humans far more suited to maximising the overlapping effectiveness of the various troop classes than bots: pilots can repair vehicles while controlling them, and even splurge out medical and ammo resupplies to keep a sniper or missile-launching heavy in good shape. Teamwork works, and trying to influence a huge battle single-handedly is an uphill task.
Back in the day, I lacked the PS2 peripheral necessary to get properly online but the localised splitscreen multiplayer brought some flavour of the experience, and suggested that Star Wars Battlefront is best enjoyed with a pal. Not just because of the added competitiveness of thumping a real opponent, but to fully appreciate the non-stop fusillade of accidental pratfalls.
Forget emergent gameplay: this is emergent horseplay. The unpredictable ragdoll physics mean sniping a Rebel off a tauntaun can send them skittering across the snowfield. Toss a grenade into a group of beanpole battle droids and witness their digitised panic, ack-ack-acking like the robo-Martians from the old Smash ads. Attempting to pilot X-Wings and TIE Fighters in the limited airspace almost always leads to crashing, or at least wedging oneself awkwardly into a superstructure.
In its own weird way, this is in keeping with the spirit of George Lucas. Think of the battle scenes in the original Star Wars trilogy and there are moments of odd humour among the carnage: a Wilhelm scream as some unfortunate plummets to his death, an AT-ST cockpit emphatically clocked by swinging logs. Behind the slick presentation, Star Wars Battlefront has a similarly mischievous heart - orientation videos show a Stormtrooper shooting a Jawa in the back, glowing grenades often ricochet back to their owner and the opening Clone Wars campaign mission tasks you with winning the battle of Naboo for the bad guys, essentially sanctioning the slaughter of dozens of Gungans. It's a cathartic experience for Phantom Menace haters.
Would this decade-old game be as effective, stripped of Star Wars livery? Perhaps not. When it comes to worldbuilding, the use of such iconic character designs and music does an inordinate amount of the heavy lifting. But in some instances, the sound effects are deployed with particular canniness. You'll spend a lot of time attempting to capture command posts, and the cue for powering down the enemy's influence and cranking up your own is the same as Obi-Wan Kenobi deactivating the tractor beam on the Death Star: a low, tingling hum of nostalgia.
Pandemic's rapid-fire follow-up Star Wars Battlefront 2 came out a year later, a game that confidently expanded the combat experience, albeit by allowing players to more easily abandon the trenches through expanded space combat and the liberal enforcement of battlefield promotions. After a predetermined number of kills, you could ditch life as a grunt and power up as a headline character like Yoda or Jango Fett. The critical consensus is that the sequel improved on the original, and impressively, it still had servers running multiplayer as recently as 2014 . But there'll always be a smuggling compartment in my heart for the galactic slapstick of the original. Clumsy, random and a blast, the farce is strong with this one.