Star Wars Battlefront is more than just a big budget Battlefield mod
How DICE embedded itself in the Star Wars universe, and what we saw in the demo.
When JJ Abrams gave his much-anticipated public panel on The Force Awakens in Anaheim this weekend as part of the Star Wars Celebration 2015 event, one of the loudest cheers he received (and there were a lot of loud cheers) was when he reassured fans - jaded with the overuse of digital effects thanks to the disastrous prequel trilogy - that he had scaled back production of his sequels to include as many physical props and tangible locations as possible.
Just a few hours later, DICE's general manager Patrick Bach told me that, in a way, that was the same aim for the studio and their reboot of Star Wars Battlefront, which is set to launch on 17th November - almost exactly a month before the film debuts at the end of this year. "JJ Abrams's discussion on going back to the roots of creating physical sets, physical objects - we do that as well," he enthused. "We take the physical objects and recreate them digitally, so we kind of go the reverse way but start in the same spot. It's the same idea - we have the same mindset on recreating the universe in the most authentic way possible."
Authenticity is certainly a priority for Bach and Abrams both, each continuing on the legacy of a beloved franchise and taking it in their own direction. For Abrams that meant building a droid that could realistically move and roll around on set; for DICE it meant gaining access to the LucasFilm Art Archive and Skywalker Sound to use as many original assets from the film franchise as possible. Using photogrammetry, the process of creating 3D models from taking thousands of pictures as reference points (and most recently used in games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter), those assets appear in-game as close to the real thing as they possibly can be - we're shown detailed 3D models of Admiral Ackbar and Han's blaster as proof of concept.
That's all well and good, but how will DICE prevent Battlefront from feeling like a big-budget Battlefield mod, as many fans fear it may well do? "Let me go back to when we got our hands on it, when it all started," Bach replied. "The whole idea of building a Star Wars Battlefront game is about two things. First of all, it's called Star Wars Battlefront for a reason, so [we're] going back to the roots and the core ethos of that. And then on top of that, it's Star Wars together with LucasFilm. So we have the opportunity to work with them on this; it's a super tight relationship. We have daily contact with them - they approve everything, we discuss everything with them. It's super tight.
"So, that doesn't really marry with the thought of making it in a mould, right? The whole idea was: 'let's clear the table - it's gone. What do we want?' And from there, we start to put things on the table again. In some ways you could argue it's close to what we've done before - because it's something awesome and people want that - but in other ways it was like no, let's go down this route because it fits with the IP, it fits with what Star Wars stands for. And again, if you are nitpicking, the details on the stuff you've seen, you will spot a lot of these things. I think it's easier once you get a hands-on, but since we don't have that (laughs), you'll have to wait and see. So, again, we have not had the intention of or even had the process of building something that should resemble anything that we've done before. That is not how this game has been built."
Watching Battlefront in action for the first time during a behind closed doors gameplay preview in Anaheim this weekend, I can appreciate that painstaking attention to detail as a squad of (presumably) player-controlled rebel fighters pick through the beautifully rendered forest floor of Endor, before suddenly coming into contact with squad of player-controlled stormtroopers. During the short demo, we see Speeder Bikes, AT-ATs, and AT-STs take on ground troops armed with blasters and rocket launchers, but we don't get to see any vehicles being controlled first-hand - which is disappointing given that most of the game's hype thus far seems built around that mechanic. DICE have been vague about how the game will handle vehicle controls - it's hard to imagine AT-ATs and speeder bikes being given complete free-reign of one of these maps without total chaos ensuing. I tell Bach I'm having difficulty imagining how players will be able to control speeders through the trees of Endor, wondering whether they'll be on rails or restricted in some other way, but he's evasive. "It works," he laughs. "We make it work - that's what we do."
This scene on Endor follows the rebels through the undergrowth - stormtroopers attack from above on the walkways of an Ewok settlement, we see a decent assortment of weapon loadouts, and the player calls in an airstrike on an AT-AT via an appropriately chunky analogue uplink station before running off between the AT-ATs legs so that a team of Y-Wings overhead can get a clear shot at the great lumbering thing. The preview culminates in the rebels reaching an Imperial bunker, where they scare off a mouse droid before coming face to face with a lightsaber-wielding Darth Vader, who force-chokes an ally and strides menacingly towards the screen as the camera cuts to black.
This mode, we're told, is Walker Assault, and design director Niklas Fegraeus explains that this particular map is designed to evoke the Speeder Bike scenes from Return of the Jedi. Though Battlefront won't have a single player campaign, it'll have a variety of missions and crafted challenges - available online or offline - designed around key moments from the films. "It's scenes like them," says Bach. "We can't hope that the players will recreate the [actual] battle exactly, so this is more like recreating the idea of the battle, or the battle next to the battle."
During battles, players will be able to switch between first and third person modes at any time, a feature that gives players the choice between the series' more traditional perspective and the one that's embedded in DICE's heritage. Fergraeus also mentions that they wants players to be able to customise their characters as much as possible, being able to "freely choose gear, weapons and abilities" tailored to how they want to play. "I think the species, as we refer to them as, the whole idea of customisation within the Star Wars universe is of course connected to 'what's the customisation you want in Star Wars'," says Bach. "You won't be able to put a pink cape on Darth Vader - that would be easy for us to build and some people might say that'd be fun, but its not authentic. That's how we're grounding all of the features in the game, including the customisation. Picking alien heads, or different heads for different species is something that we think people want and its also true to what Star Wars stands for. And there are different things like that that you can do. We want to stand very firm on that; we want to protect what Star Wars stand for."
Fergraeus also confirmed two-player local split-screen, another inclusion that will please long-time Battlefront fans, though there will be scope for much larger skirmishes. "We will have a spread of modes that have different caps," Bach tells me, "so we will go from smaller modes to the bigger ones that will actually cap at 40 players." It doesn't seem like there will be any large-scale space battles, since all of the maps announced thus far take place on a specific planet's surface, but DICE did mention there will be dogfights between Tie Fighters & X-Wings, like the kind glimpsed briefly during our demo just above the canopy of Endor's forest - the battle above the battle.
Also revealed during the demo was the fact that Jakku, a desert planet resembling Tattooine which JJ Abrams earlier announced will feature prominently in Episode 7, will be the focus of a DLC pack free to anyone that purchases Battlefront. It'll become available on 8th December, Fegraeus says, or on the 1st to fans who preorder. The Force Awakens opens in cinemas on 18th December. "Jakku is very interesting because what you will see in Episode 7 will be the result of the Battle of Jakku, which you never get to experience; you only get to see the aftermath of that battle," Bach says. "In Star Wars Battlefront you will get to play it, and it's just right after Return of the Jedi from a timeline perspective."
Aside from Hoth, Jakku, Tattooine and Endor, DICE mentions there will also be maps taking place on Sullust, a previously largely unexplored planet. But Bach won't say whether other DLC packs inspired by the films will launch following their release. There are other things that DICE won't talk about yet - the system whereby some players will get to control Darth Vader, Boba Fett and other heroes and villains on the battlefield, for example, or how players will be able to unlock iconic vehicles like the Falcon, glimpsed at the very end of the new trailer. Bach won't give an explanation of how the Nemesis or Killstreak Bonuses that I see on the gameplay footage after the player picks off an enemy will work either ("I'm a bit upset you spent time looking at those digits rather than the world..."). But he is enthusiastic about the future, and the fan reaction for far has been positive, considering we've seen very little of how the game will actually play.
"Expanding the universe and respectfully treading into the unknown, figuring it out together with LucasFilm, is super exciting," Bach nods. It's bound to be a daunting prospect too, releasing a Battlefront game at the same time as a long-awaited sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy. And though it's still very early to say whether DICE have pulled it off - we'll need to see those vehicles in action, for starters - it's encouraging to see the team's dedication to preserving the look and feel of the Star Wars universe.
This article is based on a press trip to Anaheim. EA paid for travel and accommodation.