When Star Wars Battlefront II touched down on the PSP, alongside popular console and PC versions, there was a general sense of "why bother?" After all, what's the point of converting a game based around large-scale multiplayer skirmishes only to remove the online play? Battlefront II had other issues but the truncated PSP version offering support for only four players via a local ad hoc network was a pretty major one.
This PSP exclusive release is presumably meant to make amends, given that it goes out of its way to address the shortcomings of its predecessor and tweaks the formula in some pretty major ways across the board.
So the big news is that online play is now fully implemented. The ad hoc mode supports eight players, twice as many as before, while real proper internet play allows an impressive 16 human players to romp about on the same maps, making peee-yow noises. That's certainly a massive improvement over the last hobbled release, and the good news is that the game handles the load with a pleasing lack of lag. The bad news is that the game forces you to sign up for a GameSpy account before letting you online. It's free, of course, but I have a natural aversion to being forced to hand over my email address, especially when there are no terms and conditions to read or auto-mailing opt-outs to tick. Cheeky.
The single-player campaign has received a less wide-ranging overhaul. It's got a stronger narrative, this time following the adventures of the Renegade Squadron of the title. They're a ragtag bunch of scoundrels and tough guys brought together on the orders of Han Solo to do the rugged soldiery stuff that the other wimpier rebels can't handle. A sort of Star Wars version of the Dirty Dozen, in other words, though the game does precisely bugger all with this interesting idea, sending you instead on the usual checkpoint-capturing, item-hunting fetch quests that would work out just fine with Rogue Squadron, Rhombus Squadron or Rotisserie Squadron. You never really see this fabled unit, or learn anything about them, so as a concept it makes for a nice subtitle but that's about it. It even does a pretty good job of crowbarring yet another bunch of stories in between the events of the original trilogy - including a level based on Han's throwaway comment about "that bounty hunter on Ord Mantell" in Empire Strikes Back.
The gameplay is still the sticking point though and I'm afraid that, for all the technical wizardy required to get 16-player online battling on a PSP, this is a genre that is simply better suited to the world of PCs and consoles. Two control systems are available - one which just uses the nub to move, with the right shoulder locking on to enemies, and one which removes the lock feature and instead uses the face buttons for free aim. While Rebellion deserve praise for offering alternatives, in practice it's all a waste of time. The lock-on makes the game phenomenally easy, playing it without makes the game phenomenally hard. Impossible even. Unless you're a masochist and plump for the fiddly manual aiming, the eleven campaign missions won't last a day, while during online play it really doesn't make sense to be the only one not using the lock-on, since you'll get spannered. With everyone locked on to each other, the game becomes a matter of simply running around in circles, trading shots.
This problem is even more evident in the space battle sequences. While these levels still look fun, the controls just aren't up to the job of accurately seeking out fast-moving foes in the 3D void, and the game is forced to help you out to such a degree that it barely feels interactive. You lock on to an enemy, press triangle to auto-pilot towards them. Shoot until they explode, lock on to the next enemy. And so it goes. The job of flying and aiming is almost entirely automated, so you're reduced to simply pulling the trigger.
To be fair, the game does offer a healthy variety of customisation options to distract from these fundamental problems. Completely abandoning the class-based system of previous Battlefront games, you now have complete freedom to create your own soldier both in terms of appearance and ability. Once you've put together a character you like, using a slim selection of heads and bodies, you have 100 points with which to load them up. Two weapons slots can be filled, along with various accessories, explosives and status effects. So you can choose heavy weapons, and little else. You can choose to boost their speed and stamina to make them fleet-footed and quick to capture enemy command points. You can give them nothing but a jetpack and a welding torch, if you like. You may come to wonder what the purpose of it all is, since you can waltz through the campaign with little more than a blaster rifle, but the options are meaty enough to impress, at least for a time.
At first, this freedom from rigid military classes seems like a wonderful burst of fresh air and it's certainly fun tinkering with the possibilities. It works best in the single-player campaign, where you can swap your equipment and stats at any friendly command point, so you can scout ahead, see what lies in wait, and stock up accordingly. In multiplayer, where the real meat of the game is found, it actually chips away at the very foundations. The appeal of this sort of large-scale multiplayer war game is to have battles made up of organised units, pooling your clearly defined skills with other players for a common goal. With the class structure removed, you're left with lots of individual units, all wielding different weapons and skillsets, all working to their own agenda. With no way of communicating with your team mates, or even knowing what skills they've enhanced, it soon devolves into a crude free-for-all with any semblance of strategy cast aside in favour of uncoordinated rushing about. You may be running in the same general direction as the other players, but there's no real scope for co-operation or planning. It's multiplayer, yes, but only in the broadest, most scattershot sense of the term.
There are game modes that help to distract from this rather central flaw, such as Hero Capture the Flag in which famous Star Wars characters are used to lug the flag back to base, allowing for Jedi fun. There's also the single-player Galactic Conquest, where you move troops from planet to planet in a chessy sort of way, switching to the battlefield when armies clash. However, since it's quite possible to defeat an enemy force three times the size, and therefore conquer an entire planet, simply by relying on their dimwitted AI to reduce their numbers, all the galactic strategising is of little importance. For all the different options, it's hard to ignore the fact that it's the same gameplay at the heart of them all, with the same core issues rearing up again and again.
It's deeply frustrating. There are some great ideas in here, the presentation is top-notch and the options are plentiful, but none of these good intentions add up to a game of any real depth or longevity. If your expectations for online skirmish gaming involve simply rampaging around some half-decent maps, performing basic tasks, driving clunky vehicles and blasting brain-dead bots, then Renegade Squadron will deliver all you need. If, however, you've been hoping the Battlefront series might finally deliver on its undeniable potential you'll just have to keep waiting. This is above average, but nothing more.