Star Wars Battlefront review
Opportunities really don't come much bigger than this. In the run-up to Disney's revival of the Star Wars movies this December - although, after the flat-lining prequels, the term resuscitation might be more apt - everything that's graced by the fizzing glow of a lightsaber is destined to turn to gold. Star Wars Battlefront, the first fruit of a partnership between Disney and EA that's set to span 10 years, is shooting to be one of the big beneficiaries of this, riding on the cyclonic uplift of hype swirling around the release of The Force Awakens.
Just as JJ Abrams' new film looks set to, Battlefront leans on a lavish budget and equally generous servings of nostalgia to create an irresistible mix. There's not a Gungan in sight, and not a word of midichlorians; Battlefront keeps its focus firmly on the original trilogy, handling all the series' big icons like revered toys. It's a delicious set-up, realised with enough authenticity to transport you back to your childhood and to a cramped bedroom floor as you disperse a flock of TIE Fighters with the Millennium Falcon, or send a mob of stormtroopers scattering like bowling pins with Luke Skywalker's lightsabre.
Swedish developer DICE's achievements with its own Frostbite engine can't be overstated; Star Wars Battlefront is a high watermark in terms of visuals, and the studio's established audio excellence has found an exquisite match in Star Wars' original sound designer Ben Burtt's fizzing lasers, honking droids and roaring star fighters. When it all comes together, it's nothing short of astounding. The planet of Hoth is dusted with a pure white snow that crunches under a stormtrooper's foot, while the rocks of Tattooine bask in impossible desert heat. Endor is the real prize, though, its swaying ferns and towering pinewoods as incredible a sight as the current generation of consoles have mustered to date. The detail's so rich you can feel your lungs filling with air that carries the taste of laser-burned bark.
It's wish-fulfilment of the highest order, and DICE has matched Hollywood production values with the same lightness of touch that defined the original Star Wars trilogy. This is entertainment at its most universal: a broad, lightweight shooter that's out to please the biggest audience possible. With such an expansive brief, it's inevitable there would be some casualties along the way.
The first of these will be the players who were looking for a continuation of the Battlefront series as imagined by Pandemic some 10 years ago: a grand and ambitious pair of shooters whose rough edges could be excused for the sheer amount of ambition on display. Players were able to lose themselves in these epic sandboxes full of Star Wars-themed toys, where anything seemed possible. Some of that scope has been lost. There are no grand space battles, and beyond a handful of training missions there's nothing that resembles a single-player campaign. As a payoff, those toys are shinier, and more robust.
They're slightly blunter, too, losing any sharp edges in order not to scare anyone away. Look beyond the fireworks of a mode such as Fighter Squadron, where two teams of 10 engage in aerial warfare while piloting X-Wings and TIE Fighers - with the occasional cameo from the Millennium Falcon and Boba Fett's Slave One - and there's a certain numbness to the controls.
Those soft edges persist when you switch to the footsoldiers of the Rebellion and the Empire, where the bulk of Battlefront's nine multiplayer modes' action lies - even if the softness is not quite so pronounced. A generous auto-aim combined with the fuzziness of laser fire means that Battlefront sits awkwardly next to more kinetic, demanding shooters. Stand it next to a Destiny or a Call of Duty and it feels plain flat. Perhaps it's best to look elsewhere for comparisons, though. With its all-ages warfare, a more suitable correspondence can be found in Nintendo's colourful Splatoon.
When Battlefront is comfortable to play on its own terms, it's a triumph: a light and welcoming arcade ruck, where a familiar bank of sounds gives gunfights a satisfying edge. The two-minute thrill of an Endor speeder-bike chase is as pure a hit of Star Wars joy we've had since Atari's legendary arcade sideshow in 1983, while a handful of Battlefront's modes spread that appeal over more typical shooter fare. Indeed, I've found Battlefront at its most enjoyable in the small-scale, infantry-based modes, where it's no longer in the shadow of those earlier Battlefront games, or of DICE's own Battlefield, and where it's able to best deliver the clean, unsophisticated pleasures this new formula excels at.
Modes like Droid Run, where players fight for possession of squat droids, or Drop Zone, where small teams contest escape pods that come crashing down on the map, place an emphasis on the pleasantly light combat. They're fun, throwaway variants on multiplayer staples, delivered with flair; there are all those wonderful assets being tossed about, as well as map design on the smaller environments that's clean, readable and full of alternative pathways that keep matches fluid. There's no shame in simplicity, especially when it's served up with such panache.
Beyond that, though, Battlefront can end up on shakier ground. Hero Battles are wonky, wayward attempts to gift players the ability to be Luke, Leia and Han Solo, or, if they're fighting for the Empire, Vader, Boba Fett or Palpatine. It's the one area where Battlefront's exquisite toys lose their sheen, whether it's in the clumsiness of their combat - the slick lightsaber battles of Raven Software's Jedi Academy are a distant memory - or in the heavy-handed execution. Given how much attention's been lavished on the blasters and star fighters, it's strange that the voice acting falls short: hear the lack of conviction in Darth Vader's performance and you'd be forgiven for thinking Hayden Christensen had reprised his role.
In modes like Walker Assault and Supremacy, full-on 40 player skirmishes that take place on larger maps, some of the fractures that run through the game become clear. This is Battlefront at its most frenetic, where the skies are laced with laser fire from player-controlled X-Wings and TIE Fighters, while mobs of soldiers stampede through the pounding footfall of AT-STs and AT-ATs, occasionally joined by the fierce swashbuckling of a Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader. It's deliriously exciting stuff, where the bedroom floor expands out into an entire playground full of people happily tossing around their favourite toys.
It's limited, though, both by the simplicity that's at the heart of Battlefront, and a lack of variety that ties into a more substantial problem. The squad dynamics that are central to Battlefield's large map modes are neutered to the point of being non-existent - teams are limited to pairs, making it hard to fully co-ordinate, presumably to make for a more level playing field. It's an understandable desire, though it can make play feel more stunted than streamlined.
Other edits are more fitting. DICE wisely chooses to largely remove players from the treadmill of progression and unlocks that defines the metagame of other shooters, even if it can never fully detach itself; in place of perks and skills, there are Star Cards that are easily acquired and easily readable. (And, in a welcome change from the current trend of games inspired by the success of FIFA Ultimate Team, this is a fitting appropriation that's not simply means for another revenue stream - at least not yet.)
So swift is the progression, though, that you'll soon find yourself pushing at the edges of what's available. The weapon selection is hampered by DICE's dedication to authenticity - although the 11 guns available do, to their credit, provide four distinct flavours of firepower, from the pithy range of an E-11 rifle to the shotgun-like thud of a T-21 heavy blaster - and after a dozen hours, it's easy to feel like you've reached the limits of Battlefront's arsenal.
You'll quite likely have reached the limits of Battlefront's map selection, too. Given the hard focus on online multiplayer - there are split-screen battles that are a fun diversion for an afternoon, but a single playthrough of the uninspired wave mode Survival is probably one too many - the four planets and 12 maps included in the base Battlefront game seems an overly slim offering. Perhaps the only metric that matters, though, is how many Millennium Falcons other games can boast, and in that instance - for many people, the most important one - Battlefront wins out.
There are more maps coming down the line, of course, starting with a set from Jakku that bridges the original trilogy and The Force Awakens, and followed, by way of an expensive season pass, by a stream that'll surely be inspired in some way by the new film. Given DICE's track record with post-release support, through which the competent if flawed Battlefield 4 has blossomed into one of the richest shooters currently available, there's every reason to believe that Battlefront can evolve over time from a solid shooter to an excellent one. The problem is, there's a prohibitive cost to buying into that promise right now - and given how wilfully shallow this blend of shooting is, there's no guarantee players will stick around for when, or if, that time finally comes.
Star Wars Battlefront's simplicity cuts both ways, embracing new players while most likely leaving more seasoned ones cold after a short while. As a multiplayer shooter, it's good but never quite great, but maybe that's besides the point. As a piece of Star Wars merchandise, wrapped in the glorious trappings of one of cinema's most intoxicating franchises, this is pretty much exemplary.