It's hard to put a finger on that Star Wars feeling, but you know it when it happens. Star Wars is traditional myth combined with things you've never seen before - both familiar and strange, it's the hero's journey in a sci-fi world. To me, it's about epic themes told with a twinkle in the eye - a balancing act that's hard to get right.
Yet when I tried Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order at E3 earlier this year, I felt like that balance wasn't quite there yet. The combat was solid, much of the game was promising, but I hadn't sensed that special Star Wars charm: the sort of feeling you get from marvelling at its bizarre worlds, laughing at ridiculous aliens one moment before being plunged into intense power struggle the next. In that demo we were mainly traversing narrow metallic corridors, focusing hard on getting to grips with the combat, rather than being left to explore on our own terms.
I didn't see myself returning to write further impressions of Fallen Order - but earlier this week, I had another look at the game during the latest preview event. This time, I had about three hours to roam with near-total freedom to explore. This, finally, is where I felt the sheer glee of exploring the Star Wars universe - and that cheeky sense of humour I love so much.
I can't say I've ever been hiking in Tibet, but walking around Zeffo is what I'd imagine the atmosphere to be like (ignoring the odd stray blaster bolt). It's an isolated, snowy and quietly beautiful planet - and exploring its paths feels like a pilgrimage. In my first few steps off the ship, I took a moment to simply look at the mountains and distant shipwrecks peering through the gloom, and watch the swaying of some sci-fi poles in the wind - the first of many small touches that make this world feel so lovingly crafted.
Following the path around the hill, I found a surprisingly furrowed landscape, filled with snaking pathways that looped back on themselves to reveal hidden nooks and crannies. This is part of Fallen Order's Metroidvania component, but it's still remarkable how so many pathways have been slotted together in such a tight space, like a jigsaw puzzle made of caves and ledges. It's also something you're more aware of, I think, because of the level map that guides you through the warrens. Developers sometimes give players a peek behind the game design curtain post-launch to show how the illusion is made - except in Fallen Order, Respawn invites you to continually be in on the secret. It's as if the developer is personally guiding you through their creation, and it's a process that feels quite intimate.
Most importantly of all, it turns out those ledges make excellent spots for eavesdropping on passing stormtroopers, which has already become one of my favourite pastimes in Fallen Order. Respawn clearly wants to recall the kind of bumbling grunt feeling of the original stormtroopers, and one of the ways they do this is by providing distant dialogue ahead of most encounters. Whether it's just inane chatter, or a trooper being threatened with discipline for insubordination, each conversation gives a glimpse of their daily lives. Mid-combat, you can sometimes hear them voice hesitation about taking a turn at facing a Jedi, or outright dark humour. It sometimes makes me feel a little bad for killing them.
Which - unfortunately for the stormtroopers - has to happen, and while Fallen Order's combat was already decent, Zeffo's environment brings something else to the mix. Thanks to the twisting pathways and ledges, it's possible to get the drop on your enemies (quite literally, if you do the appropriate move) - or, alternatively, find yourself ambushed. The verticality of the environment means you always have to keep an eye on the sky, while you'll sometimes need to jump between platforms to take out a stormtrooper with a rocket launcher. The tennis-return blocking for blaster shots is also an effective strategy.
I should also mention that the enemy AI was, thankfully, in full swing this time. At E3, one of the main problems was that the enemies felt a bit static - but in this preview they were far more dynamic. Melee units would often try to rush me, or would sometimes back off and carefully wait until I started making a move before attacking. And, as was the case last time, the combat rewarded careful thinking rather than panicked flailing - something that kept me coming back for more when I developed my skills and wanted to apply them to areas I'd previously struggled with.
In-between the fights, I'd often find myself in transitionary periods of calm, allowing for peaceful and thorough investigations of the cleared areas. Strangely, it was in these sections that I found myself delighting over the details of the world. Cal's companion droid BD1 can scan objects (or dead enemies) to reveal information, while Cal himself can interact with certain items to gain flashes of insight. Piece by piece, it emerged that the planet's abandoned homes had once housed families - who had since been forcefully relocated by the Empire, greedy for the land. It was a little archaeological dig in-between combat, and I was at my happiest standing on a snowy peak scanning a wall for signs of life.
The general lack of NPCs and that particular backstory set something of a sombre mood, but that's not to say the Star Wars humour wasn't there - it was merely achieved in more unusual ways. Enemy placement was one such method, with the rat-like creatures introduced via one jumping on an unsuspecting stormtrooper, taking both me and trooper by surprise. At one point, I went piling into a mysterious cave and found myself instantly flattened against a wall by a giant battering ram - as if the game was trying to tell me "don't just run in headfirst, stupid". Point taken.
And back on the ship, there's Greez, the comic relief alien with a nonchalant attitude and a severe reluctance to go outside (a mood, really). I get the sense it's going to be the supporting cast that really carry the story in Fallen Order, as Cere has an intriguing hidden past she seems reluctant to discuss, whereas Cal remains something of an unknown quantity (something I asked director Stig Asmussen about). I'm still not sure what makes him tick, how he thinks beyond basic survival instinct, or what his defining character traits are. Hopefully all will be revealed.
Perhaps much of the success of this game will rest on Cal's mysterious narrative - but regardless of that, the construction of Fallen Order's levels is already wonderful. It's been a while since I felt the pure joy of just exploring a Star Wars game - and it's largely down to the attention to detail, the many twisting pathways, and underlying humour written into the levels. Despite all the focus on action in Star Wars and the already-great combat, I now just want to return to Zeffo to sit on a hill and read some more lore. Is that so wrong?
This article is based on a trip to a preview event in Los Angeles. EA covered travel and accommodation.