With recent events leading to a backlog of recorded episodes and episodes to record very soon, Star Wars Beyond the Films‘ Nathan P. Butler will be posting short, non-spoiler reviews for new releases. Spoiler-filled discussion will follow in the weeks thereafter on the podcast. (In the case of minor releases, that discussion may be kept for a Year in Review series of episodes.)
Battlefront by DICE and EA (Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC, 2015)
Preface: Two Reviews in One
The newest installment in the Battlefront franchise (the seventh or sixth, depending on how one counts two versions of Elite Squadron) has been both highly anticipated and highly controversial among Star Wars fans and gamers alike. A pattern has seemed to develop wherein Star Wars fans who judge the game on its Star Wars authenticity first (and thus put its merits as a video game second) tend to praise the game highly, whereas those who judge Battlefront as a game first and turn to its Star Wars authenticity as a secondary concern tend to be more harsh in reviewing the game. In a sense, though, these two approaches are answering two very different questions. As such, this review will address both, independent of each other until the end.
A Little History
Before we dig into Battlefront, a brief bit of historical perspective is in order.
2004: Battlefront (Xbox, Playstation 2, PC, Mac)
2005: Battlefront II (Xbox, Playstation 2, Playstation Portable, PC)
2007: Battlefront: Renegade Squadron (Playstation Portable)
2008: Battlefront: Elite Squadron (two very different games on Nintendo DS and Playstation Portable)
2009: Battlefront: Mobile Squadrons (mobile devices)
2015: Battlefront (Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC)
This makes the new Battlefront the first on consoles in a decade and the first Battlefront of any kind in six years. It is also the first by EA and DICE (makers of the Battlefield series and the Frostbite 3 engine that Battlefront, Battlefield 4, and quite a few other current generation games run on).
Battlefront as Star Wars
Judging Battlefront on its merits as an authentic Star Wars experience is where the game fares best. Thanks to the Frostbite 3 engine and amazing recreations of archival materials by DICE, Battlefront is not just the most realistic looking Star Wars game ever but also one of the best looking games in general on consoles.
Characters look and move as we would expect real humans to move in the Star Wars universe. The technology features a huge amount of detail. With environments that are painstakingly detailed in recreating the forest moon of Endor, Hoth, and Tatooine from the films (along with non-film planet Sullust), the game is simply gorgeous and visually authentic in spades.
The game even includes so-called “Battle Beyond” scenarios, battles occurring in the background or in the sky that shift as one side or another turns the tide in a given match. That kind of detail is quite impressive.
In terms of sound design, the game fares nearly as well. It could be argued that it is very difficult to “screw up” Star Wars sound design due to the unique body of sound effects created for the saga and available to a game developer, but the use of the sounds of blasters, starfighters, etc. in the game is fantastic. The only real “dings” to this impressive audio sheen are in two areas: new music and hero voicework.
There are times when the music strays a bit too far from John Williams’ score, though it will only be jarring for those heavily immersed in the music, rather than the gameplay. The hero voicework is where jarring differences will abound, however. While Temuera Morrison’s work as Boba Fett and Sam Witwer’s vocal talents as Palpatine are strong, the voice work for the game’s other four heroes and villains (Matt Sloan as Darth Vader, John Armstrong as Han Solo, Anthony Hansen as Luke Skywalker, and Misty Lee as Leia Organa) are often cringe-worthy in how poorly they approximate the voices of their film counterparts. Vader in particular sounds like he has been neutered (in the comedic sense, since his voice is far too high for the Darth Vader we know). These voices will throw many fans out of the audio atmosphere every time they speak.
Barring those sound concerns, which tend only to be an issue when the characters actually show up in a match, the game’s authenticity as a Star Wars experience is truly outstanding.
No Campaign: A Star Wars Concern and a Gaming Issue
One thing that takes away from the overall experience of Battlefront, both from a gaming perspective and as a thrilling Star Wars experience is the complete lack of a campaign in the game. Put simply, this is a game without a story.
Now, immediately some will shout, “Battlefront games don’t have stories! You can’t criticize it for that!” Let’s set things straight on that count: Yes, Battlefront games can and have had stories. While the original Battlefront‘s campaign was not much of a story, Battlefront II contained a campaign that told the story of the 501st in various missions that added to the Legends Continuity. Moreover, the portable games, Renegade Squadron and Elite Squadron, each contained a substantial story. In fact, the two versions of Elite Squadron (on DS and PSP) each contained one perspective on a story that, when taken together, was much more substantial. (The footage so far revelaed for the canceled Battlefront III also reveals plans for a campaign, as its campaign appears to have been the story eventually used for Elite Squadron.) In truth, the only Battlefront games to lack a story since the original’s lackluster campaign mode are the cellphone game Battlefront: Mobile Squadrons and this new 2015 release.
Yes, Battlefront can have a story. In fact, Battlefront can have rather good stories (as far as video games go), but this particular Battlefront game does not. That, in and of itself, is enough to turn a lot of people off to the game.
Play Battlefront for an authentic Star Wars combat experience, but if you are looking for any real inklings of new story content, look elsewhere.
Battlefront as a Video Game
As a video game, Battlefront is a far lesser product than when attempting to measure it solely on its Star Wars authenticity.
Battlefront is, at its core, a first person shooter (FPS) that can act as a third person shooter (TPS) and, every once in a while, branches off into vehicular combat. It runs on the Frostbite 3 engine, which brings with it all of the strengths (destructible environmental elements, realistic movement) and pitfalls (useless jumping, difficulties spotting who is shooting you repeatedly from somewhere in front of you, etc.) of that engine. (I actually purchased and took some time to play Battlefield 4, just to get a sense of which pitfalls of Battlefront were of its own making or tied to its game engine.)
The gaming market is currently flooded with FPS (and TPS) games, many of which are horrid cash-ins on the genre. Others, though, have set extremely high bars for quality in the genre. Notable examples in the current console generation include Destiny and Halo 5. It is a genre defined, rightly or wrongly, by Call of Duty and its seemingly infinite number of installments. In order to fare well when reviewed as a video game, Battlefront has a rather high bar to reach in 2015.
Contrary to some complaints that claim that the game includes only four maps, it is more accurate to say that the game includes four settings (Hoth, Sullust, Tatooine, and the forest moon of Endor). Within those settings, the game’s various modes span several different maps (on different scales) at each of those settings. For Tatooine, for instance, includes 6 (or 7) maps: Tatooine Canyon, Tatooine GR-75 Transport, Jundland Wastes, Jawa Refuge, Rebel Depot, and Dune Sea Exchange, along with a battle over the Jundland Wastes for Fighter Squadron mode.
In general, the maps tend to be natural terrain with a few artificial structures available, depending on which setting the map is based upon. Some maps include a great deal of vertical possibilities (such as going up into an Ewok village), while others are rather flat (such as the external Hoth maps). With jumps relatively useless in Frostbite 3 games, getting used to this mostly flat set of maps can be frustrating. The flat nature of some maps, such as those on Hoth, are also “sniper-fests,” since there appears to be little to no real drop-off of damage from weapons at very long range. Expect to be killed from far away constantly, often by enemies that you cannot see from your position.
The game features just over ten different blasters with different ratings for damage, rate of fire, range, and cooling power (how fast they cool down during use). Rather than needing to be reloaded, the weapons heat up with use. Judicious use can keep them from ever overheating, but consistent use will cause them to reach a maximum and become useless for a moment. When that happens, a small mini-game mechanic occurs, allowing an instant readiness if timed correctly, but the mini-game mechanic is designed to get tougher each time it is successfully completed, so managing your weapon heat is important.
That said, the game’s blasters never feel quite right. They lack a feeling of having any real “kick” to them, and except for a couple with high damage output, they all pretty much feel the same. Throw in the fact that they cannot be customized or upgraded beyond their base versions, and you have a very shallow set of weapons. (You also only carry one at a time without the ability to swap to a secondary weapon on the fly in the way that virutally all FPS and TPS games allow these days.)
New to this Battlefront game is the use of Star Cards. Before a match, players set up a hand (or two upon reaching Rank 10) of three Star Cards. Two of these Star Cards represent weapons or abilities that can be used, then used again after a short “cooldown” period. These Star Cards include elements like grenades, slugthrowers, and an ever-useful Jump Pack that is unlocked at Rank 13. The third card, a Charged Star Card, requires picking up charges during the game (kind of like ammo) to use more substantial abilities such as a personal shield or the ability to make your blaster more effective against vehicles. Upon reaching Rank 15, Traits also become available, such as decreasing how much damage explosives do to your character. For the most part, Star Card abilities feel useful and varied enough to feel like moderate character customization, and the ability to upgrade each a small amount helps players specialize.
There is no armor to speak of, nor any specialization of your character model beyond cosmetic customizations. For Rebels, players can shift through several different variants of several different human faces (and races) of both genders. (There are 6 males with 7 facial options each, along with 6 females with 5 facial options each – no facial hair for the ladies, hence two less options.) Higher level players can unlock 7 alien species (with set looks and genders, so zero customization), such as Ishi Tibs and Twi’leks. For the Empire, players can choose a male or female stormtrooper with helmet, or take off the helmet and do the same facial customization as for human characters (though without an open-faced helmet option that Rebels have). Higher rank players can unlock only two unusual Imperials: a scout trooper and a shadow trooper.
Players can also unlock and equip “emotes.” They have no real gameplay value and range from shouting phrases to mocking other teams to acting like the player is being electrocuted by an “ion shock.” (Doing the “Ion Shock” over an opponent’s dead body might soon replace the ridiculous “teabagging” of foes in this game.)
There are no character classes or archetypes, nor loadouts you can save, beyond the Star Card hand(s). From a character customization standpoint in the modern FPS genre, this is woefully shallow. Character “progression” is based solely on reaching new ranks to unlock new blasters, Star Cards, emotes, or appearances, which are then purchased with credits earned in-game. Beyond unlocking a few certain Star Cards, though, virtually all unlocks feel unnecessary and impact the game too little to waste the requisite credits.
Game modes fare better than customization and loadouts, though many are old standbys from the FPS genre with a Star Wars theme slapped over them, rather than innovative new game modes pioneered by Battlefront.
For those wanting a single-player or two-player co-op experience (online or local split-screen), there are Missions. These include five Training missions (to get players used to operating a starfighter, speederbike, AT-ST, and T-47 airspeeder, along with playing as a Hero/Villain character), Battles (regular or Hero Battles, which pit the players and optional AI companions against AI enemies until one side earns 100 points), and Survival (a 15-wave horde mode). The Training missions do a great job of getting players acclimated to game mechanics, especially the T-47 controls that are essential in Walker Assault multiplayer. Battles can be fun, but the real gem here are the Surivival missions, which can be quite intense and nerve-wracking on the higher difficulty settings.
First and foremost, Battlefront is an online multiplayer, Player vs. Player (PVP) game. In this capacity, it includes nine modes. Supremacy features large-scale battle over control points. Drop Zone is a capture and defend mode in which you attempt to gain control of falling escape pods (one at a time). Droid run is also a capture mode, though the three “points” are power droids that are constantly moving (albeit slowly). Cargo is the game’s version of capture the flag. Blast is traditional team deathmatch (TDM).
Other modes are a bit more unusual.
Fighter Squadrons is flying combat, though starfighter options are rather limited: A-wing, X-wing, or the Millennium Falcon (via power-up) for the Rebels, or TIE Fighter, TIE Interceptor, or Slave I (via power-up) for the Imperials. It is, in essence, team deathmatch in starfighters.
Hero Hunt puts one player in the role of one of the game’s heroes or villains (Vader, Palpatine, Boba, Han, Luke, or Leia), then tasks all other players to kill them. Whoever lands the killshot spawns as the next hero or villain, and the goal is to kill the most players in your time as the hero or villain.
Heroes vs. Villains features small team play with three on each side playing as their side’s heroes (or villains). The goal is to kill the other team’s three heroes before they can do the same to your side. Dying as a hero or villain respawns you as a regular trooper, and teams earn points by being the side to knock out all three iconic characters on the other side first.
Finally, there is the game’s “crown jewel,” Walker Assault. In this mode, The Empire must defend AT-ATs while they march on a specific location (such as power generators on Hoth). As long as at least one AT-AT is still standing at the end of the match, the Empire wins. Meanwhile, the Rebels control points (akin to in Drop Zone and Droid Run) to activate uplinks. Each successful activation sets up a Y-wing to do a bombing run at predetermined times. Those bombing runs hit the walkers with ion bombs, making them vunlerable to other weapons. (The AT-ATs are also always vulnerable to a tow cable attack from a snowspeeder, but good luck having someone on your side not only find one of those power-ups but also use if effectively.) The Rebels win if all AT-ATs are brought down. (This was the most criticized mode during the Beta due to lack of balance, but the inclusion of the airspeeder Training mission and some hints in-game about where to shoot an ionized walker has aided in rebalancing a bit.)
As far as game mechanics, forget what you know from previous Battlefront games. Matches never come down to running out of soldier spawns on your side. There are no space battles with capital ships involved, only atmospheric battles between starfighters. You cannot earn the use of a Hero or Villain, nor can you simply grab any vehicle you see and put it to use. You instead gain the use of a hero, villain, vehicle, or some special items (like the awesome thermal imploder or orbital strike) by grabbing power-up symbols on the battlefield. This is a game designed very much around casual players, not hardcore FPS or TPS gamers.
With all that in mind, is this Battlefront installment fun as a game? It can be. The battles are chaotic (often too much so given the propensity to be killed without ever seeing the far-off attacker) and fast-paced. The gunplay is strong, though not on par with something like Destiny. It is also undeniably amusing to grab a vehicle mid-match or turn into an iconic character to rain down death on the other team, whlie you know they are sitting at their own console spouting profanities and trying (in vain) to run away.
The Longevity Factor
Given its relatively shallow progression and customization options, I am quite worried over whether Battlefront actually has the staying power of many other AAA shooters on the market. Hopefully, as we get more downloadable content add-ons (in the form of the free Battle of Jakku pack that introduces one new planet, two new maps, and a new game mode, followed by four paid DLC packs without content yet announced), the game’s online community (which absoutely must be there for the game to live on) will continue to be robust.
It will be the Star Wars factor that brings people back, time after time, however. It will most certainly not be the game’s merits as a modern shooter. Those looking for a deep FPS or TPS should look elsewhere (and probably already are).
Battlefront is an undeniably gorgeous game that thrusts players into the Star Wars universe like no other. It is hampered by a lack of any real story and gameplay that quickly reveals that this is a game designed with casual gamers firmly in mind.
In terms of Star Wars atmosphere, it gets an A.
In terms of Star Wars storytelling, it earns an F.
As a first person shooter, it earns a C+ (bolstered a bit by Walker Assault and Heroes vs. Villains).
This is a game you can just pick up and play without any major time investment. It is an experience worth having, but for many fans, probably not yet worth the $60 for the base game, $70 for the Deluxe Edition (with two exclusive emotes and early access to three weapons that can otherwise be unlocked through game progression), or the $50 on top of either of those for the Season Pass (which includes all four paid DLC packs).
Recommended for: Those who want to experience a gorgeous, atmospheric Star Wars experience.
Not recommended for: Those looking for what is now considered a “deep” shooter game.
No review copy was provided for this publication. It was a standard retail purchase. (For what it’s worth, despite the downsides of the game, I personally preordered the Deluxe Edition for PS4, picked up the Collector’s Edition of the game’s guide, prepurchased the Season Pass, and even received the limited edition Sandtrooper headset as a birthday gift. The only things I passsed on was the Wal-Mart bundle with the Han Solo in Carbonite mini-fridge and buying another PS4 to get the Vader themed console and controller.)
I should also note that I am producing a series of livestreams of Battlefront on my YouTube channel.