Star Wars Battlefront Review

Star Wars Battlefront is not the best first-person shooter out there.  Let’s get that out of the way right up front.  It’s a relatively stripped-down game that doesn’t do enough to make up for its shortcomings.  From a purely mechanical standpoint, any number of other shooters on the market will provide a more satisfying experience.  Battlefront’s biggest asset, and one major advantage over other shooters, is its ability to transport you to the Star Wars universe.

And I cannot be objective about anything set in the Star Wars universe.  We should get that out of the way up front, too.  The Star Wars movies are so ingrained in my psyche, so elemental to my artistic sensibilities, that any book, movie, game, TV show, interpretive dance, etc., set in that universe gets a handful of bonus points and get-out-of-jail-free cards.  Just being in the Star Wars universe for a while is an experience I enjoy, regardless of the quality of the work that’s brought me there.  I saw The Phantom Menace six times in theaters, for example.  So my opinion of Battlefront won’t necessarily be objective, inasmuch as such a thing could actually exist.  But mine will be the opinion of a pretty passionate Star Wars fan.

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The first thing you notice about Star Wars Battlefront is how beautiful it is.  Heading into the third year of this new console generation, with developers starting to leave the last generation of hardware behind, we’re getting used to seeing breathtaking graphics in new releases, but Battlefront seems to vastly exceed our still-nascent expectations of what a current (née “next”) generation game should look like.  Not only is the game as close to photorealistic as anything we’ve ever seen on a console, but it captures the specific look of the original films.  It doesn’t feel like real life; it feels like a movie.  This effect is somewhat owing to the photogrammetry process developer DICE used to capture original props from the movies.  Those Stormtroopers look just like their cinematic counterparts because they essentially are wearing the exact same costumes.

This attention to detail extends beyond the graphics to the sound design, animations, music, and visual effects.  Ewoks scatter when you run through the Endor treetops; Tusken Raiders shout from atop Tatooine ridges; Stormtroopers are animated to move not like hyper-athletic videogame characters, but actors wearing plastic costumes; the Wilhelm Scream is everywhere.  Every effort has been made to create as authentic and immersive a Star Wars experience as possible.  And those efforts have largely succeeded.   It is still a videogame, of course.  You will still get shot in the head by a Stormtrooper named something like DeezNutz69xxx69, which kind of breaks the illusion a bit, and you will eventually settle into a familiar headspace of worrying about spawn points, power-ups, K/D ratios, and everything else that comes with playing an online shooter.  But it will also feel more like Star Wars than just about any game you’ve ever played.

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The next thing you’ll notice about the game, though, is just how barebones it is.  In an age where almost every game has paid DLC, it sometimes feels like publishers are trying to give us as little as possible for our $60 so they can turn around and sell us “the rest of the game” for another $30-50.  This is the cynical view, at least, but it’s a view that’s not hard to adopt when looking at Battlefront.  This is a game that comes with what is undeniably a bare minimum amount of content, and with built-in advertising for its $50 season pass on the main menu.

As has been known – and griped about – for a while now, there is no single-player campaign, something that’s becoming a trend among online shooters.  While there’s plenty of room to debate how important the campaign is to your annual Call of Duty game, or how meaningful it would have been in, say, Titanfall, it’s undeniable that the Star Wars universe is overflowing with narrative possibilities and that fans have insatiable appetites for these narratives.  When I first got my hands on Battlefront during the beta, I was coming off a string of marathon Tomb Raider sessions, and my brain was in full-on campaign mode as I began the game’s wave-based solo (or co-op) Survival mode.  After a few seconds of excitedly running across Tatooine, my heart sank as it dawned on me that I had no objective, no identity, and no context for what I was doing; I was just going to shoot a bunch of Stormtroopers and AT-STs until I was told to stop.

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This is the extent of the solo experience in Battlefront: you can face fifteen increasingly difficult waves of enemies, with or without a friend, in Survival mode, or you can face constant assault from enemy troops in Battle mode, a first-to-100-points fight against either AI or a buddy.  Both of these modes are fun, inasmuch as running around shooting enemies is fun, but they feel like little more than practice for the multiplayer.  I enjoy them, but they’re hardly a selling point, and they seem weirdly under-featured.  For example, there are only four maps (initially) available in these solo/co-op modes, for no apparent reason.

As for the multiplayer, it’s obvious that DICE is trying to create a more casual experience with Battlefront, and understandably so.  Star Wars appeals to a lot of people who don’t normally play online shooters, and DICE has created a game that – by virtue of its simplicity – seems more approachable.  (Though, this strategy again makes you wonder why they opted to forgo a campaign.)  Gone is the bevy of customization options and loadouts you’ll find in most shooters.  At the start of Battlefront, you have exactly one blaster from which to choose, and no other options, at least in multiplayer.  The game does feature a progression system, but this too is pretty barebones.  You’ll unlock a bunch of mostly similar guns, but no upgrades or customization options for those guns, and you’ll unlock a number of “cards” that you’ll use to build your “hand” – the game’s version of a loadout.  And while many shooters of late have been adopting new mobility features like double-jumps and wall-running, Battlefront not only sticks to traditional, feet-on-the-ground movement – fittingly, because such mobility never played a big part in Star Wars – but even lacks such commonplace moves as sliding, mantling, and going prone.

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The stripped down mechanics and progression system make the game more approachable, I suppose, but they seem to also have the weird effect of increasing the emphasis on precision aiming.  Because every encounter is between two similarly equipped and relatively immobile soldiers, victory will go to whomever can mostly quickly land a headshot.  It’s early days, but there don’t seem to be nearly as many ways to approach combat in Battlefront as there are in other shooters.  In Advanced Warfare, for example, I have the option of trading in my killstreak rewards, which I rarely earn because I’m decidedly mediocre at shooters, in exchange for more skills or attachments to improve my performance with guns.  In other words, I can tailor my loadout to my playstyle and skillset.  There’s a bit of this in Battlefront, but far less than you’ll find elsewhere.

The multiplayer in Battlefront is spread across nine modes and thirteen maps – at least at launch; a free update on Dec. 8 will bring two new maps set during the post-Jedi Battle of Jakku, and a new mode.  Thirteen maps feels par for the course as far as online shooters go, but in practice it’s really never more than nine, as no mode is playable on all thirteen maps, and the two big, 20-vs.-20 modes only have four maps.  The map selection starts to feel pretty thin and repetitive pretty quickly.  As for game modes, there are two main categories: big and small.  Small modes put between six and ten combatants on a side, and pit them against each other in some typical FPS game types: team deathmatch, hardpoint, capture the flag.  These modes often feel like a Star Wars-flavored version of a typical shooter, although the flavor is very strong, and there are a few modes that leverage the game’s unique hero system, letting you play as the likes of Han Solo and Boba Fett, or its vehicular combat.  The small modes offer a decent grab-bag of Star Wars-themed FPS fun, with a handful of unique twists, and the big Star Fox 64 multiplayer matches you always wanted.  But for my money, the game’s two big, 20-vs.-20 modes are where it’s at.

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As I mentioned above, Battlefront launched with two 20-vs.-20 modes: “Supremacy,” which has two armies pushing in opposite directions, control point by control point, in a sort of reverse tug-of-war, until one side has dominated the battlefield; and “Walker Assault,” a multi-objective mode that has the Rebels trying to destroy two AT-AT walkers before those walkers destroy everything else.  These are the kitchen sink modes where all of Battlefront’s elements are allowed to intermingle, and the modes that most feel like big Star Wars battles.  In one of these matches, you might spawn alongside four or five fellow Stormtroopers, charge into battle, and land a few shots on some rebel scum before Luke Skywalker appears, mowing through Stormtroopers with his lightsaber like he’s Link taking on a roomful of clay pots, and then, just when you’re about to fall to the Jedi’s blade, an AT-ST will round the corner and save your life, allowing you to continue into battle, where a low-flying X-wing will pick you off.

When all of these elements are working together, that’s when Star Wars Battlefront really shines.  Yes, the game’s aesthetic elements do an expert job of capturing the feel of a Star Wars movie at every turn, but when you add the cast of overpowered heroes and villains to the mix, and you have X-wings and TIE Fighters dropping out of the sky, and you have AT-STs trudging across the battlefield, playing Battlefront goes from feeling like you’re watching a Star Wars movie to feeling like you’re participating in the titular wars.  Forty players is a lot, but Battlefront’s 20-vs.-20 modes manage to feel even bigger, like they might secretly be 100-vs.-100.  There’s so much going on at any given moment that you can’t help but feel like one small part of a massive galactic conflict.  The (unintended) side-effect of this is that you can find yourself engaged in minor skirmishes so far from the center of the battlefield that the round’s end feels anticlimactic; it’s possible to go an entire round of Supremacy, for example, without ever setting foot near one of the contested control points.  But your personal disengagement from the round’s outcome is easily offset by the fact that the minute-to-minute gameplay is so exhilarating.

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Ultimately, Battlefront lives and dies with its theme.  Whereas I play a game like Titanfall almost exclusively for its mechanics, completely ignorant of whatever narrative context there may be for my actions, I play Battlefront almost exclusively for its theme.  And I’m having a blast.  It feels like being in a Star Wars movie, especially during the big, 20-vs.-20 modes.  As a shooter, it’s hard to recommend Battlefront when there are so many other shooters on the market with more robust mechanics and progression systems, and with more maps, guns, items, and options.  I’d be enjoying the game a lot less if it weren’t a Star Wars game.  But then, I’d enjoy Madden a lot less if I weren’t a football fan, so that’s not really a meaningful criticism.

As a shooter, Battlefront is passable, but as a Star Wars game it’s excellent.  The game delivers the type of Star Wars experience I’ve been dreaming of for years, a more authentic and immersive experience than any previous game set in the storied science fiction universe has before.  On the one hand, I wish there was more to this game: I wish there was a deeper progression system to keep me engaged, reward my play, and allow me to customize my experience; I wish there were more maps than the included thirteen, or that they at least actually functioned as thirteen maps, and not nine or four; I wish I could mantle over the game’s often rugged terrain.  But, on the other hand, none of this is really detracting from the experience.  I’m still having a lot of fun playing Battlefront despite all the things it’s not.  That may change in a few months, when I’ve unlocked everything, but for now the game’s call is irresistible.  It’s keeping me up way too late and luring me away from other games again and again.  And as the opening shot in what will be a fusillade of Star Wars console games from EA, Battlefront is nothing short of excellent, and has me salivating for what’s to come.

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Read all about What I Play When I Play.

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