Electronic Arts shot first.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: November 17, 2015
Copy supplied by publisher
I love Star Wars Battlefront.
It is, in fact, the most fun I’ve had with an online shooter for years, and I’m not saying that out of mawkish Star Wars nostalgia. I like the original Star Wars films, but I’m not what you’d call a huge fan. Oddly, I’m not a big fan of either Battlefront or Battlefield either, which may go some way toward explaining why I’ve so enjoyed myself with DICE’s galactic shooter.
The game is neither enough like the old Battlefront games nor recent Battlefield releases to please anybody looking for a direct continuation of either. Those who expected a traditional Star Wars Battlefront game will likely be the most disappointed, as this manic first-person shooter strips away a lot of what fans expected. No space battles, no campaign mode, no classes – just a load of fast-paced shooting.
I happen to enjoy a load of fast-paced shooting, and the Star Wars flavor is just an added bit of garnishing.
As far as garnish goes, however, DICE really nailed it. The visual design, sound effects, and overall atmosphere of Battlefront provides what may be the most authentic Star Wars experience a videogame has provided. As blaster fire zooms overhead, Ewoks scream from the trees, and TIE Fighters let loose their shriek across the skies, the sense of being part of a climactic fight in a galaxy far, far away is thoroughly evocative.
The whole thing is gorgeous, to boot. Environments are beautifully designed, richly detailed, and full of inspiring visual effects. Stepping out onto Endor for the first time, green trees slick with torrential rainfall, is simply breathtaking.
Combat is pretty damn satisfying – the various range of blasters to unlock look, sound, and punch like the real thing (not that blasters are real), while various toys like thermal detonators and jetpacks are a joy to use. Rather than give players specific classes, characters are customized via Star Cards, a hand of up to three abilities/weapons that can be used to bolster one’s loadout.
Most Star Cards operate on a cooldown timer and take the form of unique weapons like Pulse Cannons and explosives, or special equipment that temporarily stops your gun overheating or increases your accuracy. As players level up, passive cards can also be equipped to reduce blast damage, speed up health regeneration, and more.
In addition to equippable cards, there are item pickups dotted around each map with one-use gun turrets, attack droids, and other fun playthings.
Overall, it’s a great little system that lets you have flexibility without the need to lock into a specific role. I’ve gained a lot of enjoyment from unlocking and upgrading my favorite cards, and you can also have multiple “hands” to change your loadout mid-match.
There are cosmetic customizations including various preset heads and emotes, but I haven’t found this element quite so edifying. For a start, the Imperial customizations are weak as hell, and any visually distinctive appearances are withheld for the very highest levels. Until you reach level forty, you’re stuck with a variety of generic heads, though DICE has an impressively diverse amount for all races and sexes to enjoy.
Matches range from small skirmishes to large, 40-player rumbles across huge maps. The biggest and most intense match type is Skirmish, where two teams of twenty are joined by playable heroes – Luke, Leia and Han for the Rebels, Vader, Palpatine and Boba Fett for the Empire – in a massive fight to claim territory and push one side back. These battles can feature speeder bikes, AT-ST walkers, as well as dogfights in the sky between your obligatory X-Wings and TIE Fighters.
There’s also Walker Assault, in which the defending rebels must try and halt an incoming wave of Imperial AT-AT Walkers. It’s an interesting match, though it favors the Empire so much it’s a little one-sided.
Personally, I prefer the smaller, objective-oriented fights, such as Droid Run, a mode where you capture and hold Power Droids that walk around the map saying “Gonk.” Hero Hunt is another personal favorite, a six-a-side battle in which one side has to eliminate the other team’s heroes. A lot of the smaller map modes have engaging objectives that are much better suited to those who want to do more than just kill stuff.
On the subject of heroes, it’s as empowering as it should be to step into the alarmingly tight leggings of Palpatine or slash one’s way across the map as Luke Skywalker. Each hero, played from a third-person perspective, has a range of special abilities that operate on their own cooldown timers, and they can cut through regular players like butter. The downside is that their health doesn’t regenerate, so every hero is destined to suffer death by a thousand cuts eventually.
As a regular player, it can be downright terrifying to suddenly find yourself facing Darth Vader, knowing he can just Force choke you in an instant. Nothing quite beats the feeling of taking him down, however, being that one to put the final boot in and lay claim to his big helmeted head.
I have to say though – I’ve no idea what’s going on with Darth Vader’s voice. Every other main character sounds fine, but there’s something offputtingly dorky about the way DICE has Vader speaking.
Dogfights aren’t so thrilling, and are by far the weakest part of Battlefront‘s package. Taking to the skies is a surprisingly boring affair – vehicles are slow moving while combat is a simple case of locking on and holding down the fire button, hoping for victory. There’s an entire match type revolving around airborne fights, but it’s incredibly dull.
If I have the option to use air vehicles in Suppression mode, I more or less ignore it – it’s just not fun.
Everything else, however, I’m adoring. Absolutely adoring. The Star Card system, the regular drip-feed of unlocks, the decent matchtype variety, Battlefront ticks all my boxes, and it’s a game I can envision playing for quite some time, even after this review’s done n’ dusted.
All that said, however, there’s an elephant in the room that needs addressing – the business model.
I usually try and separate the business of games from the art of games when reviewing them, but when I feel that the former has impacted the latter, I’ve got to make it part of my critique. To that end, I can only express dismay at what I see as a potential fracturing of Battelfront‘s excellent foundation once the promised avalanche of downloadable content starts falling.
It’s hard to ignore Battlefront‘s tie-in $50 Season Pass – the game itself prominently displays an advertisement for it every time you view the main menu. More than that, though, this is being presented as a pass that’s almost obligatory for the long-term enjoyment of the game. As well as new weapons, heroes, and expansion packs, this pass promises a whole 16 new maps, something that will undeniably break up the userbase and strongarm players into buying.
It doesn’t help that, as good as Battlefront is, it feels like more of a starting point than a complete package. Only a few hours of playing will be enough to see every map in the game, and with no campaign to speak of – only a wave-based horde mode for solo or co-op play – there’s not a lot of meat on the bones, especially for those who get bored easily.
In many ways, Battlefront finds itself an unlikely comparison in Splatoon.
Like Splatoon, I’m finding the multiplayer compelling enough to keep going back, but unlike Nintendo’s squid-themed shooter, we’re going to have to pay for any increased longevity. It’s like Electronic Arts adopted Nintendo’s “game-as-service” model but made us pay for it where Nintendo didn’t. With these expansions being so potentially crucial, it’s not unfair to suggest that the real MSRP of Battlefront is $110, rather than $60.
Except we don’t even know if the other half of the game will even be worth that much money.
This close to launch, it’s hard to tell exactly what impact Battlefront‘s business model will have on the game and its audience, but it’s enough to lower my opinion of what should be a potential game-of-the-year candidate for me. I’m not being hyperbolic when I talk about how much damn fun I’m having with this – but I keep thinking about the future, and I cannot in good faith give this game super high scores and accolades when Electronic Arts’ plan is the exact opposite of what I want to see in videogames.
It makes for a frustrating review – trying to balance the amount of enjoyment I’ve had versus the overbearing money-grubbing that’s going on from a company that’s only pulling this shit because it can, not because it needs to – effectively exploiting the power of the Star Wars name and abusing the loyalty of its fandom in a way that’s not even vaguely subtle.
Electronic Arts has been shameless in its behavior, but again, I can’t stress enough how much of a delight the game itself has been – at least during its launch period. That I’m not just slapping a five or lower on the score should be taken as a sign of just how high the quality is. That I cannot give it higher than a seven, conversely, speaks volumes of how overwhelming a shadow has been cast by its DLC.
The best way to describe Star Wars Battlefront, I feel, is to call it what it is – a good game that was deliberately designed to not be a great one.
I wanted to rate it higher than this. Way higher.
At least the online connection is mostly stable, though. As far as EA launches go, that’s pretty amazing.