Star Wars Battlefront
Developed by: DICE
Published by: EA
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows
“It can be anything you want it be,” Lawrence Kasdan, screenwriter of “Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi,” and the forthcoming “The Force Awakens,” said about “Star Wars” in a recent interview with “Wired.” In its nearly 40 years, “Star Wars” has been made into everything from breakfast cereals to bed sheets, discussed as evolving into an official religion and inspired the name for a species of acorn worms. In video games, “Star Wars” has been mostly militarized, part of a psychological terraforming that has transformed its celestial landscapes into killing grounds. “Star Wars Battlefront” is an awkward summation of this tradition, an ungainly and joyless multiplayer shooter that feels eerily at odds with its source material.
Developed by DICE, the Swedish studio behind the “Battlefield” games, “Battlefront” is a revival of a series of third-person shooting games from the mid-2000s made popular by the now defunct Pandemic Studios. The game overflows with sharply detailed “Star Wars” iconography that has been detached from its narrative framing and turned into centerpieces of ceaseless war. With five tutorial missions, nine multiplayer game types and two single player modes, spread across 12 maps, “Battlefront” feels massive yet most of its modes wind up feeling like chores.
The centerpiece is “Supremacy” a 40-player pell-mell in which teams compete to sequentially capture one of five control points spread across the map. Only four of the 13 maps are big enough to accommodate this mode, which often feels like trying to play tug of war as a group of ants. “Walker Assault” is a more interesting 40-player mode that has one side escorting a giant AT-AT toward a rebel base on the far end of the map. Along the way there are rebel relay stations transmitting the AT-AT’s coordinates to circling Y-wing bombers.
If the rebels defend the stations long enough to complete the transmission, the Y-wings will begin a bombing run that makes the AT-ATs temporarily vulnerable to damage. If the Imperials can capture the stations and disrupt the transmission, the AT-AT will continue its march unharmed. The presence of multiple active stations helps to keep players from clustering and encourages more tactical improvisation.
There’s another mode dedicated to aerial combat called “Flight Squadron.” Every map is set high above a planet’s surface and offers little topography to play with. Playing feels like spiraling through a gigantic fishbowl while shooting at gnats. There are also a couple of modes built around the six playable hero characters DICE has culled from the movies—Luke, Han, Leia; and Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, and Boba Fett. Each has his or her own unique attacks and can all absorb enormous amounts of damage before dying. These modes sound interesting, but the emphasis on lightsaber attacks, lightning blasts, and shoulder charges feel loose and weightless –more like placeholder ideas — that never quite mesh with gunplay.
And in lieu of a single player story mode, DICE has repurposed a number of multiplayer maps into skirmishes against AI bots in the form of “Battles” and “Survival.” In “Battles” you’ll try to beat a team of bots to 100 by collecting gold tokens that drop when you kill an enemy. “Survival” leaves you stranded in a large map and asks you to hold out through 15 waves of increasingly difficult enemies and vehicles. Both modes are exhaustingly monotonous in their own way, too easy on lower difficulties, and too punitive on higher ones, highlighting big flaws in map sightlines, cover placement, jetpack recharge times, and the frequently nonsensical AI.
Connecting all of these incongruent modes is an upgrade economy that creates the impression of progress. In multiplayer you earn experience points for kills, capturing strategic objectives, and completing challenges (e.g. have 25 kills with a heavy blaster, destroy 10 AT-ATs). Each new level unlocks new weapons and secondary items that can be bought with credits earned from either single-player or multiplayer. The economy is haphazard, with jet packs and grenades available from the outset in “Survival” and “Battle” modes but locked away in standard multiplayer, adding to the uneven sense of play.
As with a number of other economy-driven shooters, “Battlefront” is a deeply unpleasant game that would be difficult to return to without the economic progress narrative to chase. It’s more stressful than playful to sprint 150 meters through gullies and gunfire trying to capture some strategic point, wondering where my teammates are, then sprint back to the opposite end of the map after a previously secured area falls into enemy hands. The upgrade economy can provide a simulation of significance to these moments of stress and strain. In good moments, it feels like you’re heading somewhere promising, halfway to getting a gun you really want. In bad moments, getting what you want is a pleasureless anti-climax, that leaves you even further away from the next upgrade milestone.
For Kasdan, “Star Wars” was appealing because its malleability was always oriented toward the promise of self-discovery. “Even when you get to be my age, you’re still trying to figure that out,” he told Wired. “It’s amazing but it’s true. What am I, what am I about, have I fulfilled my potential, and, if not, is there still time?” “Battlefront” inverts this idea, using the fantasy of military heroics to lure players into an escapist pyramid scheme, a grunt-eye view of someone else’s happy ending.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.
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