Star Wars Battlefront Is No Generic Shoot-Em-Up Game
The taste of Electronic Arts’ Star Wars: Battlefront offered in this weekend’s public beta, which opened Thursday and ends on Monday, feels like nothing so much as an argument for the primacy of aesthetics. From the moment I hit the ground, it was clear that this is not a multiplayer shooter with a Star Wars skin. It’s Star Wars. I’m not yet sure if this is a liability or a triumph.
The first gunfight you see in the Star Wars universe is brief and messy. Imperial Stormtroopers board a Rebel ship and exchange blaster fire with its defenders. The Stormtroopers cut through them. Each shot fired—the now-iconic thick, heavy red bolt of energy—creates an improbable amount of smoke and sparks, and the whole thing looks like a homemade fireworks show.
Star Wars: Battlefront, to be released November 17 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC, seems designed to replicate the feeling of that encounter. In that regard, it’s shaping up to be a huge success. It captures the clumsy, slightly unreliable feel of the universe’s gunplay. Every aesthetic element, from the shapes of the matte-black small arms to the way each shot fired careens across the map in real time, is a meticulous recreation of the design in the films.
Every skirmish I played felt oppressively chaotic, as hundreds of blaster bolts screamed over my head and Stormtroopers advanced over the far hill. This might be the most technologically advanced and faithful reproduction of the aesthetics of the original films in any videogame ever made. Playing in that world is as satisfying and exciting as when I used to smash my action figures together while The Empire Strikes Back played for the millionth time in the background.
Some of Battlefront’s design decisions have me worried, though. While they all seem to be made with faithfulness to the source material in mind, some of them seem to leave behind the elements that keep multiplayer shooters interesting for the long haul.
The meatiest mode, Walker Assault, sports up to 40 players recreating the battle on snow-covered Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back. In the beta, it is an exercise in how not to balance a multiplayer mode.
It’s asymmetric, which is to say that the two sides have fundamentally different roles. The Empire has to defend the slow progress of nearly indestructible AT&Ts toward the Rebel base; the Rebels, meanwhile, have to coordinate bombing runs that make the AT&Ts vulnerable to fire. The problem is that, like in the film, the Empire here has a huge advantage. This is far from a scientific analysis, but in my experience I’ve yet to see the Rebels even come close to destroying the Imperial Walkers. While this is a faithful choice, it’s not clear how much fun a mode so stacked in one side’s favor is going to be over time.
Walker Assault is also the only available mode that lets players play as special characters Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Both are accessible via power-up tokens picked up around the map. There’s some novelty in this, but the execution feels lacking. The heroes are clumsy to control, and don’t seem to have much influence on the proceedings of the match. They seem to be there solely because it’s Star Wars and they have to.
Some of the character customization choices seem to operate under similar reasoning. Secondary weapons are handled like special abilities, operating via “Star Cards” that you buy with experience points (yes, really, they’re imaginary trading cards) and handled via timer. The sniper rifle, for instance, is a card, and you get one shot before a roughly ten-second cooldown period that prevents you from even drawing it.
The effect of this is to keep everyone using those iconic blaster rifles. But it comes at a cost of a sense of specialization or progress. Even the most powerful character is going to be using standard weapons the vast majority of the time.
Those choices, again, allow for remarkable moments. As I write this, I’m aching to return to the rocky cover of Sullust’s dark beaches and huddle there, waiting for Rebel scum to round the corner as massive capital ships exchange laser fire in the sky. Star Wars: Battlefront captures the mood and feel of the original trilogy’s action with unprecedented fidelity. As a shooter, however, it feels limited by its own reverence. From what I’ve seen so far, EA might be gambling on it being worth the trade-off.