Reviews

Star Wars: Battlefront Review – Shallow But Fun, It Is

star-wars-battlefront-review

Platforms: Xbox One, PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: DICE
Publisher: EA
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Striding through the icy tunnels of Hoth as Darth Vader, cutting down rebel scum with ease; battling the Imperial forces on the forest moon of Endor as Luke Skywalker while the Empire’s dreaded AT-AT stomps ever closer to victory; watching as a X-Wing comes screaming downwards for a perfect strafing run on an AT-ST; feeling a chill run down my spin as a team-mate is suddenly yanked up into the air and choked to death, the sure sign that I’m seconds away from death as Darth Vader himself comes into view; defending an AT-AT as nothing more than a Stormtrooper, witnessing raging battle on both land in the sky. Because of my love of Star Wars, my passion for a trilogy that is now more than 30-years old, and because of DICE’s beautifully detailed recreation of those movies, these moments will undoubtedly remain some of the strongest gaming memories from this year, and of all time.

As someone who has sunk countless, countless hours into the original two Battlefront games and spent equally ludicrous amounts of time becoming as good as I could be with the legendary Heroes and Villains in order to chop down the enemy, I’ve been waiting a long time to see the franchise brought back to life. A very long time. But I need to push that aside, because when we compare DICE’s effort to the older games its easy to become annoyed at the lack of space combat, the much smaller roster of Heroes and Villains and even the absence of a singleplayer mode, although to be utterly frank most reviewers have rose-tinted glasses on and seem to remember Battlefront II’s campaign as being something fantastic, when it really wasn’t. I’ve always held that if a game can be singleplayer only, then it’s perfectly acceptable to have a multiplayer only game as well, and that arguing against such a thing is a concept from a dead era. Why should a game envisioned as a multiplayer experience be forced to waste money and time on creating a singleplayer using mechanics not designed for it, just in the same way that a game designed to be played solo tries to jam its mechanics into Deathmatch?

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The point is a game needs to be reviewed for what it is, and what it’s attempting to be rather than judging it based on what form the public have decided it should be, which is difficult but ultimately what I believe to be a critic’s job. It may have the Battlefront name, but no point has DICE or EA attempted to claim that this is a sequel. Underneath it’s absurdly lavish presentation this new iteration of Battlefront is built on three concepts; make it look and sound like Star Wars, make it simple, and make it accessible. And on those three things, Battlefront succeeds. There’s nothing inherently wrong with making a simple, easy to play shooter because the market has plenty of alternatives. Sometimes you really just want to shoot some stuff in the face, rather than contend with legions of unlocks that alter the battle, bullet drop, nuanced combat and the like. There’s room for both, so let’s tackle why Battlefront works. Why its great. And then we’ll chat about what’s wrong, because there are problems, too. Quite a few. But for now consider this; if you want a deep shooter or a sequel to Battlefront II, go elsewhere. This isn’t it. If you want something that’s just fun, keep reading.

As a prime example of how the combat has been kept simple you’ve got unlimited ammo, so you can hold down the trigger and never worry about running out, although blasters will overheat which results in a Gears of War style “active reload” system for a chance to instantly cool it down. Likewise grenades and other usable equipment merely have a timer that counts down the seconds until you can lob another explosive at some hapless foes.  You can zoom in by holding RT and crouch by tapping B, but neither of these things will increase your accuracy, so you remain as capable of hitting a target using the non-zoomed view as you are aiming down the sights. Combined with generous auto-aim and the slightly fuzzy nature of the laser rounds it makes Star Wars: Battlefront feel like it doesn’t want you to miss whatever is in your sights.  You can’t quite hold down the trigger until everything dies as burst fire still helps maintain accuracy, but its close. Meanwhile there’s no attempting to discern how much health you have left as there’s a clear meter at the bottom of the screen, and it’ll refill if you can get behind cover for long enough. Finally headshots do extra damage so that more accurate players can polish off the enemy with easier, but they aren’t install kills.

And it’s a lot of fun. Battlefront goes with a hectic sort of combat where you are never far from the action, but this does come with a major caveat; you die a lot from utter bullshit happening. The maps are sizable, especially on Walker Assault, but they offer little in the way of tactical nuance for teams to flank each or co-ordinate attacks, so all everybody can do is run around shooting madly at each other in until a break in the line gives one team the edge. Smart play really isn’t possible here. Massive open areas mean getting shot from across half the map without any room for retaliation is standard, as is being blown up by the continuous barrage of grenades that greet anyone standing in a corridor. Being killed by the horrible homing missile is also a common occurrence since it’s a one-hit kill, as is being annihilated by an AT-AT out of nowhere or being shot by a Tie Fighter that just happened to fancy taking a few troops out. Compounding this is an atrocious spawn system that seems to randomly decide where you’re going to be placed on the map, frequently right beside or in front of enemies who immediately shoot you. Why doesn’t each side have more distinctive spawning zones? In other words, it’s the Call of Duty approach to multiplayer; spawn, shoot, die, spawn, shoot, die. There’s some minor skill involved and a good player will certainly rise to the top, but for the most part Battlefront is a shallow experience.

On the flipside this means that it is accessible. Practically anyone can jump in and get some kills in, and provided you don’t mind the constantly spawning loop it’s actually kind of fun. I’m not brilliant at shooters, but I’m reasonably good and can usually come out of a match having gotten at least a few kills for every death or having managed to help push toward the objective, and I look tactical shooters where I can flex my mind a little and attempt to out think and outmaneuver the enemy forces, but sometimes it’s nice to play a game where it’s just carnage. Some things just click with some people, and Battlefront clicks with me. Surprisingly it also means that this Battlefront does share something in common with Battlefront 2, which was actually a bit of a mess, too, in terms of battlefields being large and open so that death frequently came from a distance with little hope of retaliation.

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Strewn across the landscape like pale blue candy are power-ups that offer players things like rocket launchers, deployable turrets and powerful explosives. It’s an interesting move to have these placed on the map, adding to a players arsenal while also bringing back a slightly old-school feeling. However, these aren’t power weapons like you might fight over in Halo, rather they can be useful but never too destructive. A well placed blaster turret can make life hell for an enemy but it immediately makes you a target for anybody with a good ranged blaster or grenade. A rocket launcher is a useful tool but you get a single shot, and the incredibly cool Thermal Imploder grenade can do massive damage to a group if you can actually successfully land it. Sometimes their lack of power means that they get ignored, though, bit I’ll take that over making them too game changing. These tokens are also kept until used, so even if you die you won’t lose that precious power-up.

More powerful tokens let you jump into vehicles, including Tie Fighters and X-Wings for some aerial battles and strafing runs, although these are limited to Walker Assault. You can also stomp around in AT-Sts, which is absurdly good fun, and even leap onto an Imperial Speeder before inevitably ploughing into a tree. The AT-ATs are more limited since they are on rails, but you do get to take control of their weapon systems for a while and can decimate enemy forces using them. Interestingly more powerful tokens, such as the Orbital Strike which can lay waste to an AT-AT and access to vehicles, tend to spawn much closer to the frontlines, ensuring that to get to them you need to at least make a mad dash across the battlefield or actually take part in the fight, while weaker tokens tend to be in safer areas. It’s good design.

Of course the highlights are the difficult to grab hero tokens. In Battlefront II heroes were restricted to the best player on either team, but here anybody and everybody has the opportunity to grab a token and pick from one of the three faction specific heroes or villains; Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker for the Rebels, and Boba Fett, Darth Vader and the Emperor for the Empire. Both Leia and the Emperor act as support characters that can lay down handy things like a power-up and a shield and even heal enemies while also coming with a small entourage of honor guards that players can step into the boots of, giving them access to more powerful infantry. Boba Fett and Han naturally serve for longer range play, although Fett seems an overly dominant force right now as his jetpack allows for quick navigation of the maps, his blaster is powerful and accurate, and he boasts a missile launcher and flamethrower. In the hands of a reasonable player Fett can lay waste to the enemy. The lightsaber-wielders are in some ways the toughest to use because the open maps make them vulnerable, but in tighter areas they are naturally a force to be reckoned with. Vader can hurl his ‘saber, force choke enemies and deliver a leaping blow, while Luke has access to Force Throw, a leaping strike that covers a lot of distance and a roundhouse style attack as well. Both have access to Force jumps, and Luke can sprint pretty darn quick. Finally both characters can block incoming blaster fire with their Lightsabers. Look, striding around as Vader or slicing up Stormtroopers as Luke is a beautiful thing. I’m a Star Wars nerd, and it’s just….it’s…..I mean, it’s like being punched in the nostalgia.

Rather than attempting to create a bunch of new weapons and other tat for a progression system DICE have opted for a streamlined approach, keeping it just eleven blasters that each serve slightly different roles on the battlefield. On the equipment side that baffling card system is that so popular right now comes into play, so you can take a “hand” of three cards into battle, two of which are deployable equipment and the third a buff of some description that can be activated, like better weapon stabilisation or an Ion buff that lets your primary weapon do increased damage to vehicle. New cards can be purchased using credits earned in matches and include most of the typical suspects, like impact grenades, small homing missiles and the ever popular jump packs. The customisation is rounded out by being able to purchase new heads for your avatar. Truthfully I’m somewhat torn; I would have liked far more visual customisation options and weapons, but having both limited in this manner keeps the game more faithful to the movies.

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As stated before I don’t hold that a singleplayer game needs multiplayer and vice versa since it’s utterly idiotic to try to jam any title conceived primarily as a multiplayer game into a singleplayer structure. However, the lack of a singleplayer does mean that the multiplayer needs to have significant content on keep the player invested, which is where Battlefront struggles, delivering a paltry four maps for its primary Walker Assault mode. There’s just twelve maps in total, too, which is far too little for a pure multiplayer title, and you won’t even see all twelve unless you happen to enjoy all the different game modes. With a total of sixteen maps having already been announced for four paid expansions there’s plenty more to come, except it leaves people wondering how much was cut to feed forthcoming DLC, or whether DICE did just genuinely run out of time and money at twelve. furthermore, while Halo 5 is offering its maps for free to ensure a strong community Battlefront’s maps will come at a cost, meaning the player base will be split between those who own all the expansions, those who only own some and those who own none. Good job. It’s even more frustrating when you consider two free maps set on Jakku are coming in just a few weeks, the only reason it was kept back from the retail release being so it could be used as a pre-order incentive because people who pre-order get it a week early. Just put it on the disc or give it to everybody at the same damn time!

At leas the selection of game modes is far more up to par. Supremacy is the other large mode which simply has both teams fighting for  control of points in the map with a grant total of forty players duking it out in a mess of laser fire. Should a team control both points the enemy gets pushed back and so on until one team gets to shout hurrah.  Cargo Hunt acts as Capture the Flag so that teams have to go and grab cargo from the enemy while defending theirs. Droid Run is 6v6 trying to maintain control over three slow-moving droids on pretty small maps, while Drop Pod is 8v8 trying to capture pods as they fall from the sky. Blast is a straight-up 10v10 Deathmatch on small maps as well, in case you want something straightforward and simple.

The headlining mode is Walker Assault which neatly manages to capture almost everything about Star Wars and ram it into a game mode.  Essentially in this mode one or two gigantic Imperial AT-ATs are slowly stomping their way through the map on rails, guarded by a legion of 20 players who must stop the opposing Rebel team from activating and maintaining  uplinks. These uplinks allow the Rebels to que up bombing runs on the AT-ATs that will essentially disable the hulking machine’s defenses, letting the Rebels have a brief window to damage them. If the Rebels blow up both AT-ATs before they reach the end of the map they win, and if the Imperials manage to guard their engines of destruction then they achieve victory. Like Supremacy this is a 20 vs 20 mode and is absolutely chaos as Tie fighters and X-Wings fly overhead, strafing the ground and battling with each other while infantry go head to head. The maps are long but usually quite narrow, limiting options, yet it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.

That leaves three modes to talk about in more detail, including one of my favorites: Heroes vs villains. This mode pits all three Heroes and all three Villains against each other with support from regular infantry on quite tight maps, the goal being to simply annihilate the opposing team’s Heroes or Villains to win the round, with five rounds being needed to claim the overall victory, giving plenty of time for everybody to get a shot at waving a Lightsaber or jetpacking around the place like a lunatic. Its surprisingly good fun and solid teamwork will overcome the enemy, whereas in the larger modes there’s not very much room for actual teamwork. Hero Hunt is a bit messier as it involves seven infantry facing off against a single Hero or Villain. The person that delivers the killing shot gets to become the Hero or Villain in the next round and try to stay alive for as long as possible while killing as many people as they can. This creates a nice mixture of uneasy teamwork, but of course also means it’s an inherently awkward system because the person that gets the last shot in is normally just pure luck. The final mode is Squadron Assault which is all about the aerial combat, which sounds fantastic except the flying controls are poor, the ships wallowing about the sky with little precision and almost no sense of weight. The targeting system that can be used by holding down the left trigger is beyond generous, but it needs to be because hitting anything without it is a pain in the ass.

A small nod to singleplayer is included in the form of missions such as a Speeder chase on Endor or piloting a Tie fighter, each designed to act more as a tutorial for the online side of things with some minor rewards for teir completion. A solo or co-operative Survival mode is also included, plus there’s Battles, which is you and a team of AI vs a full team of AI on a map with the first to grab a hundred tokens from dead enemies winning, essentially reskinning Battlefront II’s Instant Action mode, or at least that’s what it initially sounds like. In reality Battles are merely you and four AI team-mates, or a pal in split-screen with the inclusion of local co-op being a nice addition, against four enemy AI on four tiny maps. Hero Battles are the same, except this time you get to control one of the games Heroes or Villains.

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The presentation is nothing short of sublime, combining some of the best graphics ever seen with some of the greatest audio design I’ve heard to create the perfect Star Wars homage. EA have in their hands the most impressive engine for rendering graphics currently, churning out beautiful titles like it’s nothing. Running at 720p on the Xbox One the image isn’t as crisp and sharp as it should be, but it’s surprisingly hard to notice the low resolution thanks to some solid AA at work, and despite the lower pixel count this is an incredibly detailed game, boasting stunning texture work. The snow on Hoth has a light layer of sparkling crystals running along the top of the pleasingly crunchy snow, while the Forest Moon of Endor is lush with foliage that sways in the wind, and don’t even get me started on the splash of water as an AT-AT foot comes stomping down. It’s clear that DICE being able to get their hands on original Star Wars props paid off, too, because everything looks exactly like the original trilogy. John Williams score is, of course, nothing short of masterful, but the rest of the audio is equally impressive. Everything sounds perfect, mimicking the films with stunning accuracy. Close your eyes for a few seconds and you could swear you were right there in the middle of a raging battle with X-Wings swooping over head. With a good audio system this is just….it’s sublime.  The only hiccup is the voice acting, which is utter crap. Palpatine sounds like he’s voiced by Mr. Bean, and while good Darth Vader impersonators are everywhere it seems EA and DICE managed to hunt down the worst soundalike possible. Han Solo sounds vaguely like his movie counterpart, although that isn’t enough to redeem the crappy one-liners. C’mon, guys, you did amazing everywhere else, why did you skimp on this?

Credit has to be given to DICE for a technically polished game, too, especially since their Battlefield serious is frequently so messy. Even with its glorious graphics the game is running at 60fps, and while there are occasional dips they’re not substantial. During my time with the game, which clocked in at somewhere around 15-hours, I didn’t find any notable glitches bar one; a message telling me that I didn’t meet the criteria to play online. A quick console reboot fixed that one. Otherwise it was an impressively problem free experience, and the first game in quite some time where I didn’t need to download a day-1 patch and didn’t spend a lot of my time cursing how games were getting kicked out of the door in such poor states Here’s hoping Battlefield 5 manages to do the same, although it’s clearly Battlefront’s tighter focus and simpler design philosophy that has enable DICE to polish it up so well. The only hiccup was the servers which seem to be straining a little, resulting in some slightly weak connections.

Of course eventually the dazzling effects and ear-meltingly pleasing audio loses its captivating hold, at which point it becomes obvious that Battlefront is a very straightforward shooter hiding beneath the worlds shiniest coat and begins to struggle. Simplicity has its benefits, but naturally comes with a huge problem – keeping players playing. An hour or two is enough at any given time, because otherwise you’ll grow tired of the game and its lack of player creativity within the combat. As we’ve already covered, there’s not much in the way of tactics at work within Battlefront, and the maps  are more restrictive than they first appear. IN a way it reminds me of another EA published shooter, Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare. I know, it’s a strange comparison, but that was a shooter that opted for simplicity over depth, and surprised a lot of people with just how fun it was.

The blunt truth is that I kind of love Battlefront. It’s a shallow experience, and that’s okay because there’s room for complexity and simplicity. It’s not the kind of game you should spend an entire day playing, but rather one you should fire up and play for an hour or two before delving into something deeper. It’s about as far from tactical as it can get, deaths occur at random most of the time and it needs more damn maps! I still love it, though. I’m still having heaps of fun with it, living out my childhood fantasies with a level of glee that should probably be illegal. However, right now my opinion seems to be the “wrong” opinion, at least according to the Internet who would seemingly like to see the last vestiges of criticism crushed in favor of people who blindly agree to only love or hate games that the Internet has pre-approved. Game criticism is being crushed between a community that will downcall anything that doesn’t agree with it, and publishers that can keep journalists in their back pocket. But that’s a conversation for another time.

Still, Battlefront doesn’t earn a flat-out recommendation sticker. It’s not quite that good, when I try to step away from those boyhood fantasies and analyse the game for what it is. Go and buy it if you want something that’s fun and you don’t get too hung up on the competitive side of things. If you want tactical shooting where skill matters, there’s a lot of awesome titles that are perfect for that. Battlefront ultimately succeeds in its goals of being the best visual and audio recreation of Star Wars to date in videogames, of and of being accessible to absolutely everyone through simplicity. Judged by what it is, it’s a success. Judged by what people hoped it would be, it’s something of a failure. Take that how you will.

 

 

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