When Battlefield Hardline was leaked late last month, the reaction was swift, and for Electronic Arts at least, quite negative.
"If this were real life, those police officers would be kicked out of the force before they could blink an eye," a journalist friend of mine from another outlet groused in reference to Hardline's questionable realism following the leak. Others in the media have echoed his sentiments.
The negative buzz does not bode well for Hardline's prospects as a tentpole release at E3. But EA has an ace up its sleeve that should take everyone's mind off what is looking like a disappointing spinoff—Star Wars. Specifically, the long-awaited sequel to Star Wars: Battlefront. Though not a fall release, Battlefront has been confirmed for E3, and it's almost certain to drum up more interest than Hardline or anything else that EA will show this year.
Battlefront was kind of last generation's Bigfoot; the next-gen sequel that was the subject of constant speculation, but had little in the way of hard evidence. Its unique mix of air and ground-based multiplayer combat was a natural fit for the more advanced online play offered by the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3; but for whatever reason, it just never materialized. Fans instead had to content themselves with the likes of Renegade Squadron for the PSP, which was fine for what it was but certainly not the next-generation offering they were hoping for.
To see it fall into the hands of DICE—the developers of Battlefield and one of EA's top studios—is pretty much the best case scenario for the Battlefront series. If anyone can capture the sprawling size of Battlefront's combat—from the X-wings in space to AT-ATs and Jedi on the ground—it's them. Their A-team is probably hard at work on Battlefront at we speak, which would likely explain why Battlefield ended up being outsourced to Visceral (and what appears to be their B-team at that, since Visceral is hard at work on their own Star Wars project, whatever that might be).
Given its pedigree and the pent up demand from years of waiting, I expect Star Wars: Battlefront to steal the show this year, even if it's ultimately not on the show floor. No one puts together a non-playable demo quite like DICE, who use over-the-top design (remember the collapsing skyscraper from last year's Battlefield 4 demo?) and thundering reverb to great effect to sell their games. No matter how good the final product ends up being, DICE will be out to make a statement with Battlefront.
When they do, it will have been a long time coming. It's been almost a decade now since I first played Battlefront 2 on the PlayStation 2, but even then I was struck by the scope and ambition of its combat. I loved that I could hop into an X-wing; land in an enemy cruiser, and battle my way to the core to take it out—something I had dreamed of doing as far back as 1994 when I played TIE Fighter. The PSP version of all things showed that it was possible to mix both ground and space into one massive battlefield. There really hasn't been anything quite like it since, and it's kind of a crime that it's taken this long for a real sequel to happen. If it even comes close to reaching its potential, I don't see many games topping it, at least not at this year's show.
The reaction to Battlefront, whatever it turns out to be, should provide a good barometer for what to expect from EA and the Star Wars license going forward. EA gets a lot of justified flack from fans the media alike, but the reality is that they're probably the publisher best equipped to handle a unique license like Star Wars. They have prior experience with the franchise thanks to BioWare—even if Star Wars: The Old Republic wasn't what they hoped it would be—and the resources and expertise to really do something special. Nabbing writer/director Amy Hennig, best-known for her outstanding work on the Uncharted series, is already a huge win for both Star Wars and EA from a PR standpoint. Even if Battlefront ends up getting buried, positive things would seem to be on the horizon for Star Wars.
I don't think Battlefront will be buried though. With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One still working to get a foothold with mainstream gamers, the field is wide open for new and exciting games that can really convey the meaning of "next-generation gaming." We've seen bits and pieces of that here and there with Titanfall and Watch_Dogs; but for all the excitement around those two games, I feel like gamers are still looking for "the one." You can call it "the next Call of Duty" or whatever you want. Battlefront may not be it, but it's certainly well-positioned to thrive in the current vaccuum.
E3 could well be big moment for Disney, which almost certainly has expectations for Star Wars on par with that of Marvel. They must realize that, for all of the Avengers' popularity, videogames continue to be a serious achilles heel for the series. Outside of LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, it's hard to think of a single Marvelverse game that could be termed significant. With EA's muscle behind it, Star Wars won't have that problem. In their mind's eye, I'm sure Disney can see Star Wars games intertwining with the movies in ways that the Marvelverse can only dream of. Games like Battlefront have the weight and clout to be a tentpole release on par with that of Winter Soldier, but without the associated franchise fatigue (or less of it, anyway). In that regard, there's probably a lot more riding on this E3 for Disney and EA than you or I can imagine.
Personally, I'm just glad to have some good Star Wars games again. For a while there, I wasn't sure that the license would ever recover from LucasArts' chronic mismanagement. When DICE takes the stage to formally unveil Star Wars: Battlefront, I'll be there watching, eager to see whether it matches up to all of my expectations from the past decade or so. I don't expect I'll be disappointed.