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Something struck me while I was playing Star Wars Battlefront 2's new single-player mode: Whether they mean to or not, DICE is effectively making a new Shadows of the Empire.
It hearkens back to the mid-90s, a period when Star Wars was back on the rise after an extended absence, and the Expanded Universe books had fans hungry for lore. In the absence of a new movie--the prequels were still a few years off--Shadows of the Empire was conceived as a way to fill the gap between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi with a story that would be treated with all the marketing pomp of a feature film. It brought with it a book, comics, toys, and of course, a video game.
Battlefront 2's singleplayer is not getting quite the same push as Shadows of the Empire, but it is similar to LucasArts' old transmedia project in other ways. Like Shadows of the Empire, Battlefront 2's story takes places between two established movies, in this case Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. It also ties in to an upcoming novel, titled "Battlefront II: Inferno Squad," which will dramatize the adventures of Battlefront II hero Iden Versio.
In fact, when Janina Gavankar, who portrays Versio in Battlefront 2, found out that there would be a novelization, she insisted on speaking with its author.
"We set up a Skype call and I got all of her backstory, and the origin of Inferno Squad," she told USgamer. Gavankar, it should be said, is really committed to the role of Versio, even wearing theme appropriate earrings to the event--one the Imperial logo, the other the symbol of Inferno Squad.
Anyway, in the tradition of classic Star Wars gaming, Battlefront 2's single-player will have plenty of ties into the canon. According to DICE, it will have nods to Star Wars Rebels, "familiar faces" will appear, and the story itself will continue up to and through The Force Awakens.
"We're working extremely closely with Disney on this," design director Steve Masters said.
The actual gameplay is reminiscent of Shadows of the Empire as well. It begins with Versio hopping into a TIE Fighter with one of her cohorts and shooting down X-wings and Corellian Corvettes as they assault the Fondor Shipyards. It reminds me of how Shadows of the Empire opened with the Battle of the Hoth and blew our collective minds. It's because of Hoth that Shadows of the Empire is remembered at all.
Yes, it's true--Shadows of the Empire was not very good. After the high of Hoth, it became a mix of disparate elements: one level would be a turret shoot 'em up, another would involved space combat, and yet another would take place on foot. The sequences that put Dash Rendar on foot were infamously the worst moments in Shadows of the Empire, with boring, one-note corridors and simple, repetitive blasting comprising the bulk of the action.
Battlefront 2 fares a bit better, of course. After a few moments spent chasing X-wings, Versio blasts her way into a Calamari Cruiser's hangar--the Rebels really need better security--and wreaks havoc with her TIE Fighter's guns. Then she hops out and heads into the bowels of the cruiser for a bit of sabotage.
The action here is mostly just okay. Like Dash, she spends the bulk of her time in winding corridors, but she has a few more tools at her disposal. She can throw thermal detonators as well as more powerful explosives, and she has a tiny droid that can shock enemy troopers. The droid, creatively named "Droid" (the Empire doesn't give their machines cute nicknames or designations), will be customizable, with builds that will let it heal, shock, shield, or scan allies and enemies.
The narrow encounter spaces make the battles feel somewhat claustrophic, as you spend a bunch of time shooting Rebel soldiers as they pack through narrow chokepoints. It's very linear, save for one route split that lets you flank around and attack a heavily fortified room from the rear. In the end, you protect Droid as it slices into the computer, and you destroy Ion Cores that zap the entire room. Then you get blown into space and... well... you'll have to place the rest for yourself.
To be clear: DICE is not cutting corners with this mode. The space battles are big and exciting, and it flows together in a way that's pretty impressive. If Shadows of the Empire were made in 2017, I'd imagine it looking something like Battlefront 2. But it does lean pretty heavily on established shooter tropes once you're on the ground.
Still, all of this serves to highlight Battlefront 2's unique status in the gaming world. Licensed games are actually fairly rare these days, and licensed games that actually matter in the grand scheme of the lore are even rarer. Star Wars has always been at pains to present a cohesive, connected universe, and that remains the case even as Disney tears down the original canon and replaces it with a whole new story.
Battlefront 2 is yet one more building block in a new Expanded Universe comprising a whole raft of fiction; and like Shadows of the Empire, it fills in a rather significant part of the lore. But we've also come a long way since 1996, and where Shadows of the Empire was a bold and even slightly crazy experiment, Battlefront 2 is on much firmer ground. Looking back on it, Shadows of the Empire might have been a little too far ahead of its time. It wanted to offer cinematic storytelling and gameplay, but the tech wasn't really there yet. Now that it is, Battlefront 2 stands to finish the work that Shadows of the Empire began, assuming DICE pull it off.
While it's just one part of a much larger game, Battlefront 2's goal is the same as Shadows of the Empire's was back in the day: expand the lore Star Wars universe. In that sense, Star Wars has truly come full circle.