While the world buzzed about the new The Force Awakens trailer that had just played next door, Electronic Arts quietly took the wraps off another long-awaited piece of Star Wars media — Battlefront.
In a replica of the briefing room from Return of the Jedi, DICE showed several minutes of gameplay footage from a battle on Endor, replete with speeder bikes, AT-ATs, and starfighters. Though not much more than teaser itself, it constitutes a promising slice of what to expect when Star Wars Battlefront finally arrives later this year. DICE has definitely not been idle these last two years.
What really stood out to me, though, was how closely it resembled the original Battlefront. I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised given that DICE's effort bears the same name; but in the back of my mind, I had kind of wondered whether Battlefront would just be a re-skinned Battlefield, with X-wings taking the place of fighter jets. The first few minutes certainly have that feel, particularly when the on-screen player calls in a Y-wing airstrike to knock out an AT-AT.
But then one of the Rebels is grabbed in a Force choke and Darth Vader appears on the screen, his crimson lightsaber casually deflecting away the on-screen player's attacks. It was at that point that I began to relax. DICE, it seemed, had a better grasp on Battlefront than I gave them credit for.
A Long Time Ago... in 2005
My first experience with Battlefront came back in 2005. I hadn't planned on picking it up - my PC was nowhere near up to scratch at that time - but I ended up winning a copy of the sequel for the PlayStation 2. When I fired it up, I was shocked. Though crude in some ways, its scope was incredibly impressive. I had never played a Star Wars game like it.
Spanning battlefields from all six movies, Battlefront II encompassed battles on both ground and in space, featuring a wide range of familiar characters and vehicles. Battlefront had its similarities to Battlefield — which launched the same year Pandemic commenced development on the original game — but it also had many differences. Structurally, Battlefront owed a tremendous amount to the movies, and was as much reliant on its A.I. bots as it was human teamwork.
On Hoth, for instance, the Empire would start with a handful of AT-ATs, which could be taken down by tow cables but were otherwise practically invincible, In effect, the Rebels had to fight a delaying action while trying to sneak through the ice cave to take the Imperial base. The Empire, meanwhile, would need to get a walker up close enough for a ranged bombardment. It was in some ways limiting, but it was nevertheless faithful to the movies.
The bots, meanwhile, were there to serve as meat for the grinder, stir up trouble by commandeering the odd vehicle, and to stir up trouble. Killing one of them wasn't very hard at all, but with a human player at their back, they could become a lethal distraction. Bots were optional in Battlefront, but in general, they were something you wanted to turn on, despite the fact that they were incredibly stupid. They made it feel like a true battlefield.
Ultimately, there were a lot of elements that made Battlefront unique. The space combat was far more arcade-like than that of Battlefield, resembling the feel of Rogue Squadron much more than an aerial combat simulator, and it was great fun to invade an enemy ship, destroy their core, and make a run for it. The heroes, which could be unlocked by racking up a certain number of points, also made a huge difference. A Jedi was a pure death machine, capable of carving up large swaths of enemies with ease before being put down.
Compared to Battlefield, Battlefront's games moved at a rapid clip, and were characterized by sheer chaos as enemy walkers tromped about and Jedi leapt into the fray. More importantly, though, they felt faithful to the films upon which they were based. I didn't feel like I was fighting a random battle on Hoth — I felt like I was fighting in the Battle of Hoth. To this day, there hasn't been a lot like it.
DICE is in a bit of a weird spot with Battlefront, relatively speaking. They've been tasked with reviving a series that is still fondly remembered by fans like myself and bringing it into the modern era in such a way that the average player can appreciate it. They can almost be forgiven for falling back on what they know.
And indeed, the slice of Battlefront shown at Celebration is initially very similar to Battlefield. It begins with the camera slowly panning over what is clearly Endor, leaving you to think that you're watching an in-engine cutscene until a blaster rifle pops up. What follows is very much in line with the typical DICE demo, only with speeder bikes racing by instead of motorcycles.
Nevertheless, I found myself putting aside my cynicism as the demo progressed. Like the Battlefront games of old, DICE's update feels like Star Wars, with a heavy premium being put on authenticity. As they did at E3 2014, DICE reminded the audience that they had been given access to the LucasFilm archive, where they were able to film and actually digitize many of the old props into the game (yes, digitize is a word again).
The video intones, "When you pick up a lightsaber or hop into an X-wing, it's the lightsaber you're using... it's the X-wing you're flying.
And indeed, Battlefront looks really impressive. DICE's focus on sound technology is a perfect match for Star Wars' iconic music and sound effects, which comes into focus the first time a pair of speed bikes rush by with that familiar swooping sound and a hail of blaster fire breaks out. The AT-AT that comes on the scene later is truly impressive in that regard, its bolts literally exploding when they hit a fallen tree, and its legs rising and falling with that familiar mechanical crash from Empire Strikes Back.
In the sizzle reel that follows a little later, DICE offers glimpses of actually riding on a speeder bike, as well as a shot of a cockpit as an X-wing speeds down a canyon after a pair of TIE Fighters. As I said earlier, it all feels very much like Battlefield in some ways — the shot of the X-wing cockpit could have been that of an F-16 — but there's no question that this game is set in the Star Wars universe.
But let me get back to Darth Vader really quickly.
Obviously, there's nothing quite like a Jedi in the Battlefield series, nor are there any superpowered weapons or characters to unlock. Battlefield's maps are all very deliberately balanced and designed, with the flashpoints being structured around vehicle spawn points and capture points, and the teams are always mirror images of one another.
By contrast, Star Wars is by its very nature an asymmetric experience, with the plucky Rebels taking on the overwhelming might of the Empire. The original Battlefront games reflected that very well in the way they structured their battles and made use of characters like Luke Skywalker. I had wondered if DICE would be able to do the same, but the fact that they are clearly making a deliberate attempt to include heroic characters gives me some hope that Battlefront's resemblance to Star Wars will be more than skin deep.
I mean, yeah, it would be stupid to leave out Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and other heroic characters, but they also don't fit particularly easily into the existing structure of Battlefield. If DICE had been set on porting their existing shooters into the Star Wars universe, they might have quietly dropped them. And there's other evidence that they haven't forgotten the original games as well. At one point in the demo, design director Niklas Fegraeus points out that the camera can easily shift from first-person to third-person — the default perspective of the original games. Whether you will actually want to shift to that perspective is still an open question, but the thought is nice.
Times, of course, have changed a great deal in the past decade or so. DICE and Disney clearly no longer feel any obigation to pay even the barest amount of lip service to the prequels — it was nowhere to be found at Celebration outside of a few winking nods to Jar Jar — which means the Clone Wars factions are almost certainly gone. And more broadly, expectations for shooters have changed. Battlefront was big, chaotic, and undeniably messy, and it had some terrible A.I. The pressure will be on for DICE to produce something more refined, but also faithful to the spirit of the original games. It's not an easy task, but the ability to play as Darth Vader suggests that it's something that's very much on DICE's mind.
However they choose to tackle the Star Wars universe, I have to say that it's good to be back. Based on what was shown in DICE's vertical slice, Battlefront is going to be one of the most ambitious Star Wars games ever made. Outside of maybe Batman, I can't think of any licensed game that commands the pedigree and resources that DICE brings to the table. I'm legitimately excited to play Battlefront when it launches on November 17th.
But strange as it might be to say about the Dark Lord of the Sith, the presence of Darth Vader gives me hope. It gives me hope that DICE is ready to go to the next level with this project; and maybe, just maybe, the sequel/reboot will have been worth the very long wait.