Starting tomorrow, everyone can get in on the Star Wars Battlefront beta action. Until then, you'll have to survive with my impressions, a few videos, and a large number of available Twitch streams.
We've talked about Battlefront here at USgamer, though most of the coverage has come from Kat, who has prior experience with the Battlefront franchise. At E3 2015, Kat took a look at the game and found that it wasn't everything she hoped for. The original Battlefront games were unique shooters, bringing a large-scale, wide-ranging Star Wars conflict to players. The new Battlefront on the other hand, stretches its gameplay across a number of different experiences.
EA and DICE have already announced 8 different game modes for Star Wars Battlefront. At the top end, there are the 40-player Walker Assault and Supremacy modes. On the next tier, there are the 16-player Blast deathmatch and Drop Zone modes. Finally, there's the single-player/co-op Missions, the vehicle-only Fighter Squadron, and the undisclosed Cargo and Droid Run modes. There's 12 maps planned for the game spanning those game modes, with another 2 maps coming in early December to tie-in with the Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.
The original Star Wars: Battlefront and Battlefront II were one type of game; developer Pandemic Studios created a cohesive digital war unlike any other. In contrast, Star Wars: Battlefront 2015 is multiple experiences according to design director Niklas Fegraeus.
"The guiding principle for us, from the beginning, is the realization of your Star Wars battle fantasies," explained Fegraeus. "What that has meant is looking back at the core of the Battlefront franchise. What is it that made those games unique? Of course, you can make comparisons to other games - it's a first-person shooter, you can pilot vehicles - but it all comes down to what kind of experience all those pieces create. It's that end result that needs to feel like a Star Wars battle."
"I think the real draw comes through the buffet of experiences," he added. "Having players fulfill their Star Wars battle fantasies... those come in different flavors. Some really like to be a pilot, so they can play Fighter Squadron. Some want tight, close-quarters action so they can play Survival. The goal is to not offer just one experience or one type of play. Star Wars is big. Star Wars has lots of iconic experiences and this game provides you with a palette of experiences."
For beta you'll get a limited list of these experiences: 3 game modes on 3 maps. Survival Mission on Tatooine, Drop Zone of Sullust, and Walker Assault on Hoth.
Survival on Tatooine
Survival on Tatooine is a single-player or small co-op experience, putting you against growing waves of Imperials. You'll start off with standard Stormtroopers, followed by snipers, heavy assault Troopers, and even AT-STs. The objective is simple: kill every wave and survive until the end.
Honestly, this mode didn't do much for me. I can see this being a potentially fun mode when you're spending time with friends, but the core gameplay here is just not compelling to me. (Wave-based gameplay has never really been my favorite, so this comes down to personal preference.) Survival, at least on the Tatooine map, feels like a way to try out new loadouts and weapons before taking them into Drop Zone or Walker Assault, which are more expansive and enjoyable game modes.
Drop Zone of Sullust
Drop Zone is the mid-range mode available in the Beta, focusing on straightforward PVP with 16 players in total. You have to claim and hold drop pods as they fall randomly around the map. Whoever controls the most pods wins the map. The Pods come one at a time, so combat on the map shifts in roaming area.
This is probably my favorite gameplay mode from the what's available in beta, but it isn't innovative or 'classic Battlefront'. Drop Zone is a standard Domination-style PVP shooter experience, albeit with heavy Star Wars flavoring; the space battle overhead really makes you feel like you're fighting in the Star Wars universe. Despite that lack of innovation, Drop Zone is refined and satisfying. The Sullust map is also big enough to feel like a real battle - you'll spend most of your time sprinting across the map or hiding behind cover - but it's more focused than Walker Assault.
Walker Assault on Hoth
Walker Assault is Star Wars: Battlefront's biggest mode and probably the closest conceptually to the original Battlefront games, with a total of 40 players playing as either the Imperials or the Rebels. Both sides are looking control of three uplink stations in a shifting region. The Rebels are trying to hold the uplinks because they let them to call in B-wing bomber strikes on the Imperial AT-ATs at regular intervals. The Imperials want their AT-ATs to march forward and destroy the Rebel base. Of the two sides, one side has it much easier.
Most of the combat plays on foot, but there are vehicle icons - A-Wings and X-Wings for the Rebels, TIE Fighters and AT-STs for the Imperials - that you can pick up randomly on the battlefield. When you walk up to the icons, you'll gain a limited power-up. Activate the power-up and you'll take to the skies in a vehicle after a couple of seconds. It wasn't the best experience for me because vehicle controls on a mouse and keyboard aren't the best, so I stuck with the ground game.
"The thing that power-ups do for Battlefront is they allow you to have emergent tactics," said Fegraeus when asked about using power-ups instead of actual physical vehicles. "The explorative nature of the finding the power-ups and then the addition of the randomness of what they yield. The one who's going to be most successful is the one who understands what to do with the situation they're getting."
You'll also be able to play as the game's heroes in this mode, featuring a Return of the Jedi-era Luke for the Rebels or Darth Vader for the Imperials. The heroes are available via icon like any other vehicle, though they're more powerful than a normal soldier and are readily capable of turning the tide of battle on their own. DICE has run a fine line making Luke and Vader feel strong, while not letting them completely dominate the battlefield.
"It's an interesting conceptual challenge," said the game's design director. "You have a Jedi, who's really powerful. If you were able to have those powers freely, you'd be overpowered compared to everyone else. It's all about trying to maintain that power fantasy, but then limiting it in an interesting way. That's where we came up with the 'boss battle' idea. You get promoted for one life. That when you can try to do your best to turn the tide."
The problem is Luke and Vader feel powerful, but they move oddly compared to normal soldiers; they feel like robots or vehicles instead of living, breathing characters. It's in the animations, which feel a bit canned for both characters. This is backed up by how they die. When killed Luke and Vader simply kneel, allowing you to pump blaster bolts into their bodies with no ill effect. Eventually, they just pop out of existence.
Honestly, Walker Assault felt far more tuned in favor of the Imperials. I've personally never played a game where the Rebels won. According to Fegraeus, that's because new players are more focused on the battle than clearing objectives. I don't think that necessarily true. The problem is that the Rebels have to hold all three uplinks, whereas the Imperials merely need to disrupt the connection by taking one uplink. They're also backed up by the AT-ATs, which are relentless forces of destruction. If any mode needs to be tuned in beta, I think it'll be Walker Assault. Fegraeus and DICE are prepared to make changes though.
"We're going to learn a lot from having all the data and feedback from the beta," he told me. "I forsee a lot of good tweaks and changes to achieve better balance. What that is, I don't know, but it's going to be fast."
Deck Yourself Out
Loadouts in Battlefront are handled via the Star Card System. Any player can hold a hand of three cards: two general use cards that refill over time and one uber card that you need to pick up charge points in-combat to use. There's also a fourth slot allowing you to use special one-time cards you'll find in each map, including a group forcefield, a homing rocket launcher, or orbital strike. General use cards, charge cards, and weapons are unlocked via a tandem XP and currency system; as you level up in the game, you'll have more stuff available to purchase. Buying cards unlocks them for potential loadouts, allowing you to mix and match your strategic options. (Jet pack, yo. It's the best.)
Currently in beta, changing your loadout and picking your primary weapon seems to be the extent of your customization options. Visual customization of your avatar is locked in beta, and the guns don't seem to have any customization options in the form of scopes, barrels, or other items.
Unlike Kat, I have no particular nostalgia for Star Wars: Battlefront, so I'm seeing this from a neophyte's perspective. So far, Battlefront is a refined DICE shooter with heavy Star Wars flavoring. For some players, this will be enough to get them onboard and fever pitch for the beta has been reasonably high.
I'm probably in this category, being a long-time fan of Star Wars. I expect Drop Zone will be my go-to mode, while Walker Assault still needs a bit more work in my opinion before it becomes something a I regularly play. If DICE can pivot on that game mode and fill out the rest game, we're looking at a gorgeous-looking Star Wars shooter. It's not quite classic Battlefront, but perhaps a tuned Walker Assault and Supremacy can fill in that void in for nostalgic players.
Star Wars: Battlefront is coming November 17, 2015 on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.