STAR WARS Battlefront, often referred to as EA Battlefront or EAFront to reduce confusion with its predecessor, is a reboot of the popular Battlefront series of large-scale multiplayer shooter games, developed by DICE and published by Electronic Arts. When it released initially, it was much-maligned for a lack of many features its predecessor had, such as aerial combat, and was likewise rather expensive at 80$ USD. Since then, it has had a number of content patches, four expansions, and has come down in half that price to 40$ USD. So I decided I'd give it a whirl as much as something kind of brainless to do while I was in hospital, and figured that it would be a good lead in to an inevitable (EA) Battlefront 2 review. I have to confess, I was pleasantly surprised by Battlefront, especially given that it was basically lambasted at release. It is a pretty solid game, if lacking in a playerbase beyond a couple of modes, and perhaps as importantly for fans, it felt like it was very authentic to the series in its look and feel. A lot of attention was paid to the subject matter and it was treated respectfully, unlike say, The Force Unleashed, which had a large Mary Sue (Gary Stu?) sized shit all over the source material. This is a Star Wars shooter through and through, and it feels it, which helped elevate it above the mire of average shooters we find the market over-saturated with lately, but it still has a plethora of issues.
Luke, you shut off your targeting computer, are you alright?
I must confess that first impressions of the game left me wondering what the continued hatred that the title seems to receive on a steady drip was all about. The shooting was fairly skillful and the weapons that should feel weighty and impactful did while lighter weapons were more easily shrugged off. The cooldown mechanic where you have a chance to instantly reload, and in general having unlimited ammo kept the game having a tight focus on pressing forward to the objective, and the time to death felt just right - nothing really felt terribly bullshit and while there were plenty of times where I got killed because I needed to get good, there wasn't really any where I felt there was not something I could have done to prevent that death. I always felt like I was pretty to grips with the game's central shooting, even when I first started, and things flowed and grew pretty naturally from that, with action prompts that explained what needed done without being overly repetitive or feeling like they were treating me like an idiot explaining things I already knew.
This might seem a sort of obvious or stupid sort of statement, that the shooting in a first person shooter feels good, but it's something a great deal of first person shooters don't get right. Weapons often feel impactless and weightless, without recoil or any feeling that the bullets are actually hitting an enemy. This throws a variety of problems onto the gameplay train tracks: it's not immediately visually evident that you hit the enemy, the skill ceiling for the shooting is very low, and you end up with a feeling of detachment from the game because it feels unimpressive and that you're not really having the intended effect.
Battlefront is an odd black duckling in a pond of very hundrum and normal mainstream offerings in that regard: there is no real resource management to the shooting, you actually have to properly aim and aren't given easy hitscan weapons except for one pistol that actually ends up much less effective compared to the hands of other weapons in the hands of a skillful player, and you are encouraged not to go in blasting or stabbing with melee, but rather to carefully control your fires, be accurate, and be effective in your shots and movement. In short, it actually wants its players to be good at handling the weapons, and isn't content to just give you a bunch of overpowered weapons in DLC, pre order bonuses, or the lamentable burden of micro-transactions (that its successor got rightfully chastised for, but we'll come to that in a forthcoming review.) It was impressive, especially out of a DICE title published by EA, and for a brief, sweet sweet moment, I actually thought we would have a genuinely great game on our hands.
Stay on target...
The game stays that promising course through a variety of game modes. None of them are going to reinvent the genre or turn it on their head, but they offer thematically-appropriate interpretations of the classical multi-player modes that work well within the setting and context. In addition to the usual team deathmatch mode, there's Walker Assault, where you either escort or try to repel the iconic AT-AT walkers through the memorably Hoth scenes, lovingly recreated, as well as some other settings, Hero Hunt, where a bunch of soldier players attempt to take out one of the powerful hero units played by a single other player, Hero Battle, where small teams of the heroes from the films clash against each other, Cargo which is basically hardpoint, except the hardpoints are moving cargo droids, and a few other less popular modes I didn't get a chance to properly play because the population playing them is even smaller than the number of characters in any given MMO that my wife's made that haven't gotten shipped with one of mine (by us, to be fair!).
And that, that is where the variety in game modes falls apart more than just a little bit. We'll get on that below when it makes a bit more sense thouigh. We're still in the super happy fun times segment of the review aren't we now?
Irreverence aside, I actually find it kind of brave in a strange way that DICE spent a great deal of time and no doubt development money on these different modes, whether some of them came from the DLC or not. In an environment where there is a tremendous amount of executive pressure on multi-player game developers to focus on carefully focus-tested and select niche of gameplay styles and modes, DICE has made quite a point of adding several modes that are typically not very popular (hardpoint) and kind of novel (Hero Hunt). In an environment where COD and Battlefield both were clawing back the variety in its game modes, Battlefront was trying its best to offer more, and that is why I found the complaints about differences from the previous version a bit pedestrian and yes, I'll say it - a bit entitled. Especially knowing how mercenary Electronics Arts is and how they yank on the choke chain of studios that dare defy their corporate overlords, DICE actually took what would be a considerable business risk just to give us what they did, and to be more pertinent, those modes seem to form a complete game. Nothing really seems missing that could be there to my mind, other than just more of what we already had in the form of more maps to play on, which indeed are a small selection.
That's the more on-point complaint when it comes to the game modes, because the variety of the game modes and the customisation of character soldier players which I mostly haven't mentioned because most of my readers have informed me they don't care about this in shooters after my COD:AW review but I feel I would be remiss to not mention so here I'm doing that awkwardly mid-sentence and making a huge run-on - well, it doesn't extend to the actual maps. There's only a couple handfuls of them, and however good most of them are, they quickly become repetitive, especially when you have the DE_DUST effect of players usually playing the same maps over and over rather than changing things up, because the familiar is easy to rationalise and let's face it, people want to replay the classic set pieces from the films like the forest moon of Endor or the Empire's assault on Hoth, and who can blame them? Experiencing those epic and sweeping battlefields is what EA Battlefront does best, thrusting players into these huge scale 40 player matches of attrition to try to achieve their objectives, being it to defend or assault the base. It's hard not to over-state how enthralling those maps can be, and the less canonical maps lack that, and in doing so, it really robs a lot of the experience. This is why the Bespin and Death Star DLCs became such an important thing for the game and indeed re-invigorated the game as additional epic set pieces from the movies could be re-lived.
But even then, after the shot in the arm from the DLC that was provided to the game's content, you have in hand maybe a handful of good, memorable maps that are fun to play, and well, as the saying goes, the best way to take the enjoyment out of the things you love is to make them routine. It's repetitive, at its heart, and while that tends to be an endemic problem in the multi-player-only market, it nonetheless ceases to be a problem here, and just because other games in the same niche have similar issues, doesn't make it any less of an issue. Mul
Don't get cocky, kid
It's not all sunshine and rainbows in the core design however, and the one very striking flaw in the core mechanics to my mind is the team balancing. While I can understand not every game wants to do the TF2 thing of mixing it up pretty frequently to try to keep the teams even, and Battlefront is a pretty decently-long-running game in many modes, the fact of the matter is that when it does mix up the teams between the rounds of the various game modes, it often results in laughably-unbalanced teams. I've had it happen on more than one occasion that it basically pitted the top players from the last round against the bottom players, with predictable results.
Due to the way the game is structured, this adds a number of pain points to the game design in such a way that it undermines the experience more than you might expect. I've played enough rounds of Call of Duty against people with lag-switches to be able to deal with loss against clearly cheating people or those just better off ping-wise than me, which certainly was going to be the case playing from the hospital, but losing because the game mechanically stacked the deck is a bit more sore. Why is it sore, though? Well, your advancement through the meta progression is basically based upon your score in the previous round, so if the game's matchmaking decides it really doesn't like you, then you're going to have a much harder time progressing, and even if you're a pretty ace player, it's going to hobble you and slow down your ability to get the better blasters and special abilities. This makes loss especially frustrating. Losses are going to happen, but knowing that you can end up on the losing team through no fault of your own and then be essentially punished for it can be a bit much.
One of my leading concerns about this is that it engenders a community which is at odds with itself, in a game that largely revolves around and indeed, depends upon, player cooperation in a team environment too accomplish common goals against an opposing team. It is in that framing perhaps arguably competitive, but you are not going to be able to compete with the other team without your own at your back; you need those people and you need to work well with one another. My concerns have thankfully proven unfounded, in my experience playing this for review, and that's relieving; the community seems to realise that this is self-harming and other than the occasionally particularly-loud whiner going on about cheaters or this or that. (As an aside, I only came across one person who I legitimately thought was using some sort of hack or cheat, in most other cases these players were just very good, or the complainers were just that bad.)
All the same, the fact that your enjoyment is essentially reliant on the team cooperating well, leaves the fun of the game at the mercy of the people with whom you play, and that is a cause for concern. There's other multi-player games that come to memory like Super Monday Night Combat or the more classical Team Fortress 2 that have enough character to them that people tend to have fun irrespective of the performance and attitude of the team around them. In this case it's not really got the flavour to it in Battlefront to make up for that. So even though my experience was overall positive, I would caution a wary reader, especially one burnt out on the commonly toxic online gaming communities (League comes to mind), that they might want to be cautious about investing in Battlefront if that is a concern to you.
The level gating to content leads to balance issues in terms of teams of newbies being outgunned by old hat community members, especially since there is the old bugbear of the higher end guns being considerably more punchy than the early stuff, even if they do have slower fire rates. This isn't generally a huge concern, but it adds a multiplier to the team balancing issues and makes them worse than they would have been already.
These aren't the droids you're looking for
This leads to another problem, one perennial to the multiplayer-only game: if you don't have the player-base, you end up being a graveyard of unfulfilled promise and broken dreams. Battlefront tries to head off this problem at the pass - it provides a series of modes you can play solo or just with a friend. This isn't quite enough though, and is hobbled by a few problems of its own, mostly problems caused by the way that DICE has designed that element of the game, as it were.
The solo modes encompass most of the base content of the game without the expansion DLC, and right there we have trouble getting over the first hurdle presented by the design of the game - the base game prior to the DLC, which comes standard with the game now basically, but at time of release wasn't there and wasn't included, meaning some of the more exciting game modes, like the classical starfighter duel set against the backdrop of the series' iconic emblem the Death Star, which incidentally is one of the least populous game modes for reasons that elude me. The promise of being able to do that in single-player because everyone wants to play COD: lots of people with bucket heads edition has been dashed however, by the fact that the single-player modes were neglected by these content updates and you're left with just that very sparse core content. Indeed if I was a timely woman and reviewing this at release, I likely would be slagging this game off, but Im about as timely here about as much as Adam Jensen asked for this, so I review the game that I have now.
So here we are, with me lamenting that for all the interesting content they added to the multi-player game modes, including but not limited to entire whole modes, we're left with a sparse and stark single-player existence, and lets face it, even if the DRM servers never go offline for this game and Electronic Arts doesn't actually murder another baby in the cradle as it has so oft done to earn its reputation, you're still left with the single-player game representing all of the game experience that you can rely upon being able to play in a year or three's time, and since those additional modes didn't also get the bot treatment, there are going to be players who buy this game and won't be able to play some of the game modes like Cargo or Hero Hunt because even at time of writing trying, when the community is actually fairly strong and populous for as old a multi-player game as this presently is, you're not going to be able to play them unless you have a lot of friends who also want to play them, since they require a minimum number of players to launch a game, another senseless restriction.
The game was clearly designed for console, and I feel like this expresses itself in the size of the content we have available in modern multi-player game. While it's never been directly and unequivocally confirmed that there are hard limits on the size of a game released on console beyond the common sense concern that is hard drive space, the debacle over RAGE's size back in the day seemed to clearly indicate the console-makers are rather hostile to larger-sized games, no doubt because they highlight how abysmally small console hard drives are now, with SD memory cards in the common Android Smart phone starting to creep to the point where said phones are going to have larger available drive space than these supposedly high-end consoles. This isn't the only way the console focus expresses itself of course: many of the mini-games were clearly designed for controllers, and attempting the tow-cable mini-game to try to take down a walker in classic The Empire Strikes back fashion on mouse and keyboard is a quick way to get May tossing peripherals around, which I've been politely informed the hospital administration that kindly have been putting me up in this room take a dim view of.
I am a Jedi, Like My Father Before Me
At the end of the day, though, here's the punchline, the final punch, the clincher to all of the complaints one might have about this game, the thing that even after so many words above essentially complaining about a game I have put a lot of time into and no doubt will actually put more time into after the review, which is one of the signs it did something right definitely: this is a Star Wars game. Every set piece, every bit of clutter in the scenery, even every architectural design in the game, feels like it belongs in a Star Wars game. We speak a lot in the higher-minded criticism circles (which Im usually not allowed in because I don't have the secret decoder ring or something) about the look and feel of a game, but there haven't been to my memory any licensed game that fits its license since the demise of THQ and the release of its last tile, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. This is a game that lives and breathes Star Wars through and through, and it shows something I thought we had all but lost sight of from a developer under the jack-boots of the industry's big bad, EA.
That thing is passion.
This game comes across to me as a work of passion, and that's not a seeming wreath of praise I put over the developer's shoulders lightly or blithely, especially when their publisher is so egregious as they are. While it's easy to see the additional DLC after the fact which was stuff that arguably should have been in the base game (which I'd actually really agree with, for what little it is likely worth), the attention paid to all the details evokes to me not the image of something hastily put together and then sliced apart in a cynical attempt to cash in on gullible and impulsive buyers that are sucked in by the appeal of a license, but instead it comes across to me as something that ended up being considerably more time consuming to develop than their corporate overlords had the patience for, because the developers at DICE weren't just throwing shit at a wall and hoping that it ends up sticking, but were instead carefully crafting an experience that looked, sounded, and felt a certain way, and was deliberately crafted to fit a creative vision and to fulfill that certain fantasy fans indeed wanted to indulge in and engage with. And that, that is the difference between corporate meddling and developers that are creatively bankrupt. No, for all of its obvious problems with corporate interference from both Electronic Arts and Disney, which have been well-documented elsewhere than here and are beyond the scope of a review proper, this comes across as a game of passion.
A lot of people might have wondered why, when so deeply critical of the game, I have kept coming back, and that is the secret sauce my dear readers. That passion that gripped the developers to so carefully create such intricately-detailed an experience can't help but reach out from behind that screen and grab you, and yes indeed, as fan of Star Wars since before I can remember and was even shorter than I am already right now, that is just such sweet sweet medicine. That passion elevates the game from a frustrating experience I want to like but don't because of it's various flaws, into something that I play willingly and have fun with in spite of those problems.