Early Impressions: STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT

In this Crossfader series, we take a look at early versions of upcoming releases so that you can know which hype trains to board.

battlefront

To put it lightly, it’s a good time to be a STAR WARS fan. EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS opens this Christmas, and we’ll be getting a spinoff every year after, starting with ROGUE ONE in 2016. Star Wars Land has just begun construction in the happiest place on Earth, and on November 20th, gamers will be getting their hands on the long-awaited STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT.

It’s been a tumultuous wait for the new BATTLEFRONT. BATTLEFRONT III was finally cancelled after years of being teased, and incomplete alpha gameplay footage can still be found on Youtube. A reboot helmed by BATTLEFIELD developer DICE was announced at E3 back in 2013, and for this weekend only, the open multiplayer beta is available on all current-gen platforms. I tooled around in it for quite a bit, and I have a lot to say.

battlefront combat

So many cables, its like being on the set of a real STAR WARS film

First, the good. BATTLEFRONT is gorgeous. The game looks simply incredible, and features some of the most impressive graphics I’ve ever seen in a video game, a feat that is doubly impressive given the scale of many of the games maps. As per BATTLEFRONT tradition, the game can be played in either first or third person modes, on foot and in vehicles. My heart aches for anyone trying to run this game on a computer, as the one I’m typing this article on would probably blow up harder than Alderaan if it tried to run it. That being said, the PS4 version runs at a native 60 FPS and is mind-blowing in motion. And it’s not just the looks. This game sounds brilliant as well. TIE fighter screams and detonator explosions punctuate the scattered reports of small arms in a beautiful cacophony of violence that, to risk a cliché, really does sound like the movies. A wealth of audio settings is also present, allowing you to fine tune the soundscape to your system.

It’s obvious that the folks at DICE are diehard STAR WARS fans. Every detail from the films is painstakingly recreated in BATTLEFRONT, from the distant interiors of orbiting Star Destroyer hanger bays to the flashes within the energy dishes on Rebel defense turrets. The game nails the feel of the old-school trilogy almost to a fault, as the series is beginning to take on a retro look in my eyes. Blaster view models are incredibly detailed, and for the first time in a STAR WARS game, actually look like the World War II surplus that was used in the films. And speaking of blasters, this is the only STAR WARS game where the weapons live up to their name. Your shots kick up clods of dirt, exploding in bursts of flame and sparks that give each gun a keen, destructive tenor. If you’re looking for the quintessential immersive STAR WARS experience, look no further than BATTLEFRONT.

battlefront graphics

Two things must be made clear: this is a promotional screenshot, and the game DOES look this good

All that aside, BATTLEFRONT is a video game before anything else (and the continuation of a venerable franchise at that) and must be judged as so. So how does it play? Well, if you were a fan of the first two, probably not how you’d think. DICE has been pumping out multiple BATTLEFIELD games each year for the last decade, and you’ll certainly notice that as you play this new BATTLEFRONT. It plays much more like DICE’s series than their one time rival, and I mean that in the worst possible way. In fact, this is only a BATTLEFRONT game in name, and it’s this name recognition that’s going to lead to a lot of undeserved praise. But I can’t make a statement this bold without justifying it, so let me lay it all out before you go and grab your pitchfork.

The beta is divided into three gametypes. Walker Assault, a 20v20 mode where Rebels must defend objectives from AT-ATs, is most reminiscent of what is typically thought of as BATTLEFRONT. Drop Zone is an 8v8 firefight on an enclosed map where teams fight to secure randomly falling escape pods. Lastly, Survival sees two players fighting off waves of AI Stormtroopers. This last mode is sparse, easy, and ultimately holds no replay value, and will merit no further mention here. Instead, the bulk of my impressions will revolve around Walker Assault, the most popular feature of the beta.

battlefront dark side ploy

Believe it or not, this is not a dark side ploy

The first thing that made me say “this isn’t BATTLEFRONT” was the complete lack of a class system. The original BATTLEFRONTs, and even BATTLEFIELD titles to this day, all included player classes that clearly defined what role each unit served in a warzone. Missile Troopers laid low and hunted enemy tanks, as they were defenseless in any other situation. Medics and Engineers would hang back and mend infantry and vehicles, respectively. Basic Soldiers were the best at taking and holding objectives, and Snipers eliminated enemy specialists.

For whatever reason, DICE saw fit to remove this crucial, defining characteristic from their BATTLEFRONT, and with it, all the balance that the originals were known for. Now, the only choice at player spawn is which variation of rapid-fire blaster to equip, in addition to which “hand” of “star cards” to use. Star cards are, admittedly, a novel concept in this kind of team-based shooter. They’re essentially perks; single-use activated items that operate on a cooldown. These include thermal detonators, sniper rifles, and even jetpacks and personal energy shields.

I get what DICE was going for with this model: situational abilities that standard troopers could use to specialize in a “class”-based role when the situation demands it. After all, if I have the attention span of a child and there are no tanks around, why play as a tank hunter? I would much prefer to go running around with a machine gun. And here lies what is perhaps BATTLEFRONT’s biggest pitfall. All the player-specific star cards are tailored towards 1v1 combat. The abilities that are actually needed for the team’s victory, such as explosives for dealing with enemy walkers, or area shields and turrets for defending control points, are assigned to randomized pick-ups scattered across the map. Since possession of key items is left entirely up to arbitrary star card assignments, coordination becomes nearly impossible, and with it, the ability to function as a team. Sticking to a dedicated role is unfeasible, and players will revert to jetpacking around, hunting for headshots, unable or unwilling to score objectives while their team loses.

battlefront fanboys

A wave of fanboys on their way to crucify me, in a display of teamwork not present in the beta

Most of these issues are exclusive to the rather broken Walker Assault mode. Rebels must hold relays that call in Y-Wing strikes on the AT-ATs’ shields, which then open them up briefly to coordinated heavy fire. Both of these tasks are extremely difficult without the right tools for the job, which is where the star card system rears its ugly head. On the other hand, Imperials have little to do aside from killing Rebel scum, making it a rather uneventful mode for them. Further complicating things is the star card assignment of vehicles. Player controlled fighters can dogfight above the battle, but are too fast and difficult to control to effectively engage ground targets. There are no objectives in the sky, and piloting them serves no other purpose apart from fighting other pilots. By entering the cockpit, players are essentially exiting the real game on the ground for an irrelevant distraction.

The beta Hoth level also features playable heroes in the form of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker (in his EPISODE VI outfit, which is ridiculous given the otherwise impeccable level of authenticity). They’re a blast to play and feel appropriately godlike as they cut down mooks left and right. Unfortunately, as you probably guessed, each of them are assigned to randomized star cards as well. Instead of rewarding players with force powers and lightsabers for good gameplay, any schmuck can stumble across their faction’s hero and promptly waste their presence running around in the back of the map. Again, star cards take an excellent feature of BATTLEFRONT II and make a mockery of it.

battlefront storm trooper

BATTLEFRONT misses its mark more than a whole platoon of Stormtroopers

That being said, it’s not a complete wreck in the gameplay department. Drop Zone, the other competitive mode in the beta, eschews the large scale, combined arms conflict featured in BATTLEFRONT of yore for a more traditional, King-of-the-Hill shooter fare. 8 players on each side scurry across the maze-like surface of Sullust to seize control points as they appear. Sound familiar? It plays almost exactly like HALO or CALL OF DUTY, which wouldn’t even be a bad thing if this wasn’t BATTLEFRONT. Drop Zone relies far less on star cards and more on player skill, movement, and communication. The standard gunplay in this BATTLEFRONT is incredibly gratifying, and this mode places it front and center. Tight spaces and an emphasis in vertical terrain means that your team’s position is vital to victory, as ambushes are key to capturing positions from the enemy. PvP action is actively rewarded here, and while it feels nothing like what BATTLEFRONT should be, it was the most fun I had in the beta.

I’m not going to say that the new BATTLEFRONT is a bad game. For one thing, this is only the beta, and I’m confident that DICE will address a lot of my gripes by the time the product goes gold. In addition, it’s running on a solid framework with good core gameplay. The critical issues here lie entirely in the balancing of the game, which can still be fixed if the game gods are good to us. BATTLEFRONT’s main problem right now is a crisis of identity. I can’t enjoy this game in the state it is as long as it parades around with the name of such a distinguished series. If I think of it as anything else than BATTLEFRONT, however, I appreciate it far more.

DICE needs to decide on a direction to take this game before launch, whether that means focusing on what makes this game unique, or by fully committing to living up its namesake. Do not get caught up in the hype of brand recognition, and for the love of God, do not preorder this game. Wait for a final review when the game releases, and pray that DICE have learned from their beta mistakes by then.

I played BATTLEFRONT on PlayStation 4, but the beta is also available on Xbox One and PC for any and all, free of charge, until the end of the weekend. Don’t just take my word for it, give it a try for yourself.

Ed Dutcher

Ed Dutcher is the Video Games Editor here at Crossfader. The last time Ed had a meal that wasn't microwaved, George W. Bush was president. He only learned to read so that he could play Pokemon.

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