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I emerge from an underground tunnel on Hoth, and rather than running straight to the action on the front lines, I find myself stopping to absorb the scenery. The icy planet is bathed in an absurdly beautiful pink glow cast by the setting sun. An AT-AT towers above me, with a Star Destroyer hovering in the background. A player-controlled rebel bomber swoops by and unloads its payload onto the armoured walker, which stumbles a little but continues its march forward. I join it.
The greatest strength of Battlefront 2, at least for the first few hours, lies in providing variations on that moment. I’ve gasped at the thrashing sea and lashing rain on Kamino, and I’ve gawked at the verdant splendor of Kasyyyk’s mountains and beaches (did it always have that many ys?).
The spectacle is brought to life by a myriad of incidental details. There are spider-like drilling machines on Kamino that periodically launch themselves at buildings, only to be blown away and sent slithering back down into the ocean depths. On Tatooine and Naboo, citizens scream and run amok at the start of each battle, forming a tide that gets pushed away by the incoming waves of stormtroopers and rebel soldiers. On Jakku, I frequently get distracted by chasing tiny adorable ostrich creatures around the sands.
These are unprecedentedly captivating environments to fight across, and my first time playing each map can only be described using the superest of superlatives. They’re incredible.
Any yet for all their grandeur, it doesn’t take long before the maps become a gorgeous backdrop to a mediocre shooter which is hamstrung by a progression system that does so many things wrong that talking about it is going to take up a large part of this review.
So here’s the thing: while I really enjoyed the beta, I’ve since cooled on Battlefront 2 faster than a tauntaun corpse on a frozen Hothian night. You see, I played the beta immediately after spending an evening with Battlefront 1. The new game is a vast improvement over its predecessor, from the introduction of classes to a much more rewarding power-up system (more on that later). Most importantly, the shooting feels satisfying in way that it just didn’t before: I put a lot of that down to great reaction animations, with character models that go sprawling backwards as sparks shower off their armour.
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Those are real improvements, and the spectacle is certainly present and correct. And yet, after a month of playing Destiny, Team Fortress 2 and even Call of Duty WW2, the Battlefront II’s flaws are far more apparent to me. The main mode, Galactic Assault, makes it all too easy to feel like a spectator. After spending a frustrating amount of time running to the frontlines, I become one gun among many that are all too often fighting over a cramped space that can’t support 40 players. Grenade spam clogs the narrow entrances to rooms that one team is trying to capture, creating a stalemate that usually gives the defending side an advantage.
When that happens, breaking the stalemate requires a hero unit. Those can be deployed by spending Battle Points that are earned inside each match by dealing damage and taking objectives. I’d typically earn enough to either spawn as a heavy hitter like Darth Maul or Han Solo once in a game, or have a few runs with a cheaper, special class. Every faction gets both a unique ‘Enforcer’ unit and a jetpack toting rocket trooper, with whom I had a lot of success flying behind people and raining down death from the skies.
You can also spend those points on vehicles, either land-based or flying. Ongoing aerial battles too often feel removed from what’s happening on the ground – apart from when an X-wing chassis occasionally comes crashing down into the middle of a fight.
For the most part, the Battle Point system works. It lends purpose to each life, with each kill building to something more than a higher place on the leaderboard. When I do decide to save up for a hero, I feel like I’ve earned my stretches as an overpowered – though still vulnerable monster that can mow down player after player. The cost of getting to play out those power fantasies is being repeatedly cut in half by a lightsabre when I’m a normal trooper, however.
Right now you might be thinking about the controversy surrounding how long it takes to unlock certain heroes – which I’ll circle back to in just a second. First I want to tell you about Star Cards, three of which make up your loadout for each character. They provide either passive effects like a shortening of your health regen speed, or a tool such as a thermal detonator that’s on a short cooldown. The Star Cards available to each class can define their role to an even greater extent than their weapon: the assault class can temporarily equip a shotgun that can one-shot opponents at close range, while the officer can throw down a turret to support his teammates.
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You can craft any Star Card you want using Crafting Parts that you get out of the much-discussed loot boxes, which are bought using a currency that’s earned across different matches. At the time that I write this, those boxes can’t be bought using real money – though that’s a temporary measure brought in by EA after the bad press building up to launch. Is the game more fun for the current lack of microtransactions? Given how miserable the system is anyway, I’d argue that it’s hard to tell the difference.
For a start, having random chance dictate how quickly I can get the upgrades I want just doesn’t sit well with me. It’s exacerbated by the way each crate can contain between two and five items – opening a box to only find two cosmetic items that I’ll never use is beyond underwhelming. To unlock more than one Star Card slot, you have to spend your crafting parts on extra cards that you’ll probably never use. It’s odd and annoying, especially when I’d really like to be saving my crafting parts in order to upgrade the ones that I already have.
This is where things get really egregious. Every Star Card has four levels, with the highest tier offering far superior advantages. It’s the difference between Boba Fett firing a single extra rocket with one of his abilities, or an extra five. It’s the difference between a 30 second or a 16 second cool down for the specialist class’s trip mine. High level cards can randomly drop from loot crates, providing you with items that would otherwise take dozens of hours to unlock. You see, you can’t manually upgrade cards until your account has reached a certain level. EA introduced that limitation along with a statement about how it meant that the players with the best tools would be the ones that had committed the most time to the game, but I can’t see how that can be the case when I’ve gained level three cards from opening crates.
Not that the ones that I happened to find are actually any good. I kept finding cards that I had no use for, sometimes because I hadn’t yet bought the required hero character. You have to acquire heroes using the same currency as the one spent on loot crates, which presents an undesirable choice between buying stuff that might make you outright better, or instead varying up your hero roster. In Galactic Assault, you can at least access some heroes without having to pay for them. The restriction matters a lot in the heroes vs villains mode though, where you can get stuck as a character you don’t want to play.
I haven’t got to the worst part yet. After a while, I noticed that I was getting killed a lot by Reys who were running around with the same set of level four Star Cards. A quick google confirmed my suspicions: they’re ones that you get by buying the £69.99 deluxe edition of the game, which also provides the basic classes with level four cards. One of those is a thermal detonator with an expanded blast radius, which is especially frustrating as there’s no way to know how powerful the explosive being chucked at you is.
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It makes the removal of paid-for loot crates seem rather insignificant – I’m still being killed by people who are using items that I don’t have access to. It is, in fact, even worse: buying the deluxe edition guarantees that you will get some useful max-level Star Cards. Whenever I get killed by a level four thermal detonator, I know my murderer has either gotten a lucky loot crate drop or has – as is more likely – paid for the privilege.
It’s a fundamentally bad progression system that places you at the mercy of random chance and people who’ve spent more money on the game than you. It’s removed any remaining desire I have to keep playing in the long term: now that I’ve seen each of the maps more than a couple of times each, I’m ready to move on.
With that said, there’s a large enough variety of maps and modes that it’s taken me a dozen or so hours to reach this point. The Starfighter Assault mode is essentially an entirely different game. It boasts space battles that are every bit as beautiful as their ground-based counterparts, though sadly I’m not sold on the actual game that takes place behind the fireworks. On attack, playing the objective entails making strafing run after strafing run until someone blows you up. On defence, you’re the one blowing up those attackers – which doesn’t hold much satisfaction when they’re distracted and every ship seems excessively vulnerable.
I did have some fun dodging attackers by weaving between radar dishes and antennas, but if I was hiding there that meant I wasn’t actually doing anything useful. There’s some skill to the fighting, but it’s mostly just a case of attacking someone from behind who can’t really do anything about it. It sucks even more when you’re the other side of that equation.
I got a lot more out of the 4v4 Heroes vs Villains mode, even if it is extremely silly. Every match opens with each team of four walking into shot, the characters then performing their own flourish as if they’ve been plucked from the roster of a fighting game. It’s the only mode that throws the characters from every era together: I’m still not quite over the weirdness of hearing a separatist droid lament the death of Kylo Ren. Despite its daftness, the mode is set up in a way that actually puts more of an emphasis on tactics than the others. A player on each team is randomly assigned as the other side’s target – killing them earns a point for your team and resets the targets. Pleasingly, the heroes with guns don’t feel underpowered – in fact, smart use of Boba Fett’s jetpack meant I could hover just out of the clutches of my lightsabre-wielding foes.
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Finally, while the smaller scale might mean that it lacks the jaw dropping spectacle of Galactic or Starfighter Assault, Strike might actually be my favourite mode. It pits teams of eight against each other, disables all heroes and vehicles, and focuses the action around objectives that become much more manageable with the smaller player count. I prefer it to Blast mode, which is a straight up 10v10 team deathmatch for people that aren’t fussed about objective oriented play.
For those first few hours, Battlefront 2 struck me with gorgeous moment after gorgeous moment that’s made me reevaluate what’s possible with 2017’s technology. It’s a shame that the fighting frequently gets bogged down by chokepoints, and any long-term appeal is undermined by a progression system that can’t shake the pay to win shadow which continues to loom over the game.
Star Wars Battlefront 2 is out now. It runs on Windows and costs £55 via Origin.