A long time ago, a man worked out how to merchandise popular entertainment at a hitherto unprecedented level. 40 years later, C-3PO lunchboxes in Woolworths have given way to microtransaction loot crates in EA's Star Wars Battlefront 2. With the game out this week, millions of voices are already crying out in terror about the time and/or costs involved in accessing every character, weapon and rechargeable grenade variant. I'm here to cut through the noise and examine how loot crates, unlocks, payments, and grind work within SWBF2 - and how incorporating this oh-so-2017 goldrush into an online shooter disrupts the experience of playing it.
I do want to say up front that even detailing all this stuff requires an ungodly number of words, which speaks to a needless degree of complexity that distracts from the core act of Shooting Some Dudes.
OK! Battlefront 2 has four, for lack of a better word, currencies.
The primary currency is Credits. Credits buy loot crates, which contain randomly-allocated Star Cards (see below), sometimes the crafting resource Scrap (also see below), and sometimes more Credits. Credits also unlock extra Hero characters, who I'll return to later. You gain some Credits by playing in matches and meeting targets, e.g. kill x dudes while playing as Assault class. I earned around 3,000 credits from half a dozen matches but obviously this can vary.
Completing the singleplayer campaign also offers a chunk of 5,000 Credits. The solo 'Arcade' mode rewards Credits too but with a restriction, only giving paying out up to a certain point then not again until the next day. This is both harsh and strange, given that at that point you could just go play some multiplayer - where the unlocks are actually used.
Scrap is the secondary currency, used to craft specific Star Cards and, more importantly, to upgrade Star Cards. Star Cards are how character customisation is handled, representing different or upgraded weapons, active abilities, and passive perk bonuses such as speedier health recharge. Though Scrap is not directly earned through play, it's the currency you most directly require for upgrades.
Crystals are the currency sold for real money. These buy the same loot crates as Credits do - i.e. which primarily contain a few randomly-chosen Star Cards. In theory buying Crystals enables you to sidestep the lengthy play matches - earn Credits - buy Crates - get Scrap - build/upgrade Cards loop - but, if you're after specific cards, the blind bag element means you'll almost certainly have to buy multiple Crates. Crystals also can't directly buy Credits or Scrap, but you're very likely to find some by opening a few crates. Crystals cost:
500 for £3.99/$4.99
1,000 for £7.99/$9.99
2,100 for £15.99/$19.99
4,400 for £31.99/$39.00
12,000 for £79.99/$99.99
Loot crates, meanwhile, cost:
Trooper (cards for general infantry): 4,000 credits / 200 Crystals
Starfighter (cards for spaceships): 2,400 credits/ 120 Crystals
Hero (cards for Star Wars icons such as Luke, Vader, Yoda and, er, Bossk): 2,200 credits / 110 Crystals
So 12,000 Crystals for $100 would buy you 60 Trooper crates (more if you were buying Starfighter or Hero ones), each of which contains from 1-3 random Star Cards - i.e. something between 60 and 180 in total. There are currently 324 Star Cards to acquire, across all classes, vehicles and characters, but clearly the odds of a crate containing a duplicate card only grow as you open more. Some high-level cards are extremely rare, too. As such, spending an additional $100 on your $60 videogame wouldn't get you even close to having everything (without also putting a lot of hours in, at least), and I suspect the actual spend required to do so could well reach four figures. This is the darkness of loot crates. And, even if $100 was all it took for everything - still very, very dark.
The final currency is Battle Points. This is one is significantly different in that it's not persistent. You earn Battle Points by performing well in matches, and can only spend them in that same match. They allow you to spawn as various vehicles or Hero characters, but for just one life. If you want to spawn as that thing again after you get killed, you'll need to earn enough Points again. Bluntly, if you don't score many kills, you're unlikely to earn enough Battle Points to play as, say, Vader.
After you've unlocked him to even be available to activate with Battle Points, of course. The 15,000 Credits price each to unlock Vader and other top-tier Heroes is not a tall order if you're only after a specific one - you could earn it in a solid couple of hours play, though that really adds up if you want everyone. Before the recent Hero price cuts, they were a whopping 40,000 Credits, which would take dozens of hours and yes, that is somewhat ridiculous.
For what it's worth, at least some big-name heroes, including Rey and Han Solo, are unlocked from the start - it's not that all the famous faces are locked behind some paywall. I can, with a squint, just about see this as errant dev/publisher thinking about how big a deal it is to get to play as Darth chuffing Vader (i.e. as the ultimate unlock) rather than necessarily microtransaction greed. But it could go either way.
(As an aside, if your Star Wars fantasy is simply to kill Rebel scum with Vader's choky-neck magic, you can do so within three minutes of loading the game - just not in multiplayer. The second Dark Side mission in the singleplayer Arcade mode, which pits players against waves of AI attackers, gives the opportunity to be Vader killing dozens of the devils.)
An arguably overlooked question in all this is whether you need everything? All 324 Star Cards, every costume piece, every grenade variant or minor boost to ability recharge times for every single class, vehicle and hero? Or: will you really play as every class and every character consistently enough to require this stuff? Dunno about you, but I tend to find and then stick to favourites. And: how beneficial, really, are any of these upgrades in a game that consistently boils down to who can most reliably shoot other guys in the head from half a mile away anyway?
But there's a principle element at work too, isn't there? We don't like missing out, we want things we paid for to be complete, we especially don't like to think that someone with more cash/naivety could skip the hard work we put in. On top of that, we are trained/tricked by oh-so-many games to believe that getting a new thing is necessary, that it will make a real difference, and this is something that Battlefront 2 exploits. I'm not convinced that many of these earned/bought perks are meaningful. Battlefront 2 nonetheless takes blatant advantage of this kind of thinking: it pins so much to so many unlock systems, requiring either a ludicrous time investment or, bitterly cynically, paying for a shortcut. The exploitative nature of the loot crate system - that you don't know what you'll get and you might open several before getting something you want - only makes this worse.
I don't like it for reasons beyond that too. It's a mess of overlapping, abstracted notions, as the sheer length of this description reveals. It's conceptually at odds with what's supposed to be a desperate battle between Rebels and Imperials (or the Abrams variants thereof). It's a whole bunch of noise on the interface. And, worst of all, it often serves to make the actual experience of battle meaningless because all you're interested in is how much closer it's taken you to a new crate. It is one of several factors that make this a Star Wars game I don't particularly enjoy playing, but that's another story.
However, I would argue that some of the online reaction to Battlefront's crates and points has occasionally gotten out of hand, or at least missed the underlying issue. Yes, it makes the game pretty darn skeezy in that you can indeed pay to get an early advantage, and even then via a manipulative lottery system, but at no point have I gotten the sense that I need many of the unlocks, and so have felt no temptation to stump up cash. I figure, if I stick with it, I'll sooner or later gain most of the stuff I actually want for the classes and characters I most enjoy. All of this stuff hinges on our collective belief as players that unlocks are paramount, and clearly SWBF2 and games like it are aggressively fighting to make us succumb to that delusion.
But, for those who do desire the entire experience, being kept at deliberate arm's length from everything they've already paid good money for is a cruel insult, worsened by the glaring option to shortcut the grind with more cash, that is in turn gated behind a blind bag lottery system. Optional or no, it's a deeply ugly precedent, and worst of all, this cavalcade of currencies, crates and diminishing-return upgrades disrupts the game experience itself. What would ol' George and his lunchboxes make of all this, I wonder?
Our Battlefront 2 is in the works. The singleplayer campaign will come first, then a multiplayer review.