I want to learn the ways of the multiplayer first-person shooter and become a headshot Jedi like I wasn't a late-30s father. So I've been dabbling in Star Wars: Battlefront [official site]'s three-map beta, keen to see if's really as spectacular as the marketing Death Star has implied.
Yeah, OK, that's Star Wars.
First things first: it's gorgeous. This is pretty much what most people would want a Star Wars game to look like, presuming your dream game is not Gungan Kingdom Platforming Adventureland. There's a ton of spaceship porn, both in the skies and crashed around the landscape, guns go pew-pew, Stormtroopers look authentically plasticky, AT-AT's giant steel feet slam into the ground in a cloud of snow-dust, you get filmic swipe-cuts and there's a small fiery explosion whenever any laser blast hits any surface.
And, oh boy, the terrain. I know, PC games website in terrain enthusiasm shocker, but nevertheless: this is best in class land-modelling. It seems so very three-dimensional, so close to photographic quality. Hoth! Hoth is Hoth. The Hoth. The actual Hoth. Even the Rebel base interior is meticulously recreated, right down to the screen-shaking thumps of heavy explosives onto the snowy roof.
Visually, this is geek heaven, and a total, welcome whitewashing of everything that made us despair for Star Wars over the last 20 years. I only hope that one day we'll get to see its witchcraft in a structure other than 'get repeatedly shot in the back.'
Though you don't have to look far to find its Battlefield roots, Battlefront's a dramatically faster and more straightforward affair. You're dead after a couple of shots, respawns are instant, battles are two small waves of infantry crashing against each other, receding, then racing straight back. Meantime the skies are filled with convincing but far distant battle, and the ground shakes with explosions. I felt like I was in the middle of something much bigger and far more destructive than my own little pew-pew skirmishes.
I suspect it's going to be a very galling for those older players who can't resist a bit of Star Wars but are anxious about stepping into the online fray. It's simple enough to control - no classes, no squads, each player carrying just a single gun and a few timed powers on the 1-4 number keys - but is heavily skewed in favour of people who can score relentless headshots. I was meeting instant death time and again, but because these old hands are rather rusty it'd usually take me a fair few shots to kill an enemy.
Practice will make me vaguely competent, and a larger playerbase will lessen the chance that I'm thrown in with twitchy murder-masters, but I must admit to no small amount of frustration right now. By which I've spent most of today screaming 'fuck youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu' at my screen. It's very much a fuck you kind of game, its infantry-only map on the muddy planet of Sullust more akin to the breakneck slaughter of a Call of Duty than the traditionally stately Battlefield.
The enormous Hoth map, with its AT-ATs, Y-Wings and TIE Fighters is far closer to Battlefield, although to some extent it means there are simply more ways to perish without warning. It's entirely spectacular: a full-scale raging war in the snow, as AT-ATs slowly pound towards the Rebel base while footsoldiers tussle over capture points which can periodically release Rebel defence craft. Scout Walkers stride into the fray regularly, as do, er, Darth Vader and ROTJ-era Luke Skywalker.
These latter actually bring the show down a bit, as dropping what are in effect superheroes into the middle of a war just seems faintly ridiculous, like if Mecha-Churchill strode onto the beach at Normandy. Something seems a little off about the lightsaber-swinging animations too. They're just not a natural fit, although clearly it's extremely exciting if you find the pick-up that lets you play as those guys. Not as exciting as the AT-AT or AT-ST ones, though. I haven't had an AT-AT yet, which is desperately disappointing, but the Scout Walker was a hoot, as was getting inside a TIE Interceptor and covering vast white distances in a heartbeat. I couldn't even distinguish between allies and enemies on the ground though, let alone actually shoot someone, but raining generalised hell was glory enough. Naturally, I crashed it into a rock moments later.
I'm not overjoyed that these vehicles are obtained from sporadic floating icons, however. Running through an intangible blue circle just doesn't have the thrill factor of physically clambering into a spaceship or walker. It might just be the purist in me hankering for the old Battlefield model of taking your pick from/racing other players to a yard full of wheeled and winged goodies, but it is one of several overtly game-y design decisions here.
See also 'Hands', in which you equip explosives and limited-use special weapons via cards bought with in-game currency. It seems to tie into an App which unlocks more of these things, but the nomenclature and fake cardboard presentation seems needless and disrupts the Just A Stormtrooper Doing His Job fantasy. Why aren't these things simply presented as equippable items? A nitpick I know - it just seems so odd that Battlefront is otherwise such a deliberate pursuit of Star Wars authenticity.
Unlike the relentlessly fatal multiplayer, the singleplayer and/or co-op mode, which in the beta is set on Tatooine, is going to make elder Star Wars enthusiasts clap and shout with pure glee. The beta restricts it to five waves, and obviously it just loops across the same map, so I imagine it will wear thin in time, but if you've long-craved a latter-day, high-tech Dark Forces then this is the mode you're looking for. Blaster goes pew, Stormtroopers fall down, AT-STs clank around and explode delightfully, crisp, sandy terrain looks thoroughly Tattoinian, you are the Rebel hero surving an impossible last stand.
It's very much the obvious thing to do in order to bring multiplayer-averse Star Wars fans on board, but it's hitting all the right notes and I think online-averse players will get a kick out of it despite the lack of a campaign structure. That said, EA/DICE would be mad not to weave a pure singleplayer game out the tech and assets they already have here.
I've had a few problems, which I won't make a big deal about because this is a beta, but, for the record: it regularly doesn't find any servers, and at one point it silently stripped me of two ranks. The latter I can shrug off as a teething troubles in a test version, and to some extent the former too, but it was doubly frustrating because the game doesn't allow you to browse servers yourself. Seeing for yourself that there are no servers up or none with room is one thing, but having it scan some behind the scenes list then shrug at you is no help whatsoever. I hope that, in time, they'll relent and introduce a browser - simply being able to see what's happening makes a huge difference.
Otherwise, yeah, spectacular and ever so Star Wars. Don't expect an easy ride despite all the dad-pleasing visual and sonic attention to Lucasian detail and a comparative stripping back of complexity, though: multiplayer takes no prisoners.
The Star Wars: Battlefront beta is in theory open to everyone right about now, and runs until the end of the weekend.