16 years after cosmic expectations were brought crashing down to Earth when the Phantom Menace started droning on about the taxation of trade routes, poor old Star Wars still seems helpless to prevent the profoundly exciting from becoming slightly tedious.
Just as The Phantom Menace still hit the high notes with its bravura podracing scene and its demonic Sith Lord with his fancy-pants lightsaber, EA's online shooter Battlefront very much has its stand-out moments.
I mean, just look at it. It really does look like that in practice. And its sound, its bombastically familiar audio arsenal of precisely-recreated roars and zaps and bangs, its soaring brass and strings, is beyond spectacular. Sit back to watch (and hear) its largest battles unfold, hordes of Stormtroopers and Rebels colliding across an explosion-littered Endor, Hoth or Tatooine as exploding spaceships both small and titanic pepper the skies, and it's everything anyone could possibly want from a Star Wars game.
Get into the groove of its twitchy, straight-up, rapid-death action and it functions perfectly well as a graphically-beautiful team shooter in its own right - so long as you're already pretty adept at such things. Its stand-outs are two of its nine different modes, and it's probably no coincidence that those happen to be the only 40-player modes. The headcount, and the scale that entails, means they feel like a Star Wars scene, whereas the other, smaller modes feel much more like any old shooter which just so happens to have a Star Wars skin.
Supremacy is a simplified take on the Battlefield series' well-loved tug of war point-capture mode. What it loses in classes and specialisation - everyone is simply a soldier with a single gun - it to some degree compensates for with huge, gorgeous maps based on Hoth, Endor, Tatooine and a new, overwhelmingly grey planet named Sullust. The skies are filled with ships at war, the smaller ones of which are in some cases player-controlled, but the larger ones are simply scenery.
The landscape, meanwhile, gets cameo appearances from the likes of Ewoks and Jawas in addition to static but no less warmly familiar vehicles and buildings. The effect is fantastic, even if it is mostly set-dressing. The essential tension of capture points swapping back and forth, and the idea that the Rebels and Imperials are vying for control of this place rather than simply to get more points, lends Supremacy a purpose and a faint unpredictably that the smaller Blast team deathmatch mode lacks.
Probably the bigger draw still, though, is Walker Assault, an asymmetrical mode which sees the Imperials defending a giant AT-AT as it stomps inexorably towards a Rebel base, while said Rebels try to seize capture points which will render the AT-AT more vulnerable if held.
Again, it feels like a battle with a purpose beyond win or lose, and as in the movies, an AT-AT is an irresistibly appealing centrepiece. This mode feels cinematic, for lack of a better word: it has inherent drama, reaching far beyond each player's interest in their own score.
I've seen complaints that this mode is too weighted in favour of the Empire and their enormous, marching death machine but a) the idea is that it's a really, really big deal to take down an AT-AT: the entire point is that it's unfair b) equally, I've read complaints that the Empire and their bright white Stormtrooper outfits are at a disadvantage everywhere but Hoth. This is the nature of an asymmetrical game: everyone thinks they got dealt a bum hand.
If anything, I wish Battlefront was more asymmetrical, as most modes devolve into simply soldiers vs soldiers with very similar guns on both sides.
While the ice planet of Hoth is the most iconic setting for such a Walker Assault battle, oddly it's Endor which I find most exciting: there's more sense of destruction, more strategy in finding a route through a busy, rather than primarily flat, landscape, more sense of scale as a giant Walker looms through the clustered trees.
Hoth, though, is where to go if you want more spaceships in the mix, though sadly the X-Wing and TIE Fighter modelling is so simplistic as to feel faintly ridiculous. They're weightless and twitchy, like insects caught in a stiff breeze rather than hunks of heavy metal hurtling around at crazy speeds.
The other modes encompass one which is all about these aforementioned, unconvincing sky battles, a couple of variants on capture the flag, and two based around Heroes - super-units which are the uncanny valley versions of Skywalker, Organa, Solo, Palpatine, Vader and Fett. Their faces look bizarrely bad, given how wonderful the rest of the game looks, and sound worse - your mate talking into an empty pint glass does a better Vader impression than whoever the guy they've hired is.
They're also ridiculous to behold, as they bunny-hop around with their gurning plastic faces. Palpatine in particular is preposterous, alternately waddling around as though caught short and performing a Street Fighter-style spinning torpedo attack, but the more ordinary Boba Fett gusting around the lower sky with his jetpack is the most convincing, and entertaining to play as. The Heroes broadly feel like a gimmick though, and look and sound so silly that they undermine the essential Empire vs Rebels battle-fantasy.
It's harder to find a game on these smaller modes, and understandably so: they simply aren't as thrilling, and also feel that much more like modes in a game than a slice of classic Star Warfare. The same is true of the very limited singleplayer modes (which I wrote more about here), which are a handful of straightforward botmatch variants without any campaign structure, and though they're great for taking in the sights and sounds without the pressure of skilled opponents, they have no replay value whatsoever. This is a multiplayer game through and through. Don't think otherwise.
Whatever multiplayer mode you prefer, however, you'll be racking up experience points and in-game money for kills, victories, participation and meeting randomly-assigned challenges such as 'kill x things with an AT-AT'. As you level up, you can spend credits on new weapons, outfits and special abilities. It's a familiar progression model, popularised by COD and Battlefield, but as with almost everything else in Battlefront, it's simplified here. You're not specialising your character in any way; you're just choosing which of a few similar-feeling blasters you most like the feel of, and which face you want to wear.
The major exception to this is 'cards', which enable you to add a selection of explosives and single-shot uber-weapons to your hand, and take a short while to recharge after use. It's an odd, and very gamey approach, but it does save the game from descending into a mess of sniper rifles and rocket launchers without outright removing them.
While the destructive potential of weapons and cards alike in some cases increases as you level up, it's much more about finding the ones you like best rather than having a de facto edge. Sadly, this in turn means that unlocks can be quite underwhelming, especially as weapons are all bound to obey the movies' pew-pew and dead behaviour. A new pistol or rifle might look different, but bar a few explicitly short-range/higher damage variants, it feels broadly the same as anything else. You don't feel empowered by your new toy, but instead have to get on back out there and keep doing the same thing.
And that's symptomatic of my feelings about Battlefront as a whole. It presents one of the most fantastic stages in gaming history, yet it's littered with frustrating or bewildering decisions, both design and business, that hold it back from being the sweetly explosive nostalgia-fantasy it aims to be. It does achieve that aim, but only for a little while. So I have made a list of reasons Battlefront is a bit boring despite being the most exciting-looking and sounding game in the whole wide world. Some of these things are minor, some are more major, but the point is they all combine to rob Battlefront of some of its initial sheen.
1) There are, ultimately, only four different environments, and though some are carved into different shapes for different modes, they very obviously repeat very quickly. That's OK if you're someone who primarily wants to master every map, but it's a drag if you're looking for a relatively unpredictable experience every time you fire this thing up.
2) You can't unlock an alien avatar for your character until level 40, which for most people will require a couple of dozen hours of play. This means that a game based on Star Wars, a series of films set across multiple planets and starring many weird and wonderful alien races, primarily features humans vs humans. Even once unlocked, there are only a handful of alien species available. The rich visual variety of the universe is knee-capped right out of the gates.
3) You can't shoot the NPC Ewoks, Jawas or Tusken Raiders who pop-up on some maps. They just endlessly loop their little animations.
4) The weapons all bear instantly forgettable numerical names and, worse, many of them feel extremely similar. I appreciate the game's hamstrung by canon here, but it does mean that there's no thrill to unlocking a new blaster: it'll just be a tweaked variant of something you already had.
5) You don't get into spaceships and vehicles; you definitely don't get to take-off or land them. You just hoover up a floating icon, hit a number key and then zaaaap, you're suddenly a spaceship. It saves time, and stops players queuing for vehicles, but it undermines the fantasy that you are here, in this battle. There's none of that will-I-make-it-to-the-cockpit-in-time tension, no last-minute escapes, no stealing vehicles from under enemies' noses. It's an arcade with near-photorealistic trappings.
6) Floating icons are its answer to everything. That's OK, that's a broadly-accepted game thing, but there is an incongruity to having all that lovely scenery and all those wonderful explosions then what you're actually looking for is transcluent blue spinny things.
7) Though actual sniper rifles are kept at arm's length, the combat model is heavily weighted in favour of those who can routinely headshot. Close-quarters skirmishing is plausible but highly unlikely, as you'll invariably be picked off by someone else from a distance. On PC especially, enough of the Battlefield 3/4 playerbase has drifted over already that less skilled players may find themselves doomed to dwell at the bottom of the leaderboards, completely unable to have the heroic battles they'd dreamed of. An online shooters is an online shooter, but given how many genre complexities Battlefront has shed in the hope of appealing to Star Wars fans above and beyond Battlefield fans, the single shot to the head'n'dead structure is a little perplexing.
8) The game unashamedly boasts about how expensive, as-yet-unreleased DLC is needed in order to obtain the complete experience - and whether that's a result of corporate cynicism or because there genuinely was only so much the developers could create with the time and budget available them to we simply cannot know. But whatever the cause, the consequence is that the same few maps, vehicles and characters start to repeat themselves very, very quickly, and no amount of visual or sonic beauty can cauterise that wound. Combine that with the headshot-or-bust combat model, the samey weapons and the icon-based vehicle pick-ups and Battlefront's overriding problem is that it, moment-to-moment, it almost always feels the same.
All that said - I can't agree with the overwhelming negative response we're seeing from some players, and nor can I shake the suspicion that much of is primarily motived by (entirely understandable) discontent about the DLC business model. Battlefront is fine. It's repetitive and a little too simplistic, and again it's bewilderingly focused on highly-skilled players despite clearly targeting as mass a market as possible, but equally those grievances could be interpreted as 'aw, but it's not just like Battlefield.' It's not, no. It's just like Star Wars.
The 20 vs 20 battles are amazing to behold, and even if the instant death can be fatiguing, scurrying to cover under a hail of AT-AT blasts or taking down a jet-speed X-Wing with a well-time rocket has big fat movie magic to it. The cracks and the simplicity show in the smaller fights, the looping infantry-only battles, and the even simpler, bot-based singleplayer modes exhaust themselves almost immediately, but the biggest maps, the biggest fights: Star Wars.
Star Wars is science-fiction for everyone. Star Wars, even at its absolute best, is silly and simple and unbelievable and shallow. It can be delightful and it can be tragic, but it is as broad as Tatooine's endless desert, as straight as a lightsaber's blade, as obvious as Luke's jealousy of Han. It is also one of the most successful and shamelessly commercial businesses of all time. Let us not be blinded by romance: Star Wars is Battlefront. And maybe we can only see Star Wars for what it is when it bears another company's name.
EA! The Empire! The evil overlord of videogames! The Dark Side! The Sith to Valve's Jedi!
Bloody hell, get a grip. Star Wars is about all the money. Star Wars is about the constant consumption of Star Wars. Battlefront is just more Star Wars, and while there is an argument to be made that we're not getting enough for our money from the base package, the reality is that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, will play it every night for weeks or months, then splash out on the DLC because they want to keep doing that, because it's Star Wars.
Battlefront nails Star Wars: The Aesthetic, but it also nails Star Wars: The Business. EA tried this business model before with Titanfall, and it didn't entirely work out, but they'll get away with it this time because of Star Wars.
Because the idea of getting to fly another familiar vehicle will make people breathless with excitement, even though they know from the base game that controlling every spaceship feels like waving around an Airfix model on a pole.
That visiting another Trilogy-famous planet will be too irresistible, even if the reality is "being repeatedly shot in the head while running across some very pretty rocks."
That the chance to play as another famous face - the likes of Lando, Chewbacca, Tarkin and Dengar are surely on their way - cannot be refused, even if the existing Heroes look, play and sound like an over-enthusiastic fan-mod.
Battlefront is a beautiful tribute to Star Wars. It's also a simple game, because it reasons that most of its players simply want to be in those places, looking like those characters, flying those spaceships: that's the fantasy it sells.
It's also a shopfront, because the Star Wars audience has proven time and again that if you build it, they will come back for more. Battlefront: the base game might sell itself frustratingly short on variety, and it seems confused about exactly who its audience is, but its spectacle is such that I'll spend the night inside a Taun-Taun's tummy if it doesn't get away with it.
Star Wars Battlefront is released today in the UK.