Star Wars: Battlefront was EA’s only contribution to Tokyo Game Show 2015. It didn’t need anything else.
Because I shirk conventions and have fled the metropolis, my first chance to try out Star Wars: Battlefront was at Tokyo Game Show 2015.
The changing face of TGS had me thinking a lot about how the market for video games has bifurcated in Japan, as aptly illustrated on the showfloor: there is an audience for big triple-A new-gen experiences like Bloodborne, Call of Duty and Destiny, but there’s a much, much bigger market for mobile games, for MMOs, and for games we in the west would laugh off as too last-gen for attention.
With this in mind, I was interested to hear from lead heroes designer Jamie Keen how the Japanese games press, who work in a market where “multiplayer shooter” is not the default genre of choice for best-sellers, had reacted to Battlefront. Pretty well, apparently.
“You can’t just assume that it’s gonna translate culturally, but so far those we’ve had through have obviously been pretty big Star Wars fans, which is good because it kind of feels like my people,” he told me.
I’m not one of those people, myself, but I figured I’d better have a go. I wandered off to the booth to see for myself how attendees were liking Battlefront.
The show had only been open a few hours at this stage but as I arrived staff were turning people away from the queues for the demo stations; the projected wait already ran well past closing time. The queue stretched around the booth, doubling back several times, and even though I was escorted ahead of a hundred less fortunate attendees, it was only after about 45 minutes of queueing that we filed forward and I realised it extended inside the booth, too.
Corralled in the airless internal queue, grateful for the VIP wristband that had jumped me forwards perhaps as much as two hours, I tried to find ways to stand minimising the ache in my iridescently painful feet. For our entertainment during the wait ahead (long enough for the two groups queued before us to go through), EA provided a couple of monitors showing off some previously released footage of the Hoth Walker Assault demo we’d be playing not-so-shortly.
Dozens of promotional staff lined the booth, clapping and cheering us, offering us high fives as we walked to our assigned places. The audience clapped and cheered, too. I tried to feel embarrassed but it wasn’t easy with the music swelling around us. I was suddenly filled with a competitive instinct.
I had seen this before, of course, but what I had not seen was other people reacting to it. As the screens flickered into life and the music began, heads shot up and stares were fixed in place. Hungry, focused Star Wars fan stares. I heard small gasps and murmurs of recognition, and at Darth Vader’s dramatic introduction, one woman shouted her surprise and delight.
Eventually we filed into a briefing room (still standing; I had been standing for about seven hours straight at this stage and was ready to murder a man for a chair) where Admiral Akbar briefed us via video, and then a Japanese-speaking host briefed us again in more detail. Repeated, overly-detailed explanations are definitely a Japanese Thing but in this case it was necessary: most of the people in this group, and queued outside, might have never played a shooter in their lives. They were here for Star Wars.
Once the host was filled with a misplaced confidence that we knew what we were doing, we were organised into ranks and instructed to file out into the demo booths, which were arranged in two wings in auditorium-style to put the players on show for the crowd watching outside. Dozens of promotional staff lined the booth, clapping and cheering us, offering us high fives as we walked to our assigned places. The audience clapped and cheered, too. I tried to feel embarrassed but it wasn’t easy with the music swelling around us. I was suddenly filled with a competitive instinct. I wanted to pwn some noobs. I wanted the audience to be amazed by my performance and the power of my stormtrooper. Snowtrooper. Whatever.
As the VG247 faithful know: I’m pretty rubbish at shooters, so I didn’t get my wish. I was markedly better than most of my teammates, ending up in third place on the leaderboard at the end, but this was not saying a great deal. Where I had expected to lose my allies to enemy fire as they rushed blindly into battle, the way FPS beginners usually do, I instead had to deal with them all running in the opposite direction.
Whether they didn’t understand the goals of the mode – take and hold several key positions to prevent the rebels calling in air support – or whether they just got lost, I can’t tell you. I can only say that the Empire sent me and one other guy to the front line, while the rest of our squad started some sort of complicated manoeuvre involving circumnavigation of the entire map. Was this an attempt to befuddle the enemy? Were they making an attempt to sneak up on the enemy from behind? Did one guy take off and everyone else followed blindly?
Eventually our remote team started dying – perhaps a similarly lost group of enemies found them? – and were respawned back in the action, but by then it was too late to save the match. I have no idea what the commentator was shouting throughout this experience, because there are very few ways to say “90% of one side is still huddled behind a rock on the other side of the map” and make it sound exciting. It was a shambles. It was a perfect example of how multiplayer games can go horribly, horribly wrong.
And yet: I had a great time, and so did everyone else.
This is not a story about how Japanese gamers aren’t good at shooters (because that’s just not true) or about how trade days attended by people who never use control pads are a rubbish place to try to demo core multiplayer games (although that is actually true). This is a story about Battlefront, and the effect it has on people.
As the match drew to a close, I put down my controller and rocked back to ease my aching feet. The audience outside was roaring. Around me, players erupted into applause – even those on my shamefully steamrolled team. People were high-fiving left and right and pointing up at the screens, which were showing highlights of the match (or some match, anyway). I heard people celebrating the fact that the Empire had been defeated and the goodies had won. I saw Imperial players miming holding weapons and marching along in a troop together, as if they’d just had the time of their lives running around and around some rocks without even seeing an enemy.
What in the hell is wrong with these people, I wondered, but I already knew the answer: Star Wars. Star Wars, Star Wars, Star Wars! Star Wars is a power to be reckoned with. Star Wars sends us flocking to cinemas, in costumes and carrying plastic lightsabers, even when we’ve been burned. Star Wars makes us pen angry articles about the unavailability of plastic space men. We want to be a part of it that badly.
What DICE has done is built a way for us to be a part of it, and has done it very well. Battlefront is so undeniably, purely Star Wars that you feel a part of that universe. Even when you have a rubbish time running around a rock, you’re so happy to be looking at your snowtrooper’s lovingly faithful costume that you don’t care when the opposition comes in and blows you up for the 15th time.
I’ve already told you that Battlefront is not Battlefield. It’s not just a reskin. But even if it were, that reskin is so well-crafted that it feels like an entirely different experience – an experience any Star Wars fan will love.
“People [working on Battlefront at DICE] are motivated by passion for what they do, especially when it comes to Star Wars. It speaks to people – it speaks to me, personally, just because of who I am,” Keen had said to me earlier.
“Star Wars has been a huge part of me growing up and it’s a huge part of who I am now. I want to put something into players hands that they feel is awesome, that they want to play, that they really feel like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. I want them to feel that kind of passion when they pick up the controller.
“You can’t please everybody, but I think at least people understand that the decisions we’ve made are to try and get that love of the brand through to them.”
Star Wars: Battlefront releases on November 17. A beta kicks off on PC, PS4 and Xbox One this week.