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You know, in some ways Star Wars: Battlefront is my favorite shooter of 2015. It's brisk, it's big, it's beautiful, and it's entirely faithful to its license. After the disappointing Battlefield 4, DICE has outdone themselves with Battlefront.
But after playing Battlefront almost non-stop for a solid week, it's hard to deny the basic fact that there's not enough game here. The bulk of Battlefront's content - modes, maps, and heroes - is to come in additional expansions, the first of which is the Battle of Jakku next month. It's an extremely cynical move by Electronic Arts, one no doubt calculated to turn Battlefront into a "platform" so that it can pay the price of obtaining the Star Wars license.
As of right now, $59.99 will net you roughly 12 maps spread across four planets, nine modes, and a handful of limited tutorial and single-player challenges. It hasn't taken long for its limitations to become clear - an intense weekend of play was enough to unlock almost all of the weapons, items, and customization options. And as much fun as I've been having, I can't shake the feeling that it's becoming repetitive rather quickly.
I've definitely had fun, though - a lot of it. The core of Battlefront is actually quite strong in the way that it rolls up the best elements of Battlefield and the original Star Wars Battlefront and mates it with an almost Call of Duty-like sense of pace. Even the big 40-player modes typically finish up in 25 minutes or less, which is a far cry from the hour-long sessions of the past. I had a serious case of "just one more match" syndrome this past weekend - a feeling aided by the minimal loading time and setup.
With all that said, let's dive a little bit deeper into what Battlefront has to offer.
Joining the Galactic Civil War
Structurally, Battlefront has much in common with other modern shooters. Before a match begins, you can choose from a mix of short-range and long-range weapons, as well as a handful of accessories like thermal detonators - basically grenades - and power-ups. As you play more matches and gain XP, you earn more weapons, some of which are quite powerful.
Pretty much all of the weapons come straight from the original films, from Han Solo's familiar sidearm to the standard Stormtrooper rifle. There are no classes to choose from, so you can mix and match them to your heart's desire, though it's unfortunate to see some of the interesting class dynamics from Battlefield get lost in the process. In all honesty, I wish there were more weapons. Battlefront covers the basics reasonably well, from automatic weapon-style blasters to weapons that are akin to sniper rifles, but the selection is currently limited. Not counting the accessories, there are a grand total of ten blasters in the launch version of Battlefront.
Thankfully, the accessories serve to vary things up a bit; and with only three slots to choose from, selecting them requires a bit of thought. In the tradition of Battlefield, you can go for a more anti-vehicle setup by choosing Ion Torpedoes, or you can go more anti-personnel by picking the equivalent of a sniper rifle. I ultimately settled on an Ion Torpedo/Thermal Detonator/Bio Scanner build, though I had to think hard about whether or not I wanted a Boba Fett-style jetpack. Oddly enough, power-ups like Focus Fire only have a limited number of charges, and they aren't replenished from match to match. It's not all that hard to replenish charges by finding power-ups in-game, but it still strikes me as an odd and unnecessary choice.
In the field, the action is impressive. Fans of the genre may end up decrying it for being too forgiving, particularly in terms of accuracy, but it hits all of the notes that I like in a shooter - it's fast, aiming is satisfying, and it's not overly focused on sniping. It's true that I did get taken out from across the map on at least a couple occasions, but there's more incentive to group up and take the initiative than there is to camp out and snipe. Adding to the variety in the field are power-ups like proximity bombs and mounted blasters that can change a battle in an instant if deployed correctly
The maps, though a tad repetitive in their own way, feature some of the most beautiful environments I've seen this generation. One image that still stands out in my head is that of an AT-AT tromping through puddles on Endor and sending the puddles splashing out, Ewoks skittering through the tree villages overhead. It strikes me that DICE has poured a ton of resources into the look and feel of Battlefront, and that effort seems to have paid off. Everything about this game looks and sounds just as it does in the movies.
That goes double for Battlefront's heroes - a holdover from the original Battlefront from LucasArts. Each side can gain the assistance of one of three heroes - Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, and Boba Fett on the Imperial side, and Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo on the Rebel side. It's not the biggest selection, but the heroes nevertheless manage to work really well. The Jedi in particular are just a blast to play with, this being one of the few games where a lighsaber is treated as something more than a baseball bat. It's a treat to find one of the rare hero icons on the field, pick Luke Skywalker, and go to town slicing, dicing, and Force pushing hapless Imperial troopers.
I should emphasize that it's a rare treat, though. With the hero icons being randomly generated, I was only able to become a hero once every five or ten matches. It's probably a necessary evil to keep players from camping both the heroes and the vehicles, but it's an awkward solution at best, and also disappointingly immersion breaking. On those occasions that I managed to find one of the icons, though, I was on top of the world. Even the non-Jedi heroes can be fun in their own way, with Boba Fett employing his trademark jetpack and wrist launcher, and Leia able to summon powerful honor guard characters and put up squad shields. They add just the right amount of flavor and variety to the gameplay, further enhancing the feeling that you have been dropped straight into the world of Star Wars.
Surveying the battlefront
With all that said, one thing that's been nagging at the back of my mind about Star Wars: Battlefront is the feeling that there's no real primary mode. Instead, the action is served up buffet style, with the destination mode depending on your mood in that moment.
As of right now, the two biggest modes are Walker Assault and Supremacy. In the former, the Rebels try to stop AT-ATs from reaching their destination by repeatedly activating comm stations so that as many Y-wings as possible can come in and bomb them. The latter, meanwhile, is a kind of tug of war in which the Rebels and Imperials try to capture a designated point while simultaneously holding another. When a point is captured, the successful side pushes forward until they either reach the end, or time runs out.
Of the two, I found myself gravitating toward Supremacy due to its slightly more free-flowing nature, though it was a little more linear in structure than I would have liked. Walker Assault, while very faithful to the movies in its design, struggles with balance issues. In my experience, the Rebels almost never lose on Endor because it's so easy to dig in and hold the comm stations, and because they only have to focus on one walker. On other maps, the more open terrain favors AT-STs and concerted attacks, making it harder to hold the stations long enough to build up a decent number of Y-wings.
Worse than that, though, is the way in a battle starts to feel like a foregone conclusion by the midway point if the Rebels are able to do enough damage to the AT-ATs. Again, this is especially acute on Endor, where the Rebels can sometimes bring the Empire's single AT-AT down to around six percent health on their second bombing run, making victory all but inevitable. As much as I like the scope of Walker Assault, I tired of this feeling quickly; and while Supremacy is better, I actually started having a hard time finding a full game in the normally reliable random matchmaking.
It's unfortunate that the two biggest modes of the game are so flawed because I really love the sheer scope that they bring to the table. Both of them offer huge maps that almost manage to feel extremely active, and both offer the thrill of looking up in the sky and seeing X-wings dogfighting with TIE Fighters while Darth Vader bears down on you with an army of Stormtroopers. What Battlefront really needs is a more traditional Conquest mode along the lines of what's in Battlefield - a capture-and-control mode capable of escaping the overly-structured feel of the current modes. Unfortunately, the closest thing Battlefront has to such a mode is Droid Run, which features no weapons or heroes and is limited to only 12 players (but does star the awesome GNK Power Droids).
Here's a quick rundown of the rest of the modes:
Of the modes, I've spent the most time in Supremacy, Walker Assault, and Fighter Squadron, with the occasional Blast match getting thrown in as a change of pace. It's strange because I don't really feel like I have a primary mode like I do in other shooters, so I kind of shift around as my mood takes me.
I suppose I would be remiss if I didn't mention the single-player modes. If you are so inclined, you can jump into a Survival Mode where you fight through 15 increasingly difficult waves of enemies on one of four maps. You can play alone or with one friend, and while it's not particularly unique or special in the grand scheme of things, it can be fun to try and beat on the highest difficulty. I'll credit DICE with thinking to include splitscreen co-op, with it less of a given than it should be. Personally, I tired of the mode after a couple playthroughs because the enemies weren't especially interesting - just a steady wave of Stormtroopers, some of whom are stronger, and some of whom have jetpacks, with the occasional AT-ST being thrown in for the sake of variety. It didn't take long for it to become repetitive.
The other single-player mode puts you in the role of a hero in charge of an army of A.I. troops, the primary goal being to reach 100 points by defeating enemy soldiers. A friend can also take on the role of an opposing hero and race you to 100 points - a great idea in theory because a lightsaber duel is always fun. In practice, it's a pretty one-dimensional mode with only four maps, and playing against just the A.I. is honestly kind of boring. There are side objectives if you so desire, but there's no question that these modes are a sideshow. The meat of the game is in the multiplayer; and with that in mind, it's easy to wonder if Battlefront will last as long as it should.
The Star Wars game you've been looking for?
So this is where I admit that I'm already kind of done with Battlefront. I had a torrid affair with it over the week that I reviewed it, thoroughly enjoying modes like Fighter Squadron and marveling at the graphics. But it was hard not to notice the seams - the extremely narrow focus on the original trilogy, the fact that playing on the same four planets is kind of repetitive, the relative lack of weapons. The lack of a true single-player is especially painful because it only serves to further highlight the limitations of the multiplayer.
In my opinion, its secret biggest weakness is its lack of a traditional Conquest mode with vehicles, heroes, and everything else. Walker Assault and Supremacy are fun, but Walker Assault in particular is quite flawed, and neither mode feels as loose or as open as a multiple control point capture map where dozens of pitched battles are happening at once. Honestly, the mode that's most likely to keep me coming back is Fighter Squadron, assuming that people keep populating its servers. Its dogfights are fast, fun, and intense. Beyond that, I think Blast will end up being the most popular mode, though I think it's lack of maps will hurt it.
Ultimately, I think DICE and EA have done an otherwise tremendous shooter a disservice by seemingly holding so much content back for future expansions. There's a lot to love about the actual gameplay; and on the surface, there are plenty of modes, but Battlefront doesn't really stand up to extended scrutiny. It's a sugar rush of a shooter that fades more quickly than it should. In a year or so, Battlefront may have reached its true potential. For now, it's roughly one-third of a Game of the Year caliber shooter.
InterfaceThe menus are well-designed and loading times are at a minimum. Battlefront does a great job of getting you into games quickly. Shout-out to the nifty diorama that stands in for an in-game achievement system, with pieces that unlock as you hit various milestones.
Lasting AppealBattlefront piles on the modes, but it's hurt by a lack of depth and variety, not to mention a true flagship mode. As much fun as I've had with it, it's only taken a week for it to start feeling kind of old.
SoundDICE's audio design continues to be beyond reproach. Suffice to say that Battlefront sounds amazing.
VisualsBattlefront is one of the best-looking games of the current generation. It feels gigantic, it has a crisp framerate, and it's loaded with detail. I've been consistently impressed by how good it looks.
ConclusionIn some ways, Star Wars: Battlefront is a pleasant surprise. It feels so much more polished than it did at E3, and the effort that DICE has put into the visuals pays off in one of the best-looking games of the year. But every facet of the game is hurt by the lack of variety in the environments, vehicles, weapons, and even enemies. It's a startlingly limited package made more disappointing by the fact that the actual gameplay is really fun. It may reach its potential in a year; but for now, it's one more potentially great game sabotaged by what appears to be a cynical marketing plan.