For many of us, there are few other franchises that can stir up the cocktail of emotions that Star Wars can. It’s a heady blend of nostalgia and the ideal of a universe where the rules are in someway simpler; where good and evil – heroism and villainy – are far more clearly delineated than they are in our own. That universe is somehow so intrinsically compelling that even the most egregious of George Lucas’ missteps fade to meaninglessness the moment we first hear that first haunting progression of musical notes as we did in yesterday’s new teaser trailer.
Like nearly all things Star Wars, many videogames set in the universe have also been disappointments, but after watching a scintillating eight minutes of Star Wars: Battlefront gameplay behind closed doors at Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California, we can already do away with coy hedging: DICE’s next will not be counted among them. In fact, in my five years working on this site I don’t ever recall walking away from a demonstration so wildly enthusiastic about any upcoming game, a giddy combination of the right parts of the right franchise being paired with the right developer executing the right dynamics.
Maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe I’ve been swept up in the moment, and my fandom has got the better of me. Maybe the Battlefront presentation was all smoke and mirrors. Maybe six months from now I’ll be penning a bitter retraction. But I doubt it, I really doubt it.
In a small auditorium styled after the war room on Admiral Ackbar’s flagship, DICE unveiled its vision for Battlefront, a multiplayer-focused title that appears to draw all its cues entirely from the original trilogy. The studio showed gameplay that made a much more compelling and exciting argument than the trailer you’re all watching this morning if only because what we saw of the game actually hews so closely to what is shown in the trailer.
Like that in-engine trailer, the gameplay vignette shown to us at Celebration was set on the forest moon of Endor. It was of a gameplay mode called Walker Assault, which accommodates up to 40 players. In some ways, Battlefront is unsurprisingly reminiscent of DICE’s signature series, Battlefield, and in no way is that more apparent than in the mix of vehicular and on-foot combat on Endor’s moon. The rebels are up against two-legged AT-ST Walkers, speed bikes, and the four-legged AT-AT Walkers that are the mode’s namesake.
The map features dense foliage and the immense redwood pines of the US Pacific northwest that Lucas adapted for Return of the Jedi. It’s filled out with crystal clear trickling streams, ferns, fallen logs and gullies. Those who enjoy sniping will take advantage the map’s substantial verticality by way of an Ewok village high in the trees above.
“Those who enjoy sniping” is a clumsy phrase, but in Battlefront it’s a necessary one because there is no sniper class. In fact there are no classes at all. Instead, players will be able to choose what weapons, gear and abilities they want to bring to any fight. It sounds wildly impractical and hard to balance, and in a subsequent interview with Gameplanet, Battlefront executive producer Patrick Bach wouldn’t be drawn into discussing the class system in any more detail, but common fairness demands that there will be checks and balances on particular configurations.
The authenticity and visual fidelity DICE has achieved on its Endor level – and looks set to achieve elsewhere in the game – is due to two technologies called photogrammetry and physics-based rendering.
Photogrammetry is a technique in which an object is photographed from every possible angle. Those photos are then stitched onto a 3D model so that the object is as near to photorealistic as possible. DICE was granted unfettered access to the LucasFilm archives and applied photogrammetric techniques to a huge number of original trilogy props and costumes. The AT-ST that stalks Endor’s forest moon looks so much like the one in Jedi only because it actually is the one in Jedi.
Physics-based rendering is a little more common in games. It’s a technology wherein objects are given the physical properties that they have in the real world, which affects how they behave in the game world and how they respond to illumination.
The effect is truly remarkable. Battlefront is simply gorgeous. In many ways it defies belief, but even when pressed about whether that’s truly achievable on console hardware, Bach remains adamant.
“So the gameplay you saw was PS4,” Bach told Gameplanet. “That’s what we have already. Today. It’s pre-alpha PS4 footage. That’s as bad as it can possibly look. Hopefully it’ll look even better when we actually ship the game.”
The player-controlled AT-AT’s march up the Endor map can’t be stopped by ground-based weaponry, but the Walker finally collapses on its fore haunches with cinematic flair when the Rebels were able to call in a bombing run from a squadron of Y-Wing fighters.
The experience is immeasurably improved by a musical score largely composed of John Williams arrangements from the original Star Wars trilogy. But instead of playing on loops, the orchestral music swells to crescendos just as the player-directed on-screen action does. At least in theory: DICE freely admits that what we heard behind closed doors isn’t yet functioning properly in the game.
“We still haven’t worked out exactly how that will work in the final game,” Bach said. “We’ve done some tests on it with previous games and now we’re pushing it further because in Star Wars we have a franchise that is very dependent on the power of the music.”
Battlefront is a multiplayer-first game, but those who want to play solo will be able to play in Mission mode. Missions are crafted challenges that are inspired by key events and battles in the films. Missions can be completed solo, with a friend in online coop, or in local split-screen.
DICE has also lowered the ramp for those looking to get online by developing what it calls the Partner System. In it, two friends can team up and share benefits. They can both spawn on one another, they can always see one another, and they share the higher-levelled player’s unlocks.
After defeating the AT-AT back on Endor’s moon, the bedraggled Rebels fall back to an Empire bunker. Here the smaller touches come to the fore: an MSE-6 Mouse Droid (I had to look that one up, it’s the toaster-on-wheels droid as seen on the Death Star) frenetically scoots under foot and our footfalls echo heavy through the facility. Then, one of the most iconic audio samples in cinematic history: the slow and steady draw and exhale of Darth Vader’s respirator. Our Rebel ally is lifted from the ground and clutches desperately at his throat before being carelessly flung aside. Our Rebel rushes the corner and unloads his blaster, but Vader swats the shots away effortlessly before bringing his lightsaber down on us.
Power-ups are a critical part of Battlefront’s Star Wars fantasy. DICE is eager that players fully explore the map, and when they do so they’ll find power-ups that grant perks, items and abilities. These can range from things like power shields and large explosives, to an X-Wing fighter or an AT-ST Walker. But the ultimate power-up is to play as a Hero or Villain from the Star Wars Universe for a single life. Playing as the Empire on Endor’s moon, that means Darth Vader.
In Dogfight mode, it might mean playing as the Millennium Falcon. Dice was reticent when it came to discussing further gameplay modes, but did confirm a mode specifically for fans of Star Wars’ epic fighter battles. These will take place in memorable locations such as the rocky ravines of Tatooine.
Hoth, Endor and Tatooine are well-understood locations in the Star Wars universe, and DICE is also exploring previously unexplored locations such as Sullust, the bleak volcanic planet featured in the game’s key art. But perhaps more interesting is the opportunity to dip into the new JJ Abrams-directed trilogy. Two weeks after the game’s release on November 17, DICE will drop free DLC called The Battle of Jakku, the aftermath of which is shown in the new teaser trailer for The Force Awakens. You’ll recognise it as the desert planet with a Star Destroyer half submerged in its sands. In The Battle of Jakku, players will be able to experience the events that created that spectacular, battle-scarred landscape some 30 years before the events of The Force Awakens.
It’s difficult to overstate just how impressive – most impressive – the gameplay presentation for Star Wars: Battlefront actually was. There’s a worrying trend in the industry to show prerelease footage that isn’t representative of the final product. The Battlefront footage shown to press will not be released publicly, and we can’t help but note that means what we were shown will never be available for side-by-side comparisons with the final product. Nevertheless, DICE is insistent that it has broken through to a new level of graphical faithfulness.
If that’s indeed the case, Star Wars: Battlefront is now comfortably the most exciting title on the industry’s release schedule. A galaxy far, far away has never looked so good.
◆ Read our full interview with DICE general manager Patrick Bach.
◆ James traveled to Star Wars Celebration courtesy of Electronic Arts.