Life, as the internet has been known to observe, comes at you fast. Just ask Electronic Arts, which over the last couple of weeks has found Star Wars Battlefront II firmly in the crosshairs of an angry international gaming community even before it was officially released. Once the dreaded words “pay-to-win” were deployed, it was all on. Cue desperate damage control, the most downvoted Reddit comment of all time, rapid backpedalling, significant economy tweaks, (temporarily) abandoned microtransactions, and even stories of the heavy hand of Disney dropping onto EA shoulders to ask pointedly just what the hell they thought they were doing to the Star Wars name; it’s all certainly made for an interesting reviewing period.
OK though, but what about the actual game? It’s difficult to disentangle it from this mess – which, let’s face it, probably constitutes the most disastrous game launch since, say, No Man’s Sky. (It would be nice if we had to reach further back in time to find an example of a debacle of equal magnitude, but sadly the industry seems to be very good at very bad game launches.)
Nevertheless, it is in there, buried beneath this latest collective gnashing of teeth. While it’s hard to make much of a final judgment of the game while significant aspects of it remain in flux, I will risk offering the opinion that there’s at least some fun to be had with it, if we all take a minute or two out from writing angry forum posts to actually play the thing. Anger, fear; aggression; the Dark Side of the Force are they.
First, the (very) good, straight off the bat. It’s worth noting up front that Swedish crew DICE has once again absolutely outdone itself on visual presentation, lovingly recreating the worlds so familiar to us from the films. The leafy undergrowth and trees of Endor are a marvel (even as you’re splintering and knocking down tree trunks with blaster fire), the rolling waves on Kamino are hypnotic as you blat over them as a droid fighter, and the light from Darth Maul’s scarlet lightsaber is reflected just so in the polished marble walls of the Theed palace. Blimey; it’s well gorgeous.
Good graphics do not a good game make, though. After their last game ran into a few reception problems as well, EA and DICE were definite about including a single player campaign in Battlefront II. It’s there all right, but sadly it can only be said to be a mixed bag at best. It starts well, with its protagonist Iden Versio, a dedicated Imperial special forces commando, up to sneakiness just ahead of Return of the Jedi’s Battle of Endor.
Unfortunately though, the story takes what are some very predictable turns, and is also unable to resist the urge to spend many levels ignoring Iden to allow you to play as familiar characters from the Original Trilogy. Often these characters feel shoehorned into the story, as do a number of locations which feel like they are showing up solely for the cost-saving purpose of reusing multiplayer assets.
It does manage to get in a few good levels, including a space and on-station skirmish at an Imperial shipyard and some hectic action at the Battle of Jakku, but seemingly ends there after just a few short hours. Just as “meh” is coming out of our mouth though, it suddenly jumps to an epilogue that sparks the story to life again and does a bit of what can only be described as straight-up trolling of Star Wars fans – before abruptly sawing things off with a massive cliffhanger. Grrrr.
Stay tuned for Episode VIII related content there, kids! (The good news here at least is that lessons were apparently learned from the player-base-splitting paid expansion scheme last time around, and this DLC material will be free.) While it’s definitely better than no single player campaign, and throws out what are a few intriguing loose ends for voracious franchise fans, it can’t help but feel like a little bit of a wasted opportunity.
We’re all here for multiplayer really, though. Showpiece mode Galactic Assault, featuring up to 40 players, features a few tweaks. Each of the large multiplayer maps, featuring iconic locations from the franchise three eras, has an attacking and defending side. Attackers are required to complete three sequential objectives for victory, while defenders only have to deny them once (normally by causing enough casualties or destroying a key asset) for a victory. Walkovers can and do occur, but often a stage will come down to the wire on each side, with either result possible up until the last few seconds. When it happens, it’s highly exciting, all-hands-to-the-pumps stuff.
Gone are hero and vehicle pick-ups grabbed around the battlefield. Instead, you’re able to take your destiny into your own hands by earning battle points through kills and helping your team-mates achieve your objectives. You can then use these to purchase and use reinforcements including ships, vehicles, enforcer and rocket troop classes, and heroes. (All are era-specific except heroes, making it possible for Kylo Ren to show up at a Clone Wars battle that took place when his Grandad was a kid.)
It’s a much improved system that allows a lot more tactical choice. Do you want to opt for a Y-wing now, and see if you can do some heavy damage from the air, or would you be better saving your points up and injecting the smooth talker that is Lando Calrissian into the action at a potentially decisive late stage? It also rewards good play, and tends to keep the important hero characters out of the hands of your team’s noobs. (Much to learn, they still have.)
Levels range in nature from a Separatist assault up a long, open beach on Wookiee homeworld Kashyyyk to chaotic close-quarters fighting in the streets and on the rooftops of Mos Eisley, but it doesn’t pay to get too attached to a favourite – the playlist seems to be truly random, meaning it can be a long while before you get around to any given map. It makes sense in terms of avoiding less popular maps becoming deserted ghettos, but ends up becoming a bit of a drag when you hit the same map several times in short order, and with no option yet for private matches, it can be a bit of an annoyance. So too is the occasional (but very brief) frame-rate hitch that I’ve seemed to experience in the mode on my standard PS4.
Never mind; if you get bored, you can head for Starfighter Assault. This mode truly shines. Hugely improved flight controls make for a much better piloting experience, and the battle scenarios conjured up for these missions (again based on the objective-based attack) offer some serious thrills. The space-based action of the Star Wars series has often made the environment just as dangerous as enemy ships, and in each of these levels you’ll find superstructures to slip through, tunnels with targets inside them, and asteroids that like nothing better than to ruin your day. There might be something that makes you feel more badarse than threading your X-wing through a tight space and emerging to immediately blow away some clueless TIE Fighter, but I don’t know what it is – unless it’s doing the same thing in the Millennium Falcon. Providing you’ve unlocked it.
OK, unlocks; here’s where we get into it. Forget pay-to-win for a second; Battlefront II’s multiplayer upgrades system is confusing, overly complex, and entirely counter-intuitive. It serves up a bewildering array of cards, crafting parts, credits, levels and upgrades that I am still trying to get my head around properly. Perhaps its greatest sin is that advancement does not seem in any way tied to your own proclivities and play time in the game.
I’ve played largely the assault and fighter classes on the ground and space respectively, for example, and yet seem to have advanced my heavy and interceptor classes far beyond either – and I have little idea why. A brief tutorial video attempts to explain things, but it’s entirely inadequate. There’s also no sense of being able to aim for the added abilities and skills you want to get, beyond continuing to play the game and hoping that they will eventually randomly drop into your lap.
Until Disney took it upon themselves to deploy Vader’s Force Choke method of persuasion, there was one possible way of speeding all this up; dropping real money for additional loot crates so as too add to your collection faster. It’s 100% pay-to-win theoretically, but it's difficult to get much of a sense of how much this was genuinely affecting gameplay in the short time before the system was shut down.
Top tier heroes like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are locked behind a credits paywall – very annoying – but can only be deployed in Galactic Assault after you’ve accumulated enough battle points anyway. Bigger gameplay advantages are likely coming from the many available star cards (apparently well over 400 exist) which both offer new abilities (like the anti-vehicle ion torpedo) and improved numbers (such as increasing the turn rate of your fighter by a certain number of percentage points).
It’s hard to discern just what other people are using to stick it to you in terms of these during gameplay, but they possibly go some way to explaining what can sometimes feel like incidences of inscrutable deaths, or enemy players who seem to take a lot of punishment without going down. At any rate, for now at least, the shortcut route is out of the picture, and we’re left to all struggle on as relative equals under this dreadful, bewildering system.
You can leave all that behind in Arcade, which offers single player and local co-op against bots over a number of “Battle Scenarios” or via a custom set-up. It’s an inessential mode, but offers a chance to familiarise yourself with some of the maps and earn a few more credits (but only so many over a certain given time period. Sigh.)
More fun are the smaller multiplayer map modes. Strike sees two teams of eight battle fiercely over more simple objectives, while Blast throws players into close-quarters combat in 10 vs 10 deathmatch, and Heroes vs Villains offers a chance to answer the age-old question of who would win in a fight between Bossk and Yoda (it’s Yoda, obviously). The hero selection in general shows Star Wars games are still struggling with the problem with how to make lightsabers fun to use, but it’s fairly entertaining to watch the little green guy bounce around anyway.
I like Star Wars Battlefront II. I just wish I liked it more. Despite a so-so campaign, there’s actually a decent actual game here, and there’s a lot to like about a free DLC plan into the future. But the positive aspects of the game itself have been unfortunately obscured by the implementation of the genuinely awful upgrade system and lootbox controversy.
If you’re a more casual player just keen for some Star Wars action – like my eight-year-old – you may not be worried about any of that in the slightest, so long as you get to blast battle droids. For those that were looking forward to dropping hundreds of hours into the game and being serious competitors though, there are some major, glaring problems. Let’s hope the game can course-correct some more from here. Difficult to say. Always in motion, is the future.