I did it all for the wookie.
Console games have always been behind the online shooting curve, but they caught up a little last year with LucasArts' Star Wars: Battlefront. That game stole some thunder from EA's genre-defining Battlefield series by offering console owners a similar experience with a sweet, Star Wars candy coating. With EA rolling Battlefield 2: Modern Combat into the fray, LucasArts has preemptively struck again with Star Wars Battlefront II. While stronger in the ways of the force than the original, this game still underestimates the power of its own dark sides.
Fortunately, LucasArts had the sense to stick to their blasters; the online gameplay is better than ever with new classes, space battles, playable heroes and an interesting new system for unlocking the most powerful unit-types, thus giving matches a more strategic feel than those fought in the original. If you aren't familiar with that game, you should read our review because much is the same, and I don't feel like typing it twice.
Now that you're back, you know the offline content in the original was as weak and annoying as Jar Jar. But unlike that rancid piece of George Lucas's brain, the bad offline content returns in Battlefront II. If you don't have broadband Internet access, you shouldn't have this game, so stop reading and go watch the new Revenge of the Sith DVD or something.
Couldn't stand any more Hayden Christiansen? Watching him act badly is one thing, but acting badly as him is another, and in Battlefront II you'll be able to slice and dice real and artificial foes as young and old versions of Darth Vader, Yoda, Mace Windu, Princess Leia, Boba Fett, Jango Fett, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, The Emperor and more. You might worry that such star power would go to a game's head, but instead LucasArts used these seminal figures as the cherry on top of their new character class scheme.
When you begin a match, four of six character classes are available, including troopers, snipers, engineers, and rocketeers, while two remain locked until you earn enough points by killing enemies and capturing spawn points. Since these two are always much more powerful than the basic four, you're essentially in a race with your opponents to unlock them. On top of that, the first person to unlock the uber-classes usually gets to play as their side's hero, giving every battle a palpable sense of urgency from start to finish.
This urgency, however, exacerbates Battlefront II's balance issues. For one thing, sniping is out of the question in several levels. You can't wait for kills to come, and by the time they do, they'll be Yoda and they'll be killing you. A greater issue, though, is the lack of any rock-paper-scissors relationship between the units. Troopers aren't especially good at killing any particular class; in fact, they aren't effective at all. Engineers, on the other hand, can kill anything without wheels in a single shotgun blast, and rocket troops are just as nasty.
So in this race to the two locked classes, only two of four base classes are viable. That's frustrating design and will cause you grief until you figure out what's uber and what isn't. Once you do, though, you shouldn't have any trouble unlocking the top-tier classes and the destructive power that comes with them.
The common themes among these classes, regardless of faction, are greater mobility and firepower, and once you've accessed them, balance issues become a thing of the past; everybody can kill everybody else. Factors like aim, resourcefulness and grenades become much more important, and that's right with the force.
The Jedi and Sith are in a league of their own. While all units can sprint and leap, Jedi can run like cheetahs and out-jump Spider-Man. They can also slice and dice enemies with their sabers or let loose with their force powers. While they're extremely resistant to damage, a hero's life-bar is constantly diminishing and can only be filled by killing. Peace they crave not.
Still, they can be killed. Damage makes their constantly diminishing life-bar decrease more quickly, and a big enough explosion can just kill them outright. When you die as a hero, you're taken to the re-spawn screen and some other lucky player gets to fill your Jedi shoes or Princess Leia slippers.
The best thing about these new characters, though, is how they weren't just crammed into the game. They're insanely fun to use, but they don't tip the balance of the force in any particular direction. As a whole, the new class system makes for a much richer experience than the one found in the last game.
Aside from the new classes, the other hyped addition is the ability to fight in space. Extra-terrestrial skirmishes give each side a mothership, which can either be destroyed from within or without. You can snag an X-Wing, blast some Tie-fighters, land in an enemy ship's hangar and wreak havoc, then pop back into a ship for more dogfighting. These space spats can be hectic and offer a nice change of pace from earthbound conflicts, but their small scale prevents them from capturing the feel of the films.
The new Hunt match type, on the other hand, captures the feel of Episode 1 by making absolutely no sense. One side is supposed to play a genocidal force while the other plays the indigenous population, but this really just comes down to a Team Deathmatch where each side only gets to choose one class. The force is weak in this one.
Then again, Hunt mode is infinitely more playable than Battlefront II's offline content. Rise of the Empire lets you play a campaign as the 501st unit of the clone army, battling through all the events in the movies that involved clones or storm troopers (which is to say, all of them.) Galactic Conquest, on the other hand, is basically a board game where you attempt to capture planets and wrest control of the galaxy from the computer. Given the state of Battlefront II's A.I., this is way too easy. In either mode, you can just roll past computer controlled units, capturing their spawn points and shooting them when you feel like it. There is no challenge to be had in either mode, and the weak story told in Rise of the Empire is not worth a second away from the online content. Plus, everything offline can be played by you and a friend co-operatively, effectively making something way too easy even less challenging.
Regardless of mode, match type or system, Battlefront II looks good. The overall presentation is clean, bright, fluid and elegantly adorned by impressive special effects, such as heat waves emanating from incinerators or the lens flare that accompanies glances toward bright light sources. Surprisingly, the differences between the Xbox and PS2 versions are really minor. The Xbox version loads cut-scenes faster, but both load the battles themselves slowly. The Xbox version looks slightly better and has a higher player cap for online games (32 versus the PS2's 24), otherwise the PS2 version is just as good.
And both games sound just like Star Wars; all the music and sound effects from the movies are intact. Tie fighters make the "pew-pew" sounds in space, dreadlocked Wookies moan, and light-sabers sound electric when dividing enemies by two.
Star Wars Battlefront II is another solid online shooter that sacrifices depth for dynamism and tactics for ultra-violence. Armed with a healthy Internet connection, this game will hold at bay the forces of boredom for months. Switch off that connection, though, and witness the biggest turn to the lame side since the new Star Wars movies. Get or get not, there is no try.