Star Wars: Battlefront Impressions, Triumphs, and Disappointments

Remember in Return of the Jedi when Mon Mothma reveals the rebel's plan to destroy the new Death Star? Of course you do. Well, on the first day of the Star Wars celebration, we lucky press were ushered into a briefing room much like that scene. I took my place around where I think Han, Leia, and (eventually) Luke sat down.

As fans will recall, Mothma is mostly remembered as one of the few women in the original trilogy that was not a princess. This circular war room had a control panel in the center just like in the film, although regrettably our briefing was not done via hologram. Three decades after the Jedi‘s release we still watch gameplay footage on 2D screens.

We were here to see the debut of the newest iteration of Star Wars: Battlefront. After a quick intro by one of the reps for DICE, the company developing the game, a seven-minute demo was shown. Sadly, she did not say “Many Bothans died to bring us this information…”. (NOTE: Although parts of what I saw was similar to the trailer Nick posted Friday, this was not a trailer but gameplay.)

With the demo running on a PlayStation 4, the mission begins in first-person mode in the forest on the Endor moon. All was quiet with only the natural sounds of the forest and most likely a few ewoks to set the mood. That lasted about thirty seconds. Soon a rebel teammate calls attention to three upcoming scout troopers on speeder bikes racing by.

At this point, the POV changes for a quick switch to third person to show that the player is also dressed in a garb similar to what Luke and Leia wore when they hopped on speeder bikes and gave chase in RotJ. For this demo, the focus was on a ground assault that included AT-STs, stormtroopers, and a huge AT-AT.

Though most of the demo includes the typical firefights that you would expect from a modern shooter, there were a lot of nice (albeit scripted) moments throughout. Taking down the AT-AT requires teamwork amongst a squad of four. DICE said that the levels could have as many as 40 players online at once, although how exactly they are used is still somewhat vague. As the walker approaches, two squadmates put up a quick ground forcefield that looks like the bubble shields dispersed in the recent Halo games. The walker eventually falls and explodes with all the sound and fury that the Dolby Atmos theatre could allow. Good stuff.

The easiest way to describe Star Wars: Battlefront is to imagine Battlefield 4 gameplay with the look and feel of the original trilogy. Eventually, the Endor mission goes underground to a lower level. Remember when Han couldn’t avoid Imperial entanglements as he tried to lower the shields of that fully armed and operational Death Star? Same scene. Here, things got much worse. Darth Vader shows up quickly, Force-choking your teammate and forcing you to see the end of his bright red light saber.

End of demo.

Afterwards, DICE’s Battlefront design director Niklas Fegraeus came out to discuss their goals for the game. Much time was spent on how Lucasfilm opened up their vault at Skywalker Ranch so the DICE team could see everything from blasters to the ridiculously cool models of Star Destroyers.

In order to capture these iconic elements, they incorporated a technology called Physically-Based Rendering, or PBR for short. It amounts to having a physical object, taking a bunch of pictures, which PBR then converts into a digital object. The models looked great; even zoomed in, the level of detail was pretty amazing. I assume this tech costs way more than a can of PBR from my local dive bar.

The game takes place a year after the events in Return of the Jedi. There will be four planets for the battles: Tatooine, Endor, Hoth, and Sullust. (Fans will remember that last planet was discussed between Vader and The Emperor in Return of the Jedi.) Sadly, this means no prequel stuff and no dogfights in space.

By far, the most polarizing announcement was that there will be no campaign mode. True, the original Battlefront didn’t have one, but Battlefront II did. Instead of a story-driven campaign, Star Wars Battlefront will merely offer solo player missions. These can also be played online or via local co-op.

To be honest, I think this blows. From Destiny to Evolve, many big-name developers are taking the no-real-campaign route lately and it appears DICE is following suit. As a guy who loves to have that carrot dangling in front, this is a huge letdown. I get that the main appeal of Battlefront will be the multiplayer feature, but beyond the lack of a story in one of my favorite universes ever (seriously, ever), that means players will most likely be tossed out into lobbies once missions are complete. Thus, there will be no real sense of exploration. Like I said, that blows.

When director Niklas Fegraeus talked about Lucasfilm opening up the vault to all their Star Wars assets, two things occurred to me: One, this is the same PR line we heard when The Creative Assembly were treated to Fox’s vault for all those Alien assets used in Alien: Isolation. The result was a game that did have a great '70s retro feel but was lacking overall. Second, what’s the point of all these wonderful Star Wars features if there’s no real personality on display except the ones my friends and I put in it online? Is it cool that I can play as a character that has the look and abilities of Boba Fett? Sure…but I’m not Boba Fett. So essentially, no matter how great the detail is, it’s just a skin. Nothing more.

Another thing: While the environments were amazing in their attention to capturing the spirit of George Lucas’ original trilogy, at this stage the character animations were pretty stiff. Facial animations in particular were really flat and dull. To be fair, this is pre-alpha stage. With the game arriving in 6 months, that means there’s a very good chance these smaller nitpicks will be fixed. Then again, is 6 months enough time?

As a lover of the Star Wars franchise and a big fan of DICE’s Mirror’s Edge, I’m hoping that the lack of a real solo mode will be made irrelevant by how immersive Battlefront ends up being. I have my doubts, but I really do hope come November 17th, the Force is with DICE.

Star Wars: Battlefront will release on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on November 17th in North America, which is a month before the much-anticipated release of the film Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (The game will launch on November 20th in the U.K.)

Some more facts: On December 8th, there will be a free DLC that takes place on the Jakku, the recently revealed desert planet that was in the film’s latest teaser. The Battle of Jakku DLC hopefully will clue us in on the war that took down at least one X-wing and a massive Star Destroyer. Playable characters will include Boba Fett and Darth Vader. If you pre-order Battlefront. you’ll get the DLC a week early, on December 1st.