Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens will (hopefully) mark the triumphant return of one of the world's most beloved movie franchises, and licensees are lining up. Toys, memorabilia, clothes - merchandise of all forms sizes will blanket the world like a Hoth snowdrift following December.
EA won exclusive rights to develop Star Wars games back in 2013, following Disney's acquisition of Lucas Arts. EA already have a decent amount of experience with the franchise internally. Bioware (Mass Effect, Dragon Age) created Knights of the Old Republic - which is arguably the greatest Star Wars video game ever made. EA also run Star Wars: The Old Republic, a solid Star Wars MMO also developed by Bioware.
Star Wars Battlefront existed in a previous incarnation for the original Xbox, developed by Pandemic Studios back in 2004. EA have revived the multiplayer shooter property, handing it off to DICE - famed for Mirror's Edge, the Frostbite Engine and Battlefield.
The ultimate Star Wars experience?
Battlefront is being marketed as the 'ultimate Star Wars experience'. On the one hand, that could be interpreted as typical marketing speak. On the other, there's no reason the combination of DICE's shooter expertise and EA's money can't make these claims a reality. I haven't played the classic Battlefront, as such, I allowed most of my expectations to align with what I knew of DICE's Battlefield series.
I queued for almost 3 hours at EGX to play Battlefront, the frenzy for this game was easily on par with Halo 5 and The Division. EA decorated the test area with a gigantic TIE Fighter, complete with cosplaying Stormtrooper and an introductory tutorial video narrated by Admiral Ackbar.
I played through the game's Walker Assault mode, taking place on Hoth during the iconic battle at the start of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. In this game mode, two teams made up of 20 Rebels and 20 Imperials compete in an attack/defend scenario. Imperial players are tasked to defend the hulking AT-AT Walkers as they slowly move to destroy the Rebel Base. Rebel players are required to activate satellite uplinks that provide targeting data for Y-Wing bombers to destroy the Imperial AT-ATs. Bombing runs disable the Walker's shields, allowing players to damage and ultimately destroy them - winning the match.
The incredible trailer sequences are relatively accurate in practice. The sound-scaping is unmistakably Star Wars, from the pulse of a blaster to the screeching TIE Fighters overhead. The vehicles, character and equipment models are lovingly rendered, and the attention to detail stands proudly in an otherwise barren Hoth landscape. Battlefront bleeds authenticity, at least on the surface.
The underwhelming part, for me, is that a lot of these epic experiences are completely on-rails. You don't get to pilot the Y-Wings on their bombing runs, you don't get to drive an AT-AT Walker. After a while, I began to feel like a stunt double in a movie scene rather than a Stormtrooper fighting for the Emperor - but I suspect part of this feeling might lie within my personal preconceptions.
Battlefront was always going to be compared to Battlefield. They almost share a namesake, and the large-scale epic, dynamic battles DICE are known for should translate perfectly well into a Star Wars setting. The trailers certainly speak to that. As such, I've read concerns that Battlefront would just be Battlefield with a Star Wars skin. For better or worse, that's certainly not the case.
Battlefront shares more common ground with Call of Duty than it does with Battlefield
Battlefront tries very hard to not be Battlefield. The AT-AT Walker Assault mode could be compared to Conquest in Battlefield, where each team vies for control points - similar to Battlefront's uplinks. The chief difference can be found in the way the game feels - Battlefront is more comparable to Call of Duty than it is to Battlefield.
Battlefield, like Battlefront, has vehicles. You can jump into the driver's seat with all of Battlefield's tanks, jets, helicopters, and boats, each of which persists until destroyed. Battlefront's vehicles are simply temporary power-ups, activated by hitting both bumpers after you collect a floating token on the map. These power-ups give Battlefront an arcade feel, combined with instant respawns, the lack of class-based roles and various other design choices.
When it comes to Battlefront's gunplay, it continues the classic game's tradition of allowing you to flip between first and third-person viewpoints. I expected third-person to give you an advantage, offering a wider peripheral vision. However, at least in my demo, it didn't convey when the line of sight had gotten broken - which got me killed more than once. I spent most of the game playing in first-person to avoid this.
The weapons I tried didn't feel as diverse as Battlefield's, as each handled similarly with minimal recoil. The laser blasts travel far slower than bullets in a typical shooter, making target leading an issue even at shorter ranges. Blasters have infinite ammo, and instead use a heat-expelling cartridges similar to Mass Effect 2 and 3. Keep your weapons cool and you'll be able to carve through swathes of Rebels for hours unabated. And given the instant respawn mechanics, you'll never be short of people to kill.
Equipment loadouts in Battlefront come in the form of cards that you can assign to different buttons. For my set up, I had grenades for one shoulder button and a jetpack boost for another. I used the jetpack to powerful effect, deftly flanking entire groups of unwitting Rebel scum. Some of the other equipment items include personal shield generators, borrowed from the prequel movies, and a burst grenade launcher. You can switch equipment at the respawn screen, allowing you to change tactics and jump back into the action rapidly.
When it comes to power weapons and vehicles, as previously mentioned, they come in the form of floating tokens on the game's map. The floating tokens are immersion-busting, smacking of something I'd sooner expect in Mario Kart than a serious shooter, but they incentivise players to explore the map and stray from expected paths.
One token allowed me to pilot an AT-AT Walker's turrets, targeting large areas to devastating effect. Another allowed me to spawn as a TIE Fighter. The ships follow your cursor more similarly to Halo's banshees than Battlefield's more complex yawing and pitching jets. Each vehicle power up was frustratingly brief, but devastating - thoroughly reminiscent of Call of Duty kill-streaks.
All of these mechanics speak to the game's lenient accessibility, minimizing punishment for dying and throwing devastating weapons at you like a buffet of destruction.
The battle for a broader audience
Ultimately, I think DICE knows that Battlefront's audience is potentially broader than Battlefield's audience. As a result, the depth and complexities of Battlefield don't fit. That's not a bad thing by any means, but people who were expecting Battlefront to be as dynamic as Battlefield should shed that expectation as soon as possible.
When I quit trying to play it like it was Battlefield, I began to find it more enjoyable. Our match was over in just over 15 minutes, a far cry from Battlefield's 30-45 minute all-out kill-fests. Despite the relative briefness of the match, those at the top of the scoreboard had netted over 50 kills apiece.
Battlefront seems more like something you can just pick up and play, rather than having to commit yourself to long sessions locked in a Battlefield stalemate. There's little punishment for dying, as such, it's easier to jump right into the action. Additionally, Battlefront provides an infinite amount of canon fodder for each of the game's most powerful weapons, the AT-AT piloting, aerial bombardments and indeed, playing as hero characters like Darth Vader.
Simply by carrying the Star Wars license, DICE needed to gun for a wider audience, and I think they'll hit it well. My biggest concern for Battlefront was that it'd feel like a cash-in, sharing a convenient launch window with what is likely to be the biggest movie launch of 2015. After going hands-on, I can confidently report that this isn't the case. Battlefront has a strong gameplay identity even without the power of the license it's attached to.
Is it strong enough to beat Halo 5 for the Xbox community's multiplayer affections? I'm not sure. Thankfully, DICE is launching Battlefront into open beta on October 8th to help us answer that question.
Star Wars Battlefront launches on Xbox One, PS4 and PC on November 19th.
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