Along with the home console and PC versions of Star Wars: Battlefront II released this week, LucasArts also released the game on the PSP, marking the series' first appearance on a portable platform. While the game certainly looks and sounds a lot like its bigger brothers on other platforms, the PSP version of Battlefront II has one notable omission: online play. The lack of online play, combined with a compromised interface, takes a good deal of luster off the PSP version of Battlefront II.
The first question that may come to mind is how the game controls as a shooter, given the PSP's lack of a second analog stick. None of the answers, unfortunately, come across as very ideal. The default control scheme maps movement to the analog stick, while free-look controls are mapped to the four face buttons. This makes aiming very awkward and precludes you from throwing grenades easily, as you have to tap on the D pad to select them. Other control schemes map both movement and aiming to the analog stick, requiring you to toggle a shoulder button to switch between the two. Of course, this prevents you from moving and changing aim at the same time, so forget about circle strafing. Then again, the ability to lock on to targets keeps that limitation from being a deal breaker for those control setups. Another control scheme, called "retro," switches things around entirely, letting you aim with the analog stick while moving and strafing with the face buttons. This scheme actually seems to be the best compromise of all, as it lets you move and aim simultaneously (as well as lets you throw grenades) without having to switch weapons. The problem, of course, is that this reversed interface will feel rather dyslexic to those of us who have grown used to standard dual analog setups. If you can train yourself to get used to doing things backward, retro probably ends up being the most flexible scheme.
Once you have finally worked out which control scheme works best for you, you can finally jump into a game. The basic battles in Battlefront II for the PSP play out very much as they do on consoles and on the PC. You spawn on one of about a dozen different maps as an infantryman, and then you attempt to overrun capture points scattered throughout the map. Each capture point serves as a spawn node for you and your computer-controlled teammates to jump back into the battle after each death. The eventual goal is to reduce the number of your opponent's tickets to zero by killing off enemy soldiers, or by overrunning all the capture points across the entire map. Scattered across the map are various vehicles to jump into to use, such as hovertanks, AT-STs, or speederbikes. A variety of infantry classes to choose from is also available, including heavy troopers with rocket launchers, snipers, engineers, and special classes--like clone commanders and Imperial officers, each of which has special abilities that help differentiate the game's four different factions. So that's the conquest game mode, in a nutshell. Battlefront II does include other modes for instant action, like capture the flag, hunt, and assault.
Battlefront II for the PSP does include the two major new features from its console cousins: playable hero characters and space battles. When you earn a certain number of points in a match, the hero character is unlocked. You're then given the option to respawn as the hero. Only one hero character per side, per match, can exist at any given time, so don't expect to see 12 Yodas running around against 12 Darth Vaders. While this feature sounds fantastic on paper, in practice, the hero characters actually aren't all that interesting to use. Most of them are lightsaber-armed Jedi, so combat involves running up to people and mashing on the attack button quickly to swing your saber. Most Jedi can throw their sabers, and some have Force powers. Certain maps will also let you play special characters, like Boba Fett or Han Solo, who have high-powered guns and other weapons. In general, though, playing a hero doesn't feel quite as epic as you might expect it to.
The space battles are much more interesting than the playable Jedi. These space combat maps enable you to jump into small starfighters, fly out of the fighter bay of capital ships, and dogfight in outer space as naval combat rages between massive star destroyers, frigates, and the gnatlike fighters that buzz around them. The sense of scale between the ships is great, as is the rush you get from trying to shoot down other fighters. The best part of the space combat is trying to bring down the huge capital ships. You can attack their vulnerable parts from the outside using larger fighters, like TIE bombers or Y-Wings. Unfortunately, unlike the other versions of the game, the PSP one doesn't let you break inside enemy capital ships on foot to sabotage them from the inside. It's still possible to fly into their fighter bays to steal their fighters, but other than the fighter bay, there are no ship interiors to fight in on foot, which is a big downer.
Battlefront II for the PSP offers two different single-player modes: galactic conquest and challenge. Unfortunately, the fun Rise of the Empire campaign mode found in the other versions isn't available on the PSP one. The good news is that the galactic conquest mode is pretty much the same as it was in the other versions. You begin by examining a board-game-like network of planets, where you can build fleets from the planets under your control and move them about a galaxy, taking turns with the computer. When a fleet moves over an enemy-contested planet, a land battle ensues on that planet. You then participate in a standard conquest match. If two fleets meet, then a space battle breaks out. Each side periodically gains credits for winning or losing battles (the winner receives significantly more), in addition to having control of planets. The credits you earn can be used to unlock infantry classes, purchase single-use bonus cards (such as those for improved health or armor for your units), or buy additional fleets. The eventual goal of the galactic conquest mode is to control all planets on the map. Since all the battles you fight are conquest matches on land or space, galactic conquest ends up growing repetitive after a while, especially because the artificially intelligent opponents aren't particularly tough or clever. The challenge modes aren't particularly appealing, either, as they are basically quick minigames that simply involve exterminating X number of aliens or gathering Y number of widgets in a limited amount of time to earn a high score.
At least there's multiplayer, right? Well, sort of. The PSP version of Star Wars: Battlefront II does not have an online mode, which was really the primary reason to play the other versions of the game. Instead, you're limited to playing four-player matches over a local ad hoc network, with AI bots filling in the rest of the map. This is fine and all, but it's pretty disappointing not to see any kind of online play supported, especially given the networking capabilities of the PSP platform, as well as the fact that online play has always been the primary attraction of the Battlefront games.
Thankfully, the game still looks and sounds pretty good. The character models and vehicle models in Battlefront II for the PSP are well detailed and are almost on par with the PlayStation 2 version of the game, though they don't animate quite as well. Perhaps most impressive is that there seems to be little compromise made in map sizes. Though this version of Battlefront II has fewer maps (13 as opposed to 24) than the other ones, the sizes and layouts of the maps that are available are strikingly similar to what you're used to on the console or PC. The biggest downside to the visuals is that terrain and other environmental textures are noticeably flat and ugly. However, this is easily overlooked, given the scale of the battles and the number of units running around. While the music is still great, as you'd expect from a Star Wars game, the sound effects in the PSP version aren't quite as sharp as you'd hope for. Weapon effects sound somewhat limp, for example. And you'll probably dread any mission you play on Endor because the Ewoks cry out like a cat you've just stepped on everytime you shoot one.
It's great that the developer of Battlefront II was able to incorporate some of the newer features of the other versions of the game, like playable Jedi and space battles, into this one. But it just seems like a huge mistake to not have online multiplayer on a platform that is ready to support such a feature. Battlefront II on the PSP feels like it's missing something, because after you grow tired of exterminating AI-controlled gungans, ewoks, and dumb stormtroopers over and over again on the same dozen or so maps, there just isn't much left to do in this game.