When Star Wars: Battlefront was announced a year ago, the premise excited many fans of George Lucas' sci-fi franchise, if only because it just made so much sense. Battlefront would take some of the ubiquitous characters, vehicles, and weapons from Star Wars and incorporate them into a Battlefield 1942-style team-based shooter, featuring large maps, dozens of players, and plenty of drivable vehicles, in addition to on-foot shooting. Now that the game is finally available, we can confirm that Battlefront delivers this experience--no more and no less. It's a solid multiplayer action game on its own merits, even if the premise is familiar. As such, how much you'll finally end up liking it will probably depend on how much you like Star Wars and how much Battlefield-style gameplay you've already been exposed to.
Though Battlefront is a multiplayer-focused game, it has a single-player component in which you can fight with and against computer-controlled players (also known as bots). Aside from an instant action mode, the game offers two different single-player modes. One is the historical campaign, which includes two linear campaigns that follow the story arcs from episodes IV through VI and episodes I through III of the films. You'll be treated to a short film clip prior to each map, but you won't be given any choices as to which side you can play, although you will be switching sides over the course of each campaign. The battle maps are populated with bots, which exhibit a respectable level of artificial intelligence. You'll see friendly pilots tossing you ammo and health when you need it, and you can even issue simple commands to nearby teammates. But overall, the AI shouldn't pose much of a challenge to experienced players.
The other mode is galactic conquest, which is a more open-ended campaign that allows you to choose the order in which you attack enemy-controlled planets. Each planet you control offers a different special bonus for subsequent battles. These bonuses range from "sabotage," which causes your opponent's vehicles to spawn in with heavy damage, to "Jedi hero," which allows you to fight alongside a nearly invincible computer-controlled Jedi like Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Mace Windu, or Count Dooku. In practice, the galactic conquest mode doesn't play out all that differently from the regular campaign, and even though there are eight galactic conquest campaigns, there really isn't much difference between them.
Battlefront includes four playable factions. These include the rebels and the empire from the galactic civil war depicted in the late '70s and early '80s films, as well as the republic clone warriors and the separatist droid army from the newer films. In some sense, however, this really feels more like two pairs of factions than it does four separate ones--the reason for this is that you're never allowed to pit factions from different time periods against one another. In any given map, it's always rebels versus empire, or republic versus droids; you're never allowed to mix it up and have the empire fighting against the droid army, for example.
Each of the four factions has five distinct character classes. All have a basic soldier that can carry a rapid-fire blaster rifle as well as grenades. There's also a heavy weapons class in each army that wields rocket launchers to take out vehicles. Then there's the obligatory scout, which carries a sniper rifle. Rounding out the list of standard classes is the pilot, which is an interesting class that melds the capabilities of the engineer (repair and resupply) and medic (healing) commonly found in other team-based shooters. As the name suggests, though, the pilot is also the class best suited to vehicles, as any vehicle with a pilot in it will slowly but automatically recover from any damage taken in the course of combat. Superficial differences do exist between each faction's basic classes. For example, the rebel vanguard's rocket launcher can lock onto enemy vehicles and fire two rockets at a time instead of just one.
Each army has a fifth specialized class that helps differentiate the four factions. The rebels can field wookiee smugglers armed with bowcasters, mortar launchers, and time bombs. Bowcasters can be charged up to fire a large spread of powerful bolts. The wookiees can take the most damage out of any infantry class. Both the empire and the republic field soldiers are equipped with jetpacks that allow them to get to high places or just travel a lot faster. The republic jet trooper's jetpack lasts a lot longer than the empire's dark trooper's jetpack. But the latter's shotgunlike blast cannon is arguably a better weapon than the jet trooper's EMP launcher. Rounding out the specialized classes is the droid army's droideka. Those who have seen Episode I will remember the droideka as the rolling destroyer robot that wields rapid-fire blasters and a personal shield. Droidekas in Battlefront can roll quickly about the battlefield and they can more than hold their own in a standoff while outnumbered. However, they're also very easy to destroy when their rechargeable shields run out of power.
Battlefront includes 16 different maps, spread out over 10 different planets that range from the dusty landscape of Geonosis to the forests of Endor to the rain-swept oceans of Kamino. As in Battlefield 1942's conquest mode, players must capture specific spots on the map called "command points." Your team spawns at command points, as do vehicles, so it's important to protect the ones you control and capture the other ones away from your enemy. The team that controls the majority of the command points at any given moment causes the other team's score ticker to count down; once one team's countdown hits zero, the other side wins. Control all the points on the map for 20 seconds, and your team will automatically win.
Battlefront offers a good array of wide-open maps that are more amenable to vehicle usage. The Hoth map (there has to be one in every Star Wars game, after all) is a good example of this, as empire AT-ATs lead the charge on the rebel shield generator. Rebel snowspeeders attempt to trip up the AT-ATs on their marching path, while tauntaun mounts wait to carry rebel infantry across the map. Other maps are more infantry-oriented, like the Cloud City battlefield on Bespin, which doesn't include any vehicles, although there are plenty of stationary manned turrets.
The infantry-oriented maps are probably the weakest part of Battlefront, because most of them are unimaginatively designed with bridged platforms that create obvious choke points, which limit the ability to flank and attack from unexpected directions. And let's face it, much of the appeal of Battlefront is the ability to hop into the many and varied vehicles of the Star Wars universe, so it makes you wonder why developer Pandemic even bothered with maps that have few or no vehicles.
The vehicles are, in fact, the best aspect of Battlefront. It's quite exhilarating to fly about in a TIE Fighter or X-Wing and provide ground support, or stomp around in an AT-ST or other tanklike vehicles and blast hapless infantry. Using speeder bikes on Endor and Tatooine is also satisfying, as the game employs a blur effect to accentuate the sense of speed as you hover about. Geonosis is probably the best vehicle map, as it includes droid spider-walkers and hailfire tanks against the six-legged AT-TE of the republic army, as well as heavily armed air transport ships.
If there's any complaint to be leveled against the vehicles in Battlefront, it's that they're rather overpowered relative to infantry, especially if they're being driven by a skilled player using the pilot class (which, as mentioned, affords auto-healing). Spawn camping with a large vehicle--that is, waiting for opposing team members to reappear, only to blow them up again--is a cheap and easy way to rack up kills and lead your team to an easy capture. Depending on how large the vehicle is, it often takes a concerted effort from three or more heavy weapons classes to bring a vehicle down, and in most cases, you'll find that your teammates (human or AI) aren't organized enough or bright enough to realize this. In the case of a huge AT-AT or AT-TE, infantry weapons can hardly cause a scratch. Those particular vehicles act as mobile spawn points as well, so that compounds the problem even further, as enemy infantry pop out constantly to harass you as you're trying to take down the vehicle. To be fair, you'd probably expect these vehicles to be powerful after seeing them in the movies.
Battlefront offers a pretty simple but flexible interface. You can switch between first-person and third-person viewpoints (although you'll need to map this command explicitly in the console versions, as first-person mode is disabled by default). As you're firing on opposing soldiers or vehicles, you receive notification of their health level in the top right corner, so it's easy to see if you've been hitting someone or not, and how close that person is to death. Battlefront also borrows a page from Halo's design book, as secondary weapons (usually a grenade) are easily fired with the left trigger on the console versions or the right mouse button on the PC. There's also an overexaggerated rag-doll physics system for dead bodies, so killing anyone with a vehicle weapon or grenade often results in your target taking flight and rolling across terrain--an effect that's silly but often pretty satisfying.
Most primary weapons also offer at least one level of zoom, but aiming is relatively easy anyway, especially on the console versions where auto-aim is on by default. Battlefront's brand of auto-aiming is especially sticky, which unfortunately cheapens head-to-head standoffs in the console versions' multiplayer modes. Since your aiming point "sticks" on to targets fairly noticeably, it takes a lot of the skill out of dodging and weaving, and therefore standoffs often boil down to the winner being the one who fired the first shot.
As you'd expect from a Star Wars game, Battlefront's sound design is great. You'll be treated to John Williams' familiar, award-winning music from the films, and all the sound effects seem to be lifted right out of the movies as well. The voice warnings you get ("we've captured a command point") can get repetitive, but with the excellent music and sound effects, we won't quibble too much about it. The sound definitely captures the spirit of the movies.
Battlefront is available on three different platforms, and these different versions of the game begin to distinguish themselves from one another on the graphics front. The PlayStation 2 version is clearly the weakest of the three, offering blurrier textures and no shadowing on any of the models. In comparison, the Xbox and PC versions offer more vibrant colors and sharper texturing, as well as additional detail on all of the soldier and vehicle models. Overall, the graphics on all three platforms are respectable relative to other shooters on the same platform, and it's fun to see all of the recognizable places and vehicles from the films. Also, frame rates are pretty smooth across the board for the most part, although there can be noticeable hitching from time to time while playing on a full server on Xbox Live.
Speaking of the online play, the most noticeable difference between the platforms is found in the online support. The PC version offers support for up to 32 players online. Some servers we've seen in the browser report up to 50, but we weren't able to join a server that had more than 32 human players (not counting additional bots). Xbox Live supports up to 16 human players (with additional bots to round out the maps), but we've seen some servers reporting support for up to 20. The online play for both these versions is good, with the clear edge going to PC for supporting more players.
The PlayStation 2 version also supports 16 players online, but only using special dedicated software that you must run on a PC. If you want to run a game off of your PS2, you can only play with four human players in total, with six additional bot players added to each team. Of course, many of these maps are far too large for just eight versus eight, so out of all the platforms, PS2 is clearly the weakest for online play. To its credit, LucasArts appears to be running quite a number of PS2-dedicated servers, but as the community fills out, it remains to be seen if enough third parties will run 16-player dedicated servers to meet the demand. PS2 owners who don't have much space left on their memory cards should also be warned that Battlefront immediately downloads a 1.8MB patch to your memory card. That's quite a chunk out of the standard 8MB card, so if you don't have the space, you'll need to clear some off or buy a new card.
It also bears mentioning that both console versions of the game offer two-player, split-screen multiplayer mode for offline play. Aside from a quick instant action match, you can play through any of the historical or galactic conquest campaigns either competitively or cooperatively with a friend, and you can save your progress as you make your way through them. The frame rates hold up very well on both console platforms under split-screen mode, although some of the heads-up display elements, like the map, become somewhat more difficult to read. System link capability is also available on the consoles for up to 16 players, and LAN play for up to 32 players is an option on the PC.
If there's a complaint to be made about Battlefront's online support, it's that the server browser often lags on posting the number of players in each server. We tried many times to join a server that was reporting as 50 percent or 75 percent full, only to be denied with a "server full" message.
Overall, Star Wars: Battlefront delivers a satisfying team-based shooter experience that many hardcore Star Wars fans will probably enjoy greatly. Ironically, though the PC version of the game is technically the best, it also faces the stiffest direct competition, because to many PC shooter fans the game may come off as old hat. After all, aside from the Star Wars universe, Battlefront doesn't deliver anything PC players haven't seen before, even though it's a solid game in its own right. The console versions of the game--especially the Xbox version--might seem more fresh and appealing to their respective audiences, who don't have as many choices in online team-based shooters.