The Cautious Return of Star Wars Battlefront
In the cavernous halls of Star Wars Celebration, amidst the countless cosplayers and merch peddlers and chipper attendees, there is a circular room. Inside this room is a small amphitheatre modeled after the white briefing room on Home One, the rebel command ship from Return of the Jedi. You might recognize it as the place Admiral Ackbar hosts all his pals when they come over to plot, or you might tell me that the ship is a Mon Calamari Star Cruiser (and until some recent Googling, I would've thought you were making that up). Or you might not know it all.
Even if you count yourself among that latter group of people, you'd have no trouble following what I saw in that small room: the first gameplay demo for Star Wars Battlefront. (This demo was only shown behind closed doors on the show floor, mind you, and is separate from the widely circulated trailer.) Though Battlefront is a series with some history set in a universe positively bursting with history, the first scenes of Battlefront in action didn't rely much on referencing the past. Even if you haven't seen a battle on the forest moon of Endor before, it was easy to follow the progression from skirmishes on the fringe of a battlefield, to firefights fought between elevated terrain and pitched positions, to lopsided clashes as lumbering vehicles crashed through the undergrowth and sent soldiers scrambling. This wasn't the debut of a bold new direction or innovative new features; this was Battlefront reintroducing itself to the world.
So let's get the familiar out of the way first. Battlefront is, on a broad level, Battlefield set in the Star Wars universe. The player starts as an infantry soldier on the Rebel or Imperial side, fighting in one of the iconic locations from the movies. In this early demo, the forest was looking particularly lush. There was eye-catching texture detail everywhere, from the trunks of the redwood trees to the ferns covering the forest floor. My eyes were even drawn to the fallen needles that covered logs long since fallen to the ground. It was immediately impressive, and I found myself noticing environmental details throughout the demo; light caught in a babbling brook, shade and sun varying with the density of the trees. This slice of a pre alpha PlayStation 4 build of Battlefront was certainly a looker.
The demo followed a rebel soldier walking through the forest en route to where the fighting was fiercest. Over the next few minutes, the camera changed on the fly between first- and third-person views, an ability that Battlefront veterans will no doubt appreciate. Given that this session was scripted and pre-recorded, there were more than a few happy circumstances when the player happened to come upon an enemy patrol after walking the right path through the right stand of trees. But though the demo was linear, the level design seemed varied enough to allow for surprises. Trees varied in density from tight copses to scattered glades, and the uneven ground created ridges and valleys that could be used to gain an advantage. Bunkers seemed to offer shelter below ground, while rope bridges and wooden platforms suspended above the forest floor created elevated spaces whose normal trade-off of height for exposure was disrupted by the sheer amount of trees on the map. A broad stream served as the encounter zone for the vehicles on the map and also raised the question: what exactly is the point of a speeder bike in a battle that is underway in a specific area? It's hard not to picture people just joyriding in those scout vehicles until they smash into a tree. Which I obviously want to do.
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Speeder bikes, AT-STs (the gunboxes on two legs), and an AT-AT (the gunbox on four legs) were the vehicles shown in action during the demo. Light arms fire from the soldiers damaged the AT-STs, and in the trailer, a rebel rocket launcher polished one off in a jiffy. Vehicles in Battlefront are meant to be powerful weapons issued as a reward for exceptional or sustained performance, weapons that can turn the tide of battle. This doesn't mean they will, of course, and the rebels battering an AT-ST with sustained fire from the cover of the trees proved to be its undoing.
The AT-AT, however, required a tougher takedown, one that was delivered from on high, eventually. At first, the lumbering war machine stomped up the streambed, blasting rebels with powerful salvos from its cannons. With some quick maneuvering and unerring focus, the player found a small communications box on a hillside and, after holding down the square button for a short amount of time, radioed in a bombing run from a couple of Y-wings overhead. Some tense moments later, during which the player made a flashy run through the AT-AT's towering, stomping legs for our viewing pleasure, and the beast was blown to bits. The deveopers have said you'll be able to pilot AT-ATs, but in this case, I wonder. There was only a narrow stream going through the forest; the broad icy plains of Hoth this was not. Would it really be fun to drive the AT-AT down a narrow corridor, hemmed in by trees? Or perhaps you are simply manning the turret while the vehicle walks an appointed path, and bailing out at the last moment?
The answer might be found in the name of a new mode: Walker Assault. These are the largest conflicts in Battlefront, hosting a maximum of 40 players, and the name implies that the walker is the focal point of the conflict. Perhaps the Imperial team has to accrue enough points to spawn the walker, and then escort it for a short while so it can use its heavy ordnance to destroy a rebel outpost? The developers are still holding back a lot of details about Battlefront's modes, including how many there are, what they will be, what air battles will look like, and what interplay there will be between air and ground forces.
They did, however, clarify that Battlefront will not be an online-only multiplayer game. So-called Missions will be playable not only solo, but also in two-player cooperative mode, both online and in offline splitscreen. Missions sound like more-directed experiences that take place within the settings of the multiplayer maps. Again, the devs were short on details about progression, length, and how many missions will be available, but it's good to know there will be options for offline play.
Sticking with the two-player theme, developer DICE also talked about the partner system, which is a kind of reimagining of the squad system from the Battlefield series. Players will be able to choose a partner in battle (just one), and will always be able to see that partner on their mini-map, as well as spawn on their location. Furthermore, there will be some kind of inventory sharing between partners, allowing a player with more unlocks to share them with a less-experienced ally, or for two players to mix and match their kits so they form a complementary fighting force. There was a neat moment in the trailer that demonstrated this, with one partner popping a shield to protect them from AT-ST fire, and the other jetpacking up out of the shield to kill the AT-ST with a rocket launcher. There will likely be XP bonuses from fighting alongside your partner, given the amount of +XP indicators that popped up during the demo for killing an enemy, killing a nemesis, earning killstreak bonus, doing vehicle damage, and so on. Will this incentive be enough for you to get up the guts to ask someone to dance?
One more note about loadouts: there are no classes in Battlefront, so it'll be up to you how you want to kit out your soldier. Presumably there will be some preset loadout options or a basic array of gear that everyone can choose from, but there will also be some kind of progression system in place. Though our demo only showed playable human characters, the trailer gave us glimpses of a few other races that will like be playable, in the Battlefront tradition. There will also be hero characters returning, and the end of the demo saw two players effortlessly killed off by a force choke and lightsaber swipe from Lord Vader himself. With Boba Fett in the trailer and the Millenium Falcon mentioned by the developers, there are certainly more heroes yet to be announced.
The return of Battlefront is slated for November 17th of this year, with PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC the target platforms. That's about a month before the movie is set to launch, and indeed, the tie-in announcements have already begun. A free map for the Battle of Jakku, a pivotal battle that follows the events of Return of the Jedi and features heavily in The Force Awakens, will be made available for all Battlefront players on December 8th, while those who pre-order the game will get access on December 1st.
It's easy to see why they'd want to strengthen the connection between the new game and the new film, but the Battlefront I saw is one more interested in connecting with Battlefronts' past. It focused heavily on the original trilogy, so I saw a lot of the familiar building blocks that have defined the Battlefront series since its inception. What I saw looked good, albeit scripted to put its best foot forward and light on detail about how this Battlefront is branching out. What remains to be seen is how this Battlefront will fare when it comes to doing what Battlefront games have done best: making the player feel like a heroic soldier, an ace pilot, or a powerful Jedi during the chaos of a battle waged a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
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