When it was released for the PSP, Star Wars Battlefront: Renegade Squadron represented a significant leap forward from its predecessor. It's been two long years since that game's release, though, and the landscape of online combat has evolved a lot since then. Renegade Squadron advances the series in small ways and tells a good story as its epic battles play out, but it still feels a bit behind the times.
The single-player campaign is certainly the series' best to date. It tells the story of twin brothers X1 and X2, unique members of the Clone Army who were cloned from the DNA of a Jedi. Fighting together to crush the Separatist movement during the Clone Wars, they find themselves on opposite sides during the Galactic Civil War that follows. Star Wars purists may find it hard to accept that there were Jedi clones holding prominent roles in both the Rebellion and the Empire that somehow went unmentioned during the films, but if you can get past this, you'll find that the story is easily the most engaging to yet accompany a Battlefront campaign. It's also told well and makes good use of footage from the films. The story's constantly shifting objectives and changing locations keep the gameplay interesting as it familiarizes you with all aspects of the action, preparing newcomers for their foray into the multiplayer competition.
Like earlier games in the Battlefront series, Elite Squadron is primarily a multiplayer, team-based third-person shooter. There are a few Capture-the-Flag modes, but by far, the best and most popular mode is Conquest. In Conquest, two factions--either the Separatists and the Clone Army or the Empire and the Rebellion--fight to be the first to reach a point goal. When playing online, these battles are always eight versus eight, with bots stepping in to fill any slots not occupied by players. While the bots are no substitute for human players and are generally very easy to kill, they do ensure that battles always feel like they're being fought on a decent scale. There is lots of activity on the ground with blaster shots constantly flying across the battlefield.
The action isn't limited to the ground, though. In Elite Squadron, huge capital ships belonging to each faction loom over every battle on a planet's surface, and one of the most effective ways for a team to earn points is by destroying the opposing team's capital ship. To accomplish this, you must first take control of the ion cannon on the surface and fire it at the enemy capital ship until its shields are depleted. Once this is done, you can hop in a starfighter to fly right into the enemy ship's docking bay and then make your way to the ship's reactor core on foot to destroy it. You then rush back to the docking bay or to an escape pod and rejoin the battle for control of command posts on the surface. Boarding an enemy ship and assaulting its reactor certainly feels adventurous and daring. The way that the three fronts--the surface, space, and interiors of the capital ships--are linked also gives the action a great sense of scale.
Unfortunately, the space combat doesn't hold its own and winds up feeling superfluous. It's too easy to target enemies from a distance and destroy them with a few laser blasts or a locked missile. As a result, thrilling dogfights are rare. Furthermore, the action in space just isn't very important to the overall flow of the battle. Your team earns a few points for each enemy fighter you destroy, but the real points come from claiming command posts on the ground and destroying the enemy's capital ship. As a result, space feels not so much like a full-fledged battlefront as a way of getting from the ground to the capital ships, which you'll usually end up trying to do as quickly as possible so you can get back to where the real action is happening.
The core infantry action hasn't changed much since Renegade Squadron, and while it felt a bit awkward then, it feels downright archaic today. You target enemies with the R button to strafe and fire on them, and jump or sprint with the L button. But your turning speed is very slow, which is frustrating when you're being attacked from behind, and there's a stiffness to the action that makes it feel dated. As before, you can customize your character's appearance and gear, as well as special attributes like health or speed bonuses. Each weapon, piece of equipment, and attribute has a cost, so to max out your health bonus, you may need to give up that nifty jetpack. This ensures that things stay balanced and that nobody's character is massively overpowered. On the ground, there's no shortage of vehicles to commandeer, including tanks, AT-STs, and snowspeeders. These vehicles are appropriately powerful but not overly so, and a well-aimed shot or two from a rocket launcher can always turn them into rubble. The variety of weapons, vehicles, and customization options is considerable, but it's not enough to breathe new life into this old gameplay. When a lot of action is happening, the frame rate can plummet, making it difficult to react to what's taking place. Some serious strides forward in this most important aspect of the game would have gone a long way toward making Battlefront feel fresh and exciting again, but as it is, it just feels like more of the same thing you've seen before.
In addition to the traditional multiplayer offerings, there's a Heroes and Villains mode in which you select a good or evil character from the films. You try to kill any players on the opposite side, but the stiff action prevents this deathmatch action from being exciting. A more welcome return is the Galactic Conquest mode, which combines simple turn-based strategy with the game's core action, as players spend credits each turn to recruit and upgrade troops, then try to invade and conquer the opposing player's planets. The strategy is straightforward enough that just about anyone can grasp it immediately and makes the stakes for each battle feel higher because each world gained or lost brings one side that much closer to dominating the galaxy.
Like the action, the visuals in Elite Squadron are a bit dated and aren't up to par with many current PSP games. It's not bad looking, and when you're taking in the entire battlefield with all of the action taking place from a distance, it's quite convincing. But up close, you'll notice that textures are simple while the character movements are stiff and unnatural. And for all the activity, environments feel strangely empty. Also, in the narrow hallways that make up much of the interiors of the capital ships, the camera frequently won't be able to keep both you and your target in the frame, resulting in some frustrating moments as you scramble to get a clear view of the action. The music is all familiar Star Wars compositions that is generally used effectively, with every blaster shot, lightsaber swing, and TIE Fighter engine scream sounding pitch perfect.
What Elite Squadron really gets right is the big picture--the feeling that you're fighting in an epic battle. It's not as successful with the details, and it mostly plays it safe, feeling very much like its predecessor. If you're a fan of previous games who is hungry for more, you'll probably enjoy this offering for the exciting way in which the ability to fly between the planet's surface and the capital ships in space makes the battles feel much larger. But if nothing about the previous games has captivated you, then this one isn't likely to change your mind.