Looking up at the crisp blue skies of Hoth, another X-Wing pilot inexplicably fucks it straight into a cliff. Four rebels sprint down a corridor, but sort of can't get past each other, and get a bit stuck. Luke Skywalker appears, everyone throws a grenade at him, and then Luke Skywalker decides to go home. It's like you're in the films!
Star Wars: Battlefront puts you in the shoes of either the Good Star Wars Men or the Bad Star Wars Men and allows you to fight large numbers of other human players online with spaceships, lasers, and cool space-grenades. It is either perfectly acceptable or a little bit shit, depending on how many panes of rose-tinted glass you've willingly smashed straight into your face. I'll get to the frankly terrifying cultural side of things shortly, but let's just get something simple straight early: Star Wars: Battlefront is not a very good game.
There's been clear marketing messaging from publishers EA that the game is aimed at Star Wars fans rather than gamers, drawing parallels to the classic cry of "it's for kids" with an extra dollop of condescension. This mentality feels crass—a shrugging implication that the game is little more than aesthetic content to be passively consumed, the chosen medium of a video game seen as something of only minor relevance.
To be blunt, this mentality shows. Huge amounts of care have been put into beautifully recreating the aesthetic tone of Star Wars. Explosions spray the wonderful lo-fi sparks that Lucasfilm used in the original trilogy, and lasers look and sound exactly like they did in the films. Darth Vader's voiceover is inexplicably off, but watching him slowly plod around doing lots of cool murder is evocative, exciting stuff—right up until the point where you actually try it yourself.
Being Darth Vader is rubbish. The way you attack and move is uncharacteristically mechanical (yes, yes, he's mostly a robot, but you know what I mean), and the fun of causing death to lesser minions is usually interrupted by a Jedi. Then you've pretty much got to have a lightsaber duel, which tends to have coherence and finesse of two drunk men trying to fight with their eyes closed. Again, fun to watch, but awful to actually be a part of.
Flying ships is even worse, offering the slow and floaty controls of an arcade-style game with none of the forgiveness that usually comes with that. Dogfights are a boring and sluggish chore, the maps are too small to give you any sense of the freedom of flight, and trying to pick off tiny ground units without smashing yourself into the ground simply isn't fun. The power-up tokens that let you fly ships are already being widely ignored by many players—a huge failing on the game's part.
This token system aims to democratize fun by scattering power-ups for anyone to pick up and enjoy, but this abstraction adds further disconnect between the environment and the player, making the worlds feel even more like dead, gorgeous dioramas. In the brief hours in which the game shines, the spectacle enough will satisfy most—the grand battles of Supremacy and Walker Assault mode feature all of the people, all of the guns, all of that rousing John Williams noise. But hop into most of the smaller modes, and Battlefront's shortcomings have nowhere to hide.
First and foremost, the shooting is lame. They've 100 percent nailed the way that guns in Star Wars look and sound, but that doesn't translate into something that feels good whenever you aim and pull the trigger. Playing it as a third-person action game rather than an FPS makes the shooting feel a lot better, but for many that's hardly an acceptable fix.
The second big problem? There's fuck all else to do. Battlefront's miserly approach to unlocks means you have to actually play a match before you unlock the thermal detonator. I appreciate the value of easing-in less experienced players, but fucking hell guys, let me have a grenade.
Progression remains tediously slow, perhaps in a vain effort to disguise what little the game has to offer. You're looking at roughly five hours of play before you're allowed to use a jetpack, and I deeply resent anything in life that has the gall to tell me I'm not allowed a jetpack. Jokes aside it's a shoddy catch-22, with unlock-gating that expects players to invest large amounts of time to access the variety they fundamentally need to keep things fun for more than a short period.
You could easily argue that the game has been designed with brief and sporadic sessions in mind, but the game heavily rewards the opposite behavior. Those who play the most can afford superior versions of the items and perks, further widening the gap for those who just want to pop in for half an hour. Within a few days it's already frustrating to be constantly killed by toys you can't have—give it a week and it'll be even less fun.
Relying on incredibly simplified gameplay might mean that less-skilled players aren't confused, but it won't mean they'll have a better time. Removing any opportunity for tactics or nuance puts all of the focus on loadout and skill. Looking at the wider landscape of online shooters—many of which are now largely undecipherable from years of incremental features—it's safe to say that pure simplicity isn't a pointless ideal to aspire for.
But simplicity without elegance is merely regressive, and that's mostly where Battlefront's design seems to sit. Crikey-that's-Hoth visuals aside, this game feels immediately dated—full of old, bad ideas. The co-op missions encourage you to try and find five hidden tokens on each map, as if that's a fun way to fill a game in 2015.
'Star Wars: Battlefront', gameplay release trailer
Offline missions are basic but fun, giving you a better chance to soak in the atmosphere of the much-loved worlds while also getting to feel like you're actually in the films, i.e. running about like a mad laser-bastard while rarely getting into any kind of meaningful pickle. The AI is rubbish, but who cares? They're people who exist to be shot at, with lasers. That's the dictionary definition of what Stormtroopers are. It's thin, dull, repetitive stuff that's immediately more enjoyable if you add friends, but as that statement applies to life in general I don't think it really represents a free pass.
With only a handful of maps and guns to play around with, it's hard not to raise eyebrows at the luxury $50 price tag of Battlefront's Season Pass DLC—with the small quantity of repetitive content on offer drawing some parallels with 2014's Destiny. The key difference here is quality and timescale—Bungie's shooter nailed the gunplay so hard that doing the same thing over and over wasn't galling for many, but Battlefront loses most of its appeal after just one or two hours.
So what is this, then? It's gorgeous and far more fun to watch than play, so it's fantastic for anyone who wants to show off a new telly. Apart from that, it's fundamentally just a very expensive way to immerse yourself in Star Wars. The mileage on this magic will certainly vary, and when it fades you're in for a very boring ride.
I can happily tell you that purely as a game it's not worth your time and money, but is it worth it as a Star Wars thing? Is it worth it if you love Star Wars? Well on that front, I've got no bloody clue. I love the original films, grew up reading spin-off books and playing most of the games, and I'm currently hooked to the brilliant Imperial Assault. So as someone who really likes Star Wars, it's been weird to watch as in 2015 a huge chunk of the planet has collectively lost exactly all of their shit. Geek culture's rise from underdog to consumer juggernaut has forged a number of mono-cultural obsessions, and Star Wars is undoubtedly the biggest of big dogs.
We're living in a reality where Hasbro is struggling to keep up with the demand for toys of characters in films that aren't out yet—characters that arguably might just be shit. The Star Wars universe remains fantastic, but Star Wars as a brand has become a terrifying entity—a means of endlessly serving up stuff to an audience that largely isn't willing to be critical, just grateful for new opportunities to consume. In sparser times this was understandable, but with Disney's new money-machine almost running on fumes, it's a mindset I increasingly struggle to relate to.
So if you really love games, it's not a great game. And if you really love Star Wars? I've got absolutely no idea. Maybe whack a cinnamon bun on either side of a bucket and wank into it while pretending you're a Wookie? After that, if dropping fifty quid on a couple of hours of disposable enjoyment doesn't seem like a momentary total loss of sanity, then fuck it, go ahead and treat yourself.
Star Wars: Battlefront is out now for PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox One.
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