'Star Wars: Fallen Order' screenshot courtesy of EA
It's ironic and predictable that Electronic Arts' Star Wars exclusivity deal with Lucasfilm would end just as the publisher was starting to do fun things with the license. I don't mean that as a knock against 2017's Battlefront 2, but with a Star Wars skin or not, a mass combat military shooter hardly felt like the most original or exciting fantasy. But Fallen Order was a fun Star Wars adventure that felt right for the universe. It told a good story that reminded me a lot of the stories I'd dream of writing or the RPG campaigns I'd play. Squadrons took a giant step toward recapturing the heyday of LucasArts' X-Wing games, and while it still fell short of that mark… well, that mark was made by some of the greatest PC games of all time.
However things have gone in the last year, it's telling that ultimately we're talking about two or three games at the end of an eight-year window in which EA was the only publisher allowed to make Star Wars games. With that track record in mind, it's obviously good news that Lucasfilm is now working with more publishers and developers as they announced an agreement with Ubisoft for a Massive Entertainment-led Star Wars game, and with Bethesda (now owned by Microsoft) for an Indiana Jones game by MachineGames.From most angles, Massive and Star Wars are a natural fit. The conceit of The Division series is basically identical to the origin story of the Republic's Clone Army: "A secret army of lethal counterinsurgency forces with no meaningful identities or lives, activated in the death throes of the discredited political order." The difference is that in the Tom Clancy-verse this is awesome, and in Star Wars it's horrifying. It would be interesting to see what Massive does with this idea when they aren't obliged to serve Ubisoft's need to make topical-but-apolitical games, the Clancy brand's uncritical elevation of the military, and create an ultra-violent fashion show for tactical and outdoor recreation clothing brands. Even the complaints that are easy to level against most Ubisoft games and particularly The Division games, where it's an endless series of combat encounters to little discernible end and very slight advances in narrative, practically become features in a Star Wars setting. Fleets and armies do battle in every corner of the galaxy, but nobody ever seems to win? Well that's just why they call it Star Wars.
Likewise, MachineGames managed to make two surprisingly charming games out of ultra-violent, bleak stories of an alt-history where the Nazis took over the world. It's not hard to imagine them capturing some of the humor of the better Indiana Jones movies, though it's very hard to imagine the level of bloody mayhem of those games working for an Indiana Jones game. And there's the rub: a lot of what makes for good Star Wars or Indiana Jones is at odds with what big-budget games are allowed to be.Consider that Naughty Dog went from making the "modern Indiana Jones" Uncharted series to telling a slightly ponderous family drama with Uncharted 4 and a pair of grim, ultraviolent epics with The Last of Us, while the Tomb Raider series was rebooted to be… a grim ultra-violent epic. Meanwhile, historically Indiana Jones games were funny point-and-click adventures.
The heyday of Star Wars and Indiana Jones games existed well before the concept of the AAA game, and you could argue that it was EA's fixation on making a modern, microtransaction-heavy shooter that got things off on the worst possible footing with the Star Wars license. When it made smaller (relatively speaking) games focused on a corner of the universe or a particular experience, they were fairly well-received. Now, Disney is going to a studio that is most famous these days for making the archetypical Ubisoft open-world loot chase, and a studio whose solar system-spanning take on Wolfenstein amounted to a lot of cutscenes intercut with run-and-gun sequences where you mow down cyborg dogs. These are very good games of their type… but they're also way more Rise of Skywalker than they are Mandalorian, if you will.Ironically, of course, both studios have their origins making games that seem much closer in spirit to the glory days of Lucasfilm's gaming division. MachineGames is rooted in the old Starbreeze studio that made the cult-classic immersive shooter Chronicles of Riddick, and the massively underrated The Darkness, which is about as close to an FPS game about being a Dark Jedi as has ever been made. Massive made the incredibly cool MOBA / RTS World in Conflict, which let you put tons of Cold War military hardware in a sandbox and blast the everliving shit out of it, and frankly the Star Wars version of that sounds like a dream game. But there are a lot of reasons why we don't get a lot of games like that anymore, no matter the license involved.
With any luck, Lucasfilm springing the Star Wars license out of exclusivity jail ultimately leads to a lot more studios getting a chance to do something interesting with Star Wars. But as someone who loved the old Lucasfilm / Lucasarts games, I also hope Disney lets games follow the arc of Star Wars on television and target a smaller scale than the "global blockbuster." Maybe with the Star Wars license, fun, risky ideas won't seem like such a risk to the people holding the pursestrings.