Why EA’s ‘Star Wars’ Games Need to Betray the Fans
DICE's impressive new <i>Battlefront</i> has the look and feel of the movies nailed, but isn't it time Lucasfilm let game developers do more ambitious things with the universe?
As you go about your business today – unmolested, one would hope, by excitable people dressed as lanky alien teddy-bears and Nazi astronauts – spare a thought for the men and women of DICE, creators of the Battlefield shooters and the forthcoming Star Wars: Battlefront (pictured, above).
When last I saw them, the studio's top creatives were sandwiched between Lucasfilm moguls on a stage in Anaheim, Los Angeles, crisping gently in the radiation clouds of joy and frenzy given off by a thousand-strong audience of lifelong Star Wars nutters. An audience that all but threw up over itself at talk of a downloadable map set on a planet that features in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, emitting hoarse sobs of "OH MY GOD" when it transpired that, yes, there are speeder bikes in the new game and yes, you can indeed smash them into trees.
'Star Wars: Battlefront' reveal trailer
An audience ready to shed blood at the slightest mishandling of Lucasfilm's universe, and armed, what's more, with a fearsome assortment of homebrew blasters and lightsabers – hand-tooled batons of solid plastic, that is, not those weak-sauce telescopic blades they sell in Toys "R" Us. As a reformed Star Trek aficionado, I've always been a little wary of the Force's disciples, but at that moment, in the heart of the crowd, I was terrified of them. "We're one Jar-Jar joke away from a riot," I thought, sinking into my seat. "Perhaps today is a good day to die."
DICE, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, has more than cosplayer blowback to worry about when it comes to Star Wars: Battlefront, of course. The new game will serve partly as pre-launch marketing for The Force Awakens, which has been trumpeted as the franchise's second coming in light of its director's incredibly successful (though divisive) reworking of Star Trek. It's the first in a series of Star Wars games from EA, and the first Star Wars game to leave the hangar since Disney scuttled Lucasfilm's old game division LucasArts after acquiring the company for roughly $4 billion in 2012 – junking the highly anticipated Star Wars 1313 and various other titles in the process.
'Star Wars 1313' did look pretty cool
The pressure from on high may never have been greater, even in the absence of crusty old patriarch George Lucas – and DICE appears to have responded, like many a licensed game developer, by applying itself reverently to the look and feel of the movies while sticking firmly within the narrative and thematic boundaries laid out by their creators.
The new Battlefront allows you to blast Rebels and Stormtroopers on maps based on set-piece battles from the original trilogy – showdowns with Imperial Walkers over the glacial wastes of Hoth, wetwork in the pine forests of Endor. The old props, costumes and sets have been photographed and modelled with an exactness that borders on the slavish, while the gunplay walks a careful line between the quasi-realistic military tactics of Battlefield and the looser handling of the original Battlefront titles on PS2 and original Xbox. There's no traditional single player campaign to speak of, and thus no risk of the game treading on the toes of a past or present movie scriptwriter.
It's a deeply conservative project, long story short, and I'm in two minds about that. On the one hand, DICE's taste and talent for photo-realism speaks for itself. If you're going to transplant a movie's scenarios and visual texture into a video game, these are the people to call. On the other, a sin shared by many of the worst Star Wars adaptations is that they're too subservient to the film trilogies, to the more obsessive fans and to the claustrophobic creative politics of the Lucasfilm empire. The best of the bunch, by contrast, are those that strike out into uncharted territory, emerging from Lucasfilm's shadow not as devotees, but collaborators.
I'm thinking principally and predictably here of BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic, one of the finest role-playing games of all time, and its successor, a rushed but spectacular effort from Obsidian Software. I'll admit to not having completed either – I had my hands full with landmark experiences like Sonic Spinball and Jedi Power Battles, obviously – but I've played enough to know that their achievement is to step away from the movies, delving into (or inventing) aspects of the fiction that had never been aired on cinema screens.
Among other things, KOTOR rewound the timeline a few hundred years to show us clashes between entire legions of Jedi and Sith, sarky assassin droids and a potted history of Luke Skywalker's home planet Tatooine, as told by the Tusken Raiders. In a move that surely had many a Light Sider spluttering into his herbal tea, KOTOR 2 played with the notion that a Jedi's true enemy isn't the Sith but the tyrannous ebb and flow of the Force itself. Blasphemy, right? And for that reason, utterly fascinating.
Creative departures don't have to be as grand as those above. It can be as much a case of drilling down into what we already know, as 1313 threatened to do – literally – with Coruscant, the planet-sized capital of the Old Republic. Take the Jedi Knight series and, in particular, 2003's Jedi Academy. It is, somehow, the only game ever to deliver lightsaber duels that are genuinely delightful, building out the films' often-wobbly choreography into a surgical matrix of stances, evasive moves, 'saber types and Force powers. The result has been a competitive multiplayer community of unnatural longevity – skirmishes still occur in the shadowy corners of the internet, such as this desperate clash between Jonah Hill and an unusually nimble Stormtrooper.
Where DICE's game is a work of tremendous caution, these games at least feel like the work of designers who aren't totally in thrall to a distant, ruling council of Hollywood executives. Perhaps that's why they've all been stricken from the canon retrospectively. In April of this year, Lucasfilm announced that all existing expanded universe content – that's to say, the stuff that doesn't form part of either movie trilogy – is no longer to be considered part of the official chronology.
The second official teaser for 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'
This is meaningless inasmuch as it doesn't, of course, deny you the ability to play and enjoy these games, and you can absolutely make the case that after several decades' worth of spin-offs and adaptations, the franchise is in serious need of a haircut. But the rigour with which Lucasfilm has reset the gauges and cleared the stage casts a bit of a shadow over the games that will form part of the canon, amongst them the unannounced titles in development at two further EA-associated studios, Mass Effect HQ BioWare and Battlefield Hardline makers Visceral.
Those are good outfits, Hardline's middling reception notwithstanding, and what little we know of their projects is tantalising. Visceral is said to be putting together a third-person action-adventure starring Han Solo, with Uncharted and Naughty Dog veteran Amy Hennig on board to write the script – teaser images on Twitter (see below) hint at a prequel recounting how the Millennium Falcon's captain turned to piracy after a career in the Imperial Navy. This seems a premise that demands a certain amount of artistic license – but will there be room to manoeuvre, or will Visceral's effort emerge, like DICE's Battlefront, as a game that's palpably beholden to wider franchise priorities?
More into science than fiction? Aim your eyes at Motherboard.
The tale of Star Wars adaptations has broad relevance because it's also the tale of the shifting balance of power between cinema and the video games industry. An art and entertainment form that was a homely niche pursuit at the time of A New Hope's release has swelled into a major player, rivalling film in terms of both sales and cultural impact.
Game developers are no longer following in the footsteps of moviemakers – quite the contrary. Even the on-rails corridor shooters often decried as blockbuster movies in all but name have evolved their own, distinct vocabularies and traditions, such as tedious QTEs or those magic hostage-taker doors in Call of Duty, the kicking-down of which plunges the gunplay into slow motion. And directors have begun, of course, to incorporate references to games or gaming devices into their scripts and strategies, whether you look at the recent Tom Cruise 'em up Edge of Tomorrow or the work of Edgar Wright.
Any transmedia enterprise that obliges the video game to play second fiddle to film at this stage risks cheating itself of everything the former has to offer – not just in the sense of underwhelming revenues, but in the sense of losing out on new ways to give the core fiction life. I hope the current rulers of the Star Wars universe are bearing this in mind.
More from VICE Gaming: