Star Wars: Battlefront wants you to believe you're in a Star Wars movie, but at heart it's one of the video-game-iest video games I've played in ages. This is the source of both its greatest triumphs and its worst failures.
Star Wars: Battlefront is a large-scale multiplayer shooter loosely set during the original movie trilogy. You can fight as Rebels against Imperial walkers on Hoth. You can try to defeat Rebels on Endor with your fellow Stormtroopers. You can fight as Princess Leia against Boba Fett on Tatooine. It is, for the most part, a multiplayer first-person shooter with the sights and sounds of George Lucas originals. Matches can contain up to 40 players, and at any given moment they might be blasting each other with laser weapons, riding around in land vehicles, or flying classic ships. The result is sheer, unbridled chaos — but it's wearing a Star Wars Halloween costume.
Like many other people between the ages of 0 and 21,547, I grew up with Star Wars. I watched the original trilogy, I played games like Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire and Star Wars: Jedi Knight, and I bought action figures by the bantha-load. Despite capturing Star Wars' iconic look better than any game before it, Battlefront reminds me most of that last thing — of sitting in my room while my imagination spirited my action figures off to another galaxy.
Battlefront is a patently ridiculous game. During one of my first matches, I witnessed a TIE fighter fall out of the sky and explode at my feet in a way that was more slapstick comedy than cinematic intergalactic warfare. Then I got bulldozed by hunched, sagging skin sack Emperor Palpatine, who suddenly became sprightly enough to pull off a tornado tackle that resembled M. Bison's psycho crusher from Street Fighter. I still crack up every single time I see or perform that attack.
In stills, Battlefront looks so much like Star Wars that it's eerie. In motion, it's arcade-y, oftentimes hilarious. Seriously, I haven't laughed so much while playing a multiplayer game maybe ever. Battlefront is, at times, a goddamn cartoon. Corpses soar and tumble through the air like dolphins briefly freed from the shackles of cruel gravity. Cherished Star Wars characters like Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo regularly fall off cliffs and bungle big moments. Spaceships clumsily crash into each other seconds after taking off with a swell of grandiose music in their wake.
I frequently find myself watching these moments unfold and creating a comical alternate Star Wars canon. "Remember that time Han Solo ambushed and killed Darth Vader while he seemed chronically intent on hurling his lightsaber at the ground? Remember when a single, valiant rebel soldier punched an AT-AT until it died? Remember when Princess Leia ended up trapped on Hoth with seven storm troopers, and they fought to the death countless times, only to never truly die? Remember when they figured out they were trapped in some bleak purgatory?"
In short, here is what Battlefront wants to be:
Here is what Battlefront often is:
Some modes lend themselves better to reveling in wild Star Wars "what if" scenarios. Supremacy is all-out 40-player warfare on land and sky with any player assuming the roles of heroes like Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader if they pick up a temporary power-up. If you want the Battlefront experience distilled, it's great — albeit sometimes frustrating because of how often you'll die in the chaos. Walker Assault is an inspired spin on that formula, giving the rebels and imperials different objectives with tremendous cinematic heft. Imperials have to guard a massive AT-AT as it advances on a rebel base, and rebels have to battle back while securing uplinks and calling in bombing runs. For the rebels, the odds feel overwhelmingly against them (and to an extent, they are), but it captures what the rebels were actually dealing with in Star Wars so well.
You get some especially great character moments in a couple more intimate modes: Heroes vs Villains and Hero Hunt. The former is a fairly straightforward small-scale battle of heroes and infantry, while the latter sees one player assume the role of a hero while seven others hunt them down. Whoever gets the kill becomes the hero next. As a result, you get these frantic showdowns with characters like Luke and Leia. Sometimes players are desperate but wily — using every trick in the book to prolong the hunt. Other times, Han Solo strafes futily in the snow in a way that makes it look like he's dancing, and everyone laughs themselves into a coma while blasting him to smithereens.
If you're looking for a perfect, serious recreation of Star Wars' most epic battles, all of this might upset you. Battlefront is, sometimes, the Jar-Jar Binks of Star Wars games. It's got out-of-place comedy in spades. It can be really, really dumb. Strangely, though, that's endeared it to me in a big way. I think it's because, for me, there are two versions of Star Wars: what I saw on screens and what played out in the theatre in my head while playing with action figures. The former was grand and epic and scored by John Williams, sure, but the latter was even more vast in scope, patently hilarious, and — most importantly — mine. On reflection, I realise the latter is also the source of most of my Star Wars nostalgia. Star Wars is great not because of the characters, the plot, the bottomless barrels of merchandise, or everyone's favourite part of all, Hayden Christensten. It's great because it throws the imagination into overdrive. It's a universe of possibility, and we get to own what we imagine.
Unlike my halcyon action figure escapades, however, Battlefront has limits, and they're quite confining. Even its best moments are ephemeral and, at worst, forgettable. For all its interlocking parts, Battlefront is not a particularly complex game. There are nine main multiplayer modes, but only a few amount to more than simplistic close quarters shooting — the sort of thing that's been done better in other games, that doesn't really benefit from having Star Wars attached. The modes I listed earlier? Good, but ultimately repetitive. Some of the others, like Drop Zone and Cargo? They're essentially king of the hill and capture the flag, except kinda boring because Battlefront's infantry combat is so simple — meant more for massive battles than intricate small-scale engagements.
Shooting has a nice weight to it, but many guns — which you unlock by playing matches, earning in-game currency, and ranking up — feel similar. It's nice that, so far, there don't appear to be any hugely overpowered weapons, but there aren't many guns that are super interesting or unique either. Unfortunately, you start out with hardly anything equipment-wise, and unlocking the coolest stuff (ex: jetpacks) takes forever. It's irritating. Even slightly better starting gear would have been much appreciated. Similarly, the flight model for the few ships in the game is simplistic and a bit wonky. Removed from larger battles — for instance, in a mode dedicated to aerial battles — ships aren't all that fun to fly. Battlefront is definitely more than the sum of its parts; it needs those parts working in conjunction to be truly standout.
Even then, it becomes repetitive fairly quickly. For every moment where Princess Leia steals her brother's kill of their jerk-arse dad, there are tens of typical shootouts with the samey weapons, confusing deaths amid constant chaos, and scenarios other shooters have done better. This isn't helped by the relatively small number of levels. Technically speaking, there are only four locations, but they change size and layout depending on what mode you're playing and how many players there are.
Still, you'll come across similar landmarks a lot of the time, and before long Hoth's hangar, Endor's tree fort, and Tatooine's tarps and crates will feel awfully familiar. It doesn't help that some levels are markedly more varied than others. Endor levels tend to have alternate routes and vertical paths in spades, regardless of size. They're also visually breathtaking, teeming with greenery and life. Dark, lava-filled Sullust levels, by contrast, are mechanically bland when they're small, and they're still only so-so when expanded. Their visual palette, meanwhile, inspires very little of the imagination and excitement I get from running around in other Star Wars locations.
It must be noted that Star Wars: Battlefront has a $US50 season pass, and it definitely feels like a strangely small $US60 game designed to be fleshed out with more stuff. Perhaps, in that respect, it's a bit of a cynical enterprise, given how rabidly people adore Star Wars. Don't get me wrong: what's there already is solid, and it's kept me entertained for tens of hours. But I'm already starting to get bored, and I feel like — given the sheer joy in experiencing all these strange, hilarious moments with Star Wars characters and locales — even a little more initial variety would have gone a long way.
Even Battlefront's balance issues come from its marriage to Star Wars. There are cool, thematically appropriate things like the Walker Assault mode I mentioned earlier, but you've also got to contend with issues like the fact that Storm Troopers — clad in armour white as the driven snow — are easy targets against Endor's green backdrops. On Hoth, meanwhile, they blend in almost too well. Again, it makes sense in the context of the setting, but it can grow frustrating over time.
Battlefront also has a few single player battles and survival runs, but they're not particularly noteworthy. This is a multiplayer game through and through, and glorified AI bot matches just don't live up to the spectacular lunacy of games with and against real people. If you don't plan to play this game with other people, it's simply not worth your time.
Star Wars: Battlefront is a game that's helped me better understand where my own Star Wars nostalgia came from. I remember, when the first Force Awakens trailer came out and everyone was talking about how it made them weep, I found it hard to muster any real emotion. Battlefront has given me moments that made me laugh until tears streamed out of my eyes. It's given me tales of victory and loss, maverick storm troopers 360 headshotting Luke Skywalker while (presumably) shouting, "Yippee ki yay, motherfucker!" and winning the day in the most un-Star-Wars ways imaginable. It's taken me back to my time inventing goofy, implausible Star Wars stories with action figures — things I fully acknowledge were dumb and terrible, but also mine.
Battlefront is not the best game ever, and it's certainly not the best shooter ever. To top it off, I'm worried about its ability to keep people entertained long-term, something crucial for a healthy multiplayer game. But there's a feeling of childlike joy to playing it and thinking about it. It's a game I will probably not go back to regularly, but when I want some silly, Star-Wars-flavored fun, I'll be happy to have it waiting on my hard drive.