As time has passed, the internet has slowly learned more about Free Radical’s cancelled Battlefront 3 project. The idea was to expand upon Battlefront 2‘s grand battles, allowing a seamless transition from space dogfighting to ground combat.
Free Radical’s efforts were eventually canned though, after a change in LucasArts leadership. But while it doesn’t feature a full space to ground transition, the final mission of DICE’s Battlefront echoes some of the spirit of the cancelled project.
After causing supposed untold damage to the Rebels, the Inferno Squad pairing take on a final mission at Jakku. Iden expects her father to be there, but she’s dismissed his capture as a priority, and so the Corvus popped over to Jakku to assist in an all-out assault on the Empire.
After warping in, the Corvus picks up a range of distress signals across the deserts of Jakku. Iden makes the call to head out, and so begins a mission that sets out to fulfil one of Battlefront‘s great dreams: gameplay that transitions from ground combat to the skies, and back again.
It’s something that Battlefront 1 never achieved, and the original Battlefront series fell just shy of. There were space levels where players could land and board enemy cruisers, but not instances where you could have air combat and ground combat within the same level.
Battlefront 2‘s Battle of Jakku mission expands upon that, with a couple of scripted segments where Iden flies to designated areas to fight off waves of Empire forces. After she’s done batting away an AT-ST or two, Iden takes to the skies once more, although the combat around the Jakku skies is far from the dysfunctional chaos of the iconic Death Star battles.
The ongoing problem with the Battlefront reboots has never been technical. But a seamless transition from space to ground combat is no small technical feat. More importantly, it’s a significant design challenge – how do you ensure that people don’t get stuck in deadzones of the map, with no action, nothing to do, see or shoot?
Put another way: if players are capable of wandering to every corner of a massive virtual space, how do you ensure people don’t get bored at the fringes of space or sand?
It’s a question that the Battle of Jakku mission reminds me of, if only because the ground sequences are so awfully dire. In her first trip out of the X-Wing, Iden helps a downed Rebel force repel an attack wave of AT-ATs, AT-STs and a mix of ground forces.
It’s not an inspired conflict, to say the least. The forces approach you from head on, with Iden occasionally required to pop out from cover to target some orbital strikes. In the singleplayer Arcade challenges, forces at least attack from multiple directions, but not on Jakku.
Eventually, the rebels retreat to an evac point. Two Imperial shuttles come in, with Iden and Shriv holding the line. You’re then tasked with heading over to a downed star destroyer, which is still deploying bomber reinforcements somehow.
Naturally, you can’t have bombers flying about. So you knock off a few TIE fighters, land, and clear another area of Stormtroopers. Occasionally you’ll get harassed by something larger – a TIE Fighter starts shelling your position at one point – but a few rockets to the hull do the job effectively enough.
The whole thing’s a bit bizarre, mind you. After the area has been cleared, Iden plants a few detonators in a hangar bay. The TIE Fighter that besieged you previously came out of the same hangar, although once you’re inside it’s a bit hard to imagine how it was operable at all:
Not everything was ruined, apparently
From there, it’s back into the sky and another air battle. It’s not a clean transition though: there’s another cut scene, and your ship effectively respawns alongside the Corvis, much higher in the air.
The reload effectively allows the game to respawn a fresh set of interceptors, bombers and fights to interact with, even though the mission becomes an air-only battle at this point. But it’s still not an especially chaotic or threatening fight, even though the battle is constantly pitched against a backdrop of cruisers and star destroyers firing lasers at each other.
Iden only ever has to ward off three or four fighters at a time, though. It’s hardly the best air battle in the campaign, and the final battle against Hass ends up being nothing more than a protracted mission of you chasing his tail, whittling down his HP.
Battlefront 2 has more to offer. Star Wars games have done better, although the closest any game has come to matching the panicked spirit of the best Star Wars battles is the final mission in Freelancer. It’s an assault on an alien home planet, with lots of ducking and weaving around enemy fire and through trenches with power generators.
Mind you, that’s not really a knock on Battlefront 2. Freelancer, and the classic Star Wars space games of the past, had the advantage of being able to focus primarily on space. Introducing ground and air elements, and allow the player to transition between the two, adds a lot of space that has to be managed.
And the real kicker comes down to one of Battlefront 2‘s core design principles. At it’s heart, Battlefront is a power fantasy. The Battlefield games revolve around being enveloped in the size and scale of war – huge maps, lots of players, lots of action taking place without the player’s input.
Battlefront isn’t that hands off. It’s a game where everyone gets to be a hero, if only for a moment. And that means that the thrill of a gargantuan fight that transitions from ground to air and back again is neutered somewhat, because the scale of what happens in the actual fighting has to be reduced so the player can take part in every element.
But it’s nice to live out a small fraction of the fantasy Battlefront fans have had, since Battlefront 2‘s release and the revelations around what Free Radical had planned for Battlefront 3. The idea ends up being substantially more entertaining than the reality, but the fact that it’s technically possible at all is a nice window into the future.