How DICE set about causing a disturbance in the Battlefront series
How Star Wars Battlefront is luring a galaxy of fans onto the laser-scorched online battlefield
Darth Vader is right in front of us, laying waste to the remainder of our panicked squad with swings of his lightsaber. Knowing that the Sith Lord is under the control of another player, his manifestation here simply a perk picked up on the battlefield, does nothing to diminish the power of his presence as he cuts down all around us. An attempt to slow him proves futile, the burst from our blaster rifle only ensuring that the imposing caped figure turns his attention to us. Our sortie an abject failure, we accept our fate and surrender to the searing blade, vowing to find a Luke Skywalker token on the next respawn.
It’s just one example of the potency with which Star Wars Battlefront fulfils its fantasy. This is the original trilogy rendered at its highest fidelity yet, its clunking, battle-scarred technology, iconic uniforms and unforgettable locales brought to life by DICE’s shimmering Frostbite technology. It’s certainly a lot more palatable than the remastered versions. Every little detail, whether it’s the fizzing blue video from comms feeds or the multicoloured crisscross of fluorescent blaster shots, feels like it’s been directly lifted from a vivid childhood memory of the movies – and for good reason.
“I grew up with Star Wars,” Battlefront design director Niklas Fegraeus tells us. “I had all the action figures. I watched the films a gazillion times, like every other kid. And it’s no exaggeration to say that [working on
Battlefront is] a dream come true. I can’t find the proper words, but it’s the ride of a lifetime. I’m going to remember it for the rest of my life.” Senior producer Sigurlína
Ingvarsdottir, who worked on EVE at CCP before joining DICE, is just as enthused. She goes as far as to cite Star Wars as part of the reason she developed an interest in technology as a kid, went on to study engineering, and now finds herself working in games as a result. But their combined passion for the fiction did nothing to diminish the daunting nature of taking up the reins of such a cherished universe.
“I was completely terrified,” Ingvarsdottir admits. “But also incredibly excited. You don’t even dare to dream about this kind of thing. You don’t think, as a kid, ‘I want to grow up and make Star Wars videogames,’ because that’s so unobtainable, so ridiculous. And then all of a sudden, that’s the conversation that you’re having. Someone is asking you, do you want to make this game? And you’re like, ‘ Yes, absolutely’.”
That kind of love for the source material is immediately apparent in the sense of place and occasion that permeates the opening minutes of our first attempt at Drop Zone, the fourth mode to be detailed – after the game’s co-op Horde-style Survival missions, 40-player Walker Assault, and aerial-combat-focused Fighter Squadron – ahead of the game’s open beta, which took place in early October. The wail of a TIE fighter overhead cuts through the grand, familiar John Williams score, while the chatter of inter-squad communications and the directives from the vast Mon Calamari cruiser hanging in the sky overhead are as respectively earnest and stern as their ’70s cinematic inspirations.
Although we play dozens of matches, we’re limited to the Sullust map, a craggy labyrinth of geothermal protrusions and scars that are cooled by azure pools of water and shot through with pillars of steam and smoke. A Lambda-class shuttle, wings folded, towers over the sloping, igneous battlefield, while a crashed TIE Fighter provides a sobering reminder of the aerial battle taking place overhead.
Our objective is to capture and defend the escape pods that plummet from the capital ship above in what feels like a hyperactive, simplified twist on Battlefield’s Conquest. Drop Zone returns to more traditional king-ofthe-hill roots, however, cutting the focus down to one point at a time, albeit regularly switching that objective’s location. The winner in our case is the team to capture the most pods in nine minutes, though if the timer hits zero and the scores are tied, the game will continue.
Claiming a pod is a little different to taking a normal capture point too. For starters, it doesn’t rely on you remaining in the vicinity once your claim has been staked. Instead, you activate the capture countdown by standing next to the pod and holding down an action button. Once the process is initiated, you’re free to run wherever you want – you could nestle in an outcrop of black rock a few metres away, perhaps, or put some real distance between you and the pod and take up overwatch duties with a sniper rifle. So long as no opposing player is able to stand next to the pod for long enough to restart the countdown in their team’s favour, it will merrily tick down until the point’s in your possession. Shortly thereafter, a new pod will crash land and the next tussle begins. But a successful capture not
“YOU DON’T THINK, AS A KID, ‘I WANT TO MAKE STAR WARS GAMES,’ BECAUSE IT’S UNOBTAINABLE”
only ticks your team’s score up a notch, it also grants a clutch of two or three powerups – a powerful Thermal Implosion Grenade, for example, or a tripod-mounted blaster cannon.
Gameplay feels immediate in a way that makes Battlefield or even Call Of
Duty seem convoluted in comparison. There are only four different weapons to pick from for each side, and three of those are locked when you start. It’s a similar situation for the Star Cards you can take with you onto the battlefield: you’ll initially be able to take just one into the fray, but level up a little and your hand will increase to three. Each card bestows a cooldown-limited perk. The long-range Cycler Rifle, for example, delivers three sniper shots per charge. The Personal Shield generates an energy field around the user that lasts for seven seconds and repels fire from energy weapons, but does nothing to prevent kinetic munitions such as the Cycler or grenades. And the Ion Shot allows your standard weapon to fire ion-charged bolts for a short time that quickly deplete shields and do significant damage to droids and vehicles. This economy of design, combined with the clear objectives, makes for a remarkably gentle on-ramp for an online competitive shooter. It is, of course, entirely deliberate.
“I think as games go through iterations, they generally become more and more complex,” Ingvarsdottir says. “Many people like the fact that the game they already know increases in complexity, and I come from CCP and
EVE Online, so I’ve seen that happen to one game over ten years. But Star Wars is loved by so many people, and it’s a universe that so many people want to immerse themselves in – particularly when it’s realised in the way that we have realised it, with this level of fidelity and audio quality. I think that a lot of people will want to be able to enjoy this game.”
That welcoming clarity shouldn’t be mistaken for oversimplification, however. While it’s true that there are fewer options and rules to wrap your under-fire brain around than in
Battlefront’s most prominent online peers, there’s still plenty of tactical depth underneath the smooth surface sheen. Those four blasters might do an ostensibly similar job, but there’s enough variation when it comes to
“IT HAS A LOT OF INTERESTING LAYERS, WITHOUT
COMPROMISING THE ABILITY TO JUST JUMP IN”
fire rates and impact damage to cater to different styles of play. And the combination of Star Cards that you take with you allows for further specialisation. Defensive players might group a Jump Pack, Personal Shield and Cycler Rifle together, while more aggressive types might focus on shield-destroying bolts and grenades, plus the Sharpshooter card, which levels up and provides progressively larger reductions to the cooldown periods of your other devices when you land headshots.
Your hands of Star Cards are defined before a match, but you can pick two distinct sets and change between them when respawning, so switching tactics on the fly is still possible. And other mechanics have similarly subtle effects, such as the Active Cooling feature built into all guns. While there’s no ammo to collect, sustained fire will overheat your weapon. But if you hit reload just as the descending meter falls within a narrow goldilocks zone, you’ll instantly be able to fire again. Get it wrong, and you’ll reset the cooling meter. The system’s easy to fumble, ensuring that pulling off a successful auto-cool requires a little skill, but could mean the difference between emerging from a firefight as the victor or choking.
“Battlefront is a T-rated game that’s meant to be played by a huge population of Star Wars fans: big and small, young and old,” Fegraeus says. “Star Wars is so broad and appreciated by so many people, so [ Battlefront] needs to be able to cater to all of those. That’s been a guiding principle when it comes to developing it – it’s supposed to be, and it really tries to be, inviting in that sense. But we don’t want to sacrifice the depth and tactical layers – it’s about finding that balance between easy to learn, hard to master, and just hard to learn, right?
“I think it’s been very successful in terms of how we see players approaching it when they jump in. They immediately get it, but once they’ve dug a little deeper, they start seeing, ‘OK, I can change this out, tweak this, fiddle with that – I can devise my own strategy. I can team play with my [co-op] partner and my friends…’ It has a lot of interesting layers, without compromising the ability to just jump in and have fun. And I think that’s a very big strength of the game.”
While all of the game’s multiplayer modes have been devised to present as little friction as possible to all comers, DICE is still anticipating that many won’t immediately dive into competitive play. “For some people, it will be their first multiplayer game,” Ingvarsdottir says. “We hope that they get to learn the mechanics in the training missions and then play, maybe by themselves or with a friend, through the Survival missions, and play around a bit before making that transition over into the multiplayer.”
The Survival missions pit one or two players against waves of Imperial troops and hardware in a Horde-style mode that sees them try to survive after a crash landing. The mode has lost none of its charm, and appears mechanically unchanged, since we first tried it at E3. We’re limited to the Tatooine map for our entire session, but the build also includes chunks of Sullust, Endor and Hoth. All offer Normal, Hard and Master difficulties, and you get a star for completing each tier. There are also bonus stars for besting Master without dying, and for scooping up all of the collectibles that emerge from the escape pods that crash down every couple of waves, plus there’s a leaderboard for your fastest times in singleplayer and co-op.
But while Survival is a solid Horde variant, after a few rounds of battling AI through the same canyons, we’re left longing for a little more variety – not least when it comes to the enemy types, which include vanilla Stormtroopers, shock troopers with natty red armour, jetpack-enabled, sniper-rifle-wielding sharpshooters, and the always-terrifying AT-STs. Even on Normal, enemy AI provides a stiff challenge, behaving for the most part in a convincingly unpredictable manner, but even played with a friend Survival missions will likely offer limited appeal over time. Their inclusion certainly won’t mitigate the desire for a proper singleplayer campaign, but the option to play with a friend in splitscreen is delightful.
“I think [players miss] splitscreen modes – not that many games have splitscreen these days,” Ingvarsdottir says. “So for us, and the way that we think this game will be played and how people will enjoy it, the missions felt like the right approach rather than a singleplayer campaign. I completely understand that a lot of people want a great singleplayer experience, but we decided to focus on the multiplayer experience.”
There’s plenty of inferred narrative commotion in Battlefront’s dramatic
Walker Assault mode. The 40-player battles might be numerically shy of
Battlefield 4’ s 64-strong encounters, but they feel no less lively as a result. The focus on AT-ATs makes for an intriguing shift in dynamic, since kills are demoted to being simply a by-product of your objectives. If you join the Rebel Alliance, you must take control of uplink stations across the map in order to call in Y-Wing bombing runs, making the otherwiseinvulnerable AT-ATs temporarily susceptible to fire from all weapons and Snow Speeder tow-cable takedowns. Meanwhile, in order to allow the metallic behemoths to reach their destination and claim victory, the Imperial forces must do everything in their powers to prevent Y-Wings being called in.
It’s in this mode that the stirring power of your emotional attachment to the two scrapping sides makes itself felt. Playing on the side of the US, China or Russia is all very well, but it offers nothing like the emotional resonance of taking up the Rebels’ cause or striding into battle under the shadow of an AT-AT as an Imperial trooper. And even those highly emotive experiences are outshone by the occasions when you encounter an iconic Hero or Villain character, such as Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, or Boba Fett on the battlefield – or, even better, take control of one of them via one of the many powerup tokens that dot each map. In such moments, it can feel like you’ve somehow wandered into the middle of a Dynasty Warriors game – though one in which the sea of enemies is player-controlled, not dull AI – such is the gulf between your abilities and those of your puny opposition. The imbalance of power is redressed with a continually decreasing health bar, but slicing your way through enemies will top it up and buy you more time. No other game comes close to making you care about the outcome of the match to such an extent – even if you’re not particularly devoted to the fiction as a whole. It’s this sense of connection to each encounter that proves Battlefront’s greatest draw.
“There’s the history of Star Wars, that epic struggle between the light side and the dark side, and these characters that you know and love,” Ingvarsdottir says. “I don’t think
people are as emotionally invested in many universes as they are in Star Wars. And I think that perhaps contributes to how seriously you take it, or how engaged you become.”
Another group of fans taking things incredibly seriously are those who adored the first two Battlefronts. Ingvarsdottir isn’t operating under the illusion that DICE can please everyone, and she’s unrepentant when it comes to the creative decisions the studio has taken for this latest instalment in the series.
“For me, there was quite a lot of pressure,” she admits. “But what’s important to understand is that those games came out more than ten years ago, and shooters have evolved. Technology has evolved. Hardware has evolved. And DICE has been at the forefront of that evolution. So while we’re being true to the spirit of
Battlefront, we also have the confidence, even the audacity, to say we’re resetting the franchise for a new generation of hardware and consumers.”
Fegraeus feels similarly: “You can’t just remake something that has already been made, because then you won’t find a new audience, you won’t develop, and you won’t go forward – I think everyone understands the problems inherent in that. But you can’t change everything, because then you move away from the core. So it’s about finding a balance – how much of that do you keep but modify, and how much do you add in order to end up with something that feels new and fresh, and has its own identity in a very competitive market? It’s been a challenge, but as I look at the game now that it’s so close to shipping, I’m like, ‘There’s lots of damn good stuff in there that we managed to make. That’s awesome – good job, us [laughs]’.”
And for every amputation from the original Battlefront games, DICE has a convincing replacement. Open space battles are gone, sure, but Fighter Squadron mode – in which players scrap over planetary surfaces – harks back to the Death Star dogfights and battle of Hoth, which make up the majority of fighter engagements in the original trilogy, and also communicates the WWII-inspired life-and-death tussle of those films, where brave pilots push fragile craft beyond their design tolerances. Another bone of contention is that you can no longer pilot AT-ATs, only aim their guns. Still, by denying you the ability to point the lumbering walkers wherever you please, DICE ensures that they lose none of their majesty or threat when conjuring up the most nerveshreddingly authentic interpretation of the Imperial assault on Hoth yet. Watching an implacable death machine trap its foot in the doorway of Echo Base under inexpert control might not deliver quite the same thrill.
“I’ve played tons of Star Wars games myself, and I have had all kinds of experiences with them – both good and bad,” Fegraeus says. “But I want to tap into my own memories of what makes Star Wars great, and what Star Wars is to me. How do we capture that, and how do we make that into a reality? And that has guided me for the whole process – I haven’t thought so much about other specific game experiences. It’s been much more about figuring out how to make these fantasies come to life for players.”
The combination of Battlefront’s uncommonly broad cultural appeal, uncomplicated design and persuasive pedigree has the potential to catapult it to immediate success, but it still has to face down something even more fearsome than a titanic walker: the prospect of yet another botched multiplayer launch. But Battlefront has the dual advantage of not arriving hand-in-hand with a resource-sapping singleplayer campaign and also coming after the lessons learned from two
Battlefield launch debacles. It would be a tragedy if those mistakes were repeated. DICE has created the most authentic Star Wars game yet, a multiplayer shooter that stirs like no other, and an impassioned love letter to fans. Now the network must ensure that it’s delivered.
Niklas Fegraeus, design director, and senior producer Sigurlína Ingvarsdottir
ABOVE The Fighter Squadron mode pits two ten-pilot teams against each other, each side supported by a further ten AI ships.
LEFT The game can be played in either firstor thirdperson, which proves useful when you’re stuck defending an exposed location and need to keep tabs on enemy movements
The development team visited filming locations for the movies’ best-known scenes to gather reference material and images. Photogrammetry was also used to ensure unimpeachable authenticity
RIGHT Strafing runs are difficult to pull off, but taking out AT-STs and ground troops in an X-Wing is a real thrill
LEFT Tatooine’s sandy canyons make for a complex, multitiered space in which to fight. A jetpack is essential