Em­pire Build­ing

How DICE set about caus­ing a dis­tur­bance in the Bat­tle­front se­ries

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY BEN MAXWELL

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.

64

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

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