STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II
A trilogy of developers unite – a master mechanic, a multiplayer maestro, and a fledgling storyteller– to steer Star Wars Battlefront II towards the light side of the Force. So, is this Revenge of the Sith, or just reorganised sith? NATHAN LAWRENCE plays
EA’s empire strikes back
STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II
DEVELOPER DICE, MOTIVE STUDIOS, CRITERION GAMES PUBLISHER EA DUE 17 NOVEMBER
A not so long time ago in a galaxy not at all far away, Dice launched a Star Wars Battlefront reboot. The year was 2015, and like the divisive prequel trilogy, it was more computer-manufactured eye candy than substance. There’s no denying that Dice’s Battlefront looked, sounded and – when it got it right – even felt the part, but like Jar Jar’s dead gaze, there wasn’t a whole lot happening beneath the surface.
Let’s wind back for a breath. The word ‘reboot’ is often seen as a dirty word, and it’s a mite unfair to imply that Dice is remaking the wheel. The original Pandemicforged Star Wars: Battlefront was, itself, a clone of Dice’s big franchise-starter Battlefield 1942. Apart from sharing the same ‘Battle’ prefix, Battlefront mirrored Battlefield’s mix of large-scale 64-player warfare that included vehicular and infantry combat. Hell, the core play mode was called Conquest in both games and involved dwindling tickets, which were influenced by controlling points of interest.
But there’s little denying that Dice’s Battlefront was seriously lacking on the content side of things. On top of this, it was clear that Dice had been given a mandate from some phantom menace to make it more accessible than Battlefield, assumedly in an attempt to attract as many Star Wars-loving players as possible.
Fast-forward to today and fans are wondering whether Dice’s second crack at Battlefront will prove to be a sequel worthy of the prequel or original trilogy. If it’s the former and Battlefront II is Dice’s Attack of the Clones, well, ‘better than disappointing’ does not a praise-worthy sequel make. If it’s the latter, though, then Dice has the chance to create The Empire Strikes Back of sequels.
Colour me optimistic, but from what I’ve seen, played, and chatted about, Star Wars Battlefront II is a lot closer to Empire than Clones. Here’s why.
A TALE OF THREE DEVS
The bastardised adage ‘too many cooks spoil the Bantha broth’ springs to mind when thinking of multiple studios working on a single game. On one hand, the reality is that big devs may outsource to several external studios to help, particularly at crunch time.
On the other hand, and relevant to the sci-fi space, Aliens: Colonial Marines. Nobody wants that.
For Battlefront II, the good news is that EA has been upfront from the outset about the workload breakdown between studios. The recently formed Motive Studios is focusing on the campaign side of things. This is particularly promising because Motive is also working with Visceral Games on the stillunnamed Star Wars project that’s being led by Amy Hennig (of Uncharted fame).
This means Battlefront II’s canonical story won’t be handled by Dice, which has a shaky history with storytelling, and has the focus of a fully talented and operational studio. The intention is the campaign won’t feel tacked-on like Battlefront’s lacklustre solo component.
Dice is, understandably, in charge of the bulk of the competitive multiplayer, specifically those modes that involve that beautiful mix of infantry and vehicular combat, which is the Swedish developer’s clear strong suit.
At least one of the modes and, reportedly, all of the vehicle handling, is being handled by Criterion Games, the same studio behind classic car series Burnout and some of the (latter, better) Need for Speed titles. This is a smart move, as those who played the shortlived but pitch-perfect Star Wars Battlefront: X-wing VR Mission will know. Criterion tweaked the handling for that VR experience, and it felt fantastic. Regrettably, that was a PlayStation VR exclusive.
Anyone who suffered through the monotony of Battlefront’s Fighter Squadron mode, or was quick enough to snag an X-wing or TIE fighter pick-up in Supremacy or Walker Assault, will likely recall how shallow Dice’s one-stick flying experience was. For Battlefront II, Criterion has gone back to the drawing board in what Criterion’s executive producer Matt Webster describes as part of “a massive overhaul.”
Confirmation that Battlefront II will have a campaign, co-op modes, and competitive multiplayer across all cinematic Star Wars eras goes a long way to addressing the lack-ofcontent concerns for the 2015 game. But that still doesn’t address the shallow nature of the online multiplayer. Jumping into the cockpit of an X-wing or TIE fighter in Battlefront II quickly shows the practical application of lessons learnt.
For starters, forget about the singlestick starfighter control methodology from Battlefront. That’s gone the way of Alderaan. It may sound like a simple addition, but the logical inclusion of roll alongside separate yaw and pitch controls doesn’t just make sense, it immediately grants added manoeuvrability and, therefore, escapability. In Battlefront’s Fighter Squadron, your main hope of escaping an enemy on your six was their lack of skill, or a reset cooldown on one of three fixed evade manoeuvres to dodge an incoming missile.
In Battlefront II’s Starfighter Assault – the overhaul of Battlefront’s Fighter Squadron – you can mix speed, yaw, pitch, and roll to escape a pursuer. On top of this, the automatic lock-on for your starfighter’s cannons is stardust, too. Yup, you’ll actually have to manually aim and lead your intended prey to land hits (albeit with the assistance of a target lead indicator).
This is particularly important because of the new ship classes. Criterion describes the X-wing and TIE fighter as all-rounders: proficient dogfighters, but also able to pack a punch against the fixed objectives of the asymmetrical mode. Then there’s the interceptor class, which includes ships like the TIE interceptor and A-wing, the latter of which has a snug design that makes it harder to hit. Given that Criterion describes interceptor-class starfighters as glass cannons, the extra mobility of the A-wing and TIE interceptor also proves advantageous for avoiding incoming fire.
Finally, there’s the bomber class, like the Y-wings and TIE bombers of the original trilogy, which Criterion describes as the tank. It’s a newbie-friendly starfighter class, in that it’s a bit slower, but it takes more damage and it punches like a Death Star superlaser. The TIE bomber I flew came pre-equipped with two powerful Star Cards: one launched twin proton torpedoes, and the other sprayed off a salvo of up to five tracking missiles. It’s clear the bomber isn’t just there to destroy objectives, but also to take down those pesky and powerful hero ships.
BALANCING THE DEPTH
The hero ships and heroes of 2015’s Battlefront were, by design, overpowered. In the hands of a casual player, they fulfilled a sci-fi fantasy. Used by a moderately skilled, objective-loving player, hero and villain pick-ups were the best way to break a siege or turn the tide of battle. When used by a highly skilled, spawncamping player, though, they quickly proved how fragile Dice’s accessible gameplay was in terms of balance.
Heroes and hero ships are back for Battlefront II, but they’re thankfully not relegated to a small rotation of fixed spawn points which, not long after Battlefront’s launch, were being camped by in-the-know players eager to rack up easy kills. Battlefront II is set to introduce a welcome system called Battle Points. While the numbers are still being finessed, the concept is that every player earns points for scoring kills, completing objectives, as well as acting in the best interests of their ad hoc squad (unless they’re with friends) and team.
In certain modes, impatient players can cash in these Battle Points early to respawn as stronger units with unique (albeit fixed) abilities. Save up those Battle Points for long enough, and you’ll have a shot at scoring a vehicle. Hold out longer, and you can have a hero or hero ship, assuming someone else isn’t already controlling them. Better still, as was introduced in later instances of the Battlefront DLC, heroes aren’t limited to one at a time, with the option to run with at least two per team.
After playing Battlefront II, though, my big concern was that skilled players could race to a hero or hero ship, accrue more points in that heroic role, then use those points to jump back into the same role when they died. “There’s more balancing to still come in on those kind of things,” admits Criterion game designer John Stanley. “Naturally, that will make us then look at things like the balance of players getting the actual hero ship as well, making sure it’s fair for everyone.”
“Maybe there’s a cooldown for you before you can go again,” teases Webster. “We’ll learn through our iteration [and] through the players that we watch.”
Star Cards in 2015’s Battlefront let players choose some of the abilities of their infantry characters. Abilities were fixed for starfighters in Fighter Assault. Battlefront II will let players mix and match Star Cards across modes, as long as they’ve unlocked them first. How are those Star Cards unlocked? Well, it’s part of the current push towards free DLC, which keeps the community together, but comes at the cost of being funded by microtransactions linked to an RNG system .
The standard company line to this growing gaming trend is applicable here: you don’t have to pay, and can earn them just by playing the game. Interestingly, Battlefront II will also reportedly convert duplicate Star Cards into Crafting Parts, which let you upgrade lowerlevel cards to higher-level rarities. Crafting Parts can also reportedly be used to purchase Star Cards you haven’t chanced upon.
“You may get an epic card in your first unlock and your first unpacking,” explains Webster. “We’ve got some clarity on how we balance the numbers. The longer you play will generate more points to be able to get more access, but it doesn’t determine what cards you get and what crate.”
“Just because you get a rare Star Card, doesn’t mean you’ve got the skill to use it,” adds Stanley. “A cohesion between, ‘Okay, I’ve got this Star Card and I’ve played enough and I’m skilful enough now to actually utilise this.’ Hopefully, that will kind of shine through in our control system, which we tried to make accessible enough but still have that depth and mastery in there so that you can really create your own epic Star Wars space battle moments.”
Stanley’s point about the skill requirement to use Star Cards effectively is fair, but despite the positive step towards keeping the community united via freely accessible DLC drops, it’s concerning that the monetisation revolves around gameplay-impacting unlocks. Sure, the randomised nature of the drops creates debate about whether it’s actually pay-to-win but, on the flip side, the lack of security in a player’s purchases reeks of manipulative tactics designed to tempt players into spending more money after their initial full-priced purchase.
It’d be an easier pill to swallow if there weren’t other, better examples to draw upon. In Rainbow Six Siege, players can buy a season pass, which grants two weeks of early access to automatically unlocked operators. But everyone else can unlock those operators with in-game currency after those two weeks. In fairness, you can pay real money to gain more in-game currency in Siege, but you’re using that to buy cosmetic certainty and not a randomised crate.
Controversy aside, it’s good to hear that Criterion is interested in balancing the mix of Star Cards that players can use, instead of letting them run with whatever they want. This was a detractor of 2015’s Battlefront, which resulted in overpowered combinations. “We’re not going to go into loads of detail on the specifics around the cards, but you have to make some choices,” says Webster. “That [card’s] a positive, that’s going to mean a trade-off. That’s where the tactical choice comes in.”
HEADS UP, DISPLAYED
Despite the accessibility of Battlefront, one of the worst feelings online was unavoidable death. For instance, when you had a missile on your tail and you were still waiting for your baked evade manoeuvre to cool down. Your only option was to die. Even if your evade was ready to go, there was no clear indication of the best time to activate it to avoid the missile about to crash into the back of your starfighter and reward some unseen enemy with a fire-and-forget frag.
Criterion is looking to address this with a much more intricate UI for Starfighter Assault. If anything, at first glance, it’s overwhelming. There’s a lot of information on screen, and even more if you’re in someone’s sights. Thankfully, this includes more information about when you can expect a proton torpedo to hit your ship.
“You’ll see the reticle you get behind you when missiles are closing in, the idea being that you’re trying to avoid that reticle from closing down to the inner circle,” explains Stanley. “There are going to be things around that you can use. You can try and fly around various parts of the level and try and outmanoeuvre that missile.”
“You’ve got structures to put between you and the missile,” adds Webster.
If you’re specced out or in the right hero ship, you can use an ability like speed boost or stealth to make the missile lose its lock.
But evading a ship-destroying missile usually means you’re not paying attention to other threats.
“While you’re trying to evade that missile, you become a target for someone else,” says Webster. “I love the missiles. It gives such a tactical play and spontaneous distraction. If I see someone being chased by a missile, they’re an immediate target for me.”
Either way, when you’re in a jam, you’re more reliant on the other players in your Flight to get you out of trouble.
As if this article wasn’t filled with enough criticisms of Battlefront, here’s another. The game design lent itself to players acting selfishly, despite the presence of objectives. It was a weird oversight, given Dice’s history of incentivising teamplay through its reward structure in the Battlefield series. On the ground and in starfighters for Battlefront II, players will be thrown into ad hoc teams, or can link up with up to three other friends to work together and earn additional points.
“We’ve got some team play around the Flight that you come in with, you’ll notice those players are yellow,” says Stanley. “If you’re being attacked by somebody, it’s just going to highlight to the rest of the players [in your Flight], ‘This player is being attacked, go help them out.’ That way, if that missile is on you, you’ll be able to go back that way and help those players out.”
But there’s another more Sith-like mechanic that appears on the UI when you’ve been killed, one fuelled by revenge. When you respawn, the last person to kill you will be, unbeknown to them, marked as a target of interest on your screen. “They’ve got four arrows around them, which is the last person that’s killed you,” explains Webster.
“You might have seen some avenger kills or avenger bonuses [in the score feed],” adds Stanley. “Avenger bonuses are going to be, ‘Hey, you killed my buddy in my Flight and I’m going to take you down, so I’m going to get a [saviour] bonus for that.’”
“So, if John is being attacked by you, and I kill you and we’re [John and Matt] in the same Flight, I’ll get a saviour bonus,” says Webster. “We absolutely do mark the last person who killed you, because that’s your first thought: ‘I’m going for revenge.’”
Whether you’re after revenge in a starfighter, objectives on the ground, or a proper solo experience, Battlefront II is on track to make up for the shortcomings of 2015’s effort. Addressing the content concerns of the previous outing is par for the course. But by adding much-needed depth to the multiplayer, Battlefront II has a chance to build the kind of community that’ll carry it through to the unannounced but inevitable Battlefront III.
Dice has added more evasive options when someone’s got a lock on you.