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

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EA’s em­pire strikes back

STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II

DE­VEL­OPER DICE, MO­TIVE STU­DIOS, CRI­TE­RION GAMES PUB­LISHER EA DUE 17 NOVEM­BER

www.ea.com

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.”

CLASSY MOVES

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.”

STARCHILD

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.

ROGUE SQUADRON

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.

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