A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars games were about more than just the multiplayer mode. In fact, they always used to be almost exclusively about the single player story. From Dark Force to Jedi Knight, Rebel Assault to Rogue Squadron, and even the long forgotten film tie-in games like Jedi Power Battles, the Star Wars games, like the films themselves, were all about the story. That's why EA's decision to release Star Wars: Battlefront, its latest (and very good looking) take on the sci-fi phenomenon, without anything in the way of a single player mode or story to sink our teeth into, came as something of a surprise. With the game carrying a full whack price-tag, despite effectively offering half the game you'd usually get, is there enough here to justify the asking price? Well, let's just put it this way - we sense a disturbance in the force.
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Let's start with what Battlefront gets right. Perhaps the biggest, and best thing here is the setting - every map and level in Battlefront is set during the events of the original trilogy of films (read: the good ones), so there's not a Naboo Starfighter or Boss Nass in sight. Letting you juke it out with up to 40 other players across a variety of iconic locations, you'll be freezing your pants off on the arctic wastelands of Hoth (now with fancy sparkly snow), dodging and diving in-between trees on the forest moon of Endor, and kicking sand in stormtrooper's faces on Tatooine, amongst others. If there's a familiar location you can think of in the film, chances are it's included here - and there are even a few from the expanded universe, like the lava-strewn scenery on Sullust. But while all the memorable locations are re-created, there aren't actually all that many maps here, with just 12 locations to fight across - many of which are small scale, closely-knit affairs. Some modes actually only have four maps to choose from, meaning there's something of a limited selection.
On the plus side, there's a decent selection of modes here too, with nine to sink your teeth into, even if half a dozen of them are variations on a theme. While Cargo is your standard capture-the-flag style mode, where you need to grab a package of cargo, and return it to your base, and Blast is an out-and-out team deathmatch, there are at least a few modes here than genuinely try something different. Fighter Squadron is an aerial combat only mode that sees X-Wings, A-Wings, Tie Fighters and Tie Interceptors barrel rolling through the clouds above a handful of planets (but weirdly, never in space). Droid Run is arguably the best mode here, pitting two small teams against each other in a fight to activate and hold all three droids at once - something that's easier said than done on the tight, narrow stages. Heroes vs Villains, meanwhile, is a kind of Star Wars fantasy fight mode, pitting two heroes (plus extra players as infantry) on each team against each other - so Luke Skywalker and Han Solo (with friends) will be facing off against Darth Vader and Boba Fett (plus friends).
The heroes are one of the things Battlefront tries to do to make it stand out from the crowd, but it never seems to work quite as well as they'd hope. The idea here is that at random times during the game, a "hero pick-up" will spawn. Collecting it, and then activating it will turn you into one of the game's heroes, depending on which side you're playing on. From Princess Leia to the Emperor himself, more powerful, faster, and able to take more damage than normal players, the concept stretches beyond just the coolness of seeing Luke Skywalker just strolling by - as powerful characters, these heroes are meant to tip the balance in battles. The only problem is, they almost always don't, as most players who get them have no idea what they're doing.
Arguably the game's flagship mode, though, is Walker Assault - which is something of an issue, as it isn't very good. An objective based mode that sees the rebels defending a base, and the imperials attacking alongside two massive AT-AT walkers (you know, the giant robot dog shaped things from the Empire Strikes Back), it's up to the evil empire to protect their walking death bringers, and the plucky rebels to complete a number of objectives that may or may not lead to the AT-ATs being taken down. As you'd probably expect, the rebels have their backs against the wall here.
If you're playing as the rebels, you have a number of objectives you need to complete. First, you need to capture a number of beacons, and then hold them for long enough that your computer controlled Y-Wings will lock on to the AT-ATs. Manage to hold the beacons for long enough, and your Y-Wings will fly in, and bomb the AT-ATs, at which point they'll be vulnerable to attack, and it's up to you to throw everything you've got at them.
Unfortunately, there's been a few liberties taken here, in an attempt at balancing things out. For starters, the AT-ATs have shields which render them invulnerable until they're bombed - a catch which also means even a Snowspeeder can't trip them up until the shields are down, which doesn't really make that much sense in terms of canon (there were no shields protecting that AT-ATs on Hoth). It probably doesn't help that one of the maps, Sorosuub Centroplex, is surrounded by a rather high cliff that it doesn't look like you should be able to get on, but that the imperials somehow always manage to scale, sniping you from a distance while being almost impossible to hit themselves.
But perhaps the biggest problem with Star Wars: Battlefront is one of accessibility. The game seems to make literally no effort to try and pair you with people of a similar ability - instead, from the very beginning, you'll be put up against people who've played for dozens, if not hundreds of hours, and will be only too happy to feast on the fresh meat. In our very first game, at least two people in the match were on level 40+, and everyone was a much higher level than we were. And that makes things tricky for several reasons.
First, you're taking players who have no idea what they're doing, and are just finding the ropes, and throwing them up against the most experienced players - those who know the map inside out, those who understand the power-ups you can collect, those who know the maps, and who therefore already have a huge advantage over beginners. But the game then compounds the problem thanks to unlocks.
Because simply going up against people who know the game a heck of a lot better than you do apparently isn't bad enough, you'll also start the game with nothing in your "hand" - the game's way of organising items. Your hand lets you use certain weapons and power ups by pressing L1, R1, or L1+R1 - but when you first start playing the game, you'll start out with nothing. So while your enemies are throwing thermal detonators (essentially grenades), deploying shields, and zipping around on jet packs - and are armed with the best weapons in the game, which also unlock the more you play - you're somehow expected to take them on with only your standard blaster, and no items. Fair? Not exactly.
And it's not just weapons - there are other perks higher level players can add too, including the ability to take less damage from explosions; remain totally invisible on the map; and even regenerate health quicker! it's not an insurmountable challenge - but we can't help but get the feeling that the only reason we were holding our ground was because a) we eventually lucked into a game with players of a similar skill, and b) because we've played so many shooters over the years, we pick things up fast. From an accessibility perspective, though, it makes no sense, at all, to put new players at a disadvantage. If anything, they're the ones who need the more powerful weapons the most - not the level 50+ seal clubbers coming to top the level 1 noob.
Another huge disappointment is the split-screen mode. While a lot was made of this in the run up to launch, the split-screen mode is so light on things to do, it'd be laughable if it wasn't so depressing. In a hugely disappointing move (and one that might have saved Battlefront), you can't play online with a friend in split-screen, and take on the world together. You also can't play together against computer controlled bots in one of the game's nine standard modes, because the game doesn't have any. That's right - not only is Battlefront lacking a story mode, it's also doesn't have any bots that can make up the numbers. That's also a huge issue when you're playing some of the less popular game modes, and end up sitting around on the menu for minutes on end waiting for another player to join, but they never come. If the developers had put bots in, you could at least make the numbers up - but no. Instead, EA's flagship shooter comes nowhere near the modes offered by older games like Perfect Dark Zero. Even the N64 could do split-screen shooters against bots - so why not Battlefront?
Anyway - we were ranting about the split-screen. So, instead of letting you take on the galaxy with a friend, the much vaunted split-screen mode boils down to one thing. You guessed it - a horde mode! Here, you get to face off against wave after wave of faceless drones in an effort to simply stay alive. There's some fun to be had here - hiding under an imperial shuttle on Endor, because you're down to your last life, while you blast away at the knees of two AT-STs that are trying to shoot you is fun - but the rest of it? Not so much. Beyond the survival mode, there's only one other co-op mode - a training mode - which lets you get the hang of the vehicles without the pressure of playing online, but which isn't really all that much fun. The only other split-screen action you'll have is in the competitive Hero Battles, which let you play as one of the game's aforementioned heroes (or villains), against a never-ending stream of enemies and/or your friend. Sadly, this is a bit of a dull mode, much like survival, so if you were planning on buying Battlefront for the split-screen... well, don't.
As another note, we can't help but feel a bit baffled that there's no way to start a random match/mode/game, either. Sometimes, you just fancy playing a game, and don't really care what mode you're put into, but there's no way to start a random game that takes you through a random selection of modes. Instead, once you've chosen a mode, you're stuck in that one until you say otherwise, and go back to the main menu to choose a different one. It's just another thing that seems like something of an oversight, in a game that's otherwise full of them.
But if you're upset about the general lack of content, and not having enough maps to play through - don't worry! You can always fork over another £40 of your cash up-front for the Battlefront "Season Pass", an add-on which promises to deliver four expansion packs with a total of 16 maps, and four new game modes over the course of a year. The only problem is, the season pass asks you to pay your money now, without knowing what exactly you'll be getting in return, or how good it'll be - and when the game itself is so light on content, this really stings.
But nothing stings as much as knowing how good a Star Wars game could be now, with the technology we have, and how EA decided it would be better, cheaper, and more profitable to release a husk of a game in some Star Wars paint. If you're a Star Wars fan, it'll still give you chills hearing the music, fighting alongside Luke Skywalker, or seeing how genuinely freezing cold Hoth looks now, thanks to the incredible graphics.
The team at DICE clearly know how to capture the spirit of Star Wars, but that's all Battlefront really is - a pretty shell over an empty soul. What we really need is a new Jedi Knight, a new X-Wing Alliance - we'd even settle for a new Rogue Squadron. What we didn't need is yet another online only shooter, only this time, one that doesn't deliver on the features front.
In all, then, sadly, Star Wars: Battlefront is something of a disappointment from start to finish. While it may have the odd decent mode, there are so many things that have been overlooked, ignored or otherwise omitted to mean this is a really hard sell. It's OK for a while, and you can have some fun with it, but it should have been so much more. For the money you're paying, you deserve better than half a game.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4