For just about as long as there have been Star Wars games, developers have been trying to capture the scope and intensity of The Empire Strikes Back’s Battle of Hoth.
It’s a perfect subject for a game level — Rebels fighting desperately against the overwhelming strength of the Imperial army, with huge vehicles raging toward nearly defenseless ground troops and ships whizzing by overhead. Many Star Wars games, from Super Empire Strikes Back to Shadows of the Empire and well beyond, have worked to recreate it. Getting the scale of engagements like the Battle of Hoth is the express purpose of Star Wars: Battlefront, both in its original PlayStation 2 and Xbox incarnations and its new PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC reboot from developer DICE.
If the metric for the latest Battlefront’s success is whether it captures huge, army sized engagements with a uniquely Star Wars feel, then DICE’s effort is often a very strong one. Running around Hoth or maps like the active volcano plains of Sollust, trying to hold ground against stormtrooper counterattacks as X-Wings and TIE fighters mix it up overhead, is thrilling and beautiful.
But Battlefront is also inconsistent, often providing frustration and thrills in equal measure. It often nails that desperate, spectacular Star Wars battle feel — but can also leave players running around in confusion, spending much more time moving between battles than actually fighting.
All Fighters, We’re Going In
What Battlefront gets right, without caveat, is the Star Wars aesthetic. Graphically, the game is phenomenal, rendering the lush forests of Endor and the craggy deserts of Tatooine with equal attention to detail. Battlefields are often littered with crashed ships and destroyed artillery, half-ruined bases and abandoned supply boxes. The Battlefront series has always worked to make you feel as if you were fighting a war as opposed to the small skirmishes other first-person shooters reproduce, and with the graphical fidelity of the latest generation of game consoles, this entry finally feels like it’s doing its source material justice, at least in terms of the grand scope of special effects that make the Star Wars films a spectacle.
Battlefront consistently produces some amazing moments, especially in its biggest, 40-player battles, Supremacy and Walker Assault. Both are objective battles in which opposing sides struggle to control the game’s biggest maps.
In Supremacy, it’s a fight to capture control points in sequence, pushing enemy forces into retreat while vehicles zip around the battlefield and players rush forward as waves of soldiers. Walker Assault, on the other hand, is a battle of attrition, wherein Imperial forces protect huge AT-AT walkers from Rebels who have to control special locations in order to call in air support and destroy them.
Both types of fight can represent Battlefront at its best. With huge numbers of other players at your back, every push into enemy territory feels like an authentic charge. It’s possible to jump in ships or walkers, set up turrets to create light fortifications, rip across the battlefield on speeders, and even briefly become heroes like Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia, thanks to random power-ups that spawn all over the map and are available to anyone. With blaster bolts crisscrossing the battlefield, it’s impossible to shake the sense of a huge, frightening battle roiling all around.
Battlefront renders the lush forests of Endor and craggy deserts of Tatooine with equal attention to detail.
But these two large modes can also be Battlefront at its worst. Massive and chaotic as they are, it’s easily to lose track of where you are and what you ought to be doing. There’s often little in the way of teamwork between players — perhaps like a real battle, oftentimes you begin to feel like just another body thrown into the breach, and Battlefront’s gameplay can’t do much to keep you from feeling inconsequential rather than a small part of a big whole.
It’s the scope of Battlefront that can work against it. Players will often spend lots of their time in big battles just running to catch up with where the fighting is located, only to get blasted, die, and have to run all the way back again. Endor in particular is a tough map to navigate without getting knocked out by an opportunistic enemy waiting in the bushes somewhere. Other maps, like Hoth, struggle with terrain, getting players stuck as they try to climb hills to high ground or avoid trenches. Level geometry can hang you up in the middle of a firefight, unable to get clear of enemy shots; it’s a small quibble, but it happens often enough to mar the gorgeous landscapes by making them somewhat difficult to actually fight on.
Imperial Troops Have Entered the Base
It’s not all massive battles and Imperial walkers destroying shield generators, though. Battlefront breaks down all of the various ways to play into other game modes, making it quick and easy to fly ships or take on the role of Boba Fett and Emperor Palpatine. Most of the game modes are decidedly smaller affairs, with only eight or 16 players facing off on smaller maps across the game’s four planets.
What players use in those engagements and how they approach them depends largely on how long they’ve been playing Battlefront. Each match played earns “credits” that can be used to purchase items with which players build character loadouts. These include a range of blaster guns of all different sorts and stats, although they mostly tend to be of the rapid-firing mid-range variety, as well as up to three “star cards”. Star cards allow players to periodically use things like grenades, long-range blasters, and anti-vehicle weapons, among other perks.
The card system in particular works to allow for a custom loadout without tipping the playing field in any one direction or another. You might choose to bring two kinds of grenades in your loadout, or switch for something that can deal major damage to an enemy speeder or walker, but timers attached to these items mean you’re limited to how often they’re usable. And with blasters that are variable but more or less evenly matched, players can adjust their loadouts to feel better without getting an intense leg up. But it all requires a great deal of time and effort to unlock.
Ships and heroes add flavor to Battlefront’s huge engagements.
That same balancing is true of the random on-the-battlefield power-ups that are available all over the place. You might get a special grenade that does a ton of damage, or even the ability to be Luke Skywalker and tear through enemies, but none of these upgrades ever lasts very long. Heroes added to the battlefield are extremely powerful, but also a small part of the fight — Darth Vader might tear through a group of regular soldiers without an issue, but where everyone else can replenish health or quickly respawn, players lose their hero characters once they’ve sustained too much damage. So in every fight in which they’re present, ships, vehicles and heroes are short-lived tools to be used for a temporary advantage, and the best players and teams will deploy them strategically to take an objective or make a timely advance.
Battlefront gets a lot of traction out of modes that specifically make use of those elements that compose its huge engagements. One mode is dedicated purely to ship combat, and once players learn the ropes, it’s a blast to fly into a cloud of fighters and mix it up at close range. Another mode focuses on heroes, pitting a small number of human players against computer-controlled regular soldiers and other over-powered players. The chance to use Vader’s Force Choke ability or Boba Fett’s jetpack somewhat unfettered makes the modes a nice change from the chaos of the larger fights, where it’s easy to get picked off from afar or find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Battlefront rounds out its offerings of game modes with more standard shooter fare, with modes that essentially requires players to capture and hold command points (they’re either semi-mobile droids or crashed escape pods), protect important cargo, or to just go firing away at each other in a standard FPS deathmatch. These modes are Battlefront’s less exciting side, allowing for a change of pace from its larger maps, but which don’t feel like much more than a Star Wars veneer over match types that are common in the genre.
There’s also a fairly lackluster single-player component, in which players can take on AI-controlled enemies either alone or with a friend. The best of these are a series of tutorial missions with specific objectives, like chasing down Rebels through Endor’s forests on speeder bikes.
Other single-player offerings, like one in which players fight waves of enemies as either heroes or regular soldiers, or a deathmatch-style battle that’s all about collecting points off fallen enemies, aren’t really exciting enough to hold your attention unless your Internet connection is down. There’s not much of a real single-player component to Battlefront at all, and as such, the game ends up feeling thin overall.
Aesthetically, Battlefront is an absolutely beautiful rendering of a single element of the Star Wars original trilogy: it nails the set piece battles from the boots-on-the-ground perspective of random soldiers. The attention to detail on weapons, vehicles, landscapes, and textures make it an easy place to get lost, and it feels indelibly Star Wars all the way through. Battlefront is great at delivering exciting, amazing moments, like when an X-Wing fighter smashes to the ground right in front of you, or when a coordinated strike by a team of Rebels manages to finally bring down an Imperial walker.
But moment to moment, Battlefront struggles with a host of tiny frustrations, and the nostalgia attached to the bombastic Star Wars soundtrack or the twang of blaster fire can’t push them off forever. Crossing battlefields can be tough, as can getting blasted from 200 meters by enemies you didn’t know were there. With so much open space, weapons can feel unmatched to the task of actually playing, with enemies usually appearing distant and tiny. And the game just struggles to convey that sense of being an army and working together, especially when your faction is on the ropes.
The variety of experiences on offer in Battlefront ultimately saves it, even if it can sometimes feel thin in a lot of respects. If big battles like Supremacy and Walker Assault are turning into a slog, hopping in a ship for some dogfights or dialing down for a smaller and more traditional FPS experience can provide a good change of pace. Though small irritations persist throughout, Battlefront delivers on its core promise of huge, exciting moments, with just the right Star Wars flavor.
- Sprawling worlds recreate the film’s big-screen feel
- Variety of play styles and modes
- Beautifully renders the original trilogy’s aesthetic
- Driving vehicles and flying ships is a blast
- Huge battles can be chaotic and frustrating
- Single-player offerings are thin and unengaging
- Sometimes feels like a standard shooter with a Star Wars skin