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EA’s Star Wars stranglehold is gone, just as the games were getting good

In 2021’s first bit of bombshell gaming news, Disney announced it had decided to end a long-running partnership with EA that granted the studio exclusive development rights to the Star Wars franchise. Instead, Disney opted to open the series back up to other developers and gave Ubisoft the reins to its first post-EA game.

Many gaming fans found the news to be a positive step for the franchise, and for good reason. EA has had a troubled history with the series since entering into the deal in 2013. While the change ultimately feels positive, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the rug is getting pulled out on EA just as it was finding its footing.

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A new hope

EA and Disney’s Star Wars partnership started off strong enough. In 2015, EA successfully brought back the Star Wars Battlefront brand with a fun multiplayer revival. Players’ good faith was quickly squandered with its sequel, Star Wars Battlefront II. EA implemented an aggressive microtransaction strategy into the game that affected the game’s progression and created a “pay-to-win” environment. Players didn’t need to pony up to unlock paid content, but doing it the old-fashioned way required dozens of hours of grinding.

When a fan complained about the system on Reddit, EA replied by noting that the system was meant to inspire a sense of “pride and accomplishment.” The comment quickly became the most downvoted comment in Reddit history. EA responded by disabling microtransactions entirely prior to launch, but for many players, the well was irreversibly poisoned.

In the short few years since that historic fallout, EA appeared to take the backlash to heart. The studio went on to release Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order in 2019, which focused on single-player storytelling with no hidden fees. Just last fall, it returned to multiplayer with Star Wars: Squadrons. The aerial combat game was imagined as a “you-get-what-you-paid-for” experience that didn’t feature any microtransactions or pricey DLC. EA even decided to break its own promise by offering unplanned free content based on the enthusiastic response from fans.

The difference between Squadrons and Battlefront II’s launches were night and day. While it would have been easy for the company to squeeze in a paid component, the restraint seemed to indicate that the company had learned from the mistake, at least when it came to the Star Wars brand. Add in the company’s long-term commitment to supporting Battlefront II, which received updates through 2020, and it seemed like EA was on the right track.

Perhaps most importantly, EA’s newer titles presented an exciting creative vision for the franchise. Jedi: Fallen Order successfully took elements from Dark Souls, Metroid, and Uncharted to create one of the better single-player Star Wars games to hit shelves yet. Squadrons found an exciting new way to bring the series’ epic space fights to life thanks to excellent VR support.

Taking exclusivity rights away from EA in 2018 would have been a justified decision that few would have disagreed with, myself included. The timing just feels off in 2021 as EA was finally sticking the landing and giving the brand its first era of consistency in well over a decade.

A step back

What’s especially puzzling is Disney’s decision to pass the baton to Ubisoft for an open-world Star Wars title. The shift makes sense on its surface. Ubisoft has the open-world formula down to a science thanks to series like Assassin’s Creed, and it’s easy to imagine titles in that vein becoming cash cows for Disney.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla Blacksmith

Still, it’s hard not to feel like Disney has taken a step backwards with the deal. From a PR standpoint, Ubisoft is in a more unstable standing with gamers now than EA was in 2017. The studio’s recent sexual misconduct scandal forced top executives out of the company, sending it into rebuild mode. Ubisoft has taken steps to right its wrongs since the news broke last summer, but players can’t be blamed for feeling like the rights to Star Wars simply moved from one problematic mega-studio to another.

Ubisoft’s reliance on microtransactions makes the move puzzling more than anything else. Games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Immortals Fenyx Rising both utilize paid resource packs that speed up progression, not unlike the model used in Battlefront II. If Ubisoft’s open-world game uses a similar approach, it could undo the progress and positive growth EA has made for the brand in the past year.

Passing the torch

In truth, it’s hard to feel sympathy for a corporation as giant as EA. The company made serious missteps with the brand and has long been a symbol of the industry’s controversial financial models, even outside of Star Wars. EA is currently dealing with class-action lawsuits and fines issued over business models that some consider to be predatory practices akin to gambling.

On top of that, EA isn’t losing the rights to Star Wars altogether. In a statement sent to Digital Trends, EA says: “We are proud of our long-standing collaboration with Lucasfilm Games, which will continue for years to come … We love Star Wars, and we look forward to creating more exciting experiences for players to enjoy.” It’s not so much a loss as it is a symbolic passing of the torch.

Still, both the timing and solution don’t feel quite right. It would be different if Disney gave the ball to a smaller studio with more ethical practices. That could open the doors wide open for some creative takes on the franchise while avoiding the same modern gaming pitfalls that fans rejected in 2017. Imagine what Hades developer Supergiant Games could do with The Mandalorian.

Instead, it feels like Disney is putting a fresh coat of paint on an old strategy just as the brand was starting to enjoy some welcome consistency with EA. Star Wars will never find its footing as a gaming brand if fans don’t see the logo as a seal of quality.

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Amy Hennig gets a second chance at Star Wars with new game
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SkyDance New Media -- a studio helmed by award-winning writer and director Amy Hennig -- has announced a collaboration with Lucasfilm Games to develop a new cinematic action-adventure game set in the Star Wars universe.

The game will feature an original story, though no details were shared about what to expect from the game's time period, setting, or gameplay. Whether it will feature known characters or be an entirely stand-alone tale is yet to be seen, but Hennig's exceptionally well-received writing for popular franchises like Uncharted, Jak and Daxter, and Legacy of Kain bodes well for the future of this new entry in the Star Wars canon.

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Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga isn’t just for kids
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Before Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, I had fallen out of love with TT Games and WB Games' Lego titles. The Lego Star Wars, Batman, and Indiana Jones series helped make me passionate about video games as a kid as I spent endless fun (and sometimes frustrating) hours playing them with my brother.
Over time though, I aged out of the series and grew more disappointed with the basic open-world formula the series settled on after great games like Lego City Undercover. I was no longer smitten with one of the series that helped cement my love of video games. That’s why The Skywalker Saga’s bold new direction excites me.
It not only revisits the films behind some of my favorite Lego games, but builds on top of them with more expansive hub worlds, mission variety, and deeper gameplay than previous Lego action games. While The Skywalker Saga’s multiple delays and development issues concerned me, my hands-on with an early build of the game managed to engross me just like the original Lego Star Wars did 17 years ago.
A New Hope for the series
My demo took me through the first 90 minutes of A New Hope, one of the nine Star Wars films represented within The Skywalker Saga. Like every Lego game before it, this segment of the game followed the events of the film it was based on. It features full voice acting (from soundalikes, not the film cast), though I appreciated the inclusion of a “mumble mode” that makes the characters grunt and pantomime as they did in early Lego games.
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TT Games also experiments with the iconic opening of A New Hope. Many jokes are present to keep kids entertained, but it also intertwines with the end of Rogue One. The first character I played as was actually Princess Leia, who has the Death Star plans and is trying to escape Darth Vader as he boards the Tantive IV. Somehow, this Lego game made this oft-adapted and parodied plot beat feel fresh.
This mission also served as a tutorial and a demonstration of how The Skywalker Saga differs from previous Lego games. Yes, there are still combat, exploration, and puzzles, but those are deeper than before. A cover-based system has been implemented to make shootouts more involving. Meanwhile, players can now string together melee combos with different moves and counter enemies' attacks, making melee battles more enjoyable than before. Character classes and abilities also ensure fights in this game are more than simple button-mashing affairs.
Missions often give players multiple options to complete objectives, whether that’s because of a specific Lego build players can create or the abilities of their playable character. It’s no Devil May Cry, but these deeper gameplay systems made sure my eyes didn’t gloss over out of boredom within the first hour, something I can’t say for the last couple of Lego games I played.
The Skywalker Saga made a strong first impression on me and excited me to see how the rest of A New Hope would unfold. I was able to play as Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi, recruit Han and Chewbacca, and explore the Death Star before my demo ended. While this is the second time TT Games is adapting this material, it feels completely new because of the revamped approach to storytelling, level design, and gameplay design.
All grown up
During my demo, I only scratched the surface of what the game had to offer. The Skywalker Saga seems to be the most densely packed Lego game yet, as all nine mainline Star Wars films have been recreated here. Not only are there linear levels based on the main plot points and set pieces of each film, but there are large hubs on planets and areas in space that players can explore and complete side missions within.
As players complete the stories of more films and gain access to more characters, ships, and planets, the amount of options players will have at their disposal will only continue to grow. The Skywalker Saga also has a progression system to back that amount of content up ,as missions reward players with Kyber Bricks that players use to unlock and enhance abilities on skill trees.

Yes, this game has skill trees to complement the aforementioned classes -- which include Jedi, Smugglers, and Protocol Droids -- and their abilities, which is useful during and outside of combat. Systems like this bring TT Games’ Lego series more up to par with its action game peers and make it feel like the franchise has finally grown up. As The Skywalker Saga will be the first Lego game in years to appeal to those with nostalgia for the series' earliest game, it's a relief to see that it won't disappoint. 
Of course, The Skywalker Saga still will be approachable enough for kids thanks to its visuals, humor, and approachable gameplay basics, but it finally doesn’t seem like that’s coming at the sacrifice of engaging gameplay for older players. While I thought I had aged out of ever liking a Lego game again, this demo of The Skywalker Saga revealed that I could still love these games -- they just had to catch up to me first.
Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga will be released for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Nintendo Switch on April 5, 2022.

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2022’s biggest video game reveals have been a bummer so far
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The announcement of 2022's Call of Duty was always going to feel weird. Over the last year, Activision Blizzard has been scrutinized over horrific sexual harassment allegations, turned Call of Duty: Warzone into a glitchy and bloated mess, and was acquired by Microsoft. But I wasn't expecting its reveal to be this sloppy.
Activision Blizzard previously mentioned that Infinity Ward was making a new Call of Duty. Then, at 1 p.m. ET on February 11, enthusiast Call of Duty websites and content creators posted that Activision told them that Modern Warfare 2 and a reworked Warzone with a sandbox mode are on the way. There was no official word on these claims for about 15 minutes, but Activision eventually confirmed them... in the footnotes of a blog post. Its reveal lacked excitement, was confusing, and dodged the biggest questions surrounding Activision Blizzard.
Six weeks into 2022, this is just the latest example of a AAA publisher announcing a huge game with little fanfare. But why have AAA publishers dropped the pomp and circumstance of their game reveals? 
Activision wants you to know that 2022's Call of Duty is a sequel to 2019's Modern Warfare and on a new engine.
For the fans
Previously, a trailer, press release, and detailed info about what players could expect accompanied Call of Duty game announcements. In recent years, it even happened inside Call of Duty: Warzone! We weren't so lucky this time and had to deal with a flurry of enthusiasts and leakers claiming to have new information about the game with no good way to verify its truthfulness.
Earlier this week, there was reportedly a call where Activision and Infinity Ward revealed the new information on this game, but it seems to have been attended almost solely by enthusiast sites and content creators. Even the most prominent gaming sites like IGN and GameSpot didn't seem privy to the news beforehand.
This announcement was made by the fans before Activision even confirmed it. Based on the coverage from those in attendance, it doesn't seem like content creators asked the tough questions about the status of Activision Blizzard's workplace, how the acquisition affects these games, and the reasoning behind Activision Blizzard's decision making (perhaps they did and Activision refused to comment, but we'll likely never know).
By announcing it this way, Activision Blizzard circumvents having to answer hard questions about the company's current state, gets free press from its fans, and gets ahead of the leaks, reports, and rumors that have occurred since the Microsoft acquisition. Activision built a mostly positive -- if oddly rolled out -- reveal narrative for the new Call of Duty that doesn't have much substance.
While other announcements this year haven't felt as malicious, they still lacked a certain flair that we've come to expect.
Rockstar announced Grand Theft Auto 6 in the footnotes of a GTA series blog post. Respawn Entertainment announced three new Star Wars games, including a sequel to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, through a tweet and press release light on additional details. Even Blizzard did it just a few weeks ago with a survival game blog post reveal that called the game "unannounced" in its announcement. None of them had trailers (Crytek got this right with Crysis 4). AAA games are being announced very early with minimal assets and information, making these unveils much less impactful.
This is the only asset EA released alongside its Respawn Entertainment Star Wars announcement.
For the company 
As I previously discussed when Rockstar announced GTA 6, these reveals aren't really about the fans -- they are about the investors and potential hires. Activision first discussed 2022's Call of Duty in a financial results report. GTA 6, the Respawn Star Wars deal, and the Blizzard survival game were announced ahead of earnings reports from their respective companies. The latter two were tied to recruitment calls for their respective developers.
The gaming industry is in the middle of an acquisition craze, and studios are reportedly struggling to recruit great talent. Announcing video games in a nonchalant way helps address both of those issues. Games that are almost guaranteed to be hits please current investors and entice potential buyers. Meanwhile, some developers might be more willing to jump ship from their current employer and work for someone else if they know exactly what they're working on. If some fans get hyped and don't ask tough questions, that's just a positive side effect.
These publishers are putting the bare minimum into reveals and yielding the greatest results. And if this strategy generates enough buzz and keeps working, this might become the norm outside of events like E3, or individual showcases like Nintendo Directs, where fans expect game developers to go all out.
I'm not frustrated because I'm not getting flashy reveals. It's that these announcements all seem more focused on drip-feeding the minimal amount of info so that studios can drive up profits, circumvent criticism, and please investors without sharing anything of substance. As a fan of games, that makes it challenging to care about big projects that should have me excited.

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