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I’m already loving Star Wars: Hunters’ cast of misfit weirdos

Grozz and more heroes run forward in Star Wars: Hunters.

Every year is a big year for Star Wars these days considering its power across every form of media, but that’s especially true in 2024. In addition to Disney+ shows like The Acolyte and Star Wars: Skeleton Crew, the sci-fi franchise is getting some high-profile games this year. The headliner is Ubisoft’s Star Wars Outlaws, but there’s another canon game coming before then. Star Wars: Hunters launches on June 4, bringing the series into free-to-play mobile and Nintendo Switch territory.

Though Star Wars has had plenty of multiplayer shooters before, Hunters is doing something a little different. It’s a 4v4 hero shooter that draws some clear inspiration from Overwatch. It’s not a fan service dream filled with familiar characters either. Instead, it introduces a wholly original cast of heroes that draw on the series’ deep well of alien races and factions. It may be the most inventive Star Wars game in years. But will that be enough to win over mobile and free-to-play skeptics?

Based on what I’ve played already, it just might. I went hands-on with Star Wars: Hunters ahead of its launch, playing all five of its launch game modes and trying several of its 13 initial heroes. Though its glut of live service hooks and battle pass rails can be overwhelming at first glance, Hunters already feels like an approachable, family-friendly shooter that fuses the best ideas from Overwatch and Halo. And it does that while creating some of the most fun characters and lore I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars game.

Enter the arena

While you’d think that a round-based multiplayer shooter wouldn’t fit into the series’ expanded universe, Star Wars: Hunters fully exists in canon. That’s thanks to a clever setup that gives the development team a lot of flexibility. Taking place around the time of The Mandalorian, the game is set on Vespaara, a planet in the Outer Rim Territories. There, Balada the Hut teams with a showman fighter named Daq Dragus to create an arena where the duo can host a sports competition game show featuring hunters from around the universe. That clever concept allows Hunters to bring in tons of new characters alongside familiar locations.

What immediately stands out is how comedic the tone is. When I open the character select screen, my eyes are immediately drawn to Utooni, who is quite literally two Jawas in a trenchcoat. One of their abilities, Switcheroo, has the bottom Jawa passing weapons to the top one to swap my equipped gun. It’s one of the funniest gags I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars game. Senior Art Director Rich Kemp tells me that that tonal decision came from considering the series’ wide-ranging audience.

“We wanted it to be accessible and broad enough that everyone could find some aspect of the world that hits that part of their particular Star Wars fandom,” Kemp tells Digital Trends. “So it’s a balance. We want it to feel friendly and open, but, as Star Wars does in the movies and in the cartoons, we have these comedic elements. It feels bright and larger than life, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have a serious moment and serious characters. We really love that play of Sentinel, a Stormtrooper who is really serious and fighting for the Empire, having a fun moment with Sprocket.”

Utooni poses in Star Wars: Hunters.

Every character I try feels equally unique and playful. Slingshot is a small Ugnaught who speeds around in a rolling Droideka, while J-3DI is a Jedi-obsessed droid dressed up in a robe. While some characters parallel heroes in Overwatch, I’m immediately surprised by how original many feel. Aran Tal, for instance, is a Mandolorian that can swap between blaster shots and wrist flames. Sentinel, on the other hand, is a Stormtrooper who can pull up a shield while shooting and use his ultimate ability to summon a small army of Stormtroopers. Each character is loaded with smartly designed abilities that fit their race rather than drawing on genre tropes.

The development team had a surprising inspiration when it came to presenting characters: professional wrestling. Each time players unlock a new hero through the Hunter’s Pass, players get a short cinematic introduction that looks like a WWE superstar’s entrance. Art Director Dominic Estephane tells me that there are a bunch of pro wrestling nerds on the team who were dying to draw from that largerthan-life aspect of wrestling characters. Touches like that, plus extensive backstories, give Hunters a lot of personality. I wanted to try everyone just to see what their deal was.

[pullqupte]We want to make sure it’s not just a cave on Hoth. What’s happening in the cave on Hoth?[/pullquote]

A similar creative spirit can be found in its maps. I tried a few arenas during my demo, from Endor to the Mos Espa Waystation. Each one draws from familiar filmic locations, but paints them up in inviting colors. They almost look like theme park lands, and that’s intentional. The Arena is meant to be an unreal TV show setting, which gave the team lots of flexibility to play with old favorite locations.

“If the characters in the world don’t know about the location, it can’t exist,” Kemp says. “So you can’t take it just from anywhere in a movie because if only Darth Vader ever saw that thing, then it wouldn’t exist. There also needs to [be] a fun story attached to it. We want to make sure it’s not just a cave on Hoth. What’s happening in the cave on Hoth? Why’s that the story the arena wants to tell? We really try to tie it to hunters and their backstories and personalities.”

“We get to play with their interpretation of that space,” Estephane says. “So if they weren’t on Endor, they can say, ‘I’ve heard stories and legends. This is what I assume it’s going to look like.’”

Kemp adds that this design philosophy gave the team lots of room for aesthetic gags, adding to the lighthearted tone. “Some things might look a little bit wonky. Or maybe if you look behind something, it might look like a piece of a set, because that’s what it is! Same with the voice lines, music, and sound effects. Sometimes if it sounds a bit off, that might be intentional!”

Overwatch meets Halo

After looking through the character list, I assumed I knew what to expect. Being a hero shooter, I was prepared to push payloads, as I would in Overwatch. What’s surprising is that Hunters’ first five modes actually skew closer to Halo. There’s a standard team deathmatch, two zone control modes, the Oddball-equivalent Trophy Hunt, and Hutball, which feels like a spin on Griffball. When I ask the team about the Halo inspiration, they laugh. That’s because Design Director Scott Warner previously served as the project lead designer on Halo 4. The influence certainly shows, though Warner had to combine his expertise in traditional shooters with the hero genre.

“With hero shooters, you’re often trying to present characters that could be someone’s perfect playstyle,” Warner tells Digital Trends. “But some of the nods as it relates to shooting are about the typical ways you look at a shooter. Making sure the gun feels right, that it has recoil. A lot of that is important because people have a very strong mental model of how shooters work, so we try to make sure that when they pick up a gun in the game that it performs like you would expect it to.”

Two characters wilding lightsabers clash in Star Wars: Hunters.

Matches are bite-sized, only lasting a few minutes, but sufficiently chaotic thanks to the colorful cast of characters. In one round of Trophy Hunt, a mode where teams need to hold on to a droid (named TR0-F33) as long as possible, I get to see several unique interactions play out. I take control of J-3DI during this round and hide in a corner behind my team. They fire at the approaching team while I block any stray shots with my lightsaber. After a successful minute, a Jedi on the other team breaks through that defensive line. We clash in a close-range lightsaber fight, which I dramatically lose.

That dynamic is completely different later when I jump into a Squad Brawl round as Sentinel. I’m playing the role of a long-range offensive hero here, flanking enemies from behind and lighting them up with shots. At one point, I bump into a bot controlling Sentinel on the other team. It unleashes its ultimate ability, dropping several Stormtroopers on the field. I drop my own in response, turning the battlefield into a chaotic war scene. Every match feels entirely different depending on who I’m controlling and who the other team brings in. You can see why this is a beloved TV show in the galaxy.

All of this runs and controls smoothly based on what I’ve played. It’s especially fine-tuned for mobile, with easily accessible ability buttons sitting under my right thumb. Auto-fire makes it easy to focus on aiming, though players can choose to manually shoot too. Standard controller also support works well on Switch, though it can be a little tough to figure out which abilities are mapped to what buttons — something that seems to change between heroes. While the right trigger acts as my primary fire across the board, sometimes I need to experiment to see which button does what. Thankfully, there’s a Training Ground option that lets me easily test characters.

The team members I spoke to noted that more heroes and game modes are already in the works. Among the latter is a limited-time mode called Boulder Dash, where every player controls the Wookie tank Grozz and tosses rocks at one another. While I enjoyed the boilerplate Halo modes I tried, it’ll be nice to see the team try out some more original modes that suit its colorful cast’s personality. That’s what makes Hunters stand out among a sea of live-service shooters already.

The free-to-play factor

While everything I played felt great and added tons of color to the Star Wars universe, there’s still the question of how graceful it’ll be as a free-to-play live-service game. The demo I played had every hero unlocked already and I was playing with other press members at around the same progression point. That meant I couldn’t be sure of how quickly players unlock heroes naturally. The team says that everyone except seasonal heroes can be unlocked in-game just by playing, though crystals can be used to fast-track the process (those can be earned by playing or bought with real money). It takes 1,000 crystals to unlock a hero, though that number comes down the more you play. I’m not clear on how long it will take to unlock them all naturally, how much 1,000 crystals cost, and how long it would take to earn those without paying.

Some similar question marks arise around the character upgrade system. The more players use a hero, the more their perks level up and grow just a bit stronger. That always creates an uneasy dynamic in games like this, as those with the largest time investments wind up being more powerful. There doesn’t seem to be a pay-to-win dynamic happening here, but it could wander into play-to-win territory.

Two characters face off in Star Wars Hunters.

Otherwise, everything else is fairly standard for the genre. There are daily missions that net players rewards. Story quests seem a little more unique, as they infuse some narrative elements into longer quest chains. There’s a battle pass filled with cosmetics too, which has both a free rail, a paid one, and a VIP option that will auto unlock 15 levels. Thankfully, it seems like battle passes only contain cosmetic items like skins and avatars. If you play free-to-play titles like Fortnite regularly, this should all be par for the course. Parents should just be aware of how many ways there are for their kids to spend money here.

If you can accept that, Star Wars: Hunters seems like it’ll be a fun, family-friendly addition to the Star Wars gaming universe. It’s a lighthearted arena shooter that seems to be having a lot of fun playing in the sci-fi sandbox with no restrictions. With so many unique, lovable characters, it seems ripe for a film or TV show to build upon it — in fact, its Sith hunter Imara Vex has already shown up in a Star Wars comic book. Fans might want to play it now just so they’re prepared for when two Jawas in a trenchcoat wander through the background of the next Mandalorian season.

Star Wars: Hunters launches on June 4 for Android, iOS, and Nintendo Switch.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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