My first moments with the Star Wars: Battlefront beta are pure and unfettered jubilation. Everything looks right, and everything sounds right. My first impression is that I am part of Star Wars in a way that I’ve only dreamt of for most of my life. It is crisp, clear, and more immediate than any other experience I have had in a universe that was as real to child-Nate as the one outside his window.
It’s hard to describe just how that feels to anyone who hasn’t found the same kind of extraordinary virtual homecoming. This is the deepest sort of fantasy fulfillment; a shot of pure, uncut nostalgia straight to the brain.
The wind howls over the jagged fangs of Hoth’s icy terrain. Around me, the staccato crush of trooper boots on the snow fills my ears. Below that, the echoing metallic thud of an enormous Imperial siege weapon; the iconic AT-AT walker trudges steadily forward at our flank. We rush forward, snow-blind but eager. A few warning shots from my excitable brethren, and then the whoosh as several personal jump packs send a few of us leaping toward the first assault position. Within moments, the world explodes with heavy weapons’ detonation and the harsh yelp of blaster fire. The battle for Hoth has begun. The first time I hear the roar of a snow speeder above my head, I’m covered in goosebumps.
An hour in, I’m still utterly hooked — no pun intended, for those of you familiar with the scene from which this battle is lifted. Playing as a rebel is significantly more difficult, but even that is exceptionally accurate to the source material. I’m not going to say it couldn’t use some balancing, but the experience rings true. I still haven’t had the chance to wield a lightsaber myself, but I’ve seen Darth Vader scythe through our depleted ranks like a cyborg grim reaper. Then he hopped around in a circle, crouched repeatedly over Luke Skywalker’s corpse, and posted an ASCII phallus on the chat scroll.
Dark side, indeed.
For those without mastery of the Force, military efforts are a bit more straightforward. Objectives are clearly laid out, though the user interface feels a bit clunky. Something as essential as switching your primary weapon is a good three menus deep, though navigating to the aforementioned screen is intuitive. The available armaments are understandably limited in this preview build, and character customization is completely disabled. While the actual maps and events are listed but grayed-out, the armory gives no indication of missing content. It’s hard to say whether this lack of equipment is indicative of the content in the final release, or intended as merely a taste of things to come.
The essential gameplay loop is pretty straightforward. Marked objectives gather players around hotly contested hubs, to be captured and/or defended as the situation dictates. Experience earned in combat fuels unlockable ‘cards’ to customize your loadout. In the beta, those options are so limited as to make choice irrelevant — there simply isn’t enough material to allow for any sort of divergent play-styles. This makes the whole affair rather more focused, but again, it makes it very difficult to account for what sort of player agency might be given in the final product.
Within 24 hours of the beta’s launch, everyone was running around with grenades, a blast shield, a jump pack, and an this-is-really-just-an-LMG heavy blaster. Upon spawning, most players look immediately for one of the hovering blue icons that indicate a special weapon drop or control of a vehicle. Control of the various ships is a bit on the janky side with a mouse and keyboard, but on a console it all feels very Rogue Squadron. I’d recommend any PC player have a controller plugged in and standing by.
The gunplay itself is rather simplistic, and movement is fast and frantic. The damage modeling strikes a good balance of lethality and absorption, though there is little to no visible weapon impact on characters. I’m not sure whether that’s a casualty of aiming for a T rating, or simply unfinished art assets. Either way, I’d like to see a scorch mark or two for my trouble.
The smaller 16 player Drop Zone map is a bit less cinematic and more easily shows the game’s warts. Pods drop from the sky, filled with power-ups for whichever side can claim and defend them. The map itself is quite small, making the action feel claustrophobic in comparison to the snowy sprawl of the beta’s main event. The lack of content is especially garish in a mode containing no vehicles and significantly fewer players. It’s not a great selling point for the experience and might better have been omitted without more distinct control over your player character.
Finally, Tatooine provides a pared down experience for single or cooperative play. The map itself is gorgeous, with an amazing attention to detail. What little environmental destruction exists is found in this map, with huts and debris that can be gutted with weapon fire. Waves of imperial forces assault the player(s), survivors of an emergency landing on the foreboding desert planet. To be frank, the AI on this map is atrocious. I never came even remotely close to dying, mostly because the Imperial forces spent an inordinate amount of time staggering against pieces of the scenery around which they could not navigate. The waves themselves seemed to be a completely random mix of units, with very little in the way of escalation or creativity. They filed in, wandered around, and then died. The experience reeks of desperation to placate the portions of the gaming community decrying Battlefront’s lack of a single-player campaign, and it’s a shame that more effort wasn’t put into making the experience compelling. Right now, the message still seems to be very strongly against picking up the game if you’re not going to be playing online.
It’s important to understand that, as a kid weaned on Star Wars, I’ve spent a large portion of my life wishing for exactly the sort of experience that Battlefront’s Battle for Hoth provides. Just as important, however, is the game that underlies all of this stunning atmosphere. It’s where the two meet that the game stumbles. I can’t help but feel that the offered content should have been expanded, to better gauge the product we’ll be getting. After all, Hoth has been recreated a dozen times in virtually every genre of video game. Not like this, and not half so beautifully, but this remains well-worn territory.
Before the beta, the primary debate was whether DICE would produce an experience that was more Battlefield than Battlefront. What we got was Call of Duty: Star Wars. The thing is, I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing. Most of the more egregious errors could be fixed with the addition of content, much of which will be present in the final release. A more critical pass over the placement of vehicle spawns and some map balancing for fairness might take it a little further away from canon, but would certainly provide a more fun experience for players on both sides of the pitched battles. DICE has clearly erred on the side of creating a title that looks, sounds, and feels like Star Wars. Mechanically, it may be unforgivably shallow, but forgiveness gets a little easier every time I see Echo Base consumed in a fiery inferno. Take that, rebel scum.