Battlefronted: Pandemic’s ‘Star Wars Battlefront II’ and DICE’s Estranged Sequel
by Rudy Craig
Star Wars and video games seem to have been designed for each other, both gaining traction in the mid-70’s via mixtures of cutting-edge technology and intensive, targeted branding. The two lost little time getting to know each other, with Apple developing a Star Wars styled aerial combat game a year after A New Hope’s 1977 release. From that point through the 80’s and 90’s, additions to the brand were steady, with production ramping up as the prequels neared release. One of the most successful and well-known results of the prequel era was Star Wars Battlefront II, released October 31st, 2005 by Pandemic Studios. A sequel to a very successful effort from the previous year, Star Wars Battlefront II took everything that made its predecessor ‘the best-selling Star Wars game of all time’ (as seen on the disk cover) and ramped it up, elevating the design, gameplay, and resulting nostalgia to new heights.
Working off of the extremely successful large-scale land and air battles formula of Battlefront I, in addition to a release alongside the DVD version of Revenge of the Sith, Battlefront II was nothing if not high profile. It met its hype with ease. Playable as ground soldiers and space fighters in both first and third person, the title’s distinct style was preserved and amplified well. In campaign mode, players fight their way through a plotline spanning all six of the existing Star Wars movies. Guided through a dark narration via a member of the 501st Legion of Clone Troopers, the plot follows the legion, depicting their struggles during the Clone Wars and their ensuing successes as “Vader’s Fist” after the rise of the Empire. The story was step up from Battlefront I, featuring a stronger sense of purpose and cinematic scope.
Without the narrative cutscenes before and after the battles, however, the campaign mode would have had a fairly linear progression. The battles are for the conquest of waypoints scattered throughout the map, with story-based objectives such as protecting, retrieving, and destroying lending the campaign more depth. By the time I got around to playing the game (circa. 2007–2008), the online userbase had been whittled down, leading me to mostly engage in the game’s classic and enduring single-player mode, Instant Action. In it, the player can select any map from the six-movie campaign (land or sky) and play a number of battle modes. The most famous of this was ‘Campaign,’ in which the player brings about the destruction of an opposing army by either capturing their command posts or simply killing them all. Something about being a grunt in a massive wave of bot vs. bot skirmishes works and the gamemode remains a fan favorite.
When it was announced in 2013 that EA and DICE had acquired the licences to Star Wars Battlefront, the fanbase went wild. The first gameplay previews fanned the flames with brief, cinematic flickers of a gorgeous, detailed AT-AT on Hoth. DICE also released a slew of behind-the-scenes footage, showing their developers prowling through the Star Wars prop warehouses, describing the physical scanning process being used to achieve the in-game details. This coupled with the release of Alpha and Beta demos started to raise even a bit of skeptical doubt; “There’s no way it can can look this good, can it?!” When the game finally released November 17, 2015, ten years and a month after its predecessor, two things became strikingly obvious: 1. It really can look that good and 2. The graphics had better be your top priority, because they were clearly EA’s.
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have its strong suits. Through the use of a clearly revolutionary render engine, the game captures the Star Wars Original Trilogy era with stunning authenticity. Everything from the gritty, sand-torn tarps of Tatooine to the dense, light-streaked forests of Endor are presented with photorealistic intensity. The game also features contemporary locations, allowing players to explore the harsh rocks and lava of Sullest, in addition to the desert of Jakku from The Force Awakens in a DLC. Every gun and character model feels authentic and the the love for the Star Wars universe that DICE expressed in their behind the scenes footage shows through superbly. (I was playing on a Playstation 4, however, and I couldn’t help but shake the certainty that, somewhere, an even better graphical experience is waiting for me on the PC version.) The audio, too, is top notch, with stereo recordings of movie-faithful sound effects from everything to TIE fighters to Ion cannon providing deep, 360 degree immersion into the the Star Wars world. (Darth Vader’s voice acting is a notable exception.)
Once a player looks past the visual beauty and detail of the game however, its lack of depth starts to become painfully obvious. EA elected to slash many of the best gameplay elements of Battlefront II, the more dramatic of which being both the singleplayer Campaign Mode and Instant Action, a crippling blow to the title’s singleplayer legacy. Easily the most fun of the single player remnants would be the addition of a wave-based survival mode in the style of Call of Duty’s Modern Warfare 3, in which players fend off slews of infantry, vehicles, and fighters of increasing difficulty. My experience in this mode was vastly improved by DICE’s decision to retain the local split screen ability of the title, another massive calling point of the original games and something that would be lost in my previously mentioned, higher-fidelity PC version. Playing on Sullust with my roommate was an absolutely gorgeous adventure, and challenging, too, with TIE’s, AT-ST’s and a host of infantry troops vying for our attention as the most terrifying units in the battle. After many attempts, some lattes and a takeout pizza, we managed to beat it, crawling into bed war-torn and trying not think about our classes in five hours. It would prove to be the most engaging part of the game.
Beyond that, the game just doesn’t have the depth that it should. With its skeletal singleplayer, one would imagine that Battlefront would soar on multiplayer, but even that is sadly lacking. While the battles are crisp and satisfying for a short while, with a decent amount of game modes and perk customization to keep it interesting, the game’s lack of progression starts to inject a certain… pointlessness to the fighting. While taking a leaf out of Battlefield or Call of Duty’s ‘quick kill, quick spawn’ multiplayer book isn’t necessarily a bad idea, removing the progressive leveling up feature of the game mode nets an incredibly shallow experience. Even over the course of a weekend, I couldn’t help but be overtaken by a creeping feeling of “This is it?” It didn’t matter as much to me, as I only just got to playing the game on a borrowed console, borrowed tv and a disk rented from the library, but imagining buying this game at a full price (or the $70 Deluxe Edition) — in addition to being offered season passes to access more than the twelve maps and the eleven non-customizable and non-upgradeable guns included — sounds like an offense that could only come from as ballsy a company as EA.
Overall, I’m not quite sure how I feel. Nostalgia plays its due part in clouding my vision, but returning to Battlefront II after many years of absence did not feel like the step down that a ten-year old game could potentially carry. Taken standalone, without noting the borrowed elements from its immediate predecessor, Battlefront II’s animations, design, and story still hold up both in comparison to its contemporaries and to the casual gamer of modern day. While the plot wasn’t anything stunning, it was there and it served as an engaging platform for the single player modes that gave the title its reputation. On the flip side, we have a remarkably polished but extremely slimmed down game that could still be called ‘Battlefront’, but lacks many of the core elements that set the title apart from other, more generic shooters. The sense of balance that infused the large-scale battles of the originals has been replaced with a tighter, more fluid play style taking its place. With a sequel already in the works (Star Wars Battlefront II 2 ? Star Wars Battlefront II² ?), the developers do have a very strong foundation to work off of and hopefully enough feedback to correct some of their most glaring grievances. For the moment, though, Star Wars Battlefront EA was a very safe step in a disappointingly neutral direction and, if nothing else, provides some cheap, visually stunning thrills to keep you engaged for a weekend. I would recommend using a library card.