It was, according to Electronic Arts, the biggest beta test in the publisher’s history.
Over nine million people turned out this week to try an early version of Star Wars: Battlefront, the online multiplayer shooter set for release on 17 November. Most came away with some fun stories and a few huge questions.
One thing pretty much everyone agreed on was that this game nails Star Wars. The recreation of Hoth is visually astounding, with its glittering snowscapes and bustling rebel base – and the design of the storm troopers, the guns and the spacecraft is near perfect. The audio too, is wonderful, capturing all the well-known sound effects, from the whine of a swooping Tie-Fighter to the almost mournful laser blast of the AT-ST walkers. There is also thrilling use of the John Williams score, bringing in the main theme at certain points and never failing to produce a rush of adrenaline and nostalgia.
“Star Wars – what’s bigger?” says Niklas Fegraeus, design director at developer Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment (Dice), speaking to us on the eve of the Beta’s launch. “One of the main goals of the game is to be a Star Wars experience – that’s a huge thing. The whole franchise is enjoyed by so many different types of people – of course we want to give them something to enjoy, we want them to be able to just jump into the game and have fun.”
This brings us to the key complaint coming out of the beta experience: that the combat is too shallow. The four available laser guns, though exhibiting different specs, all look and feel the same, and success seemed hugely reliant on levelling up and grabbing the better items, rather than learning the maps and figuring out how to coordinate attacks with teammates. Right now, the distribution of power-ups over the map surface, which give access to sentry guns, defence shields and other goodies (replacing the genre’s now conventional “kill streak” style rewards), takes away the usual rhythm and sense of progress within a bout.
Of course, what the beta also lacked was the character progression element of the full game, which will hopefully allow players to personalise their avatars with specific skills – perhaps along the traditional lines of medic, sniper and assault – thereby fleshing out the strategic play. But then Dice keeps stressing that this isn’t a Battlefield game for Battlefield fans, it’s a Star Wars game for Star Wars fans. In truth, as we mentioned after playing the game at E3, the dynamics of the combat do very much reflect the feel of the Battlefield series – just with many of the more complex load-out options, progression systems and tactical elements (like squads and commanders) removed.
Fegraeus assures us however, that therewill be something there for the more dedicated gaming audience – though that does seem to come down to the breadth of game modes, rather than the depth. “It’s just this large palette of experiences very closely tied to iconic Star Wars stuff that you can play,” he says, “I think that gives not only a big appeal to a lot of people - that’s the intent, we want Star Wars fans to feel like this is something for them - but at the same time, if you’re an advanced player and you want to be very tactical or competitive or whatever, there are modes for that too. It gives you options and choices when it comes to what you want to play.”
There were two key multiplayer modes available in the beta: the snappy Drop Zone, set on the new planet of Sullust; and Walker Assault, the more in-depth 20 vs 20 conflict on the surface of Hoth. Drop Zone is a take on Battlefield’s standard Conquest mode in which teams compete to secure key areas of the map – except here, the areas are escape pods that drop on to the surface in random positions, forcing a much more fluid, improvisational approach. Also, participants set the capture process off by holding down a button, but they don’t have to remain in the immediate vicinity for long, making defence more open and tactical. During the beta, this is where most players started out, engaging in the quick skirmishes and levelling up their characters to unlock the better guns and equipment such as grenades, one-shot sniper rifles and jet packs.
Walker Assault, however, was the beta’s true showcase mode. Here, two sides – rebel and imperial – face off in a recreation of the Empire Strikes Back’s opening assault. The rebels are required to reach a set of uplinks and get them running, in order to triangulate Y-Wing bomber strikes on the advancing might of the imperial AT-AT walkers. The Empire has to stop the rebel scum, while slowly watching its walking mega-tanks plod into the battle.
It’s a simple setup, but it proved exciting. With so many people involved, so much going on and so many options in attack or defence, it’s hard not to get caught up in the spectacle. Sure, manning a turret and blasting at distant enemies isn’t anything remotely original in an online shooter. Yes, it’s the sort of thing where there are objectives most players will ignore, leading to a quick defeat. No, you can’t have full control over an AT-AT.
That wasn’t the only problem some beta players had with the Hoth experience. Some felt 40 players (and no AI soldiers) isn’t nearly enough to recreate an epic battle. Others pointed to the currently borked spawn system that often shoves you into the game mere centimetres from an enemy, thereby ensuring your quick demise. The hero system, which lets you grab a power-up to transform into Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader, is fun, but again, there’s no sense of progressing toward the chance to experience this honour - you just have to be in the right place at the right time to pick up a token.
But once again, Fegraeus makes the same point: this is the Star Wars “battle fantasy” that Dice wants Battlefront to convey. Away from unlocking better weapons and grenades, the idea is that everyone gets a go at the fun stuff – the cool vehicles and the classic characters.
“We have lots of experience when it comes to these large scale designs, so we use a lot of that experience,” says Fegraeus of the overall Hoth experience. “But at the same time, it’s a great challenge for us to make something that really speaks Star Wars, being in that universe and working in that universe’s rules.
“... It’s been the really exciting part of the challenge – just diving into this universe and learning its ins and outs and kinks, and trying to make something that speaks to that, so it becomes a true Star Wars experience. We really started with this foundational idea of ‘let’s let people jump in to their Star Wars battle fantasy and play it their way’,” he says, “That has been the guiding principle, and that hasn’t changed at all.”
If that’s the guiding principle, then the beta is definitely a success of sorts. Taking control of a TIie Interceptor, carrying out strafing runs on fleeing members of the New Republic; swooping low and fast in a Snowspeeder (while dropping in the odd “I’ve found them, repeat, I’ve found them”); prancing about in full control of an AT-ST walker - there’s always plenty going on and plenty to do (even if the controls of the flying craft are currently a little unintuitive and weird, so dog-fighting with an X-wing can often feel a bit like trying to parallel park a Reliant Robin with two flat tyres).
Star Wars: Battlefront, then, is true to the source material; everything it does fits with what you would expect. The problem could be that the underlying action is so familiar – we’ve had over a decade of the Call of Duty and Battlefield titles now, and they have rigidly defined the military FPS experience that Battlefront adheres to. It’s risky to draw too many conclusions from what is essentially a technical test not a demo, but if the beta is anything to go by, those who aren’t utterly seduced by the chance to fight as rebels or stormtroopers raiding Tatooine and blowing up snow bases may even – gulp – find themselves tiring of a highly recognisable shooter.
Perhaps the plan with Star Wars: Battlefront is to use it as a platform for future bolt-ons and additions; a constantly updating and evolving world of online Star Wars shooter-playsets, riddled with settings and characters from the entire franchise, old and new. In other words, the Destiny model. Indeed, we’ve already discovered that the season pass, which gives access to four forthcoming expansion packs, will cost $40. When you consider there’s no single-player Campaign experience beyond a series of short missions, it’s a relatively high price to play for those Star Wars fans unused to the dynamics of the online multiplayer marketplace.
On the subject of downloadable content (DLC), Fegraeus reminds us of what we already know – Battlefront is getting a piece of freebie in December, offering players a look at the battle of Jakku. But he won’t say more. “We wanted to have something that acted as a bridge, something that tied into the new Star Wars that’s coming,” he says. “The DLC is essentially the events that led to the way that planet looks in Episode VII. You’ve seen it on the trailer, with the huge crashed star destroyer in the desert. We’ll support the game post-launch, and we’ll listen to what the community says.”
Battlefront is going to do well, we all know that. It will see plenty of DLC and it will be a whole new franchise for publishing giant EA to exploit. But the real question is whether or not it will offer more than just a Star Wars skinning of Battlefield Lite.
- Ian Dransfield interviewed Niklas Fegraeus during a press trip to Stockholm. Transort costs were met by Electronic Arts.
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