In conjunction with the upcoming Star Wars movie – The Force Awakens – publishers have been seeking to revitalise the Star Wars intellectual property within the games industry. Disney Infinity relatively successfully integrated the Star Wars property into its toys to life brand, and we have EA Dice seeking to reboot the Starwars Battlefront series. Sadly, having being granted the opportunity to play the Beta for their new vision of Battlefront we found ourselves a little underwhelmed.
First things first, it’s important to discard your conceptions of what Battlefront should be before going in. The grandure of the battles has been reduced and combat in Dice’s Starwars Battlefront takes place on a respectively smaller scale. If nothing else this is demonstrated by the games lower player count, as encounters in Battlefont feature 40 players rather than the traditional 64.
Despite this, these alterations to the series ultimately do not matter. If Dice have a new vision for what Battlefront should be, how it should play, and that vision is well designed, enjoyable and compelling, then I’m perfectly happy to embrace their new product. Unfortunately however, I did not find this to be the case during the Battlefront Beta, for a variety of reasons.
Combat itself is pleasant enough. The initial mode you’re suggested into – named Drop Zone – is a simple affair serving to demonstrate combat in Star Wars Battlefront at its most basic level. This mode is fun, with a focus on fast paced gunplay and mobility as the objective continually forces you to move around the map. The map itself, is a little barren, but structured quite nicely for these small sized engagements with a myriad rock structures you can use for cover as you capture and defend each objective.
I found the plasma weapons especially entertaining to use, it felt skillful and rewarding to defeat my foes as the projectiles fired do not impact instantaneously, and instead require you to lead your shots when partaking in mid or long range engagements. The ability to switch between first and third person perspectives was also pleasant, although it was evident from the start that third person has a rather dominant advantage. The ability to see around corners leaves first-person players very vulnerable to unsuspecting attack.
The health system the game has chosen to work with also functions well enough. Similar to Dice’s other games, players seem to go down in around 3-4 bullets, less than a second if you’re accurate and up close. This works reasonably well but it’s clear the intent was to make the game as accessible as possible. The lower time to kill means just about anyone can jump in and get a few kills without having to be brilliant at aiming or react tremendously quickly, but to some extent this mechanic is a little unbalanced in conjunction with the third person perspective. If you spy a guy from behind cover, in many cases he’ll be dead before he knows it. That can create scenarios that might feel unfair, and to some degree slows the pace of the combat as players find themselves hesitant to push forward for fear of being instantly killed. It wasn’t evident how much of an issue this may be in the full game however, as most of the players in Drop Zone are new to the game and its controls.
This focus on accessibility really feeds into a number of the games larger issues however. Once you decide to move out of the training pool that is Drop Zone over to the Beta’s only 40 player mode – Walker Assault – you’re greeted with a host of new features such as vehicle and hero powerups that you can collect on the map, and integrate themselves with gameplay.
The powerup system itself comes across as a little out of place. Simply put, it’s odd to have to use a vehicle powerup rather than simply entering the vehicle you wish to drive or pilot. I could get past that if this new system in some way benefited the games design, however it doesn’t feel that way. Instead it feels as though the powerup mechanic exists to represent the vehicles status as a powerup, providing moments of power for players to take advantage of, but lacking the depth and sustainability to be integrated into a dedicated playstyle.
To give an example, you pick up the walker powerup and enter a walker. The walker itself is absurdly easy to use with no real depth to its mechanics. Move and shoot, anything you shoot at is liable to de. Unlike Tanks on Battlefield, players have no real means of combating the vehicles in Battlefront with any immediacy. In Battlefield an individual player can make a play to take down a tank with C4, however in Battlefront due to the maps linearity and the lack of any similarly effective tools, there is no real means for an individual to have a significant impact in this way. So the vehicle roams around, kills between five to ten players then the guy hops out as its health gets low.
If that player wishes he can hop in another AT-ST, the powerup respawns shortly afterward one walker dies, and it doesn’t take long to remember where these spawn. Alternatively you can get into one of the AT-ATs and play a horrifically simplified on-rails shooter with cumbersome controls. It doesn’t matter that it’s next to no fun to use though, because this thing absolutely wrecks anything you aim at. What an amazing fifteen killstreak you earned from your impenetrable death fortress! Again, it’s boring, it doesn’t reward skill and exists to provide Johny the 12 year old child and number 1 Starwars fan, with an absolutely epic experience that he can tell his friends about tomorrow at school.
These mechanics simply don’t fit with the notion of a competitive shooter. In games like Battlefield or Warhawk, the vehicles represented alternative styles of play, with depth and a learning curve built into their design. Yet, in Battlefront they are brief intermissions from regular gunplay designed to give even the worst of players an opportunity to go on the largest of killing sprees. They serve as a means of reducing control (for both the player using the vehicle, and those killed by it) in order to place focus on the spectacle of the warfare.
The same can unfortunately be said for the games aircraft. While there are a myriad of vehicles taken from the Starwars universe that feature in the beta alone, these all control like they were pulled right out of Disney Infinity. You aim and move with one analogue stick, and that’s it. There’s no real depth to the gunplay here, you shoot at the targets and fire missiles when they’re available. Shoot at them enough and they go down. The D-Pad offers up some pre-set advanced maneuvers like barrel rolls and flips, but this in itself doesn’t lend much depth to the dogfights that take place. Once you take off the Starwars tinted glasses, the aerial gameplay gets stale very quickly, with one encounter feeling rather similar to the next. It doesn’t help that the map is especially simple either, offering nothing to dodge and weave around while these dogfights take place.
These aerial vehicles also serve as another way in which control is taken from the players on the ground, as between dogfights these craft will take potshots at infantry. It certainly adds to the spectacle of the battles as A-Wings and Tie Fighters soar above you, splashing gunfire around your location, but it’s not especially fun to be killed by them, particularly as it doesn’t feel as there’s anything in your power to prevent it from happening. Anything other than staying indoors the entire game that is, and unlike Battlefield, due to the number of interior areas this simply isn’t an option if you want to actually help with the objective in any way.
Some of these issues could be put down to the unbalanced nature of the walker assault game mode. It is unbalanced, it’s an asymmetric game mode so it’s very easy to get wrong, and Dice have most certainly gotten it wrong, however it’s difficult to place much fault on that issue alone. If the powerups required mastery to dominate then the potential for an unbalanced game would be less apparent, but the fact that just about anyone can hop into a Walker or AT-AT and mow down hordes of opponents without difficulty really exacerbates everything wrong with the mode.
The hero system presents a similar set of problems as well, and while a staple of the series these heroes typically fail to meaningfully influence the battle or gameplay dynamics. A hero is powerup that is granted almost random and allows you to dominate anyone in your path. You’ll get a few fleeting moments out of it, but as you familiarise yourself with the mechanics it feels less and less compelling. There’s no way for individual infantry to stand a chance against you directly, and that means gameplay gets pretty old after a short while. To use a metaphor, there’s much more satisfaction to be had from a fish caught by hand, demanding time, patience and mastery of ones equipment, than there is to shooting fish in a barrel, and the latter scenario is what Hero gameplay feels like. It’s easy, and serves as another means of distributing free kills, but as a result of that lack of difficulty or depth, the sense of satisfaction obtained is both fleeting and short lived.
It’s a lack of depth to Battlefronts mechanics that underpins a large number of the games issues. Providing a learning curve to each mechanic would have been a nice step in the right direction, as it’s not enjoyable to dominate without effort or skill, resulting in an overall gameplay experience that becomes dull very quickly. As aforementioned, the infantry gameplay itself isn’t without depth and I enjoyed being forced to lead my shots to hit their target, but even if you intentionally avoid the vehicle and hero powerups, you still have to deal with everyone else bombarding you with often inescapable attacks.
Running from Luke Skywalker offers a pretty good example of this sense of helplessness and subsequent frustration. You simply can’t do any significant amount of damage to him on your own, and even as a team you can’t kill him quickly enough to down him before he’s wiped a good ten to twenty of you. Sure the idea, is that the hero’s go after one another, so Darth Vader fights Luke and your infantry take less of a beating, but there’s almost no incentive to do so. Why fight the enemy hero when you can both earn in excess of twenty kills by running around and slaughtering helpless foot soldiers? Oh and it’s not like they can run either, the heroes have been made to be a good twenty percent faster than infantry, just to make sure there’s no running from that lightsaber in the back.
This is all when your not being instantly killed as soon as you spawn of course. I’m willing to pass those issues up to the fact that this is in beta, but I wouldn’t blame anyone being a little battled as to why they’re happening. Dice isn’t new to developing competitive multiplayer shooters, and a large number of these issues are glaringly obvious. Internal playtesting should have been able to tell the developer that spawning me into gunfire over and over again is pretty bad for the games design, and it isn’t an uncommon enough occurrence that these issues would only present themselves when tested on a grand scale.
Map design is a completely separate problem. The two maps in the Beta are both relatively simple and largely barebones. One could be summarized as ‘rocks’ another, ‘snowy rocks’. Structurally, beside the occasional rock surface there’s not much character to either of them, and rather than being segmented into distinct areas it’s very samey, from one end of the map to another. Sure at the end of the Hoth map there’s less mountains and more trenches, but for the most part it remains a pretty open playing field at all times, and that just isn’t especially interesting. Additionally, the interior segments aren’t fleshed out and seem to only exist to funnel you out of spawn in a linear pathway, and if you’re lucky enough you might make it out of one of the doorways alive.
Crucially, the maps from previous Battlefield and Battlefront games has always enabled players to craft a pretty unique journey through the particular game mode they might be playing. The maps were diverse and offer different, distinct game-play scenarios due to that diversity. Freedom to traverse the map and focus their attention to different objectives really shaped the experiences that were possible on these more open ended maps. This isn’t the case in Dice’s Battlefront, as Hoth follows its predictable linear progression from one round to the next. It’s gets dull, and not just because it’s not like the previous installments, but because matches are vastly less variant from one another. After a mere ten matches on Hoth it felt like I had almost exhausted its possibilities, and that just isn’t very interesting.
Additionally, without the ability to determine your own spawn, it’s really difficult to shape what you want to do, or focus on during the game. For instance if I’ve made it my objective to capture A, then I die it might put me much closer to B. That’s a problem as I don’t get to see my self-assigned goal through to the end without having to trek across the entire map. It takes control from the player and ultimately that lack of agency in the whole experience makes for one that’s just less exciting and rewarding. Sure Dice, I’ll spawn at A like you want me to, the objective that’s already being captured while my dwindling allies struggle to hold their own at B, sure, why not…
Of course it’s not all negative. There’s plenty of good things I could say about the Beta experience, and its visuals strike as the most dominant of those positive features. Dice have done a superb job of making the game not only look good, but look absolutely authentic to a Starwars experience. It’s in the gameplay department that things take turn, but even then the Drop Zone mode, devoid of all the superficial additions, can be a tremendous amount of fun. I would be concerned how many gametypes are like this though, as the majority seem to be focused on the large scale vehicle x infantry combat, and that seems to be the games weakness right now.
Ultimately, Starwars Battlefront is a competitive shooter that’s almost completely devoid of the competitive validity it requires to provide a satisfying experience, especially in the long term. There’s the possibility that everything we’ve experienced can be put down to the the fact that this is a Beta, however it’s also fair to acknowledge that this is the demonstration Dice chose to give us of their game. If there’s something better hiding behind the scenes, then they should be showing that to consumers. Dice’s vision of Starwars Battlefront may provide fleeting moments of greatness within the Starwars Universe, but it lacks substance as a competitive shooter and that’s a huge problem for its long term value.