The road to release for Star Wars Battlefront has been just as uneven as the terrain on Sullust. A trailer at Star Wars Celebration which both disappointed and created a touching fanfare among hordes of fans, the announcement of a limited number of maps, all that followed by a fabulous and successful beta test. Yes, a lot has happened with DICE's Star Wars project, but now it's finally time to find out whether EA's big licensing deal with Disney has been worth the investment, and, more importantly, whether Star Wars Battlefront can live up the combined expectations of millions of eager Star Wars fans. It's time for some galactic warfare.
Let's start by addressing some initial concerns right off the bat, things that many have mentioned after playing the beta. No, Star Wars Battlefront doesn't have as many deep systems as other online shooters, and that means no complex perks or adaptable killstreaks, nor weapon upgrades or customisable costumes. There are no space battles either, apart from the in-orbit ones that occur in Walker Assault and Supremacy. Most of the important upgrades are scattered around the battlefield - the worst player and the best player have an equal chance of becoming Darth Vader. There are only four planets - Hoth, Tatooine, Sullust and Endor - and even though these are very different in terms of concept, design and aesthetic, there are only four of them.
So with that out of the way, let's get to the core of the matter: Star Wars Battlefront is one of this year's strongest and most accessible shooters, and, crucially, it's exactly the Battlefront game you've been looking for.
You've got your rebels, and you've got your evil empire. That's how it starts. These two inevitably have to fight, and in spite of some co-op missions (which work in split-screen should you wish) that function as a fun, albeit innocent distraction, it's all about the multiplayer struggle between these two galactic factions across a range of maps and modes. You can pick a race, everything from Rodian to Twi'lek, and briefly after that you'll find yourself in the heat of battle with a loadout you've equipped while in combat that's based on the original movie trilogy. So far, so good.
But even though the customisation isn't nearly as deep as other multiplayer-centric shooters, there are a couple of considerations to take into account before you land on Endor's lush and brutal forest moon. Your Star Card hand is essentially your loadout, a trio of tools at your disposal which are crucial to your survival. Actually, most of your character and play-style customisation is done by picking these three abilities. One such card might be the beta favourite, the Jump Pack that lunges you up and forward, and another may be the beloved Cycler Rifle which gives you some much needed range. These can be used in every single mode, and require a brief cooldown after use. There's great variety to be found among these Star Cards, and even though you can only equip three at a time, a different hand will drastically alter your strategic approach to combat.
The weapons are there in full force as well, but the variety isn't as immediately apparent. Star Card weapons such as the Ion Torpedo or Homing Shot will of course provide you with an alternative option, but the difference between the long-range RT-97C and the close combat friendly T-21 isn't nearly as noticeable during the moment to moment encounters you'll experience. The volume and the velocity of your blaster fire provides variation of course, but in the sense of pointing in a direction and firing at the enemy, the weapons do feel very similar. The much needed variation, crucial to any online experience, comes in the combination of Star Card abilities and the Power-Ups that are spread out across the battlefield. Instead of having Killstreaks where special abilities are made available to the most skilled players, and thus hinge entirely on player efficiency, the most powerful tools in Star Wars Battlefront are just as likely to land in the hands of the worst player as they are the best. Even if you're performing poorly, you can still become Darth Vader. This is an obvious attempt to make the game more accessible to casual players, but it's also an effort to put the experience itself ahead of the actual gameplay. It's more about the feeling, rather than the mechanics.
These Power-Ups grant you access to coveted moments that live long in the memory when utilised to perfection. One time you'll be firing the gigantic AT-AT cannon, or assuming the role of one of the game's hero characters who each have special abilities of their own, or you might even find yourself piloting a spaceship. All are very useful, and can, if used correctly, turn the tide of a battle singlehandedly. This makes battles pretty unpredictable, and that means variation, which inevitably will be the big point of discussion. Star Cards, Power-Ups and your own weapon ensures that Star Wars Battlefront never leaves you feeling powerless - you always have an ace up your sleeve, whether it's a Thermal Imploder to blast you out of a tight spot, or an Orbital Bombardment to take out enemies camping where you can't reach them.
Because of this Star Wars Battlefront is rarely boring to play, unless you shift immediately from an extremely customisable and mechanically deep multiplayer experience such as Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, then you might find Star Wars Battlefront a bit shallow, at least initially. We didn't find that to be the case, but one aspect where this criticism is entirely fitting is the amount of planets, or levels if you prefer. There are plenty of modes, and we'll get back to them, but even though the individual planets (of which there are four - Tatooine, Sullust, Endor and Hoth) are extremely beautiful and filled with incredible detail and effective level design, there simply isn't enough of them. Season Pass owners and hardcore fans might receive a steady stream of content in the months following the release, and everyone does have the free planet Jakku to look forward to in December, but four planets is a bit on the slim side.
As we know from the Battlefield series, which isn't a far fetched comparison as it also comes from the same developer, the focus rests on objectives in Star Wars Battlefront's central mode, Walker Assault. That means that it makes all sorts of attempts at diverting your gaze away from the kill/death ratio and onto your teammates and your common objective. Luckily, many of your Star Card abilities are team oriented, like the blaster shield that protects against enemy fire, or a well-placed Blaster Cannon to mow down the enemy. Sadly it's not possible to make squads with several friends, which was the main reason behind Battlefield taking on such a team-based focus. You can pick one other player as your partner, but if there are several friends playing simultaneously, you're out of luck.
Where Battlefield's essential squad mechanic is painfully lacking, Battlefront has maintained one essential DICE characteristic, a range of well-designed modes to get sucked into. The biggest attraction here is undoubtedly the larger modes, which allows for the highest numbers of players at the same time, and lets the Star Wars universe unfold in all of its chaotic beauty. Here, Walker Assault and Supremacy are worthy of note, as they present entertaining, team-based and varied action, where pride constantly goes before the fall. If you move too fast in Supremacy or guard uplinks ineffectively in Walker Assault, the tides turn rapidly and violently. No round feels similar to the one preceding it. The smaller modes such as Blast and Cargo offer more familiar, tightly focussed action with more straightforward objectives like Capture the Flag or Team Deathmatch, so it's lucky that Star Wars Battlefront is so fundamentally well-designed, because these smaller modes take away a lot of the mechanics and tools that make the game special, yet they're still fun.
Heroes Vs. Villains and Hero Hunt are centred around the game's powerful and iconic heroes. One pits two teams of heroes and villains against each other, and the other casts one player as the hero and the rest as bloodthirsty soldiers, and if you're the one to kill the hero, you take his or her place. The balance isn't as finely tuned, and often the hero doesn't stand a chance when flanked. These modes appear more as distractions, and sadly nothing more. The same goes for Fighter Squadron, which is entirely based around huge dog fights inside the planetary atmosphere. It's a breath of fresh air, and it offers a break from the hectic battles you'll find in the more fleshed out modes.
The missions, which work as a quick introduction to the mechanics, are also something of a distraction from the main course, albeit in a more entertaining and different manner. You have a choice between Survival (basically a horde mode), Battle (where you and a number of AI followers fight against a friend with a similar group of computer-controlled companions), and Hero Battles (where the hero classes can square off). These missions are a nice change of pace from the main multiplayer; the game mechanics remain intact and can be studied in-depth.
Star Wars Battlefront showcases EA's grandiose Frostbite engine in the best possible light, and there's graphical and artistic quality in everything from blaster sparks to the sun peering through the treetops of Endor's forest moon. Don't listen to those who criticise the game for only running at 900p on console X, and complain that it occasionally dips to 59 fps on console Y, the game is one of the best-looking titles out available on the current generation of consoles, and we didn't experience any technical issues of note during our play-through.
On top of all this, Star Wars Battlefront has also been blessed with some fabulous audio work by DICE. This key area is especially important when it comes to Star Wars, and the soundscape is a critical part of the experience. The crunch of the snow on Hoth, the explosions on Endor, and the windswept dunes on Tatooine; all are perfectly recreated. On top of that there's John Williams' epic musical score running in the background. The soundtrack adapts perfectly to any given situation, which ensures an amazing soundscape that truly transports you off to a galaxy far, far way.
Star Wars Battlefront has had a lot going against it, in spite of a successful beta test, but the final product represents both a collection of the best that DICE has to offer, and also a very unique experience when considered within the confines of the shooter market, a genre currently crammed with different variations of the same experience. You won't find any weapon customisation or squad systems or kill streaks here, instead Battlefront offers a unique feeling when you sit in front of the screen, controller in hand. It's the most powerful Star Wars experience since Bioware's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and that's saying something. It takes you away to a galaxy far, far away. What Star Wars Battlefront lacks in content, it offers in immersion; it has that in abundance.