Despite the blatant lack of single-player and its tight development schedule, Star Wars Battlefront has been a successful multiplayer shooter for the past couple of years, and largely a source of joy for both its many users and for EA. Now, for the highly-anticipated sequel, there can be no excuses and the publisher must "pull a Titanfall 2" and expand on content and deliver beyond multiplayer with a proper single-player campaign. Let's just hope it fares better than Respawn's effort.
While the core of the game has been built by DICE using its Frostbite engine, both Criterion and Motive have worked on this much bigger project, with the British Burnout-creators focusing on vehicles (Starfighter Assault) and the Canadian team adding a cinematic touch to the brand-new campaign mode. Art director Chris Matthews and scriptwriter Mitch Dyer travelled from Montreal to Madrid to show press the story mode for the first time and to talk about it, and thus we got our hands on the opening two hours.
Even though a few sections we played were a bit bland in terms of activities, and despite a couple of issues we expect to be ironed out for the final build, we enjoyed our time with the new single-player part of the game, as it offered both an interesting approach to the Star Wars narrative and a welcome change of pace compared to the multiplayer.
First off, it feels really cool to play on the darker, Imperial side of things. Story events take place in parallel to The Return of the Jedi and then right after the Death Star explodes and Emperor Palpatine is killed (spoilers? We're guessing you know events already). It's an unfamiliar perspective, where the Rebels are the "bad guys" so to speak, as you're held prisoner in the Invincible Faith cruiser as Iden Versio, an Imperial commander and leader of an elite unit called Inferno Squad.
The Cleaner prologue mission serves as an introduction to the explorer/soldier gameplay mechanics you'll be developing throughout the campaign (the idea is to portray trooper, pilot, and hero fantasies here). It starts as a pretty basic corridor shooter, but we were perfectly fine with this design choice, as it can't get more canonical than shootouts in corridors, can it? But before you step into Iden's shoes, the game pulls its first trick by letting you have direct control of the tactical droid ID-10 as a playable character. The hovering stealth robot, similar in shape to the well-known Viper Probe Droid, is able to fly around the environment and scan it, hack terminals like R2-D2, get through vent conduits, and of course shock human enemies whenever necessary. Oh, and in a very handy move, it turns into Versio's backpack, allowing its abilities to be available at the protagonist's command after she's been set free.
This introductory section is full of style, with rebels showing off their own versions of Commander Leia's iconic hairstyle, droids deleting sensitive info on future plans which of course leaked to the enemy, escape pods used to get the hell out of Dodge, and doors which take forever to open. We didn't get that classy, sober Jedi Knight feeling, but we found this prologue to be quite fitting at least.
What we didn't like, however, and this happened again and again during the three missions' on-foot sections, is how much you can see the multiplayer roots of the experience. In a single-player campaign, we wouldn't expect some of the cheap animations (both enemies and even your own character when in third-person) or erratic hitboxes, not to mention the pretty dull AI that defined some of the enemies.
As Rebels plan their final assault on and above the Ewok's forest-covered moon, Chapter 1: The Battle of Endor kicks off and the gameplay opens up in a fashion similar to what you'll find online. This means you get to grips to Iden's special abilities and cooldown times, start working as part of a team (and aiming for officers), and consider the best weapon of choice for each of the tasks you're given.
The lush woods once again look astonishing and the campaign gives you a bit more room to enjoy the beautiful environment, but only a bit. There are situations you wouldn't find in multiplayer, like ambushing the rebels or searching for hidden places for goods and collectibles, but at the same time we got to enjoy weapon types different to the ones present in the beta (a new sniper rifle, for example). The same happened to abilities (a.k.a. Star Cards), with our beloved Barrage from SWBF1 making a comeback, and our favourite for the new game, Killstreak Vanguard. Not unlike Doom's Berserk, this ability allows you to keep firing a very powerful shotgun as long as you keep hitting enemies, which means a nice risk/reward in solo play and a potentially over-powered tool for online play. We used some shields as well, and also a fun Grenade Splitter.
Other than the collectibles and the weapons scattered around, Star Cards are acquired via supply crates, a feature that's become infamous ahead of launch due to how you can buy them online to improve your multiplayer soldier. Offline during the campaign it didn't feel that intrusive, nor an overly-obvious marketing campaign for what you're encouraged to do online, but we found them a bit pace-breaking, as you enter a separate menu to customise your character's abilities and loadout. The system, however, feels deeper in terms of tailoring your experience (you can also craft new cards or break them down into materials), and we found a nice balance when some cards are locked to one specific slot, meaning you'll have tough decisions to make.
It was at the end of the Endor mission when things got interesting, as the Death Star gets blown up in the sky by the rebel scum and your team must leave the planet post haste. This means struggling to get to one of the remaining tie-fighters in a very film-like sequence where we didn't want to rush it as we wanted to enjoy the combat, but at the same time, the situation was urging us to get out of there.
It's interesting because the transition from the on-foot combat to the tie-fighter is good, but the next transition from space battle to on-foot, and then back to space, was the absolute highlight of this portion of the campaign. In Chapter 2: The Dauntless you first fly through the massive, impressive wreckage that was once the Death Star, in the process getting to grips with the fine-tuned handling if you didn't so during the beta. After that, and as you get classified orders from the Corvus to retreat, you play the Fondor space battle that was part of the beta.
But what you didn't know (from the imperial side of things) is that you get to literally board one of those massive rebel cruisers, "park" your tie-fighter after landing some shots in the docking bay, and then step out of your vehicle to complete the on-foot mission where you're dealing with some satellites, only to get back out and call it a day. The transitions are smooth and the spectacle is high octane, with the in-game scenarios varying nicely along the way.
That's why we have hope for the campaign because if they've treated the remaining sections with care, it could really complement and expand the game for a lot of players. It was challenging as well, as even though this is more accessible than the multiplayer for the wider audience, we died several times (which is a shame as loading times were mostly quite long). We also wonder about lasting appeal, although length doesn't matter as long as it keeps the pace and the narrative unfolds at the right pace.
We've kept further story details out to avoid spoiling your experience, but the concept based on the Inferno Squad book and the story running parallel to the films seems spot-on, and there's a couple of great fan-servant touches, such as the Emperor's posthumous hologram message. As you can imagine by now, even Iden Versio looks like she's pretty rebellious in her own way, as there's clear friction when taking orders from her father and superior, Admiral Garrick Versio. We look forward to learning more about what happened after the death of Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious all the way up to the creation of the First Order and The Force Awakens, with the intriguing Operation Cinder in between.