The Anaheim Convention Center in California has reached boiling point. Tens of thousands of Star Wars fans have made a pilgrimage here for a weekend of cosplay, socialising, buying merchandise, getting autographs from actors who were showing their age back in the 1970s, listening to Star Wars panels, peeking at the new teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and, last but not least, getting a first glimpse of Star Wars: Battlefront.
On top of the anticipation building around the movie, interest in the reboot of the popular series is huge. The old games, developed by Pandemix Studios a decade ago, were well received and built a fanbase that has been waiting (more or less) patiently for a proper sequel ever since. Well, here it is.
The Battlefront of 2015 is a fresh start for the series. A new publisher. A new developer. A "clean slate," as someone might say, but no-one did. Or as Patrick Bach, executive producer, did put it: "We have not built the previous games, we do not have the code. This is a complete reboot. What we have done is go back and looked at what is the idea behind Battlefront, and tried to start over."
DICE are working in close collaboration with Lucasfilm on the project. Through them the developers have been given access to the holiest of the holy in the Star Wars archives, and have been using a technique called photogrammetry to make perfect 3D representations of real models. From characters to robots, X-Wings, lightsabers and laser guns - everything is extremely detailed. DICE has visited all the locations of the original trilogy and with zealous precision they've re-created them in the Frostbite 3 engine. Along with original recordings of both music and sound effects - presented in awesome Dolby Atmos (only in the PC version it should be said) - Battlefront is "the most striking audiovisual experience we've ever created" according to design director Niklas Fegraeus.
The latter could be put down to the usual PR banter we tend to hear at reveals, but the pre-alpha demo that was shown behind closed doors at Star Wars Celebration - captured directly from the PlayStation 4 version - backs up this bold statement. We are thrown into a hectic firefight between Rebels and Imperial Stormtroopers, set among the lush undergrowth and majestic trees of the forest moon of Endor.
The laser beams swoosh around the ears as the player moves along a winding path. The light throws its beams down through gaps in the canopy. There's dust in the air. Fellow Rebels scream in the periphery. The player spots a few Stormtroopers and switches from a first to a third-person perspective. He advances and becomes aware of an AT-ST approaching. With a coordinated laser offensive mounted by several Rebels, there is an explosion that sends metal flying in every direction. Victory seemed guaranteed, however the joy is short-lived as an Imperial AT-AT crashes the party. The shots from the front-mounted cannons hit the ground as soil and grass is sent spinning around the player and leaves us half-stunned. It becomes clear that this is something that goes above and beyond any previous Star Wars game in terms of action and intensity.
The gigantic Walker is taken down by steady artillery fire. The collapse and subsequent explosion is as dramatic - and slow - as at is in The Empire Strikes Back. Shortly thereafter the player enters a bunker with a squad mate. It turns deathly silent. The absence of noise is telling. The player moves slowly through a steel grey corridor. His colleague takes the lead. Suddenly he stops mid-movement. He levitates off the floor, and is left hanging in the air as he claws at his throat, unable to breathe. What is going on? We think you know.
He drops to the floor. Dead. The player comes around a corner, and comes face to face with Darth Vader. He's rendered down to the smallest detail; if we'd been playing ourselves we'd have likely lost our shit and dropped the controller at this point. The player in control instead fires his blaster, but naturally Vader easily deflects the blasts with his lightsaber. He moves towards the player, deflecting shots, the music escalates and the iconic villain of the original trilogy stabs out with his sizzling blade. Thank you and goodbye. Demo over. Curtain. Applause.
The game mode we have just seen is called Walker Assault and it's new to the series. Between 8-40 players will be able to participate in this mode, while there are obviously smaller maps for more intimate encounters. Darth Vader is one of several so-called "heroes" you will be able to play as. Another one we get a glimpse of during the presentation is Boba Fett. Exactly how you play as these characters we were not told, but the idea is that a player will be able to assume a role as either a lightside or darkside character and with their special abilities do as much harm to the opposing team as possible. There will be a power up system where the player can find a variety of objects and vehicles; special shields, Walkers, X-Wings and much more. The number of game modes and how many "heroes" are available, however, remains secret.
In addition to land-based battles there will be dog fights as seen in previous games. We got a brief glimpse of this in the trailer that finished off the presentation, and it's difficult to have any sort of opinion on these yet, other than make the obvious observation that they look interesting. When asked whether land and air battles will be integrated somehow the answer was very vague. They will not be completely separate, but exactly what that means remains to be seen.
The multiplayer is of course the main focus of Battlefront, but if you want to play offline you will be able to improve yourself in so-called Star Wars Battlefront Missions. These are special missions that you can take on either offline or online - in either local split-screen or online co-op. There is also a Partner System which lets two players create a team. This means that you can not only play together and join each other's matches, but it also opens up the possibility of sharing equipment; this means you can share your unlocks.
Battlefront is scheduled for launch on November 17, a month before The Force Awakens gets its theatrical release. It will come with a free DLC package called Battle of Jakku. In the recent The Force Awakens teaser we saw the wreckage of a gigantic Star Destroyer withering away in the wastes. The Battle of Jakku gives the player the opportunity to participate in the battle that leads up to it appearing in that stunning vista. However, it should be noted that Star Wars: Battlefront doesn't tie in with the new movie. Places, events and characters are based on Episode IV-VI. No Jar-Jar Binks in other words, thankfully.
We tried to convince executive producer Patrick Bach to release a DLC package devoted to Ewoks, but we likely didn't make any headway. "Though you are actually the second today wondering about the Ewoks in the game," he told us, as if trying to offer some sort of consolation.
There are many questions that linger after the demonstration. We don't know the number of game modes or how many custom mechanics there are going to feature. We don't know the exact number of maps (Hoth, Endor, and some quick glimpses of the mountains on Tatooine are all we saw), or even how much it really differs from its predecessors. The lack of information is frustrating, but there's also no denying that what DICE shared was enough to make us desperate for more.
Battlefront looks incredibly delicious, and sounds equally delightful. DICE's vision for the series is illustrated in a very simple and neat way when we see a picture of the daughter of one of the studio execs playing with a bunch of Star Wars figurines. Battlefront should be like a massive toy box, an opportunity for players to recreate the feeling of the battles that we have seen many times over the years, those that we as fans have grown intimately familiar with.
"For us it's about being true to what Star Wars stands for," says Bach. "It's hard not to respect that people take this damn seriously, and this is something you need to recognise and be very respectful of."