Tuesday, April 21, 2015
EA's Battlefront Is Starting To Look Like A Large Step Backward From Its Predecessor
The new Battlefront from EA and DICE is a game that I desperately want to be amazing. Video games were always at the core of the Star Wars experience for me. LucasArts for most of its history, was unwilling to simply rest on the selling power of a popular name, and published innovative games of remarkable technical and narrative complexity. KOTOR I and II are considered among, if not the best, RPG's ever made; the X-Wing and Jedi Knight franchises similarly sit at the apex of the flight sim and shooter genres.
Battlefront 2 was the quintessential Star Wars game of its day when it launched in 2005, and a breath of fresh air in a Star Wars gaming franchise that had begun declining in quality and churning out lazy prequel trilogy tie-ins. It gave us the ability to recreate the massive and chaotic battles seen in the movies, both on land and in space. It pushed the boundaries of contemporary hardware with graphics that are still impressive today, and allowed for 32 player matches on consoles and 64 on PC's, with AI controlled characters on both sides adding to the sense of scale. Battlefront 2 also launched with a huge amount of content; an entertaining single player campaign that filled in an important part of Star Wars lore, dozens of units and locations from both trilogies, an engaging "galactic conquest" mode that mixed in elements of turn based strategy and of course excellent multiplayer. It was a dense genre spanning experience that I poured countless hours into. When you took your assault transport and flew into the hangar of a massive enemy capital ship, fought your way on foot to the bridge with your friends and then sabotaged its major systems allowing your team to destroy it; you couldn't help but feel some of that old LucasArts magic.
Unfortunately Battlefront 2 proved to be the last of the truly great and innovative Star Wars games, as LucasArts succumbed to horrible mismanagement, the meddling of Lucas himself and finally the sale of the franchise to Disney. EA has now taken over Star Wars gaming on behalf of Disney, a move that was met with something ranging between very cautious optimism to unconstrained vitriol among fans. EA has a well earned reputation of acquiring popular franchises and then running them into the ground by reducing their sequels to little more than empty cash grabs. Command and Conquer, Dead Space, The Sims, SimCity and Dungeon Keeper all were stripped of content and the elements that made them unique. Many, including myself, had hoped instead that Disney would revitalize LucasArts.
However, EA isn't incapable of publishing good games, the Mass Effect series was all around excellent (aside from the controversial original ending), Battlefield 3 was a very solid evolution of the series and Dragon Age: Inquisition was a sprawling, beautiful and engrossing RPG, even if it didn't have quite the same narrative punch of Origins. Even the troubled and nearly broken at launch Battlefield 4 has been fixed to the point that it is now one of the best online shooters on the market. So when it was announced that the new Battlefront was in development by the team at DICE, I was in the "very cautiously optimistic" camp. The prospect of a new Battlefront leveraging the Frostbite 3 engine and modern hardware to render massive and dynamic battles, was extremely exciting.
The recent big reveal at Star Wars Celebration was rather short on details and was mainly just a beautiful but obviously heavily edited trailer showing what was supposedly "game engine footage" of Rebels and Imperials fighting in the forests of Endor. But a growing list of worrying details have begun to emerge in various gaming publications from interviews with the developers.
1. There is no single player campaign, just a few missions depicting moments from the original trilogy that can be played solo or cooperatively.
2. There is no galactic conquest mode.
3. The max player count is capped at 40 across all platforms. When asked whether bots would be featured DICE responded with "no comment".
4. There are no space battles or fighting in orbit, and air units will be confined to the area above ground maps like in the Battlefield franchise.
5. The game will launch with only 4 playable planets, though how many maps will be set on each is unclear.
6. Only units and characters from the Original Trilogy will be featured.
7. The AT-AT walkers shown in the trailer and promotional stills will not be player controlled, and will instead follow a scripted path across the battlefield.
All of the items on this list are features or content that were included in Battlefront 2, making EA's Battlefront look like a rather large step backward from a predecessor that was launched a decade ago. Particularly concerning is the low player count. Some will say that Battlefield works just fine or is even better with 32 or 48 players instead of the full 64, but this is not Battlefield. Battlefront is not about creating a tight, tactical and realistic military shooter, it is about recreating the sprawling sci-fi chaos of Star Wars battles. I don't see how that can be accomplished with 20 vs. 20. You'll wind up in a "Battle of Hoth" with 6 or so players on each team in vehicles and a dozen on foot, with a few scripted AI walkers; which is rather absurd considering that Rogue Squadron II recreated the battle with a much larger scale on the Gamecube. Some users on Reddit have humorously taken to calling it "Star Wars: Skirmishfront". If anything the minimal expectation was a max of 64 players, with many rightfully expecting Planetside 2 scale battles with possibly hundreds of players.
The lack of space battles is similarly baffling to me, since they were widely considered to be a highlight of Battlefront 2 and an essential part of the Star Wars universe. There was a Battlefront 3 rather far along in development for 7th gen consoles and PC during the mid to late 2000's, before it was foolishly cancelled by LucasArts. The developers at Free Radical had created the technology for battles which seamlessly transitioned from space to planetary surfaces as they progressed. So expecting some form of space battles from DICE doesn't seem to be particularly unreasonable.
Overall this is pointing to a sequel that has been stripped of content and features compared to Battlefront 2, and is capable only of simulating a pale imitation of Star Wars warfare. It is looking more and more like the original Battlefront, just with prettier graphics. EA and DICE have been typically dismissive of the growing fan concerns.
Handwaving past the lack of controllable AT-AT's...
"That's 100% a game design decision. Nothing else. I won't go into details - I didn't make the decision, but just remember that full freedom etc. doesn't always equal fun."
And the low player count...
"40 players was actually the optimum number. Instead of putting 64 in there and just saying that for a number, and having it be too crowded and being a lesser experience, we’ve made it the most optimum number it can be.”
While we don't know enough yet for me to say unequivocally that Battlefront will be a bad game, and the final verdict will somewhat depend on whether or not bots will fill out the scope of the multiplayer battles; the portents aren't particularly good. There is a foul stench in the air of EA simply depending on the Star Wars name to generate hype and pre-orders, while selling content cut from the game back to us in pieces via paid DLC. I'm not one to mindlessly jump on the EA hate train, or break out the torches and pitchforks over minor quibbles like FOV sliders; but this list of missing content represents major features which were integral parts of the previous game. They are also reasonable expectations from a major AAA release these days. We should by now expect more out of a game like Battlefront. At the very least we should not get caught up in the hype until we see the full release, and for the love of Gaben take the advice of Forbes magazine and do not pre-order.
Update: Wow, I never expected this post to generate so much response, 300,000 views so far and the front page of r/gaming. This is just a small forum for me to write occasionally for my own enjoyment. I want to reiterate that I don't blindly hate EA (I've enjoyed many of their games including the entire Battlefield franchise) nor do I think that Battlefront will definitely be a terrible disappointment at launch, it is my honest wish that it is not. I was simply hoping for a true evolution for the series going forward that built on the previous games in the scope and depth of its gameplay, not just in shinny new graphics. I think we need to demand more from EA as gamers and Star Wars fans, and hold them accountable for these missing features.