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When George Lucas first discussed Star Wars with his sound designer Ben Burtt, the director stressed that all the noises in the film – from the lightsaber swings to the whoosh of the landspeeder – had to be organically produced, rather than electronic. He wanted this fantastical environment to feel downbeat and real. That is the magic of the original trilogy: it creates a universe that feels used.
EA Dice, the developer behind Star Wars: Battlefront, seems to understand that perfectly. This is a game that absolutely revels in the audio visual wonder of the movies. The unearthly moan of AT-AT fire; the scream of a swooping TIE Fighter; the spacecraft covered in dents and rust. This game looks, sounds and feels like being inside Star Wars. In aesthetic terms, it is the most accurate video game rendition of the series ever made.
And within its modest structure (this is resolutely a multiplayer game, with only a handful of single-player and co-op missions bolted on) it provides moments of genuinely breathtaking drama. Charging through the forests of Endor, emerging into the whiteout of the Hoth landscape, or blasting into a skirmish around the Millennium Falcon – these are the moments fans dreamed of when they first heard that this game was in production. And yes, they’re amazing.
Although there are only a handful of environments, they’re diverse and packed with detail. Endor is expansive and richly organic, with its treetop Ewok villages offering long sight lines over the dark, steamy jungles beneath. Tatooine provides a range of craggy, inhospitable set-pieces, complete with snaking canyons and sunken moisture farms. Hoth is a soulless but breathtaking expanse. Sure, there are missteps: the dull Ice Caves map is just that – a series of frozen tunnels that quickly turn into mass grenade ambushes; the Sulphur Fields of Sullust provide a colourless, spiny hellscape full of troughs and traps – like someone’s tarmacked over a crazy golf course. But then you get a map like Jawa Refuge, with its multi-layered rock platforms, and all is forgiven.
It is a shame then, that the structure of the game is not strong enough to sustain these moments of escapist pleasure for long. Battlefront is, and perhaps was always going to be, Battlefield lite. There are nine multiplayer modes, from the epic 20 vs 20 Supremacy option, in which Rebel and Imperial armies scuffle over ownership of a whole planet, to the much more tight and focused Droid Run, where two teams of six compete to claim three power droids bumbling over the landscape. You get variants on Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Conquest, all as much fun as they’ve always been. Plus there are those single-player and co-op Mission levels: Battles are effectively multiplayer fights, just against the AI rather than other players; Survival is a Horde Mode, where you face wave after wave of enemy troops. Add in the basic flight combat mode Fighter Squadron (which is enjoyable but brief and tactically basic), and that’s your lot.
Progression, too, is pared right down. As you collect XP, you unlock new weapons as well as special items like grenades, one-shot sniper rifles and jet packs – you can only carry three at any time, and they require regular recharging throughout each map. Swapping these items, depending on the map you’re playing, is as close as you get to customising your load-out, so Call of Duty and Battlefield fanatics are going to get frustrated. It wouldn’t be fair to say there’s no tactical depth here (you’ll need very different setups for interior and exterior maps at least); it’s just that it feels a little old-fashioned compared to the hyper-personalised world of, say, Black Ops III.
Of course, as EA has gone to great lengths to explain, Dice is not going for the specialist first-person shooter market – it’s going for Star Wars fans. That’s fine, but the demands of play are still the same. If you can’t shoot, can’t move, can’t react fast enough, you’re going to be languishing at the base of every league table, every night, feeling like the Jar Jar Binks of your own Star Wars fantasy. For those players, there’s not a lot else to do. The original 2004 version of Battlefront had a Campaign mode that strung a series of fights together into a historical adventure. It was far from perfect, but it did at least provide an intrinsic sense of purpose and progress.
By contrast, the modern Battlefront is all about extrinsic rewards. You earn more stars in the Mission mode if you find all the collectible objects (which aren’t even actual Star Wars things, they’re just shiny Object icons) or try the higher difficulty levels; there’s a diorama that you can populate with Star Wars characters and spacecraft if you reach specific goals. Indeed, there is a lot of goal-getting throughout the experience, so even if you’re doing the same things over and over again, you can at least tick stuff off a list. It’s a pretty clever way of transferring the completist sensibilities of this fan base from real-life merchandise to virtual stickers and achievements.
Really, though, the whole effect will depend on how long you can sustain the thrill of being in Star Wars. Get a bunch of equally enthusiastic friends together and you’ll have many hours of nostalgic revery, with that Williams score nudging you through match after match. But then you’ll reach the outer edge of this game’s progression system, or you’ll get a little too familiar with the four landscapes on offer, and the magic will wane. And then, of course, there will be downloadable content, massing in a distant corner of the galaxy, waiting to invade.
Just like a certain big budget Activision sci-fi shooter, Battlefront is simply the opening skirmish in an ever-expanding galactic conflict. Star Wars fans: it is your Destiny.
Electronic Arts; PC/PS4 (version tested)/Xbox One; £45; Pegi rating: 16+