Reviewed: October 12, 2004
Released: September 20, 2004
No one can argue that the Star Wars license, when applied to games, has a spotty track record at best. For every Knights of the Old Republic type of success, there’s several Force Commanders or Rebellions (Don’t remember that one? Good.) But lately, the quality of games coming out of developers like Pandemic Studios and BioWare are changing that once infamous reputation with games like their latest, Star Wars: Battlefront.
Now, you couldn’t ask for a more successful property than Star Wars, I mean come on. But while the success of the movies has fostered its own subgenre of sci-fi geekery (heck, it pretty much defined it), either a tendency of developers to rush out half-finished games or perhaps the ambition of LucasArts to expand its Death Star-sized catalog of digital entertainment offerings has allowed a disturbing number of lackluster titles to make store shelves.
BattleFront is your basic team-based, online FPS. Most fans of the genre are familiar with its conventions. Opposing teams of up to 8 players each try to achieve objectives while under fire, necessitating tightly focused teamwork. Think of it as Star Wars SOCOM. Sure you could strong-arm it, but where’s the fun in that? After all, the real attraction of the game is immersing yourself in the great cinematic battles of a galaxy far, far away. Most of us gamers have been dreaming of this moment since The Empire Strikes Back game on the exalted Atari 2600 where you flew a Snowspeeder against an ever-advancing army of AT-ATs aiming for that sweet spot below the neck.
Of course, there’s always an overarching storyline (usually for the benefit of those without Internet connections) to frame these set pieces, however flimsy. On the single-player side, you can choose to play the Historical Campaign of Galactic Conquest or simply jump right in to the Instant Action of the battle of your choice. So those of you – and we all know you’re out there – who’ve been dreaming of giving an Ewok a few laser blasts to the breadbasket can finally feel fulfilled.
Everything about this game screams Star Wars, from John Williams’ gorgeous score right down to the menus. Options abound as you can even choose between first and third person perspectives. And trust me; if you think the default third person view is cool, it ain’t got nothin’ on the first person view. I was blown away as a flood of memories came back to me when I jumped inside a turret on Hoth and saw an AT-AT lumbering towards our shield generator in that familiar, blue-tinted binocular view. It just felt so real I couldn’t help but laugh giddily until the first laser came tearing at me from the walker’s guns. Yipes! Despite the amount of options, the menu systems are easily navigable, proving that Pandemic spent some time on this game getting it right.
While gameplay is easily summed up as a Star Wars flavored SOCOM [:Navy SEALS], the inclusion of AI bots and a wealth of vehicles make this game stand head and shoulders above such fare. The worlds are teeming with life and movement. As you run through Endorian forests, Ewoks are crying orders to each other as they aid the Rebels in fighting off the Imperial interlopers. And they do aid. Remember the old double-log sandwich smash of the chicken walker in Return of the Jedi? Yes, they do that here. As you spawn into the hangar of Echo Base and jump into a snowspeeder, an AI co-pilot will jump in with you and man the tow cable. Well, of course. You can’t take down an AT-AT without a tow cable. And I never tire of seeing my fellow “Rebel scum” rushing across the battlefield, lasers blasting, as I fly over them to take out an oncoming group of invading Snowtroopers.
Like SOCOM et al, you can switch between primary and secondary weapons at will using shoulder buttons. And like the newer Killzone, tossing a grenade is as simple as hitting a button, instead of the more traditional Rainbow Six style that requires you to switch to the grenade and use the fire button to throw it (I hate that).
Of questionable value is the optional inclusion of “heroes” in your missions, which places on the field an elite member of each side’s warriors. This means that Mace Windu can be seen brandishing his signature purple lightsaber as you run into battle as a Republic Trooper while Count Dooku deals out death for the Separatists.
If you prefer Galactic Civil War, either Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker assist the Empire or the Republic respectively. The problem is that they are invulnerable and dumber than a dewback. This means that you can barely direct or escape them depending on what side you’re on. It would have been better to use them in a very limited capacity like an air strike where you get one a round and it clears a load of enemies in one fell swoop. Other bots are fairly stupid too, but can be handy nonetheless when fighting alone or with very few live players. They can be commanded to stay and protect an objective or follow with you to attack.
The graphics are some of the nicest seen on the PlayStation 2. While not as impressive as the Xbox version, the amount of foliage in forest levels creates a convincing effect, and the ever-popular water effects are rather nice too. Of particular note is the often-dizzying effect of racing around on a speeder bike as trees and foliage blur by effectively.
All in all, it’s far above games like the Ghost Recon or SOCOM: Navy SEALS series’ graphics engines. Where other console versions surpass it is in the absolutely amazing looking flavor-of-the-month known as normal mapping which makes the snow-encrusted sides of Imperial Walkers fill you with glee as you approach them. It really is an incredible effect.
Nearly every weapon ever seen in the Star Wars universe makes an appearance in Battlefront and while they all function as you would expect, what really does it for me is the accompanying sound effects. Thanks to the legendary Lucasfilm license, every sound effect you can imagine is Skywalker Sound-perfect and in glorious Dolby Pro Logic II 3D.
The John Williams score is every bit as rich as the movies and is blended into the menus and the gameplay to create an authentic Star Wars experience. There is a modest amount of speech, mainly restricted to the mission briefings which is clear and easy to understand. Say what you will about the legacy of Star Wars games, they have always had impeccable sound and music and Battlefront is no exception.
The real letdown of the multiplayer is only in the lack of modes available. Unlike games like Rainbow Six 3 which offers around a dozen different ways to get your gun on, there’s only one way to play BattleFront online. You basically play capture the flag while killing every enemy you see. Eventually you either hold every point long enough, or you exhaust the reinforcements of the enemies.
After a while it does start to get a little old, especially when you discover that some levels are criminally imbalanced with one side having all of the vehicles at their spawn. There just isn’t enough firepower to get in there long enough to commandeer those crucial tanks. Here’s hoping a patch will fix that without the need for a hard drive. One patch has already improved lag, so it appears that Pandemic is genuinely concerned with long term support.
The bottom line is that BattleFront is nothing less than the realization of every Star Wars geek’s version of Cowboys and Indians. Now that online play is a reality for console gamers, it’s just a case of developers getting the graphics and the netcode to make for a convincing escape into sci-fi indulgence from the mind of The Flannelled One. While Star Wars: BattleFront is the first major step in that direction, I just hope that developer, Pandemic Studios won’t get too proud of this technological wonder they’ve constructed...
[Note to Star Wars Geeks: I know how the real quote goes, but it was altered to fit the context.]