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Who needs Luke and Lando when you’ve got Iden Versio?
When Star Wars Battlefront came out in 2015, the focus was on the way it re-created key moments from the original movie franchise. Players were able to take part in multiplayer battles on planets like Hoth and Tatooine, brought to life with by the team at EA DICE with an as-of-then unprecedented level of realism and detail. For a film franchise that was relaunching itself on a global scale, Battlefront was the perfect, shiny gaming companion, reminding audiences at every turn why they like Star Wars in the first place.
The only problem was that once that initial thrill of playing on Hoth subsided Battlefront felt a little wanting. Expansion packs brought new locations like Cloud City and the Death Star to the mix, but it was still a multiplayer game, and with the basic mechanics not necessarily in-line with other top-tier shooters, it simply didn’t age well.
All of which brings us to the massive effort that is Star Wars Battlefront II. Three different gaming studios collaborated in an attempt to address all of the weaknesses of the original game. There are more characters, more environments, a better load-out system, and countless other tweaks and tricks designed to expand upon the bare-bones original. But Star Wars is a franchise built around epic narratives, and this time Battlefront II also has a single-player campaign. Developed largely by EA’s new Motive studio in connection with the Lucasfilm Story Group, it tells the story of Iden Versio, an elite Imperial special forces officer that has to grapple with the fallout when the second Death Star is destroyed at the end of Return of the Jedi. It’s been billed as an exciting new story that is part of the official Star Wars canon — yes, there’s even a prequel novel — and a chance for players take on the role of the bad guys for once.
After burning through the campaign this past weekend, I was pleased to find it is the satisfying solo mode the first game always cried out for. Not only does it highlight many of the best attributes of the new Battlefront, it also comes tantalizingly close to actually being the riveting, standalone Star Wars story the marketing hype has promised — if only that pesky spectre of nostalgia didn’t get in the way.
Warning: Minor story spoilers for Star Wars Battlefront II below.
This piece is going to solely focus on the single-player campaign of Battlefront II, and as my colleague Chaim Gartenberg wrote in October, it is built around the same basic mechanics as the first game. You shoot, you throw thermal detonators, you crouch, you take sniper shots; it’s the meat and potatoes of any game of this ilk, but those that were frustrated by the first Star Wars Battlefront will immediately notice and appreciate the difference in feel. This game is tighter and more responsive, leading to a baseline gameplay experience that I found much more satisfying than the original. While the new Battlefront has lots of elaborate options in the multiplayer mode, single-player is streamlined and straightforward, but that’s also the point: it’s about moving through the narrative moment by moment, set piece by set piece.
As for that narrative, it’s to the credit of both Motive and writers Mitch Dyer and Walt Williams that I find myself thinking of Battlefront II not as a game with some narrative connective tissue, but as a Star Wars movie that I was actually able to play. Told over 13 chapters, the story follows Iden Versio, commander of the Empire’s elite Inferno Squad, and starts with her just moments before the climax of Return of the Jedi. She’s on a mission to destroy evidence that would warn the Rebels about the Empire’s secret attack near Endor, and after pulling that off she’s sent to run a mission on the forest moon — where she sees the second Death Star blown apart. Her father, an Imperial Admiral, brings her in to help initiate the last directive from The Emperor — something called Operation: Cinder.
That mission takes Iden to various new worlds, including her homeworld of Vardos, where she’s tasked with killing Rebels, handling intelligence, and making her way in her TIE fighter through swarms of X-wing fighters and Rebel cruisers. But it soon becomes clear that following Operation: Cinder requires Iden to do things that fly in the face of the peace and order she’s always felt the Empire stood for, and as the game progresses she finds herself torn between the orders of her father and her own internal sense of right and wrong.
Actor Janina Gavankar, who voiced and provided motion capture for Iden, delivers some real pathos with her performance. She may be an Imperial, but she’s also a hero in the classic Star Wars tradition: she fights for the ideals that have been instilled in her from birth, and carries with her the kind of devil-may-care swagger that made Han Solo a household name. But she is also a character that evolves and changes, pulled between two opposing worldviews, and it adds a human dimension to the entire storyline.
If you’re thinking that the Battlefront II single-player isn’t as straightforward as “play as a bad guy” for eight hours, you’re right, and that brings with it both upsides and downsides. With all of the lead-up, I was frankly excited to just embrace my darker instincts and play as the Empire for the entirety of the game; it seemed to be part of the edgier tone adopted by both Rogue One and the upcoming The Last Jedi. Things aren’t ultimately that simple, but Iden’s story is nevertheless satisfying unto itself, particularly as the consequences of the Empire’s actions trickle down from her father, to her, and the members of her team.
Where Battlefront II seems to make a misstep is that it doesn’t stick entirely with Iden for the duration of the storyline. While the entire campaign is chronologically part of Iden’s own narrative, different chapters jump to different characters and planets — presumably, to highlight all of the development work that EA DICE did in developing them in the first place. At one point, players take on the role of Luke Skywalker, helping a member of Inferno Squad complete a mini-mission. In another, it’s Princess Leia, or General Lando Calrissian. One of the most pleasant standalone chapters is when players take on the role of a bearded Han Solo, who starts things off with a long exchange with Maz Kanata from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (If you thought it felt a little off that Han had a long-standing relationship with an alien creature that never showed up before, don’t worry. Battlefront II has you covered.)
It’s not that these bottle chapters, for lack of a better term, aren’t fun to play. They’re actually quite delightfully designed — the Lando chapter takes players through a lava-fueled AT-AT factory on the planet Sullust, for example. It’s just that the Iden chapters do such a good job of setting up a new character, and a new conflict I wanted to learn about, that it felt like a chore to power through what feels like a greatest hits album in comparison. Given that the original game didn’t have any kind of narrative campaign at all, this feels a somewhat cheap complaint. But it is something that will likely hinder replayability. Why waste time when over a third of the chapters step away from the most intriguing character?
There is one lone exception to the standalone chapter rule… one very intriguing exception, that I’d love to discuss in further detail. But part of the fun is discovering its existence in the first place, so that’s something probably better left for further discussion later.
Story problems shouldn’t detract from the technical execution of the game, however, and Battlefront II is a remarkable improvement over the original on almost every level. The environments are richly detailed (at one point I just stopped and marveled at the texture of the waves rolling beneath a landing platform), and the sound effects and music cues seamlessly re-create the mood and atmosphere of the films, selling the setting and atmosphere flawlessly. When something is this steeped in the language and aesthetic of a universe, even the smallest misfires stand out, and the best compliment can simply be that nothing ever seems amiss. Battlefront II passes that test across the board; whether I was stalking through a Star Destroyer or the platforms of Bespin, the sensation was simply of being inside Star Wars, full stop.
While the general responsiveness of the controls was a noticeable improvement, the other big step up is the flying sequences. Vehicles were never a high point of the first game, and in the single-player campaign Battlefront II is eager to show off just how much work Criterion Games put into crafting the space battles. Over the course of the storyline, players pilot the Millennium Falcon, TIE fighters, X-wings, and they’re often full-scale, galactic space battle scenarios. Ships are more responsive, rolls are more intuitive, and while it takes a bit to get used to some of the new nuances, playing some of the battles feels much closer to the World War II dogfights that inspired A New Hope than the kludgy, sluggish battles of the first game. The design of those levels is also improved across the board, with the battles organically bringing players near Star Destroyers and other cruisers until they’re practically skimming across the surface. They don’t just echo moments from the films; they add a newfound sense of danger to the battles.
To say that the end of the single-player campaign is satisfying would be to overstate it. There’s a compelling conclusion, but things are also left on a bit of a cliffhanger — and sure enough, her story will continue with a DLC expansion in December. It’s also easy to see how her story could continue even further, in the inevitable Star Wars Battlefront III, or in some future novel, TV show, or movie reference. But I also couldn’t help but think of the massive potential of a full-blown narrative adventure set in this world — one where the emphasis wouldn’t have to be on utilizing multi-player components, or delivering fan service by roping in classic characters that had already been built for a pre-existing “hero” mode.
For a long time, Uncharted creator Amy Hennig’s mysterious Star Wars game seemed like the great hope for a narrative Star Wars adventure. That may no longer be in the offing, but Battlefront II just seems to underscore the incredible opportunity inherent in such a project. People love Star Wars, but they don’t just love it because of battles, fights, and space combat. They love it because of the characters and themes in play.
Star Wars Battlefront II understands that most fundamental of truths about this franchise. Now that I’ve gotten a little taste, I want to see where it can go next.
Star Wars Battlefront II launches November 17th on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
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