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Star Wars: Battlefront II is built to please frustrated fans — but may cause its own problems

Star Wars: Battlefront got more than its fair share of hype when it launched two years ago. The prospect of a multiplayer game set in the world of the original Star Wars trilogy, from the developer behind the Battlefield series, seemed too good to be true. As it turned out, it kinda was.

While the early-release Battle of Hoth was exciting, over time the clunkiness of the flying missions, the simplistic weapons and skills options, and the total lack of a single-player campaign hampered the game’s staying power. Now it’s time for the sequel, and judging from the push here at E3, the sole purpose of Star Wars: Battlefront II is to address the many concerns of fans and gamers. (How much so? Andrew Wilson, CEO of EA, mentioned the “constructive” negative feedback the game had received during his opening remarks at the company’s big press event, EA Play.)

After spending some time with both the single-player campaign and the multiplayer mode in Battlefront II, I can confidently say that the game does indeed try to tackle the biggest problems that upset players the first time around. Judging whether or not it’s actually successful, however, is going to require a lot more than the fan-friendly glimpses we were shown today.

The single-player campaign

The most intriguing addition to Battlefront II is its new single-player campaign. As announced at Star Wars Celebration this year, the story tracks Iden Versio, an elite Imperial special forces officer that sets out to avenge the death of The Emperor. The story tracks the 30-year span between Return of the Jedi and J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, providing developer Motive Studios plenty of room to explore. (The game was written in collaboration with Lucasfilm’s Story Group, and will be considered canon within the larger Star Wars universe.)

The brief 15-minute sequence I played began with a cut-scene, set not long after Iden witnesses the destruction of the second Death Star. She visits her father, a high-ranking Imperial officer, and immediately echoes Rogue One by telling him that it is “hope” that keeps any cause alive. A Messenger from The Emperor — a red-cloaked creature with a video screen for a face; he’s the one that shows up at the end of the latest trailer — relays the fallen ruler’s last order, and then it’s off to the gameplay. First I took over as Iden in a TIE Fighter, and then went on a sabotage mission inside a Rebel Blockade Runner.

The first thing I thought while in the midst of the space battle was, well, that the whole thing felt like Battlefront. Not in a negative way; the flying controls were tighter and certainly more nuanced, and the on-screen prompts that guided me from objective to objective during the massive battle were more well-laid out than what I’d grown used to in the first game. But the essential style of gameplay was still the same; it was basically just a tweaked version of the multiplayer game, with thin bookends of narrative.

Flying into the Rebel ship and taking out a fleet of X-Wings in the hangar bay — not to mention the scurrying Rebels themselves — was a different situation. I actually felt bad for a moment, mercilessly massacring a group of what have always been the “good guys.” It was just a twinge, but a moment I noticed nevertheless. Part of what’s interesting about the Iden story is that players will be taking on the role of the Empire, which could provide for some interesting emotional dynamics depending on how effective the storytelling itself actually is.

Once inside the Rebel ship, I ran around, killed lots of Rebels, and took out the ship’s three ion cannons. Iden has a cute flying droid that helps her from moment to moment, taking out Rebels and opening doors. It was all perfectly well-done, but there was no moment that stood out as particularly exciting or innovative. The end of the mission led right into another cut-scene, giving the impression that this mode will simply be a collection of streamlined, on-rails missions with cutscene connective tissue. Only time will tell.

Visually, the game is a pleasant jump up from the original Battlefront. The level of detail in the cut scenes were particularly noticeable. The texture of the uniform Iden’s father wears, the stitched shoulders of her own clothing; the details popped off the screen. The aesthetic enhancements extended to the gameplay as well. Noticeably improved was the animation used for the different Rebel soldiers. Whether they were dodging back and forth away from my laser bolts, or falling to the ground, there movements looked far more realistic and varied than anything in the first game — though again, it’s hard to get a sense of just how varied without really digging into the game.

With all of the focus that’s been put on Iden’s story, however, it was disappointing to see just how little about that aspect of the game was actually revealed. The mission I played was fun, but it didn’t leave me necessarily feeling emotionally invested in Iden, committed to taking her through 30 years of intergalactic mischief. It played like a one-off, siloed mission without any larger context: exactly what it was. Hopefully the shipping game will be far richer in that regard — there’s only so much you can get from a demo of a single mission — but after playing I was left with as many questions about the single-player campaign as I had beforehand. (Speaking of unanswered questions, representatives weren’t willing to discuss how long the single-player campaign actually will be — a thing to keep in mind for people considering pre-ordering the game sight unseen.)

Multiplayer

The original Battlefront tried to be a multiplayer game for the masses, and in the process lacked the depth, customizability, and precision that seasoned gamers have come to expect. Various updates after the original release tried to address some of these problems, though all they really did was turn the game into a convoluted mess. Battlefront II seems to have been conceived from the ground up to be a title that multiplayer game lovers will actually enjoy playing, and it starts with the new class system: players can choose between four different types of player, including specialists (for those that love to snipe or set trip mines), infantry (for those that like the blaster and thermal detonator approach), or heavy infantry (for fans of much bigger guns). Over time, players will be able to customize their characters, though in the demo the loadout options were kept simply to class choices and two different weapon types.

For Star Wars fans, a big part of the appeal is going to be the ability to play multiplayer matches in any era of the Star Wars saga. As shown off in EA’s livestream, the multiplayer demo was the Assault on Theed, a conflict from Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The irony there is that in the lead-up to The Force Awakens, it seemed as if Disney was doing everything it could to pretend the prequel films never existed. Now that the franchise is rolling again, however, Battlefront II is hoping to entice players by letting them play as Battle Droids and Clone Troopers.

As with the single-player campaign, multiplayer in Battlefront II feels like a refined, optimized, and better-looking version of the first game. One dramatic change, however, is the way in which players can take on the roles of iconic Star Wars characters. In the original title, it simply required finding a token somewhere on the battlefield. In Battlefront II, players collect “battle points” as they go through a given match. Collect a certain number of points, and they can then deploy as a more powerful character — from a heavily armored droid, to someone like Rey or Boba Fett.

During the Theed demo, I played briefly as Han Solo. There’s a mix-and-match feel to Battlefront II’s multiplayer that I think is going to overjoy some fans, and infuriate others. On one hand, it was amazing to see Darth Maul slaughter a bevy of droids in the match, even though Maul was never part of that particular conflict. (I only wish I’d had a chance to play as the character; his speed and efficiency in ruthless slaughter was impressive). It was equally fun to see Rey running around with her lightsaber — showing off the kind of skilled moves we’ll no doubt see her display in The Last Jedi. The problem with Rey showing up, however, is that it actually doesn’t make any sense to see her on Naboo, given that the battle took place some 60 years before she ever left Jakku.

I know what you’re saying, and you’re right. Realism has never really been the goal of Battlefront’s multiplayer mode — when the first game launched, Return of the Jedi Luke was the one that would spawn in the Hoth battle from The Empire Strikes Back. When you open that up to such a vast span of time, though, it’s going to be a tad jarring. But it also seems to be the logical choice, particularly with a single-player narrative in place to give players a sense of continuity.

DLC, microtransactions, and what comes next

DLC was a big part of the first game, adding locations like Cloud City and the Death Star (and allowing the game to eventually tie into Rogue One). We didn’t get a chance to experience any DLC at E3, but the company did break some news.

Surprising no one, the first installment of DLC for Battlefront II will be for The Last Jedi, and will bring both John Boyega’s Finn and Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma to the game as playable characters, along with the planet of Crait. (That’s the new planet seen in the film’s first trailer.) But the DLC will be free — as will every subsequent chapter of DLC for Battlefront II.

Given that EA relied on the a la carte and season pass models for the last game, it’s a big departure. What wasn’t discussed during the presentation, however, was that Battlefront II will instead try to cash in through microtransactions. According to a report from The Wall Street Journal, players will be able to buy packages of cards that they can then use to upgrade their characters within the game.

But issues of monetization and long-term playability are different than the core question of whether the game is going to deliver on its many promises. From what I was able to play, there’s no doubt that Star Wars: Battlefront II is trying to address most of the issues from the original game. But in reality, all that was really shown was a little taste; a carefully curated glimpse designed to give players that very impression. It’s the nature of early previews like this to only give off a hint of a game’s potential, so that shouldn’t come as a particular shock — but it seems somewhat unique given the marketing message of Battlefront II.

Not that it will matter all that much anyway. It’s Star Wars. It will sell millions of copies just because of those clips of Darth Maul taking out Battle Droids. And I’m not gonna lie: it did look pretty cool.

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