Star Wars: Battlefront 3, Preview

It could almost be a scene from Skyrim. individually animated ferns carpet the soil before us, brushing against huge redwood trunks that reach up through a verdant haze to rope bridges and fungal clumps of treehouses. the detail is marvellous dozens of butterflies swirl dreamily over logs, sunlight splinters through dense canopy and shadows dart across the hull of an imperial at-at walker as it stomps among contingents of stormtroopers and rebels, its  giant ant’s head sagging under a bombardment of proton bombs, and well. this definitely isn’t Skyrim, though there are dragons of a sort to be found in the underbrush.

demonstrated in pre-alpha form at the Star Wars celebration in anaheim, california, dice’s first Battlefront game is what happens when you take a world-class team of artists and programmers all full-blooded Star Wars nuts and unleash them on cinematic sets and props most of us know so intimately we could draw them with our feet. it’s a fearsome show of engineering muscle, applied to a movie franchise that, like Battlefield, excels at both scale and texture, from the cosmic axeheads of star destroyers to the rivets on a speeder bike’s fender. stunning to behold? You bet. but then again, the new Battlefront has a lot to prove.
“It’s completely rebuIlt It’s not a versIon of another game we have made”
Name The System
Created by now-defunct Pandemic, the studio behind Mercenaries, this once-acclaimed multiplayer shooter series has been missing in action on xbox for a decade. fans have been treated to disappointment after disappointment, as studio upon studio has failed to deliver the much-demanded threequel. TimeSplitters household free radical almost went the distance in 2008 impressive videos of its labours can be found online but entered administration after publisher lucasarts pulled support. lucasarts itself came perilously close to releasing a successor in 2013, only to be grounded by new parent company disney as the game in question, First Assault, neared an xbox live beta. with so much bad blood gushing through the series’ veins, what can dice and ea possibly do to turn back the clock to the glory days of 2004?

The answer, it seems, is exactly that turn back the clock. timed to coincide with the launch of JJ abrams’ The Force Awakens, dice’s Battlefront is a day-zero reboot rebuilt, as marketing parlance goes, from the ground up using a mixture of Battlefield-born insight and “unprecedented” access to lucasfilm’s props cupboard. much of what made the originals good has been retained including, fans will be reassured to hear, an optional third-person view that helps you keep tabs on foes while taking cover but everything has been re-assessed in the harsher ight of today. the same is true of what the new Battlefront borrows from Battlefield. “the whole game is a completely rebuilt game it’s not a version of another game we have made,” insists Patrick bach, executive producer. “a clean slate. it’s Star Wars Battlefront, a collaboration with lucas, plus the knowledge and the technology that we have at dice. and then it’s like, what else should we do with it?”

Where previous games embraced the full movie timeline, warts and all, dice’s Battlefront keeps the focus on the first three films, with multiplayer maps set on hoth, tatooine and endor. the (new) hope is to strip away the cynicism layered up around the abortive prequel movies, and restore Star Wars to its original, innocent splendour. “we saw the films, we got all the toys, as kids, and we played out our own battles, on the floor, on the table, in our rooms, wherever we could, just creating those Star Wars
moments,” observes niklas fegraeus, design director. “so that became the vision for this game. to immerse players in an authentic universe, living out their own Star Wars battles.”

What does this commitment to fantasy mean in practice? for starters, it means doing away with those claustrophobic multiplayer classes. Players are able to “freely” pick their weapons and gear, says fegraeus, unlocking those items with xP as in the Battlefield games. there’s still a need for distinct roles in combat, of course when a rebel squad is pinned down in a streambed, it’s helpful to have somebody lobbing thermal detonators from the bank, or drawing the ire of any imperial boy-racers on speeder bikes. but dispensing with strict class setups means you’re able to think purely and simply about the playstyle variations afforded by those lovingly adapted guns and gadgets.

Elegant Weapons
As in Visceral’s Battlefield Hardline, there’s an abundance of map pick-ups or interactive objects. at one point during our multiplayer demo, a fleeing rebel activates a terminal by holding a button to summon a Y-wing fly-by, blowing the lid off an advancing at-at (rockets alone won’t do the job). You’ll also get to respawn as a hero or Villain character from the movie series, such as darth Vader specialities: shot deflection and a shoulder massage you can feel from across the room or the jet-powered gunslinger boba fett. the upshot is that knowing the layout like the back of your hand is just as decisive an advantage as in Battlefield. even more so, perhaps. if you thought coming second in the race for a tank was bad, wait till you gallop into the business end of a lightsaber.
“Agility and a level head are more important than who yanks on the left trigger first”
In terms of how it feels to control, Battlefront won’t strike you as particularly exotic. abilities or items such as a personal shield appear on a cross-bar menu in the bottom right, while a circular motion tracker split into wedges occupies the bottom left. Battlefield-style XP rewards for headshots, grenade kills and the like pop up above the crosshairs a slightly incongruous touch, but then again the Ui has yet to be finalised. dice has made one especially significant concession to the old games, in terms of the zip and whine of combat: there’s nothing so far in the way of ironsights, though some rifles do have scopes. it moves the new Battlefront away from Battlefield and closer to Halo, in which agility and a level head are more important than whose finger yanks on the left trigger first. (it was han, btw.)

On endor, the uneven ground and density of underbrush reward lateral movement, as players strafe up and down gullies and into the lee of boulders. much about the map remains a mystery, including whether the ewoks who infest the canopy will play a role in battles the original Battlefronts gave us allied or hostile indigenous nPcs on certain maps, but for the moment, the only things to worry about in the canopy are stormtroopers. of particular fascination is how much dice has let its fondness for terrain deformation bleed into the mix, given lucasfilm’s protectiveness of the movie’s assets (“this is sacred ground”, says bach). we can certainly see how frostbite’s knack for realistic disintegration would come in handy on endor. the gigantic shield emitter from the movie is present and correct, as is the squat bunker that provides access to its power core.

Frostbite On Hoth
If the maps can’t be smashed up as extensively as in Battlefield, you’ll at least be able to screw around with the cast. why not introduce Vader to endor, rather than leaving him to pace the halls of an embryonic death star? and what if boba fett had joined the imperial assault on echo base, netting a few bounties for the carbon-freezing chamber? maps that are familiar from the films are also brought to life in new ways for the game you’ll get to wander parts of hoth that have never been visited by a camera crew. there’s at least one planetary map that has never been explored in a Star Wars film, sullust, which is mentioned in passing in Return of the Jedi. the planet’s volcanic surface isn’t exactly hospitable, unless you think lava flows and tie fighter construction bays are homey. but that’s okay you can always survey it from the cockpit of the millennium falcon.
“You’ll wander parts of hoth never vIsIted by a camera crew”
The movie’s assets have been brought to life with a predictably daunting cocktail of techniques and technologies. dice has employed “photogrammetry” to recreate the props taking pictures of them from all angles, then using the batch to generate a 3d virtual model, with every bullet-pock, seam or splash of dirt preserved. there’s physics-based rendering, too, in place of the usual “baked-in” static finish objects are composed of materials that have realistic physical properties, catching the light accordingly. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is based on access to the original film recordings. “that’s like handing the mona lisa to somebody,” summarises fegraeus. “our sound guys couldn’t stop laughing.” thanks to dolby’s atmos technology, effects that were once flat and tinny now form a “bubble” of ambient 3d audio around the player you can hear the rough location of an unseen blaster impact, or girders wrenching inside the framework of a slain at-at.

It’s a fearsome show of technical brawn. but then again, since when has dice ever struggled with production values, and how often do its (on the whole, excellent) games manage to play as well as they look? some of our current reservations about Battlefront are straightforward. take the inclusion of heroes and Villains. the lure of donning Vader’s mantle seems irresistible, but those who aren’t that enamoured of the dark side will worry about his impact on the match balance. mind you, that’s sort of the point a player lucky enough to become Vader is effectively the level’s boss and dice could minimise upset by making the power-up a rarity.

No Moon
More pressingly, there’s the question of what the new Battlefront leaves out. the 40-player match limit has riled some Battlefield fans, but as ever with headcounts, the figure is meaningless when taken out of context a six-a-side match can feel as crowded and chaotic as a 64-strong spat, given a well-designed map and mode. the absence of space battles, however, is much harder to forgive. according to bach, dice wants to avoid too complete a separation between infantry-on-infantry and vehicle-on-vehicle gameplay, but time and resource considerations may have played a part. “we want to build something that’s great for what it is, and have a holistic view about what we’re trying to achieve,” he offers. “rather than tossing everything in there from the very start.”
“The lure of donning vader’s mantle seems irresistible”
It’s unlikely to be a popular view. space combat has worked perfectly well in Battlefront hitherto, and a game featuring driveable x-wings that doesn’t include a death star run strikes us as slightly tragic. there’s the obvious suspicion that something is being held back for dlc; as of this article’s composition, the offerings in that department consist of a bonus free map set on the planet Jakku, a location from the new movie. if you’ve seen the latter’s trailer, you’ll probably remember that it’s home to a crash-landed star destroyer. the dlc map (which launches in december) will host the battle that led to that catastrophe, and if that doesn’t dredge up bleary memories of Battlefield 4’s map-altering “levolution” events, you’re clearly not the sharp judge of terrain deformation we took you for.

And then there’s the single player, which is limited at the time of writing to missions “crafted challenges that are inspired by moments from the film”, in the words of fegraeus. these appear to be simply matches against the ai and, in what sounds like an admission of defeat, aren’t supposed to be as challenging or rewarding as multiplayer. Your enemies will behave “like extras in a movie”, says bach, “where they do cool stuff around you and act as interesting targets”. it’s not exactly Far Cry 4, no, but the inclusion of horizontal split-screen (plus online co-op) should ensure that the mode stands up to more than an evening’s play.

Renewed Hope
Old-school series fans may scoff at this latter complaint. Battlefront has always, after all, been a multiplayer-led experience, though the old galactic conquest campaign mode has its advocates. but the risk with adapting the locations, props and aesthetic of Star Wars while sidelining the narrative is that you end up with a greatest hits of lucasfilm package, admirable in terms of the individual artefacts but sorely in need of a centre of gravity. to put that in terms of our opening endor anecdote, it feels a little like you can’t see the wood for the trees.

We recall worrying that Alien: Isolation might be more of a brilliant museum exhibit than a great Alien game. Star Wars Battlefront is in some ways a safer prospect dice has far, far more pedigree in the genre than creative assembly did with horror, and Battlefront isn’t built around a single make-or-break feature like Isolation’s alien ai. the upcoming game looks and sounds tremendous, and seems every bit as fine-tuned a shooter as any given Battlefield, but there’s something a little clinical, even sterile about it. dice has demonstrated that it can scrape away the surface of Star Wars. now it needs to show that it can touch the heart.

Red Two
In a curious move, Battlefront eschews Battlefield’s trusty five-man squad system in place of a new Partners feature. It allows two players to spawn on each other to save travelling time, team up easily online and see each other on their HUDs. Oh, and share everything they’ve unlocked without restriction. this latter feature could lead to more community-spirited play, as seasoned fronters of battles dispense their XP-bought wealth among the greenhorns. On the other hand, if the newbies can fast-track the progression system by making friends among the elect, won’t that penalise those who’d rather battle on their own? and will it be possible to coordinate large groups of units, as with Battlefield’s Commander feature? there certainly seems to be need for concerted teamwork in Walker assault mode you won’t last long against those at-ats if everybody tries to take them out single-handed.

Lord Have Mercy
If you’ve found Darth vader intimidating in the past, wait ’til you run into him here. the character model is tall enough that you’ll spot him coming easily, but he’s seemingly proof against shots from the front slapping them away casually with his lightsaber. that’s providing he doesn’t just reach out with the force and crush your thorax like a plastic cup. It’s not clear how Heroes or villains are spawned, but it sounds like you’ll need to fulfil a number of conditions. We suspect that topping the leaderboards then claiming a particular map objective is the right way forward (in our demo, vader made his debut after the player entered a bunker). Less is known about Boba fett, but he’s likely to be more of an infiltrator using his jetpack to bypass chokepoints, then letting rip with a specialised blaster rifle.

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