Star Wars: Battlefront (Beta). How is it?

It's been some week for games news and I'd no shortage of choices for what to write about today. Far Cry Primal was annoucned, Star Citzen revealed a lot of news at Citizen Con last night, (including the fact that Gary Oldman, Mark Hamill, Gillian Anderson, Andy Serkis and many others are acting for the single player story) and the Star Wars Battlefront Beta is in full swing. I decided to write on Battlefront in case it convinces anyone to give it a go tonight. It ends sometime tomorrow but it's worth a look. 

The game launches on November 17th in North America, and a few days after that in different regions. That's just over a month away and means that this "Beta" is not really a beta in the usual sense of the word. The game is 99.9% complete. This is more of a demo of a few modes while they stress test servers for a smoother launch. They're not (particularly, even though they have a survey) asking for gameplay suggestions. Any major features are now set in stone. This means that anything people see and don't like in the Beta is probably still going to be there in the €60 release. Warts and all.

First, a brief history of Battlefront (3) and what led to this newest iteration.

  • In 2002, Dice and EA (the same pair responsible for this game) released Battlefield 1942, and have continued that very popular series ever since, with Battlefield Hardline being the most recent release.
  • In 2004, Lucasarts, as they have always been wont to do, hopped on the latest game craze with a Star Wars version of Battlefield called Star Wars Battlefront (1). This was well received and Battlefront 2 came out in 2005, but there's been no new entries since.
  • Now, in 2015, Dice and EA, the makers of BattleFIELD are releasing the newest BattleFRONT game, with the same name as the original. Just to be confusing.

I've played all games in question, and the new Battlefront stands apart from all those others. Sure it's a large multiplayer shooter set in large levels with vehicular combat, but it very much has its own take on things, so anyone fearing that it was just going to be a Star Wars skin on Battlefield can set those particular fears to rest.

How Is It Different?

Vehicles

The biggest departure from any of those games is that vehicles are now not lying empty on the map waiting for a driver. You find power-ups on the map for all sorts of things, including vehicles. The spawn points are semi-random. When you get one you can activate it to spawn a vehicle at the edge of the map and you hop right into it. You can't exit the vehicle and are basically in it until you die (which won't likely be too long).

This is a bold new take on a core mechanic of the Battle-x games. It has pros and cons. On the plus side, the vehicles can't be damaged or stolen by the enemy team before they're in use. This is a huge benefit to gameplay. It would annoy me to see Stormtroopers owning the sky by flying all the TIE fighters AND Rebel X-Wings on the map. This keeps the balance better, which is a huge plus.

On the downside, if you actually want to play primarily as a pilot or tank driver, the new Battlefront does not have you covered. There's no practice mode (at least in the Beta) and you can never deliberately get a vehicle if you want one. In my first ten games I probably only flew two ships and drove one AT-ST, and my familiarity and skill with them were nil, so I couldn't even enjoy them before being destroyed. You have to play hours of the game (mostly as infantry) if you want to start getting good in vehicles.

Heroes

You are very dead!

You are very dead!

Battlefront 2 (and I think #1) did have the hero feature, but we haven't seen it in the Battlefield series. In it, you would gain control of an overpowered hero or villain like a Jedi or Sith if you reached a certain kill streak or points goal. You then had a limited amount of time to control a hero character. The heroes given depended on the map and would fit the theme for that time setting in Star Wars history, so Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker were never on the same map, but Luke and Vader were, or Anakin and Jango Fett were.

I'm not sure how careful Dice are being with that attention to detail. It's a minor issue but fans have complained that on the Hoth level in the Beta, we see Luke from Return of the Jedi (so, a full Jedi with green lightsabre) fighting Vader, instead of a younger Luke in pilot or snow gear.

You also now get heroes the same way as vehicles, and they're even more rare. I've played 7 hours and been a hero character twice, for about twenty seconds each time, and I still have no idea how to use their powers to good effect. Also, when they're defeated, they just kneel down looking sad for a few seconds, then completely disappear in an instant. This is a very poor animation, as are many others on the heroes, and it seems that the game would be stronger without them at this point.

Iron Sights

It was reported earlier that there was no aim-down-sights feature to the game. There is now. Possibly it was added due to the unpopularity of that announcement. All guns seem to have the same sight (a low-zoom scope, with the sniper rifle's zoom also being very low). Crouching also gives no aim or stability bonus, as it does in Battlefield. Jumping or running while shooting doesn't seem to hurt the aim that much either, so this game is quite dumbed down (/made more accessible) in that regard.

No Single Player

The Battlefield games have mostly had story campaigns, or at least single player campaign modes. The two Battlefront games also had some single player options. The new game just seems to have a Survival mode which is a wave fighting mode that you can play solo or in co-op against AI bots. This is big negative for me. You can keep playing multiplayer matches forever if you like, but I like a game, particularly a €60 one, to also give me something to enjoy on my own with some narrative or strategy. I would have loved to see the Galactic Conquest mode from Battlefront 2 in here. Instead I'm basically looking at paying €60 to kill and die in equal measure for as much time as I like. It's not always what I'm after, and I have plenty of other multiplayer shooters to go to if that's what I want.

There is one other single-co-op mode but it's not in the Beta.

Spectacle & Polish

The Walker Assault level of the Beta, set during the Battle of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back, is one of the best levels/experiences I've ever come across in a game. Dice have absolutely nailed the sounds and visuals! The clunking walkers, the punchy lasers, the snow crunching, the graphical fidelity, and then the level design itself all serve to craft one of the most immersive Star Wars experiences anyone has ever had. If you're still reading and the Beta is still on, please just load up the game and run around the battle for a few minutes. This has to be experienced! I don't know if I'd pay €60 for it, but for free, go for it! 

The other two levels also look beautiful and all have interesting starship battles happening overhead as part of the scenery. The lengths they've gone to with immersion here are spectacular.

Frostbite Engine

There's none of Dice's trademark 'levolution' going on here, at least not in the Beta. The levels are pretty rigidly set up. And AT-ST in the Survival mode blew through a few boulders near me and I was actually surprised. It looked great, but the fact that I was surprised by environmental destruction happening in a Dice game shows that there's not much of it going on here. Don't expect falling skyscrapers or crumbling buildings. There may be more environmental destruction in other levels, but I thought they'd have shown it off a bit more in the beta if it was much of a feature.

No Server Browser

The game doesn't let you choose where to play. You can form a party with friends, but you can't choose your server, and this will probably annoy PC players in particular. However, I have to mention that from my desktop, I can launch the Beta, find a full Walker Assault server, and be on the ground shooting in literally under 1 minute. If the full game can accomplish close to those times, I don't care about not having a server browser, and players would be far more likely to hop in for a few quick rounds. Loading times were some of the biggest obstacles to me returning to the Battlefield games after a few weeks.

More 'Rule of Fun'

They've tried to make more of a game for everyone here. Opinions will vary on whether this is good or bad but I actually found myself enjoying the game more for the presence of certain unrealistic features, and I'd normally be a fan of realism.
For instance, there's no friendly fire. Unrealistic? Sure. But it removes the ability for the inevitable assholes on your team to grief you too much. They also can't steal your vehicles. I found myself less frustrated playing this than I have playing Battlefield games, which is a huge plus for me, even if the tactical considerations are lessened. A shooter with 40 people is not where I'll go to get my tactical fix anyway, so for fun, this was a good move in my books.

They also put all your abilities on 'star cards' that you equip. You don't automatically get grenades, but you can chose them as 1 of 3 possible power-ups. In here are also jetpacks, a one-round sniper rifle, other grenades, or a personal shield. You don't carry grenade ammo, but instead they are on a simple cool-down before you can use another one. Your health also recharges fully moments after a firefight. This basically means that if you don't die in a fight, you'll have full health and ammo very shortly afterwards. This allows the game to keep flowing at a decent pace, I think. I'm in favour of it.

No Classes

All the other games had a character class that you choose from with your primary abilities. In the new Battlefront you're basically all the assault character, but you can choose a variation on your primary weapon, and then choose 3 star cards to give yourself some level of customisation. This also serves to keep more people in the battle though and not hiding on the edges fulfilling repair or sniper roles. This does make for a better battle experience, even if it alienates some players who have a favourite class. There's no medics or engineers here, and while they are mines, they are only available as random pick-ups on the map. You can't plan for them.

No Revives, Quick Respawn

If you die, you die. There's no bleed-out time, defibrillators or medic classes. You do respawn very quickly though, without a 30 second timer. Again, this keeps the game flowing, removes frustration and also stops the game getting stuck in situations where medics keep reviving somebody from around a corner. You can also spawn on your partner (you get only one, no squads) to get into the action sooner.
The levels are also well laid out and it never takes too long to find the action again.

No Map or Spotting

While you have a local radar to show objectives, team mates, and enemies who have fired recently, there is no larger level map. The Hoth map, and presumably others, are good at filtering you towards your goal, but early on I was confused as to where in the world I was at a given time. The 'spot' feature of recent Battlefield games is also not present. This is a simpler action game, and less of a strategic one.

Anyone familiar with Battle-x games will probably have realised that, while the core mechanic of shoot-the-enemy is still there, this game is quite different from its compatriots. For me, it's pleasantly different, but not all will agree.

The Beta Itself

There are 3 modes you can play in the Beta.

Walker Assault

This is the 40-person Hoth level, and very addictive. The rounds are quick enough, the spectacle is amazing, and I kept going back for more, despite saying several times that "this" would be the last round. If this is representative of the game at large, I think this game might really have some legs. However, it's very same-y. Apart from maybe missing out on playing a hero or vehicle, you've seen 95% of the gameplay after playing a couple of rounds on each side. There won't be much variety and there's not a lot of room for improvisation. It did keep me coming back, though, so what does that say?.. It's addictive, anyway.

The only thing was that the Imperials nearly always win. It's extremely difficult for the Rebels to destroy the 2 walkers in time. They have to hold an uplink station a fair while to start a Y-Wing strike. If they can do that, the Y-Wings only make the AT-AT "vulnerable", and only for about 10-15 seconds. This window is your only chance to chip away at their (considerable) health. Snowspeeders (often the only way in a Star Wars game to take down an AT-AT, by tying up the legs) can for some reason only attempt the tow-cable manoeuvre during this vulnerable time. This is both non-canon, and extremely unbalanced in its current form. In my 7 hours of play, I only once saw the Rebels win, and I never saw a Snowspeeder successfully kill a Walker, though this may change as players become more used to the game and if the walkers' health is adjusted by the developers. The walkers I saw die all died to blaster fire and grenades.

Drop Zone

I didn't like this mode at all. Sixteen players fight with no vehicles in a volcanic, rocky map, over control of drop pods. It's basically King of the Hill but each hill gets captured very quickly and then a new pod gets dropped. If you died at the pod, even with the instant respawn, I still never had time to run back and attempt to take it a second time before the timer was up. Also, on this map, the Empire team is at a clear disadvantage as their white armour makes them stick out like a sore thumb, while the rebels are harder to spot. The map is also very small with not much going on compared to Walker assault. I kept getting placed on teams that were outnumbered (like 8 vs 5 or 6) and there was no auto-balance. This inevitably meant that we lost every match 5-0 and it was no fun. Even if I was on the winning team, though, I wouldn't think much of it.

The troubling thing is that if this is their 2nd-best multiplayer mode, then I don't hold out much hope for the overall quality of the full game's levels. Surely they'd only have put their better modes in the Beta?

Survival (Single or Co-op)

Those TIE Fighters in the shot aren't actually part of the level. They stay way off in the background as part of a looping battle animation. They don't get this close.

Those TIE Fighters in the shot aren't actually part of the level. They stay way off in the background as part of a looping battle animation. They don't get this close.

In the Beta, my friends weren't online and you can only play co-op with friends, it appeared, so I had to play solo in 'normal' difficulty (only difficulty in the Beta). The Beta was limited to 6 waves, each increasing in difficulty. The final game will have ten I think. Even so, I didn't die once, and to have another player making those waves even easier would be no fun at all, I think. The AI bots animate well but they die very quickly, don't often stick together, and provide very little challenge unless you're swarmed. Even the AT-STs aren't that hard to beat as you can easily escape them with your jet pack, recharge your health and powerful attacks, and then come back around the canyon behind them to take off another chunk of their health. 

The Full Game's Other Modes

Multiplayer

Screenshot from the Beta multiplayer menu

Screenshot from the Beta multiplayer menu

There would appear to be seven multiplayer modes available in the full game. I said that I don't think much of Drop Zone, but that Walker Assault is great! I believe Hoth isn't the only level for this mode, because there's also an Endor one in the trailer. I'm not sure if there are any more beyond that. Presumably with EA's (almost) entire marketing push being focussed on Walker Assault, the other modes aren't up to the same standards.

  • Supremacy: I believe this is like Conquest from many games. Your mileage may vary.
  • Blast: Don't know.
  • Cargo: Don't know.
  • Droid Run: I don't know what this is but presumably is some sort of glorified escort mission. Hooray... no, wait.
  • Fighter Squadron. We've had a trailer for this. This seems to be the only mode that will satisfy those who were looking for some good Star Wars spaceship warfare, and even then it's not in space (admittedly, planet surfaces are more interesting to look at than endless stars), and it's not like the Space Levels of Battlefront 2, which featured ship-to-ship boarding, flagships, and smaller escort ships to be destroyed. Without playing this mode, I can't guess how much fun it will or won't be, but it is at least different. See the trailer below.

Single player (slash, co-op) only has 3 offerings; the aforementioned Survival, a Training Mode, and Battles. Training obviously won't have much longevity in it, but I don't know what Battles are. 

In Summary

The Battlefront Beta is definitely worth playing. The Walker Assault mode is unlike anything I've ever seen in a game, despite countless Star Wars games of the past having taken a shot at it.

The beta has some graphical glitches that may or may not be cleaned up by launch, but which aren't deal breakers either.

The game is definitely its own monster. Managing to find a gameplay spot that stands apart from both Battlefield and the original Battlefront games gives this new release some validity. The graphical and audio quality push this even further. But the gameplay is now 90% focussed around close-range infantry combat, with vehicles and heroes only presented as rare bonuses to shake up your experience, rather than being legitimate roles.

The game is obviously timed to maximise sales by releasing only a few weeks before Christmas and the release of Episode 7 in cinemas. I do think that it will do well for all of these reasons, but does it deserve to?

From what I've seen of the Beta, the game only has one noteworthy mode, which I think has only two levels (Hoth and Endor). I've had my fill of Hoth in less than 7 hours of play, and Endor will probably not even keep me interested that long, having already experienced the mode broadly.

While there are six other multiplayer modes, and two single/co-op modes, none of them have been well advertised so I'm presuming that they're not particularly worth mentioning. I feel like I've seen the best that the game has to offer already for free. And that much wasn't worth €60 to me, personally. 

I'll definitely be waiting for reviews, and then probably sales, if I'm ever going to pick up this game. Still, though, it has its merits and I definitely think it's worth a look. If you can get on the Beta tonight or if EA offer "Free Time" to play like they do with some other games, take advantage!

Until next time..