Maybe it's the snow bound planet of Hoth that does it, but Christmas and Star Wars are seemingly starting to go together. With mega blockbuster The Last Jedi set to hit cinemas only slightly before Christmas - as did the record breaking Star Wars: The Force Awakens - it's fallen to shooter sequel Star Wars Battlefront 2 to take the weight of a small moon on its shoulders, and heat the Star Wars hype to fever pitch. But have EA got the formula right after the last disappointing instalment? Well, we'd be lying if we said we didn't sense a disturbance in the force...
Star Wars Battlefront 2 is a first person shooter that, on paper, seems to fix everything the first game got wrong. First, and most importantly, there's actually a single player story here - a drama packed tale set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, that follows one of the Empire's elite special forces squads. Added to that, space battles make their triumphant return to the series, after being oddly omitted in the last game, alongside a whole load of new tweaks and additions. Having seemingly listened to all the criticism and made the changes people wanted, then, what could possibly go wrong? Well...
One of the things you'll notice about Battlefront 2 is that, much like a Stormtrooper, it just can't quite seem to hit the right mark. Time after time, it'll come up with these ideas that have amazing potential, and then fumble the execution so much it ends up almost missing entirely. From a main menu that takes over 30 seconds to load, to a multiplayer mode that should be incredible, yet ends up being one of the most frustrating things you've ever played thanks to its broken reward system, Battlefront 2 is a game that seems to come so close, yet so far.
The game's story mode seems pretty prototypic of the issues here. Filling a massive Star Wars shaped hole in the market, this is something that really should be special - and for a few sweet levels, it is. Focusing on the antics of Iden Versio, the young, female leader of a special forces unit known as Inferno Squad, you join the group on a high, as the Empire finishes construction on its latest planet destroying space station, the Death Star II. Offering a kind of "Meanwhile, on Endor..." style telling of the story, the plot here at least attempts to fill in some of the pretty huge holes between the Empire's downfall, and the rise of the First Order.
And there are some genuinely fantastic moments here. Mixing together all of the different styles of Battlefront gameplay, one minute you're staging a daring escape from a city, under heavy fire from lumbering AT-AT walkers; the next you'll be wrestling with the controls of your Tie Fighter as you dogfight X-Wings while orbiting a Star Destroyer dock; and the next you'll be playing as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, or Princess Leia in a mission from the other side of the fence. The only problem is, each of these different styles of gameplay has its own flaws and limitations - and the campaign as a whole is peppered with issues that persist across almost all modes.
The first is that in any of the on foot missions, there's far too much reliance on defending a place, person, or object against wave after wave of troops. A cheap way of making the levels last longer, these sections are more frustrating than fun, with your character being far weaker than you'd imagine an elite Imperial commando would be. Things are made all the more awkward by the fact that your health bar disappears when you try to look down the iron sights/scope of the weapon you're using, meaning you'll only know if you're at death's door if you zoom out. This is a pretty big oversight, and is actually part of one of the biggest issues with Battlefront in general, as death has a habit of creeping up on you, due to the game simply not bothering to tell you you're about to die. At best, the screen will get an ever so slight red glow when you're not long for this world - but even then, it'll only tell you when your health drops below 25 (or in other words, when you're a single hit away from death), at which point it's too late.
Needless to say, the hero characters (a catch all that basically refers to any named character from the films) are much more fun to play as than the story's main character - which is perhaps another sign of how Battlefront misses the mark. After being repeatedly turned into Bantha fodder in all of a few shots in the first few missions, it's a breath of fresh air when you finally get to play as Luke Skywalker, and get to grips with his lightsaber. If anything, this is the first time in the game you'll actually start to feel like a hero, as not only do the hero characters have several times the health of your average soldier, but their weapons, like Luke's aforementioned lightsaber, are much more fun to use too. Just like in the films, holding the left trigger will let you deflect shots with your lightsaber - and hovering your crosshair over a trooper as they're firing at you lets you blast the laser fire back their way instead. There's few things sweeter than effortlessly taking out a rapid firing trooper with their own shots, without even taking a scratch yourself.
Sadly, though, missions where you get to use a lightsaber and few and far between. For the most part, it's Iden Versio's standard shooter levels you'll be playing - and these aren't quite as polished as you might hope. For starters, there's far too much awkward exposition in game, as you're forced to very slowly walk from A to B while (for example) Lando Calrissian lectures you about the Rebellion. Meanwhile, while most of the standard shooter levels have hidden collectibles for you to find, the fact that even straying a few feet from The Path You're Meant To Follow will see you bombarded with "return to the battlefield" messages, making finding them more of a chore than anything. It's made even more frustrating by the fact there's literally nothing to tell you where the mission zone starts or ends - and no visual cues, prompts, maps, or anything else you can use either. While one street or path might lead you to a mission objective, another identical looking path could simply take you straight out of the mission area. It's disappointing to say the least, and makes the single player feel like it's been cobbled together.
The flying sections, though, are easily the highlight here, providing gameplay that's about as close to the glory days of the X-Wing and Tie Fighter games as we've come for over a decade. Whether you're negotiating the wreckages of a ship graveyard in your nimble Tie Fighter, piloting the Falcon over Takodana, or taking on a Star Destroyer in your X-Wing, these are a visual spectacle, although again, you can't help but feel it could have been even better. With so much going on in each scene, it can sometimes be hard to spot enemy ships, while even slightly grazing yourself against a bit of debris is seemingly too much for your expensive space fighter to handle, causing you to promptly explode. In fact, the space controls in general could have done with being polished a bit more, too, as they often feel oddly jerky to fly, jolting back into what it thinks is its neutral position when you let go of the analogue stick. Sometimes, though, it's the mission objectives that just miss the mark - when taking on a huge Star Destroyer in your humble X-Wing, you'll be told to take out the Tie Fighters that are being launched from the belly of the beast - but it's your Y-Wing companions that get to blow up its golf ball shaped shield generators - something which any Star Wars fan will tell you is one of the best bits.
In all then, the campaign is OK - although without the Star Wars branding, you do wonder how well it'd be received. Online, on the other hand, is another story. The multiplayer mode in Battlefront games have sadly become the most important parts, as people split into teams, and face off online across a number of modes. From the 20 on 20 Galactic Assault mode, to smaller, 8 on 8 objective based clashes, to dedicated modes for space battles (Starfighter Assault) and heroes (Heroes vs Villains), there's certainly plenty of choice here - but there's also plenty of issues.
To its credit, Battlefront 2 is more than just another team based shooter. Almost every mode here revolves around objectives - including the headline Galactic Assault mode - as rather than simply asking you to blast enemies, you instead have to work together to capture key locations. Encouraging you to work as a team, how your team performs will determine the flow of the battle, with the centre of play moving around the map as key locations either open up or get successfully defended. It's complex (and with no tutorial, is hard enough to get into on its own), but it at least makes a difference from the standard team based shooter.
The only problem is, everything in Battlefront 2's multiplayer mode has been set up to make it nigh on impossible for new players to join, with so many different systems working to reward - and ultimately, buff - players who are already doing well, at the expense of everyone else. If there was ever a case study in "how not to design a multiplayer mode for accessibility", Battlefront 2 would be it.
There's so much wrong here, you could dedicate another article to it and still not have long enough to go over it all. For starters, the game makes no effort to group players by ability, so new players will end up going up against those who've put hundreds, or thousands of hours into the game. Second, the more you play, the more "Star Card" slots you'll unlock for each character, which in turn lets you make them stronger in very material ways. From making your health regenerate faster, to reducing the cooldown time on your special moves, each Star Card comes in one of four levels - and the more you equip, and the higher level those cards are, the stronger your character will be. You can see the problem, right?
What this means is that the players who've put the most time into the game - who'll understand its systems, who'll know its maps, and who'll generally be better at the game through experience alone - get to play as characters that are stronger, faster, and deal more damage than everyone else, letting them dominate the leaderboards, and giving them an almost permanent boost over the everyday plebs, the mid-core, and the newcomers, who just don't have 10 hours a day to plug into playing a shooter. Spawning only to get almost instantly killed by someone with a full complement of high level Star Cards is no fun at all - especially when you're at an even bigger disadvantage when you first start playing, as you can only equip a maximum of one Star Card until you've levelled your character class up (and that's if you even have any available). You can earn new Star Cards by buying "loot box" crates, either with the credits you earn in battle, or up until very recently, real money - something which has been the source of huge controversy recently, with EA being forced into disabling the microtransactions aspect of the game, as it had turned into a case of "pay to win".
It's not just the Star Cards that make Battlefront online frustrating for newcomers, though - the "hero" characters are every bit as stupid. As you play through each of the multiplayer modes, you'll slowly rack up battle points - and once you reach a certain number of these (usually something suitably high), you can exchange them on the respawn screen for the chance to play as a hero character. Again, you can see the problem here, right? Due to the points requirement, only the very best, and most experienced players on your team (and the enemy team) will get the ability to play as a hero (usually the ones who have the most Star Cards equipped) - and as soon as they do, it's game over for almost everyone who opposes them, as they're all but indestructible. With many times a standard character's health (and likely plenty of buffs from the Star Cards they'll inevitably have equipped), hero characters dish out an insane amount of damage, and can take an incredible beating without being defeated (as this video illustrates so well) - and so of course, the only sensible thing you can do is to ensure you'll only give these to the most experienced players, and let them run roughshod over the players that are already struggling.
Being seal clubbed online is never fun, and yet Battlefront's multiplayer has been designed so that that's all that'll ever happen to you. Your only option is to play hundreds (or thousands) of games as you slowly earn enough credits to buy more Star Cards to be able to put up a fight, or (up until recently) part with some real money to buy your way to a level playing field (you can see why EA had to disable this recently). While you can still have the occasional OK game, being destroyed almost as soon as you spawn in by Chewbacca ten times in a row is frustrating to say the least.
There's a few other omissions here too, which just end up making the game feel a bit lazy. Unlike the other recent blockbuster shooter, Call of Duty WW2, there's no split-screen online play here - and also no bot support for offline play. While you can play in the game's arcade mode, these are just horde mode-style survival encounters, where you'll just have to outlast the waves of enemies the game throws your way. There's also no way to play private games online - so if you and your friends want to have some fun on your own, well, sorry, you can't - you'll have to take your chances with the Star Card wielding hardcore.
While we're at it, there are some other issues we may as well get off our chest too. For starters, the subtitles here are ridiculously small - and as the whole point of subtitles is to make the game more accessible, it's counterproductive to say the least. According to accessibility experts, 46px is the standard at 1080p, yet the subtitles in game are 15px at absolute most, with some being as small as 7px in split-screen, making them barely even a squiggle on the screen - if you don't usually play with your nose pressed to your screen, you'll likely struggle to make these out, as seemingly no-one at EA thought to test it on a normal TV rather than a PC monitor before releasing it. And finally, someone really needs to tell DICE the difference between "score" and "points". You don't need 2,000 more "score", and you don't gain "score" - you earn points, which make up your score. This cringe worthy, Google translate style use of English is prevalent throughout the game, and is something that really shouldn't have crept through.
In all, then, Star Wars Battlefront 2 is a mixed bag to say the least. For a game with so much potential, it feels like everything here (bar the graphics) has been thrown together quickly, with minimal passion, attention to detail, or flair. While the game's campaign has its highlights, it also falls far too easily into simply pitting you against wave after wave of dull enemies, and although the flying sections are a lot of fun, even these aren't as polished as they really should be. Online, however, Battlefront 2 really is a mess - pay to win has no place in a game that costs £45+, and we don't really see many beyond the hardcore having the bloody mindedness to grind their way to being able to put up a fight. If you're here for the single player, Battlefront 2 is well worth a look - you just might want to wait for the January sales.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4