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Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: Star Wars Battlefront II (Sony PlayStation 4)


Review by Nick H.

As a tremendous fan of the Star Wars universe, this beautiful, fast-paced game manages to tickle and please the senses while making my head and heart hurt at the same time. Unfortunately for everything that Star Wars Battlefront II gets right along the way, it has just about as many missteps that hold back what should have been a much, much better experience than it is.

I participated in the Star Wars Battlefront II beta, and while I was excited by some of what I saw, like many I came away with concerns. These concerns gave the team at EA a chance to try and right the ship, but half-measures only addressed some of the fears fans had, which led to an interesting statement from EA the other night that you can read about here:


The gist of it? Unfortunately despite having a talented group of developers working with a beloved property, the business side of the house just can't quite get out of its own way here.


First - the good (and there is plenty of it). The presentation here is fantastic. I grew up with Star Wars. The Empire Strikes Back was the first movie I saw (at a drive-in no less). Return of the Jedi was my favourite of the trilogy (I was a Luke fan and his arc in this was the highpoint for me as a kid) and it was the first time I had ever seen a movie more than once at the theatre. My copy of Return of the Jedi on VHS actually had a couple of spots where it was worn down and displayed a few intermittent moments of fuzzy audio and video quality due to the number of times I watched it. I've read more than three dozen Star Wars books that are no longer considered 'canon', but certainly fuelled my imagination for years. Oh, and I'm a lifelong video game player.

I am the target audience for Star Wars Battlefront II.

So at the end of the day, I should be the easiest sell there is for a title like this. The developers have created an excellent game, looking at the mechanics and presentation in isolation. It certainly looks and sounds the part. Whether you hear the distinctive screech of a tie fighter's engines or are sprinting down the impossibly shiny floors of an Empire facility while immediately recognisable music from the movies surrounds your adventure while being punctuated by the sound of blaster fire. It is an immersive experience that I happily turn the lights down for and the sound way up and have lost many hours to in this fashion so far.

This is Star Wars Battlefront II at its immersive best. I would sure like to see some Star Wars properties taking on new genres other than the shooter, but it's a comfortable fit. The genre is popular, the movies have lots of action and the expansive environments and loads of weapons and vehicles certainly work well here. There is something very much in-line with the movie experience when you recall the way AT-AT walkers steadily marched forward through the snows of Hoth with a sort of inevitability to them in Empire Strikes Back and then play Star Wars Battlefront II and find yourself trying to take one of these lumbering monstrosities down before it is too late.


It helps that the gameplay is really good. Missions and environments have a decent amount of variety to help keep things from getting too repetitive, and the different classes have enough distinction between their weapons to help add to that variety, though the skills and various Star Cards you earn help to add even more uniqueness to your class builds. Star Wars Battlefront II slants itself towards more casual fans than many similar FPS titles on the market, which I think is a good thing. It is an easier to learn, more forgiving experience that falls in-line with a popular property like Star Wars that has mass appeal outside of the die-hard fan audience.

The focus is clearly on the online multiplayer, which the game engine is well suited for. Whether you enjoy using heroes, normal troopers or flying spacecraft in dogfight scenarios, Star Wars Battlefront II covers a good deal of ground and I enjoyed the different modes for what they were. Still, for all of these different online modes, I suspect that Galactic Assault, with its large maps, massive pools of players and organic objectives will have the most staying power. There is also an Arcade Mode that tries to provide some offline content (think wave battles against AI characters) that add something different to the mix without ever being quite as awe-inspiring as the sweeping Galactic Assault mode.

One of the things the previous Battlefront game got (rightfully) roasted for was the lack of any kind of meaningful campaign mode. Star Wars is such a rich universe with potentially limitless storytelling possibilities, so not having a campaign of any kind was a pretty significant oversight in that game that EA DICE has thankfully rectified in Star Wars Battlefront II. Though it's hardly a work of narrative genius. This is the typical FPS style campaign. It is relatively short (I beat it in about four and a half hours), with a few modes of difficulty (that are less about enemy AI and more about how much damage they can sustain and deal) set between Return of the Jedi and Force Awakens. Like most FPS campaigns, it serves as a sort of paced tutorial, which I think is just fine. You will get exposed to a variety of weapons, the game's myriad mechanics (including some nice change of pace alternations between soldier and vehicular stages), and by the time you are done, you are better equipped to handle the other modes of play for having persevered.


As for the campaign content itself, it circles around a young woman named Versio who is a sort of Imperial Special Ops agent. Versio is not the most interesting character, channelling the sort of stoic, hard female stereotype one would expect given her role in an action genre video game, but I like the idea that you are in the boots of a 'bad guy' from the often two-sides narrative that Star Wars is built around. I've often read that the best villains / antagonists are those who feel they are right and demonstrate why they believe that, and Versio at least sheds some light on the far less frequently explored half of the Star Wars conflict. The story in the end is not the most memorable, but it certainly has the look and feel of a short Star Wars side story and does the job well enough.

However, when the dust settles on the campaign and the arcade modes, the meat and potatoes of the experience is going to boil down to how much you enjoy playing online with and against other live players. If you don't enjoy that kind of experience, this is going to be a title with a really short shelf life for you. Even if you do... well, there are some pretty notable problems that have to be called out.

For one, the matchmaking is terrible. You can't group up with friends in any kind of convenient, squad building way. EA DICE tried to counter this with abilities that play nice with others, and bonuses for working with / nearby randomised team members assigned to you upon joining the game, but there is a strange disconnect all the same. Worse yet, Star Wars Battlefront II continues a trend this year that I have railed on in prior reviews, and am obligated to do so again and that is the money grubbing / loot box / microtransaction trend. Now, I did point out earlier the link to the announcement that crystal buying is suspended - for now, but the huge backlash this game has received for having it there in the first place should tell you just how poorly and exploitatively it was implemented.


I probably don't need to spend a lot of time going over the controversy given how much exposure it has received already, but the long and the short of it is that the progression curve in Star Wars Battlefront II is very, very slow. EA made some terrible remarks about how it is slanted to help reward die-hard players, but essentially this is the same issue games like NBA 2K18, For Honor and many others have experience. It is one thing to offer some boosts to a single player experience for those who really want to improve in some meaningful way quickly. If the player values time over money, so be it. But the meat of Star Wars Battlefront II is an online competitive game that relies heavily on unlockable characters and Star Cards, and the game's progression curve was built to be very slow, or give a very meaningful advantage to people who spend money on the game.

Finding the proper balance to progression that keeps players interested in the title is simply good game design. Not finding that balance is a problem. Not finding that balance because the business side of the house wants to make more money on a AAA $60 game is a concern. So if EA has suspended the crystal purchase, why am I bringing this up in the review? Because the core progression system is still broken, it's just thankfully not a pay-to-win scenario. It's better from a competitive standpoint, but still fundamentally flawed now as a core piece of Star Wars Battlefront II's architecture. Also, if one reads the statement from EA carefully, it sounds like crystal purchases will come back - just at a price that EA figures the community will be willing to bear.

For the record, I am all for a developer continuing to improve their games post release and listening to their players, but the flip-flopping that has happened with Star Wars Battlefront II's release just makes it feel like this is a AAA $60 beta at this point, almost all of which is due to some poor business decisions and not an actual lack of skill from the development team. There is a good, entertaining game in there, but at the same time, I hope that this is perhaps something of a tipping point for publishers to realise they need to reconsider these kinds of practices.


Related reading: Our review of the original Star Wars Battlefront.

Star Wars Battlefront II gets a lot of things right. The presentation is absolutely top-notch, the gameplay is fun and well-executed and the choice of property is among my fall-time favourites. Where Star Wars Battlefront II has hurt itself is in a lack of care around the ability to play with your friends and a progression system structure around microtransactions. While those optional purchases are (currently) turned off, they will be back in some form or another and in the meantime, players are left with a hell of a slow grind in making progress... slow to the point that it's just not entertaining.



- Nick H.
US Editor


Review: Star Wars Battlefront II (Sony PlayStation 4)
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