Star Wars fans are easy marks. It’s one of our kind’s more endearing qualities, even while it tends to leave us vulnerable to being exploited. And we have been exploited, even by, perhaps accidentally, the man who created this universe and brand.
When you’re sitting in a big room full of hardcore fans at Star Wars Celebration sort of feverishly watching JJ Abrams introduce the new Force Awakens trailer, it can be easy to avoid cynicism. It can also be easy to forget we’ve been down this road before a number of times over the past couple decades. In 1998, fans all over the US went to see Meet Joe Black, of all things, just to see the trailer for The Phantom Menace, and that was generally deemed a worthwhile investment of time and money. In 2002, I was at Star Wars Celebration II in Indianapolis, in another huge convention hall, when prequel producer Rick McCallum revealed footage of Yoda fighting Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones — that was met with exactly the same sort of rapture we saw in Anaheim this week. We can say The Force Awakens looks to have that Star Wars feel while also seeming like it will be a fresh experience, but we’ve always been bad judges of such things ahead of time.
Star Wars has very often not been good, but it has been good enough on enough occasions that we’re still willing—eager, even, in periods of famine like the last few years—to hope. I’d even go so far as to say we enjoy the cycle of hype as much as we do the actual products that follow the hype. The folks at Celebration are fond of referring to 2015 as the Year of Star Wars, and along with a new film we finally get the first video game in Lucasfilm’s 10-year partnership with EA: the multiplayer first- and third-person shooter Star Wars Battlefront from the Battlefield franchise masterminds at DICE. And we’ve finally been granted a substantial glimpse into what DICE’s series reboot will be like So as Star Wars fans around the world today examine the new Battlefront trailer in much the same manner they did the Force Awakens trailer yesterday, we’re all ready to give it the benefit of the doubt. It looks fun, and the digital renders of these iconic locales have never looked even remotely this good in a game before, and DICE has delivered some legitimately great multiplayer shooters in its long history.
In a closed-door presentation to press on Thursday at Star Wars Celebration, I saw a short pre-recorded gameplay demo that showed an online match on the forest moon Endor. It began in the normal deathmatch manner, with rebel foot soldiers battling stormtroopers, but the hook came in its escalation. Speeder bikes entered the fray, and then a two-legged AT-ST walker, and then finally the rebel fighter whose eyes we were looking through spotted a gargantuan AT-AT off in the distance. The AT-AT was presented as a game-changer, and it immediately started raining fire down on the battlefield, sending the rebels scrambling for cover. But an AT-AT is obviously pretty cumbersome in the middle of the woods and doesn’t really exist to pick off infantry. As we learned in The Empire Strikes Back, the infantry aren’t going to be able to fight back directly anyway. So the rebel band runs off to a communications console that sat all by its lonesome out here in this wilderness and used it to call in some Y-Wings to blow the AT-AT all to hell. The footage wrapped with the rebels running down into a bunker similar to the Imperial base we saw on Endor in Return of the Jedi, where they encountered Darth Vader himself. He tore them apart.
The footage was not really spectacular, mostly coming off as a Battlefield-like standard shooter with a Star Wars skin and a decent-looking gimmick with the AT-AT. In other words, it didn’t appear to do much that seemed particularly outlandish or surprising. It was what you would expect a new Battlefront to look like, with vehicles, aircraft and “hero” characters like Darth Vader all in a fray with masses of infantry. Had they just showed us the demo and left it at that, I likely would have thought it seemed cool and fun, given how long it’s been since we’ve had a new Star Wars shooter. Instead, they decided to talk to us about the game for a solid twenty minutes.
Nick Fegraeus, Battlefront’s design director at DICE, seemed to say all the right things. He described at length how the dev team had access to the Lucasfilm archives and Skywalker Ranch so they could, with the help of photogrammetry and physically-based rendering, replicate those Imperial walkers and starfighters and infantry weapons and everything else they’re putting into Battlefront. “When you pick up a lightsaber in Star Wars Battlefront, or hop into an X-Wing, it means you are using the lightsaber. It’s the actual X-Wing,” he said. He acknowledged that this attention to detail on its own wouldn’t be enough to carry the game. “What good is all this if you don’t have fun, right? That’s the point of the medium: fun.”
At one point he showed us an image of a young girl playing with Star Wars action figures, and said the Battlefront team was ultimately trying to translate that experience into 1080p deathmatches. Producer Craig McCleod used the term “sandbox playground” and both he and Fegraeus described the experience of playing Battlefront as a fulfillment of those “battle fantasies” we had when we were children playing with our own action figures.
But these men also frequently threw out terms like “passionate” and “dream come true,” and we were shown high-fidelity images of rotating game assets as subtitles that said things like “actual game models” at the bottom of the screen. He also teased further feature reveals between now and launch, a perfectly standard aspect of the video game hype cycle. He did, however, explain to us what exactly photogrammetry and physically-based rendering is. They made a big deal about the PC version having Dolby Atmos sound, with a deafening demonstration that concluded with a lengthy Atmos logo animation—it was admittedly impressive to listen to, but that’s hardly a key feature.
My cynicism creeped in for two reasons. The first I understood immediately: the way these developers from DICE were describing the game and its development was the same way everybody describes every game; if you’ve seen one hands-off video game presentation for the media you’ve seen them all, and I have seen many. It’s difficult to make any meaningful analysis of a game that you watch for five minutes but can’t yet play, but when they follow that brief glimpse of gameplay with twenty minutes of chatter that you’ve heard a hundred times before, that difficulty only escalates.
The second reason I only understood as I pondered why I found the trailer for The Force Awakens so appealing while I felt very little for Battlefront. The culprit was DICE’s emphasis on the technical acumen of the game. While, yes, that’s the standard way AAA game devs talk about their games, Star Wars fans have also heard this refrain many times outside of games: from George Lucas himself.
During the prequel years, Lucas spent a ton of words describing all the technical advancements they were making with those three films, particularly in terms of visual effects and digital camera tech. It wasn’t all guff—Lucas was basically responsible for the film industry shifting almost entirely to digital photography, or at least accelerating that process. Now we accept that Lucas’ preoccupation with tech is a huge part of why the prequels were garbage movies that in hindsight felt more like tech demonstrations than films. And so you’re not going to hear JJ Abrams talk all that much about whatever cool technology things they’re doing because he and Kathleen Kennedy know that kind of freaks us out these days. Had this presentation taken place at E3 or some other game-focused event, I may not have made that connection. But at Star Wars Celebration, where Battlefront is the only game I’m seeing, and I’m seeing it an hour after Abrams and Kennedy gave their talk that everyone enjoyed so much, there was no way to avoid this comparison.
When I spoke with the game’s producer McCleod I asked him what, below the surface, makes the DICE interpretation of Battlefront a true Star Wars experience. The attention to detail is great, yes, but what about the soul?
“I think it’s a combination of things. I don’t think you can single out any one thing,” McCleod said. “When you think about the authenticity we bring with our photogrammetries, and we scanned all the assets from the archives and we actually photo scanned the original movie props. We have all the original sound bytes. We allow you to pilot all these iconic vehicles. We allow you to step into the shoes of some of the most iconic characters from the Original Trilogy era. I think when you wrap all this together in the way that DICE can, and the incredibly talented team that we have, I think it creates this perfect bubble that really immerses our players.”
That answer is okay, but it’s still explaining what’s in the sausage rather than describing the coherent whole that will end up on the dinner plate. Battlefront is a multiplayer shooter rather than an attempt at a deep narrative experience (so far as we know today, anyway), and thus whether or not Battlefront is A True Star Wars Thing will largely depend on feel. Five minutes of hands-off multiplayer gameplay is rarely enough to be able to get a grasp on feel, and you certainly can’t assume that a game developer’s description of the feel of his own game will be accurate—creative types across all media are prone to accidentally create things that aren’t quite what they thought they were making.
Today, I am skeptical. That’s not a condemnation; what these folks from DICE showed me and told me about the game on Thursday just didn’t convince me of anything. Lucasfilm’s Ada Duan can claim all she wants, as she did in our presentation, that your 2015 Star Wars experience won’t be complete if you don’t both watch The Force Awakens and play Battlefront, but just saying that doesn’t make it true. They talk a big game, but it’s too soon to know if they can back it up on the court.
Phil Owen is a freelance game critic based in Los Angeles. He tweets for free at @philrowen. Send hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org