Reinstall: Star Wars Battlefront II
Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting classics of PC gaming days gone by. This week, editor Sam Roberts revisits the massively popular multiplayer shooter Star Wars: Battlefront II.
There’s been some serious money left on the table with Star Wars: Battlefront III's ongoing non-existence in the last nine years. Lucasarts’ changes in management, Free Radical’s collapse and EA’s purchase of Pandemic probably didn’t help matters, even if DICE's version is at least early into production now. What it means is that 2005’s Battlefront II is still somehow the best way of having large-scale Star Wars multiplayer battles on land (not so much in space), but despite that merit it’s been outstripped by most modern class-based multiplayer shooters.
Arriving just over a year after the original Battlefront, Battlefront II added new classes to the original’s straightforward soldier-heavy-sniper focus, notably the overpowered fire-spewing menace that is the Bothan Spy (I don’t recall Mon Mothma mentioning invisibility cloaks and flamethrowers when remarking that many of them died to bring the Rebels information, but as I'll get into, it's far from the daftest off-brand offence in Battlefront II).
They also toned down the jetpack-powered Dark Trooper from the first game, too, but where balance issues were hammered out in some areas, other equally problematic ones found their way in. The introduction of playable Jedis and other hero characters as killstreak rewards represented the next natural creative step for the series, but Pandemic made a mess of their implementation. There's not a single Star Wars fan alive today who wouldn't find the sight of Yoda doing a quadruple jump and accompanying flying animation to be quite funny.
Battlefront II's larger ground maps are the design highlight of the game, even if some of them, like Hoth and Endor, were just overhauled from the first installment. I still think this is the best interactive Hoth, complete with towering AT-ATs, gun turrets, Snowspeeders and the snow-strewn tunnels of Echo Base, even if some movie-based levels—the Death Star interior is particularly cheap in its lack of fan service and detail—look pretty flimsy given the potential of the source material. There's little consistency in the quality of the multiplayer maps, which you wouldn't get away with today, unless you were selling them as DLC to fans later on.
Battles are too chaotic to encourage strategy or teamwork, which makes it feel very dated next to PlanetSide 2 or Battlefield 4 where there’s a logic to working in groups. The systems of Battlefront II are easy to abuse, with people camping on spawn points, and Boba Fett waiting for me with a flamethrower when I respawned in Mos Eisley this afternoon. There's no structure: you grab a vehicle or just charge with a rifle, trying to capture as many spawn points as you can in the midst of the chaos. Snipers and support classes have a strategy in Battlefront II. Everyone else invariably turns up with a laser or a rocket launcher and dives around.
Space battles are slightly more refined to control, but even more throwaway. As we noted in our review at the time, X-Wing this ain't, as players spin round in circles trying to lock each other in their sights amidst a fleet of larger vessels. All the maps are pretty much the same. They are, however, still the best looking bits of Battlefront II, as illustrated by my X-Wing foolishly going to battle with an Imperial Fleet up top, plus it's still fun to land an A-Wing in a Star Destroyer hangar and blow their systems up from the inside, even though that never happened in the films ever.
And it is still Star Wars, though what it does with Star Wars is so silly and what I would assume to be off-brand that it should theoretically make the licensing team at Lucasarts hurl. Then again, we live in an age where this happened alongside a no doubt wiki's worth of merchandising nonsense. There's a Mos Eisley Assault mode in Battlefront II that is a hero character-only melee, where Jedis, Sith, smugglers and bounty hunters cross timelines to all fight in this construct of identical buildings. It's amusing, seeing Darth Vader force choke Yoda to death, or killing Emperor Palpatine with a laser pistol as Han Solo while two Chewbaccas contend with a Darth Maul and a Jango Fett.
Characters jump to Spider-Man heights, force powers toss budget-looking models of silver screen icons around and every single death is greeted with an identical bowing animation. I'm not a stickler for Star Wars canon or anything like that, but I'm sure someone got angry about it in 2005. It's what would happen if Dark Horse commissioned me to draw a Star Wars comic at the age of 10: fan service channeled through unrelenting waves of awful. I must admit, I hate Assault in Mos Eisley, but it seems to be a mode with enduring popularity among the game's online audience.
One mode no-one seems to be interested in (and for good reason) is Hunt, which I admit I've only ever played offline. In this, the species of the chosen map fight the invading forces. Today, for example, I watched twenty Wampa ice creatures plod through Echo Base on their way to take out a Rebel outpost, which is made ten times worse by the human-like animations on the Wampas. They actually look like job-for-hire extras wearing costumes, especially when you activate the sprint animation. It's amazing how Pandemic extrapolated this ludicrous scenario out of those six films, but I almost admire the audacity of an idea that's this entertaining to watch. When, exactly, did Wampas start attacking Rebel turrets on Hoth?
But then, this slightly obscure stuff sort of makes sense as part of the language of a rough shooter like Battlefront II. It never felt that credible, and always seemed angled towards a console audience than either a Battlefield or X-Wing Vs TIE Fighter PC fanbase. I thought that in 2005, as well, having played many stronger Star Wars games on PC, trying to figure out why this had broader appeal than the likes of X-Wing Alliance, Jedi Knight or Rebel Assault II (joking on that last one).
I think it's because this kind of multiplayer shooter still scratches an itch that no other Star Wars game does. I recognise Battlefront II hasn't aged well, but there are some evenings where only killing 100 stormtroopers in a hijacked AT-ST or devastating Kashyyyk's wookie population will do, and the catharsis of being able to re-enact set pieces from the movie within a relatively big sandbox is undeniably engaging.
I'm just glad another team is getting a chance to do a better job of depicting this important tenet of Star Wars conflict. In truth, I think a Battlefront III would benefit from falling somewhere between this and Battlefield 4 in complexity—to some extent I think being throwaway and immediately gratifying is now part of what fans will be expecting from any further entries in the series. It's meant to be accessible, but it also wouldn't hurt for the third one to be better than Battlefront II in every single way.
There’s still a small but active community playing the game. Every time I’ve logged on in the past three weeks there’s been at least three servers populated enough for a decent match, and since it only costs $10/£7 on Steam, it's worth revisiting if only to see how utterly bizarre Pandemic's interpretation of Star Wars lore was. You've got a barely-there Mos Eisley cantina with the appropriate music and a sprawling Endor where all sounds are drowned out by a cacophony of ewok squeaks justifying the species’ extinction. That studio clearly loved Star Wars, even if flying Yoda wouldn't make it into my pitch for the perfect interactive take on that universe.