Star Wars has a pretty good history of letting us play as the baddies. Whether it’s asserting Imperial dominance in TIE Fighter or encouraging Kyle Katarn to explore his dark side just to see the hammy ’90s FMVs in Jedi Knight, PC gaming has given us plenty of opportunities to see this universe from the bad-guy perspective. What you’ve never really seen in Star Wars, outside of the books, is the Empire portrayed with any nuance of morality or motivation, in the way that Rogue One (semi-successfully) portrays the Rebellion as ruthless saboteurs. Battlefront II’s new singleplayer campaign is an attempt to do just that, casting you as Iden Versio, an Imperial special forces operative who is 100% dedicated to the cause.
“With something like Rogue One, you see Saw Gerrera and his group of more extreme Rebels, and they present a grey side of the good,” Lucasfilm’s Douglas Reilly tells me. “So we were interested in looking at, what’s the grey side of the bad? And that comes from a place of—when you take off that stormtrooper helmet—who is that person underneath? Why do they believe what they believe? Why do they feel the Empire is the right place to be? We wanted to explore what that meant to an individual who was truly committed and raised in the Empire, and absolutely fully believes in that. To her, and to the Empire, she is a hero.”
Iden’s father is a high-ranking general within the Empire, and she comes from Vardos, one of the game’s new planets, which is a red-tinged Imperial utopia styled somewhere between the Citadel in Mass Effect and the posh rooftops of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. There, the Rebel Alliance is seen as a terrorist group. Iden’s the sort of hero who inspires young people on Imperial planets to sign up to the academy, and Vardos is a stronghold of citizens who believe in the Empire’s ideology (which, from what I can tell of decades of watching Star Wars, is basically just oppressing filthy freedom-likers with lasers and posturing gloomily).
Her story begins at the end of Return of the Jedi, as she disbelievingly watches the second Death Star explode from the forests of Endor. Iden vows to avenge the Emperor. Her tale continues over the mostly unseen 30 years that separate Jedi and The Force Awakens, eventually leading to the creation of Starkiller base by the First Order. A character-centric tale set across three decades is no small addition to a game series known primarily for big, silly battles involving faceless soldiers. “We’ll see her grow but maintain her commitment in her beliefs across that period of time,” says Motive’s Paola Jouyaux.
The story will show different perspectives of the battlefield, too, with one mission letting you play as Luke Skywalker, and a tease that we’ll also get to cut people down while playing as pouty Han Solo-killing lad Kylo Ren. Their appearances will be organic, rather than forced. When I ask if original cast members will be reprising their roles or not, Reilly gave me a non-committal “in due time!” response.
Iden is part of Inferno Squadron, a sort of special ops team that helpfully straddles the different combat disciplines of Battlefront. They’re on the frontlines, destroying things, but they also infiltrate and sabotage, and as their costumes suggest, they’re also killer pilots.
Iden has a robot sidekick, too. If the Rebellion’s droids are characterised as friendly and occasionally camp sidekicks, the Empire’s are right bastards. Iden’s robot pal looks like a small version of an Imperial probe droid, like a sci-fi version of those drones that are steadily popping up in just about every big game these days.
“He’s slightly more evil than the companion droids you’re used to,” says Joyaux. “And he has this wide set of abilities coming from the Empire, so he really elevates Iden above the usual stormtroopers in the battlefield by giving her special skills. He can slice, he can shield her, he can shock people and he can take down enemies for her.” The droid is a key character in the story, but it sounds like they’re more colleagues than BFFs. “It really has this symbiotic relationship with Iden, and it’s very much part of her journey.”
Some form of this robot sidekick is, I’m guessing, going to cross over into the game’s multiplayer. As much as Battlefront II’s campaign wants to tell you a cool story, it’s also teaching you its multiplayer systems, and there are several new ones to learn. The three developers—DICE, Criterion and Motive—aim to create a fuller package than the somewhat shallow (particularly at launch) 2015 Battlefront.
There’s definitely a sense that they feel the need to win us round after the reaction to the first game. While I think people were initially satisfied by the spectacle of seeing AT-ATs march across Hoth in DICE’s Frostbite tech, there were few long-term reasons to keep playing Battlefront. And a few of the set pieces that arrived as DLC—like the Death Star—really should’ve been in the game at launch. There’s certainly evidence in Battlefront II’s reveal that they’ve learned their lesson, and having three developers working on the game means it’s easier for them to ram it with stuff to do.
I ask DICE’s creative director, Bernd Diemer, if choosing to have three developers making the sequel was a reaction to the first game being criticised for its lack of content and depth. “Yes, it was a logical consequence,” he says. “DICE is known for broad and sprawling multiplayer games with lots of stuff in it, but at the same time, when we decided to take space battles seriously, we realised that we needed to bring in expertise that helps us to make them really, really good. Maybe we could’ve done a campaign at Stockholm, maybe not, I don’t know... but for us it was the better solution to go with a team that’s focused on that and dedicated to that.”
The multiplayer will benefit from taking place across every era of the Star Wars saga, rather than just one. In terms of revealed heroes and planets so far, it looks like there’s a lot in there. Backdrops include Hoth, Mos Eisley, Kamino, Starkiller Base, Yavin IV, Endor, the aforementioned new planet Vardos, as well as other new worlds not announced yet. The footsoldiers will match the era, too, so you can expect to see everything from clone soldiers and trade federation battle droids, right up to First Order stormtroopers.
Heroes include Yoda, Darth Maul, Luke, Kylo Ren, Rey, Han Solo and most likely Obi-Wan Kenobi and Jango Fett as well, based on concept art which shows off their two ships in battle. Considering you’ll be able to have multiple heroes on both sides fighting at once this time, with some suggestion that Battlefront is taking influence from hero shooters, I expect that list to grow even larger. If Jango Fett makes the cut, Boba’s bound to join in too, since you could probably just swap the colour palette and go to lunch (I’m pretty sure that’s how games development works).
Space battles have been added to Battlefront II, having previously appeared in the last game’s Rogue One and Death Star DLC. The entire vehicle combat system has been overhauled by Criterion, applying their Burnout expertise to the handling and experience of being in a cockpit, having worked on a well-received Star Wars VR game on PS4 last year. It was easy to manoeuvre an X-Wing or TIE Fighter in the first game, but the Fighter Squadron mode didn’t have enough depth or options to be anything more than a fun aside, occasionally spoiled by some utterly overpowered arse tearing it up in the Falcon. Here, up to 24 players can scrap across the Imperial dockyards, or even in between asteroids, and hero vehicles return, too.
DICE, meanwhile, is focused on improving the on-foot multiplayer. “Adding more depth was one of the first things that we decided we wanted to do,” Diemer says. That means more customisation options and reintroducing classes, which were a part of Pandemic’s old Battlefront games, but were replaced with the Star Card abilities and weapons system in the 2015 game. The problem was, that didn’t encourage much teamwork. Here, you’ll need to work in squads. With more heroes prowling the Battlefront II maps, working together in squads is essential—a skilled set of faceless footsoldiers can take Darth Maul down if they’re good enough. Officer, assault, heavy and specialist are the four available.
Diemer explains the new classes. “We started looking at our heroes, and we wanted to make heroes more present in the game, so they appear more often, there are more of them, and there are easier ways to get them, so they’re not restricted to the lucky few or the best players.” In Battlefront 1, he says, they tended to drift towards players with the most kills or lucky players, “because that’s how it goes in these games. So we said, ‘no, we want something that makes it more likely that more players will experience that’. That’s a cool idea. What happened then is, we had more heroes in the match at the same time, and that meant the troopers were becoming the fodder. As a single trooper, it’s very difficult to stand up against a hero—much less two.
“So we thought, how can we give you more tools so you’re able to hold your own against a hero, at least for a certain time? The best answer we could come up with was team play. How can you make team play more attractive? The obvious answer is by classes, because it’s so natural that [when] you’re playing classes, you look for your buddies so you have a good mix of what you feel comfortable playing together.” Heroes won’t be overpowered in Battlefront II, and even if it boots canon into the sun, maybe you could take Darth Maul down by doing something daft like shooting him in the face with rockets. That’s my hope, anyway. “It’s no longer that these heroes are these all-powerful game-changers. Sometimes they are, but not necessarily. When you run into a good group of troopers who know their stuff, they might go down.”
While the classes are fixed, the game has a new ability system that lets you customise your soldiers. Annoyingly, I couldn’t get DICE to be too specific about how these or the game’s progression systems work, but they sound like a series of secondary combat commands that you can tailor to your play style and level up. They include things like grenades, personal shields and laser trip mines. “What you want to do is give your trooper a little bit of personality,” Diemer says. “And for that, you need to be able to customise them in some way so it feels right. I really like using grenades, so I might try to pull my class a little bit towards my favourite toy or my favourite gadget.”
You can even customise hero characters, for example adding a mind control Force power to Rey, or Force pull and push to Kylo Ren. Even vehicles and hero ships have changeable abilities, with apparently consistent progression across everything in the game. New ground transportation options are coming to Battlefront, too, such as tauntauns that can headbutt enemies (pretty sure that’s not canon either, but why not?), as well as tanks and speeders.
Battlefront II will have more online modes than the original, and where planets are making a second appearance, as Hoth is, they’ve been totally redesigned. It’s a pretty significant package of stuff, so much so that I’m actually struggling to relay it all here. Clearly they’ve made a plan to give people the Battlefront game they wanted from the start, even ditching the dreaded season pass in an effort to keep the community from fragmenting this time. Expect some other forms of expansion, though.
And yet, even with all the revamped multiplayer options, the part of EA’s Battlefront II plan that I’m most excited about is that singleplayer. They talk about it like they’re trying to make a contemporary Star Wars story that can credibly sit alongside the likes of Rogue One and The Force Awakens, which is a brave pursuit for a campaign tied to a large-scale FPS. But The Old Republic aside, it’s been six years since we got to play a cinematic solo story set in the Star Wars universe, and even longer since anyone made a good one. The idea of exposing the Empire’s shades of grey is compelling, and something I genuinely want to see play out. Not that I condone the extinguishing of all human and alien life by a big weaponised space ball, of course.