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Touring the simple, spectacular battlefields of Star Wars Battlefront

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The other two modes in the beta more than made up for Survival. For Dropzone, Battlefront’s King of the Hill variant, I found myself on the volcanic surface of Sullust, a planet that I believe was mentioned once in the original trilogy and now probably has a Wookieepedia page that’s longer than entire books about real places. The layout is very different to that of the Hoth and Tatooine maps, suggesting each planet will have its own identity. This map is full of small cliffs and outcrops of rock players can use as sniping or hiding spots. Dropzone sends pods to random parts of the map, and both teams have to compete to hold the pod for a certain amount of time before scoring a point. Between spawn points there’s X-Wing wreckage, a parked Imperial shuttle and other reminders you’re in the Star Wars universe—including a giant space war going on overhead between Star Destroyers and Calamari cruisers.

Dropzone is a fun mode because you don’t have to stand particularly close to the pod after you’ve captured it to maintain control. You can pick a hiding spot, wait for players to run in, then shoot them in the back as they try to capture it for themselves. Admittedly I fell afoul of this more than I benefited from it, but I got steadily better, as I did at using my grenades to take out clumps of enemies after figuring out their positions.

Walker Assault is undeniably the main event. It evokes Empire Strikes Back perfectly—not just the sight of the Ion Cannon, or AT-ATs marching ominously towards Echo Base, but also small details like the colour filter inside the Rebel hangar, or seeing a downed starfighter on the outskirts of the map. This was the mode that made me say “woah!” out loud. TIE Fighters, X-Wings, A-Wings, Y-Wings flying in and bombing AT-ATs. It’s the real deal: a full-on Star Wars battle built with impressive modern graphics technology. What LucasArts failed to do in eight years, DICE has brought together in just over two.

The main battlefield is extraordinary. Laser fire everywhere, and walkers bombarding the battle lines and trenches where Imperials are taking potshots at my Rebel comrades. Grenades don’t have much use here, so everyone’s trying to land headshots with the sniper rifle. The first thing I do is sprint to a token on the map that activates the X-Wing. Being in the sky feels amazing: it’s pretty damn obvious where the battlefield is, since the map is blank white outside of the conflict zone, but seeing Hoth from overhead in real-time as the two sides exchange laser fire is still so cool. The scale is as wide as you could hope for, although steering the ship feels stiff with the default sensitivity—I have to move the mouse a hell of a lot to turn around. I fly towards the AT-AT, put some laser fire on it, fire two proton torpedoes then collide with it as I fail to pull up in time for another pass. Brilliant.

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I saw a lot of players crash in a similar fashion, leading me to believe the default stiffness of the fighter controls is an issue with the game—but it’s one DICE can easily fix, and can hopefully be tweaked in the menus anyway. Flying an X-Wing should feel arcadey: this isn’t a sim. I had more success later in the nippier A-Wing craft, where I took out an AT-ST from above with laser fire (as well as another collision that I somehow survived), and had a brief dogfight with a TIE Fighter. The ships have Star Cards, too—in the A-Wing’s case a shield buff and concussion missiles. I can’t deny that flying a ship is very empowering in Battlefront, and more of an influential position to hold in battle than being a foot soldier.

In Walker Assault, the goal is to stop the AT-ATs from advancing, which requires calling in Y-Wings to disable their shields before everyone turns fire on them. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader wander around the place, striking down less fortunate cannon fodder, though I didn’t really encounter either of them. I think there’s a lot of mileage in this map—I didn’t feel like I’d seen every part of it even after three playthroughs. If I have one complaint, it’s that turrets are overpowered right now—I managed to get 15 kills in one life, which I promise you is laughably unrepresentative of my ability. This streak was only ended when a particularly annoyed player crashed a Snowspeeder into me, which I probably deserved for camping.

The blaster rifle feels nice and chunky—headshots and zooming-in absolutely matter, but you can get along OK without working that hard to do either. There’s just about enough room for you to figure out a personal strategy with the Star Cards, but the progression doesn’t seem massively in-depth (most of it is gated off for the beta anyway, of course). More cards unlock as your rank increases, bringing in new and different weapons. It’s all very simple to figure out, though, underlining my earlier assertion that this game is deliberately uncomplicated in order to appeal to Star Wars fans rather than the shooter devotees who’ve played Battlefield 4 for 1,000 hours.

“I think that’s a good summary of our approach,” says Fegraeus when I ask him about this. “We are trying to provide for Star Wars fans across the board... flying X-Wings, being a Jedi, being stormtroopers and so on. But at its heart this is a Battlefront game, which means that it’s also a first-person shooter, and kind of a third-person shooter, which is another important aspect of the franchise. So we are trying to mix the things that are the most important for those audiences.”

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Not everything from old Battlefront has been translated wholesale. The vehicle tokens take a little bit of the sandbox feel out of the game—previously in Pandemic’s Battlefront you could actually go up to a vehicle and take off, a valuable part of the experience that’s now automated.

“It’s a very large and complicated design philosophy in terms of how to make the modes balanced, how to make it interesting,” Fegraeus says. “What the power-up system does give us is this democratic, free way of emergent tactics... it gives the game an explorative component. I can head to the objective, for example, and try to do something, or I can actually take the flanking route and go around here, and there’s a power-up there that gives me an even bigger ability or weapon, or whatever it might be, to actually take my objective... So it’s emergent strategies and tactics, including vehicles as power-ups, that give this a really interesting type of gameplay.”

It doesn’t lose a lot from handling vehicles this way, but it sure was nice to be given the ability take off in a snowspeeder in Battlefront 2, with the option to get out at any time. The trade-off is how much more refined everything is—Pandemic’s Battlefront was rougher in pretty much every other way, and the balancing of classes was all over the place.

Aside from a lack of server browsing, which DICE explains away as a by-product of their matchmaking system and keeping things easy to navigate, I was pretty impressed by how Battlefront runs on PC. I tinkered with the key mapping during my preview and had a poke around the other options, and I stumbled across one nice, accidental moment of fun when I remapped the interact button to the celebrate emote on the keyboard. It meant that every time I captured a pod in Dropzone, my Rebel character would cheer in third-person while doing it—I enjoyed that. Star Wars, after all, is at its best when it’s hitting 60% drama and 40% comedy. No shame in having a bit of fun with it. It also shows that the PC version hasn’t been hastily thrown together—there’s a nice suite of graphics options alongside the option to remap, which is what you’d hope for from DICE.

I’m half-expecting new Battlefront to be a game that I enjoy more for the Star Wars than the actual shooting. But that’s a reflection of the target audience, and I have to admit that streamlining the core ideas of Battlefield has some merit in a game based on a film series as broad as this. I can sense it filling the Titanfall hole in my gaming—something I’ll play for 20 hours or so at launch, then sporadically throughout 2016, but perhaps not forever. This is one for people who just want to see an AT-AT storm towards Echo Base, take out a TIE Fighter in an X-Wing, or, if you’re me, crash an A-Wing into a chicken walker. Already excited at the thought of Episode VII arriving in December, after a much-needed decade-long break from Star Wars, I find that an enticing proposition.

Samuel Roberts
Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.