Notes from the front lines: The Experience of Playing Star Wars: Battlefront.

The stories in Star Wars: Battlefront are as simple as any contemporary video game narrative can hope to achieve. Namely: kill the baddies. The stories last for a maximum of ten minutes at a time, after which you switch ideological allegiances (Imperial or Rebel) and your location, and it is mere moments before an NPC leader is barking at you to defeat the opposition, or capture a control point, or prevent a potentially catastrophic data uplink. You’re deposited into an arena with up to forty other players, and a beautiful, chaotic hell breaks loose. 

Star Wars: Battlefront is an online multi-player shooter with the unusual omission of a single-player campaign. The story is limited to the pre-established narrative held within the universe itself, and this is the key to SW:B greatest success - the game feels exactly like you’ve been dropped into the original trilogy. There’s the satisfying sound of snow crunching underfoot as you gaze up and see an AT-AT march with gigantic thuds towards the Rebel base. Above you, the sky is streaked with red and green lasers from X-Wings and TIE fighters (which you may pilot if you stumble upon the random power-up) as they fight for supremacy. On Tattoine, a sand storm creates a momentary shield as you attempt to make out the blaster fire to determine your enemy’s location. Or on Endor, the beautiful forest landscape is almost enough to distract you from your objective. Even the quickest loss of focus is at your peril, as you hear the ominous sound of artificial gasps behind you, and you turn just in time to see Darth Vader raising his light sabre…

You die in Star Wars: Battlefront. A lot. And most of the time not by one of the game’s heroes (the novelty of being blown to pieces by Bobba Fett at a miraculous distance is only fun the first time round, if that) - but usually at the hands of one of your fellow players. Or worse, a poorly thrown grenade bounces back and explodes in your face. Or you simply fall off a cliff into nothingness. The game politely informs you: ‘You were killed by YOURSELF’, before you’re reincarnated for the fortieth time back into the match. 

Death is a frequent occurrence for even the best players, but Star Wars: Battlefront suffers from the exact same difficulties that every online multi-player game must face. That is, the learning curve for beginning players is steep. In online matches speed is of the essence. It can take many hours of dutiful practice to build up a remotely sensible score, but even then true feelings of mastery are few and far between. Given the random selection of your opponents, you are sometimes dropped into a game that feels accessible and enjoyable - it is challenging, but not frustrating. Other times, however, I find myself among opponents where I am clearly one of the worst players. 

I crouch low and make my way slowly to the flashes of red that are blipping on my mini-map. I know my opponents are near, but to run into a fray will almost certainly lead to instant death. I’ve been on this map many times before; I have studied the corridors and courtyards and know where enemies are likely to hide or rush through confidently. (I have learnt this the hard way, of course. If the game didn’t automatically delete corpses upon death, I would suffer the surreal vision of spotting my dead body at almost every corner.) I stumble upon a lone enemy. We see each other in the same instant. They shoot. I shoot. We both throw a grenade. 

It’s over in a second.

About ninety percent of the time, I die. I find myself re-spawned at the edge of the map, a tedious jog away from the action. This has happened enough times now that I have come to peace with a simple fact: I am likely surrounded by twelve or thirteen year olds. Their profiles impressive scores indicate many hours of play that I do not have. But, thankfully that’s not the point. SW: Battlefront is designed to be played casually. It’s not going to be the next e-sports phenomena, over-taken by Korean teams of young men who play the game at lightning speed. Weapons unlock the more you play the game, but essentially, no single blaster is better than any other. They all kill equally well. It comes down to who is the quickest and most accurate. It’s about reflexes. In this arena, at 28 years old, my reflexes are positively geriatric.

I crouch down and begin again. 

Why? 

When you actually manage a kill, or even better a streak, it’s like you’ve won the Olympics. Seriously. The dopamine kick is high.

Let’s just be clear, because it’s a potentially revealing moment: I’ve felt less proud about certain aspects of my career than I have about successfully shooting a probable prepubescent in his Goddam stupid Stormtrooper face. 

We’ll leave what that says about me to another time. What it says about the game is clear: it’s good. It’s fun and simple. Some days I put the controller down in a humph, sick of being killed repeatedly. But I know I’ll be back again soon. The game drip-feeds you content with expert precision. The ranking up system gradually unlocks more weapons and abilities that you’re convinced will be the key to your long-anticipated success. They probably won’t but it doesn’t matter. You gain experience points simply by playing. Even if you manage to kill no one ever, it only takes a few hours to climb to level ten.

By that stage you’re well and truly hooked. The potential tedium of constant death is spiced by random power-ups, a genius streak from the developers. In certain matches you can stumble a ‘hero’ token, enabling you to become one of the games six playable characters: Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, Bobba Feet, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. You’re not invincible, but you’re considerably over-powered, and the few minutes you spend streaking around the map killing dozens of your fellow players makes you forget you’re actually bad at the game, and will return to the existential nightmare of repetitive death soon enough. 

Similarly spiced through matches are ‘vehicle’ power-ups, which see you piloting iconic hardware from the franchise. There’s also the far more common weapon power-ups, that come in the form of helpful droids, one-time uber grenades, rockets or shields. All of this is enough to keep your playtime variable and fun. 

Fun is the key word here. If you play and don’t think too much, Star Wars: Battlefront is a great game. But when you start picking it apart, it’s hard to put it back together again. 

For example - why isn’t there a single player campaign? (Standby for the inevitable single-player version of this game, probably released within a year, that uses all the pretty assets that they’ve built for this game.) There are single-player modes that are simplified versions of online games, where you face off against a mass of AI players, but these games are annoyingly exempt from the levelling up process, giving you no real reason to persist in perfecting them. 

Also, why aren’t there more maps? Within an hour or so, you can easily experience all of the maps for Star Wars: Battlefront. Don’t get me wrong, they’re GORGEOUS and will make any half-decent nerd wet him/herself with glee, but they’re limited. I understand new planets would’ve meant developing new assets, and a whole heap of development time. Also, now that Hoth, Tattooine and Endor are done, you’ve ticked off the majors for the original trilogy. But Cloud City and Dagobah - or even the Death Star - would make for wonderful places to die in repeatedly. Annoyingly,  for an additional fee, you can buy the season pass, with the promise of more maps to come in the months ahead.

Star Wars: Battlefront approach to value for money is its biggest argument against it.  Distributed by the infamously corporate EA Games, it’s difficult to see why Star Wars: Battlefront is worth as much of you money as Fallout 4. Because it isn’t. One of those games is an incredibly dense world filled with hours of varied play. The other is a beautiful but limited online shooter that will be played casually for years, but not with any intensity. The decision to put a pay gate between the user and additional content, precisely timed for the release of The Force Awakens, is an irritatingly smart (and transparent) business decision. And it’ll work. Goddam it, I’ll buy that extra content. 

Why? 

Because I'm at the edge of the map again. Within thirty seconds I’ll probably be dead. But maybe not. I run towards the red bleep on my mini-map. Suddenly, around the corner, an enemy rushes past. I see them a micro-second before they see me, and I fire. My blaster makes a satisfying burst of sound. Around me, the impressive din of battle makes the world seem freshly alive and real. When John Williams score pipes up, it’s enough to make the hairs on the back of my arm stand on end.

My quick-fire battle lasts less than a second. I am at 3% health, but I win. My enemy stumbles down dead, and my screen flashes with a new score. As my health re-generates in game, I feel a rush of life pump through me in the real world.

I’m good at this game. 

I’m a mother fuckin’ Storm Trooper. 

I will play this game forever.

I march on.