Star Wars Battlefront II asks for the benefit of the doubt

This is a war

When I first saw The Force Awakens (a fine production that is better than Rogue One in every conceivable way), I left wanting to know more about the period between Return of the Jedi and the new film. And as a finger on the Monkey’s Paw curled, Disney released some comic books and novels designed to explore that exact period in Space History – all of which directly violated my own Prime Directive to consume as little Star Wars Expanded Universe material as possible.

Yet here I am, somewhat enthusiastic about a story that commits many of the Star Wars expanded universe cardinal sins: it introduces a series of brand-new characters who are “super important” but can’t really affect the world-state in any meaningful way because the next movie is a foregone conclusion, movie characters show up but are unable to change beyond what we understand because they have to be in a certain state by the next film, and I can only pronounce/spell half of the characters’ names.

But there is something to Battlefront II‘s story, even if it’s just the framework. You play as elite Stormtrooper Iden Versio, with her story picking up right after the end of Return of the Jedi and spanning the next thirty years until The Force Awakens. That setup alone carries tons of potential. It’s okay that Versio and her Inferno Squad won’t be able to affect the overall story of the series, because we’re going to spend three decades with these characters. Battlefront 2 won’t be about how some nameless soldier flew an X-Wing that one time during that one Death Star assault, it’ll be about how the life of this person is directly affected by the large-scale history of the galaxy.

It’s a shame the moment-to-moment gunplay feels almost identical to 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront. I never really got behind the internet’s collective desire for a single-player campaign, in part because the game’s arsenal of futuristic weaponry felt limp and unsatisfying at the time. Battlefront (both the rebooted series and the classic PlayStation 2/Xbox games) really shines in the large-scale multiplayer brouhahas. I didn’t get to play the multiplayer, but I’ve hear encouraging things – namely that vehicles spawn in the environment like a Battlefield game, rather than the previous game’s nebulous power-ups. Heroes like Rey or Darth Maul can be activated after players earn enough battle points, kind of like the Dota 2 store. (I assume; I’ve never played Dota 2.) These are improvements, but they’re only hypothetical until I can get my hands on the game long-term.

What I did play of the single-player campaign did little to dissuade my enthusiasm for the story or my skepticism about whether this game’s mechanics could support a full shooter campaign. I was told my demo was set to “God mode,” so I’m not going to hold a lack of challenge against the game – but pulling the trigger on your controller and making your gun fire just doesn’t feel all that exciting. It’s the “pew pew” onomatopoeia turned into a video game mechanic. It’s possible Battlefront II could offset that feeling with rollicking setpieces or character-driven storytelling, but right now the best stuff in the game has been relegated to cutscenes.

The space battles have been retooled, courtesy of former Burnout developers Criterion Games. Apparently the controls are exactly the same, but that ever-elusive “gamefeel” is just off enough to feel like a different control scheme altogether. Since I spent most of my time trying to figure out the controls, the space battle I played was less “thrilling spectacle” and more of a self-inflicted tutorial. Everything looked real nice and I shot those X-Wings real good, but this particular demo was too short and too early for me to come away with any sort of definitive opinion. I did feel confident about the motion capture’s ability to capture nuance – these seem like good performances, and I’m glad they’re represented well. But the dialogue is little more than stock sci-fi action tosh. “Is this part of the plan?” your cocky British sidekick quips as things start to go wrong.

This whole thing reminds me of this one time I wrote half a script for a class, where it started by following these Tarantino-lite film school 101-ass criminal archetypes, with the intention of breaking them down and humbling them in the most humiliating way possible. But since it was only the first half – the setup – my classmates tore it down for being generic. So I can empathize with Battlefront II‘s storyI’m willing to give the second half a chance. Let’s see the rest of that iceberg.

You can probably get away with a Star Wars campaign that has crummy shooting but a good story – people will excuse a lot for a chance to see Star Wars iconography in action. But the multiplayer, the part of Battlefront II I didn’t see firsthand, that’ll be the question mark hanging over this game until it launches. Will there be enough content? Will it capture the spirit of the identically named game that overshadows this whole production like so many Star Destroyers? I’m sure nostalgia plays a part in my love for the original Battlefront II, but that nostalgia comes from a place of honesty. It captured my imagination and the imaginations of my peers, perfectly representing the large-scale warfare young minds imagine while they play with Star Wars action figures.

Star Wars Battlefront (2015), by comparison, felt like a perfectly acceptable middle-of-the-road multiplayer shooter. Battlefront II‘s campaign works conceptually as a value-add if you need your $60 purchase to hit a certain amount of features, but there’s so much up in the air for both the single-player and the multiplayer that I don’t feel comfortable recommending Battlefront II quite yet. Everything I’ve heard from the story team and the designers has been very encouraging (the AI tech is pulled from the excellent Battlefield 1, for example), but after the last Battlefront I don’t know that I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

Mike Cosimano