Peter [Parrish]: Not very long ago, in this galaxy right here, Tim McDonald and I have been playing Star Wars: Battlefront. EA’s latest demo-labelled-as-a-beta-for-some-reason (the game is out next month, let’s not pretend much will actually change) is wrapping up in the next day or so, which makes this a fine time to witter on about our experiences in the trenches of Hoth, the canyons of Tatooine, and the cess pits of whatever that other level is.
I’ve probably missed an obvious Star Wars reference there. Sorry. I’m afraid whenever I think about the series, I mostly hear Bill Murray’s incredible lounge singing on Saturday Night Live. And then I remember the Star Wars Holiday Special exists and laugh and laugh …
The Star Wars: Battlefront beta is neither as funny nor as horrifying as either of those things. Although when people are kamikaze bombing Darth Vader with A-Wings on the Hoth level, I suppose that does come pretty close.
Tim McDonald, is A-Wing suicide a morally justifiable form of warfare if it results in the death of one of the Dark Side’s greatest warriors? Alternative and less silly question; how have you got on with Star Wars: Battlefront?
Tim [McDonald]: I found it very bizarre that, after playing for a few levels, it asked me for feedback on which parts of the games I liked and didn’t like. Yeah, guys, I’m sure you’re going to totally rework one segment of the game if 90% of the players suggested that it was a bit shit.
To answer your question, I’d say “no”, but that’s because it doesn’t actually kill him. It just temporarily takes him out of the action… which might actually be a justified kamikaze attack, I suppose. I mean, stopping Darth Vader from tearing through your lines for a few minutes is probably justifiable.
Then again, the Rebel Alliance’s financiers and accountants might disagree, because I A-Wings aren’t cheap. If you’re going to use an atmospheric combat craft as a large unguided suicide missile then use something shitty and obsolete like a T-16, instead of a high-speed hyperspace-capable combat-superiority interceptor like the A-Wing. Although I suppose they probably didn’t have any T-16s on Hoth, so I guess you have to make do. But still: an A-Wing? The Rebels had enough difficulty keeping them intact without using them as impromptu explosives!
Er, sorry. I’ll probably nerd out more later, but I’ll stop for now.
Tim: As for Star Wars: Battlefront itself, I feel slightly ashamed to admit that… I quite like it. No, really. There are a lot of “buts” attached to that statement, but I really have quite enjoyed the few hours I’ve spent with it, to the extent that I’m kind of thinking “Ooh, I actually wouldn’t mind having a go right now” as I write these words.
To describe why, I have to use that one word I absolutely hate using in any critique: it’s just fun. It’s got a lot of problems and I rather doubt it’s going to have a huge amount of tactical depth, but there’s just something genuinely enjoyable about blasting your way through Rebel lines accompanied by other Stormtroopers, or engaging in a high-speed dogfight with a TIE Interceptor while piloting an X-Wing.
What about you, Peter? What were your general impressions, and was there anything that your particularly liked?
Peter: T-16s? Good grief, you’re digging deep into the nerd basket for that one.
Tim: I bloody well am not. Luke Skywalker used to bullseye womp rats in his T-16 back home, as everyone who’s seen Star Wars: Episode IV knows. I would have been nerding out if I’d mentioned that an A-Wing costs roughly 12 times as much as even a brand new T-16 while a used one is even less than half the price of that, although I suppose you have to factor in the logistics of why you’d bother transporting a T-16 to Hoth, and oh dear I’m just going to stop talking now.
Peter: I just told you that my Star Wars memories are now mostly over-written by a Bill Murray comedy lounge act. Anyway! Star Wars: Battlefront feels like the most arcade-y FPS I’ve played in a long while. By that, I mean it simplifies a lot from the more recent crop of military shoot-mans. Shooting from the hip is (seemingly) just as effective as zooming in at range. Instead of 50 different variations of creepily branded automatic weapons, there are just “some blasters” that (while a bit different in how effective they are) don’t need much explanation. Vehicle spawns are just kind of floating on the battlefield, waiting for somebody to pick them up and have a go.
DICE couldn’t quite resist removing the obligatory early bullshit where you “unlock” the equipment that should’ve been standard (a grenade and jump-pack), but at least the former item is a quick one. The usual unlock system has also been turned into ‘cards’ for some reason. Maybe to make it seem friendlier, or like a phone app or something? I don’t know.
Tim: I seem to remember a tooltip or something telling me that zooming only affects the vision and not the actual accuracy, so I believe you’re right on that. The “cards” thing actually made me think of Titanfall, but those were largely one-use. With the exception of “Star” cards (which are charged up either by spending money on them – although only in-game currency, thank Christ – or by picking up things on the map) it’s basically a loadout with another name.
Peter: I guarantee that you will be able to spend real money on that in-game currency at some point. EA want to milk the hell out of this thing. Book it as a PC Invasion prediction!
Tim: I dunno, I’m trying to remain optimistic. I mean, Need for Speed will apparently have free DLC and no microtransactions, so… maybe? Just maybe?
Peter: Away from the horrible microtransaction possibilities, I like the distance Battlefront keeps from the FPS go-to of grim, dour military persons doing military things. The activities are all kind of dumb, because it’s Star Wars! But that’s alright. Being blown up by an AT-AT or killed by Luke Skywalker feels more frivolous and throwaway than being killed by xZ_sn1p0rG0d_Zx immediately after spawning in a wet ditch on a grey map, and I like that.
Mind you, being immediately killed after spawning is still a thing – and I’m sure the sniping-obsessed pricks who try to ruin all of these games will be plotting devious things with the Cycler Rifle.
The hyper-competitive sorts probably aren’t going to appreciate the feel of this game at all (and that’s fine, they have plenty of others to choose from), but I quite appreciate the ‘looser’ vibe.
Whether I’d be interested in playing Star Wars: Battlefront at any great length rather depends on the distribution ratio of levels in the final game, though. This beta has three things to do in it: solo/co-op survival mode on Tatooine (which is hard to judge, because it’s only six waves long), the Pod Defense mode (which is honestly pretty weak), and Hoth, which has its issues, but is easily the most entertaining pursuit of the three.
That was my summary of the modes on offer anyway, would you broadly agree?
Tim: No. And you’re an idiot.
Actually, for once, I think we’re in complete and total agreement. I’ll talk about some of my own personal loves and hates about it in a moment, but I want to briefly mention something you barely touched on, and that’s just how Star Wars this is. It’s one of the Star Wars-iest games I’ve seen in many, many years, and it’s all the better for it.
The blaster sounds, the iconic music, the voices, the appearances of everything from the huge stomping AT-ATs to the rocks on Tatooine, the Mon Calamari Cruiser engaging a Star Destroyer in the skies overhead… I can pick holes in a lot of stuff (one of many, many, many examples: why the hell are uplinks required for Y-Wings to engage in bombing runs?), but the overwhelming feeling is “Yes, this is Star Wars.” Even some of the better Star Wars games (the Jedi Knight ones, for instance) occasionally messed up some of this stuff – not in terms of authenticity, but just in terms of feeling like you were there, in that galaxy far, far away. That really adds a lot to it for me, and helps overshadow some of the flaws.
I can live with the fact that the lightsabers are a bit shit because hero characters are a rarity, but aside from some stuff that busts canon for the sake of gameplay balance and/or development resources (like Return of the Jedi Luke being on Hoth, or how X-Wings are about as flimsy as TIE Fighters), it’s all totally Star Wars.
Peter: The sound design and aesthetic authenticity are both largely excellent, yes.
I guess while we’re in the region of how the game looks, I’ll also jump in here and say that it manages to run rather well on my i3-2100/8GB/7870 oldie-box. I’m still experimenting with a mixture of medium and high settings, but the fact that it will (mostly) hold 60fps on a packed Hoth map at medium settings and look lovely in the process is impressive. There’s a fair bit of pop-in (which I believe is even a problem on ‘ultra’), and the intro bits stutter like crazy (I assume that’s my CPU struggling to load in assets), but once the match gets under way it’s all fairly smooth.
Tim: I actually kind of enjoyed the Survival mode on Tatooine, although as you mentioned, it’s only six waves of 15 and it only offers one difficulty level. I’d imagine that if you’re going for the collectibles – some of which take some serious expertise with the jump packs – and playing with a friend on Master difficulty, that could be an entertaining challenge. I’m hardly going to go back and play those six waves again in the beta, though, except maybe to experiment with some weapons before I spend credits on actually unlocking them.
The Pod Defense mode on… Sullust, I think?… is rubbish, though, yes. It’s basically a capture-and-hold with the capture points randomly appearing when one is taken, and the map itself is pretty boring and featureless. There are a couple of notable landmarks like a crashed starship and an open plain area, but mostly it’s just a slightly naff and generic FPS mode on a slightly naff and generic FPS map. I played it a couple of times solely to grind up a couple of unlocks and then gave up on it forever.
Peter: The survival thing is … fine. I don’t really have enough information to form a strong opinion on it. But yep, Pod Defense did nothing to make me want to continue with it. Poor map, and an uninspired mode of play that we’ve seen twenty billion times before.
Tim: Walker Assault on Hoth, though? I really, really like that. So much. Not only is it a relatively asymmetrical game mode in terms of objectives (the Rebels have to capture and hold uplink modules to call in attacks on the inexorably advancing AT-AT walkers, while the Empire just roll forwards and try to keep the AT-ATs alive) but it also feels quite asymmetrical in terms of power. Most of the time, I can guarantee that the Empire will win, because the Rebels really need to get their shit together and coordinate to keep control of the uplinks before the endless slew of Stormtroopers and vehicles push them too far back, but even losing on this map is usually entertaining. It’s rarely 100% dominant, and even if you totally fail to damage the AT-ATs at all, there are normally a few moments where you were this close to getting both uplinks online.
I think some of that’s down to the design. There are three pairs of nodes to be secured, with the next set activating as the Rebels fall farther and farther back. The first set is incredibly difficult to defend, and the AT-ATs likely won’t take much damage, if any at all. The second set is an awful lot easier for the Rebels to take as long as they have some set of coordination, because one is ridiculously easy to defend. The final set is pretty much on a giant battlefield, with trenches dug into the snow, and the AT-ATs getting closer and closer to their target, and both sides exchanging fire over long distances while air support units strafe the ground…
Basically, despite feeling like it favours the Empire (in your average pub game, at least), it’s pretty fun regardless. To me, that’s a sign of an entertaining mode and an entertaining game, albeit perhaps not “perfect” map design. But then, whoever said things had to be symmetrical and perfectly balanced?
Peter: Only every internet critic of an FPS map or mode ever.
I think the power will shift a bit closer to the Rebels once more people are able to deploy stuff like the Ion Cannon ability seen in the Survival mode. Right now their best weapons against the AT-ATs are Orbital Strikes (which requires some players to save up and execute correctly at the right moment) and the snowspeeder quick-time-event attack thing in the third phase, which is fairly advanced play for something like this.
Agreed though, I didn’t really mind losing as the Rebels on that map. They lose on Hoth in the film, after all. You can still engage in valiant moments of defiance with some deft piloting, or judicious use of the defensive turret thingies (although those are quite easy to destroy).
Tim: Those defensive turrets are also pretty good at pounding the AT-ATs, as are any aerial vehicles you have around. And, for that matter, the dreaded Cycler Rifle works okay too.
I like the powerups being dotted around the map, and that gives everyone a pretty fair chance, even if you’re a lower level. Maybe you’ll find an automated gun turret or a smart missile or a TIE Interceptor to fly. I like the looser, arcade-y feel (although I’d actually argue it’s maybe a bit too “modern combat” oriented; I’d have preferred it if people had a bit more health). I like actually having a number to show how much health I have. I like the focus on the single weapon, with the rest of your loadout – like the Cycler Rifle you mentioned – being based around those recharging “cards”.
On that note, they did at least make it so that the Cycler Rifle only insta-kills with a headshot, which is actually quite tricky to achieve with the jump pack movement and fast pace of the game. Camping, sniping, and sneaking behind enemy lines is still do-able – and I did it as the Empire, going around to the second set of capture points and shooting Rebels in the back while the first points were still operational – but it seems more about continual blaster fire and sustained engagements than sneaky special ops.
Peter: Special mention for the non-automated gun turret emplacements which can swivel through 360 degrees, meaning Imperial forces can use them too. As if the Rebels don’t already have enough to worry about.
Tim: I don’t, however, like the unlock system. I’m sorry, but that is total bullshit. The jump pack is borderline essential for fast, efficient movement around the maps, and it’s locked away from you for a few hours. Hell, even the basic Thermal Detonators (read: grenades) are locked until you level up once, which means your first match will be you stumbling around with literally nothing but your blaster.
And that’s without mentioning that this seems to be going back to the days of… I forget if it was Bad Company 2 or Battlefield 3, where LMGs were the most stupidly overpowered weapons in the game, and it took numerous patches to finally tone them down. The final weapon you can unlock in the beta is, essentially, one of these LMGs: a fast-firing, long-ranged, decently accurate weapon, which is pretty dominant over the rest at pretty much any range.
Peter: Oh, so that’s why I was coming off so poorly in most one-to-one fire exchanges even though I was landing shots multiple times. I was wondering about that.
Tim: Headshots possibly also account for it, but yeah, the DLT-19 (as I think it’s designated) was responsible for more deaths I suffered than literally anything else. Maybe the full version will throw in some more oddities like a Wookiee Bowcaster, a sniper variant of the Blaster Rifle, or some form of shotgun type that will push the LMG into more of a support role, but I’m not sure I’m expecting that, particularly because “support role” doesn’t seem like a thing that a game this arcade-y will have. These seem more like the sort of things that’d be thrown into the cards system, too, rather than as blaster replacements.
So yes, I tend to agree with what you said. One of the modes is hard to judge, one of the modes is rubbish, and one of the modes is really good fun. How the final game turns out will depend a lot on how added weapons and cards impact the gameplay, and on how many of the new maps/modes will be clever and unique little modes, and how many will be dull retreads of Team Deathmatch/Capture the Flag/whatever. Right now, though, I’m just happy that there’s no “Tickets” system.
I do think that we should talk about the PC port. Any thoughts on that, Peter?
Peter: I dropped in a few words about how it ran on my particular machine a little further up, but in a broader sense it appears to be very good. You know there’s been a fair amount of care over something like this when it has four different optional settings for those with colour blindness. Lots of texture/texture mesh/AA/shadows type toggles, so you can scale away to your hearts content – and (based on the fact that my PC can run it pretty well) some decent optimisation at the lower end of things.
Tim: There’s also an FOV slider which goes up high enough that I was entirely comfortable, and yeah, I’d say the optimisation job is decent. My slightly-aging-but-still-solid machine (i7-3820, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX 670) has the game running like Usain Bolt with the settings on High. I haven’t experimented too thoroughly, but pumping everything up to Ultra had me floating around between 40-50. I didn’t notice a great deal of graphical difference between the two, but then I moved back to High pretty much immediately because in a game like this I want as many frames as I can get. Some of the effects (High Dynamic Range stuff in particular, I think) pissed me off, but those were pretty rare occasions. Also, it ran happily in Borderless Windowed mode, which I always like to see.
Tim: For the hell of it, here’s a screenshot from the Tatooine Survival map on High, followed by the same map on Ultra. Not quite the same location, but see if you can spot any major differences.
Peter: You can rebind the controls too, which proves to be essential if you want to fly any of the space-ships properly on PC. I want to know which person at DICE thought W and S for throttle, arrow keys for sharp turning, and aiming on the mouse was a sensible combination for people with the standard set of two hands.
Tim: Breaking news: DICE employees actually have three hands, or possibly are just some sort of Lovecraftian mass of tentacles. Thinking about the, same presumably goes for the people who handle a lot of the keyboard controls of Japanese console-to-PC ports. I mean, I’ve met developers, but now that the topic has arisen, there’s no proof that they aren’t mind-shattering Things from Beyond wearing human bodies. Someone get David Icke on this.
Peter: You can seamlessly switch between controller and mouse/keys control though, which actual works quite well as an option if you find yourself in a TIE Fighter (and haven’t immediately been destroyed during the mandatory transitional seconds it has you flying in a straight line).
Sorry, I started complaining about gameplay things again and got distracted. The PC version seems decent. No proper server browsers, alas, but also no Battlelog nonsense. So … a pyrrhic victory there? The beta netcode held up nicely for me, although I think that was the case for Battlefield 4 as well, so no guarantees that’ll translate to the finished version of Star Wars: Battlefront.
Did I miss out any obvious port-praise there? And, the ever-pressing preview question, is Battlefront going to be any good, or what?
Tim: The pop-in is horrible when flying around at high speeds, which I imagine is a hold-over from console versions although might also be to stop people with super ninja bastard rigs getting an advantage, but for the most part the port seems solid. No comment on the netcode: I had no issue, but I couldn’t find a way to check my ping (a bad thing) and I can’t remember seeing a way to select the region in which I wanted to play (another bad thing, if you’ve got no server browser). Whether the netcode holds up at launch is anyone’s guess. And yeah, I’m annoyed by the lack of server browsers, but this does at least mean no Battlelog. I’m glad that thing has died. It was an idea that was worth a shot, but I’m glad EA have stopped pushing it.
One thing that does slightly annoy me is the game’s insistence on putting me into ongoing matches that need players. This is fair enough, but usually if a match needs players, it’s because one team is getting stomped so hard that players are rage-quitting. This might just be a problem with a relatively small beta pool, but who knows?
As for the thoughts on what this means for the game itself… well, I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m going to commit a degree of heresy by saying I didn’t actually much like the other Battlefront games, but Walker Assault has kept me happily entertained for a couple of hours. So let’s play the “if” game.
If the full version of Star Wars: Battlefront has more maps like that and less maps that are thinly-veiled generic multiplayer modes, and if it’s balanced enough that you can actually stand a fighting chance at low levels against people who’ve hit the level cap within 24 hours of launch, and if there’s a pretty good breadth of weapons and cards and viable loadouts… then I think I’ll actually be pretty happy with it.
Peter: That’s a lot of ifs – and we now have to bear in mind that some of the cool Walker Assault maps will now probably be held for the fifty sodding dollar ‘Season Pass’ they just announced. Which may not bode too well.
Tim: I don’t think it’s going to be a super-tactical, team-focused, phenomenally deep and highly competitive game, but that’s not necessarily bad. It looks like it’ll be an arcade-y, generally entertaining title with a truly overwhelming Star Wars flavour, and as an old-school Star Wars nerd who knows sod all about the Expanded Universe but can happily discuss the merits of a Mon Calamari Cruiser in direct comparison to an Imperial Star Destroyer (or any of their many variants), that might just be enough for me. I think there’s enough room in the market for an arcade-focused take on the modern multiplayer FPS, and there’s definitely room for a game positively overflowing with a really strong, classic Star Wars atmosphere. I suppose my ultimate verdict on the full version, based on the beta, is “It probably won’t be shit, but I have no idea how much better than ‘not shit’ it will be.”
Peter: If only we weren’t so close to release, that quote would surely have been a contender for the boxed edition.