Play on young padawan: Star Wars Battlefront is the game fans of the franchise have been looking for
Developers expect the forthcoming console creation, a sandbox set on planets including Tatooine and Endor, to be one of the biggest-selling titles of all time
When ambitious young filmmaker George Lucas, hot on the heels of the success of his 1950s throwback smash American Graffiti, was negotiating the deal for his next project, a space opera inspired by the sci-fi serials of his youth, he did something unprecedented. Lucas agreed to forego his US$500,000 directing fee in exchange for all the film’s licensing and merchandising rights.
That film was Star Wars and the rest, as they say, is history – more than US$20 billion worth of TV shows, books, clothes, toys, gadgets, rides and, of course, video games.
And the scope of the games – more than 100 official games across every imaginable console, computer and device – has been incredible, from standard stories that follow the films’ original plotlines to universe-expanding quests that span thousands of years and innumerable planets. Space fighters, first-person shooters, third-person actioners, futuristic racers, massive RPGs, Lego spinoffs – the franchise has tapped nearly every possible genre.
Then everything changed: the Walt Disney Company bought out Lucas’ studio for a much-publicised US$4 billion in 2012, its first act being to shut down the entire gaming division of LucasArts. The move killed off a number of near-complete games, console rights were passed over to rival developer Electronic Arts (EA), and rumours emerged that Disney would shift the focus of gaming to the less-ambitious worlds of social media and mobile.
As Star Wars fans gear up for the incredibly hyped Christmas release of The Force Awakens, the seventh entry in the film franchise, the gaming division is trying a new approach. The standard practice for previous movies has been to flood the market with tie-in games – some impressive, some subpar and all guaranteed to rake in the cash. This time, Disney plans a number of mobile games, but EA is pinning its console hopes on just a single release: Star Wars Battlefront (out November 17, for Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One). That’s obviously meant a more focused approach that returns to the core Star Wars dynamics.
“Games are unique in the sense that they allow us to interact with other worlds,” says Battlefront design director Niklas Fegraeus. “Looking at Star Wars, you have one of the most engaging universes ever created. The idea of exploring that amazing place and feeling what it’s like to be there is an extremely powerful reason to want to pick up a game that allows you to do that.”
Discovery is central to Battlefront. A semi-remake of the popular 2004 release, the game focuses solely on battles within the Star Wars universe. Players choose between a rebel fighter and a Stormtrooper, before being thrown into skirmishes on sun-drenched Tatooine and forest-filled Endor. On paper, Battlefront sounds like a Call of Duty-style knock-off. And when it was announced back in April, fans were disappointed with the game’s lack of features compared to previous entries: the 2015 release has no space battles, no squads or classes, no single-player campaign, and absolutely nothing from the much-maligned prequel films.
Instead, Battlefront is a co-op and multiplayer game that throws players into an open world sandbox. Switching between running on foot or travelling in land and air vehicles, gamers hear the swell of the Star Wars theme as snow troopers surround their rebel forces on the ice-covered planet Hoth. Massive AT-ATs blast away rebel bases, while X-wings and TIE fighters swarm overhead in dogfights. All seems lost for the alliance – but Luke Skywalker is coming, offering a new hope. If that all sounds like a classic scene straight out of The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, it’s because the original trilogy was EA’s main focus throughout the development process.
“We really wanted players to feel like they are playing a part in these epic battles, and can affect the outcome and make them their own,” says Fegraeus. “We basically ask players, ‘What would you do if you were commanding an AT-AT walker on Hoth?’ Almost all of us have some memory of playing Star Wars as kids, and Battlefront allows us to take those memories and make them real.”
Indeed, a key aspect that makes Battlefront stand out within the Star Wars gaming world is its unique Heroes and Villains feature. Gamers are finally given the opportunity to play famous characters such as Skywalker, Darth Vader and Boba Fett, each of whom has unique skills.
“It basically allows you to control a boss in a boss battle, where other players need to come together to take you down,” says Fegraeus. “During development, we’ve seen some absolutely epic moments where a single player manages to turn the battle around by using force powers in smart ways, or leading groups of allies in last-ditch efforts.”
Of course, ambition is one thing, and capturing the particular vibe of a sci-fi trilogy that’s now more than 30 years old is something completely else. “One of the greatest challenges we’ve faced is how to truly capture these worlds and recreate them in an authentic way. We have such incredible respect for the source material, and had to develop new workflows and technologies in order to stay true to it,” says Fegraeus. “Fortunately, Lucasfilm gave us access to their entire archive, allowing us to capture the actual props and filming locations, as well as getting the sounds, the music and even original concept art.”
If there’s been a major compliment bestowed upon Battlefront throughout its testing process, it’s that the game captures the look and feel of Star Wars better than any game that has come before. Players were emphatic in their love for the game’s nostalgia come to life, particularly in Battlefront’s recent record-breaking beta release, which saw more than 9.5 million participants join in across the six-day window.
“Releasing a beta is a big deal, especially with so many players taking part. There are many things that can go wrong, but our thought was that it’s better for it to go wrong as part of a beta test, rather than when the game is released,” says Fegraeus. “Fortunately for us, players really enjoyed it and played it over and over again, so we feel happy about the beta’s reception and all that we learned from it.”
Battlefront’s beta was so successful EA immediately upped sales estimates to 13 million copies by early next year. That would make the game one of the biggest sellers of all time. Of course, the number is just a prediction but Fegraeus and the rest of the Battlefront team are confident about the game’s success.
“The thing that makes Battlefront unique is how it captures the authenticity of the worlds we all love, and allow you to make it your own sandbox,” says Fegraeus. “There are so many choices you can make and so many experiences you can have, all at your fingertips.”
With more than 100 games across its near-40 year history, Star Wars has seen as many video game hits as misses. Here we round up the best five.
Super Star Wars (1992)
The first series game to truly capture the Star Wars vibe, Super and its sequels were side-scrolling adventures that were loosely based on the original films. Originally released on the Nintendo SNES, the run-and-gun dynamics in 16-bit were basic but exciting, and they're now seen as brilliant little time-capsules.
TIE Fighter (1994)
A stunning flight simulator in the early PC gaming days, TIE Fighter was the first game to allow players to fully take on a role in the evil empire. Through brutal space combat, strangely rebellious storytelling and incredible mission structure, it stood out as a game that first captured the darker side of Star Wars.
Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II (1997)
The original Dark Forces (1995) was really just a Doom copycat and it wasn't until its sequel arrived that the series found its voice. Taking on the role of a mid-level Jedi, players were handed a lightsabre and tasked with battling through a violent, involving story across numerous planets.
Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
Considered by many to be the greatest Star Wars game ever, Knights placed gamers in a stunning RPG world, setting the clock back 4,000 years before the original films and depicting in precise clarity the timeless battle between Jedi and Sith. Really, it's the only thing worthy of being considered a "prequel".
Star Wars: Battlefront II (2005)
The new Battlefront might put the focus firmly on the original films, but there's something to be said about Battlefront II's ambitious scope. Featuring playable Jedis and massive space battles, as well as content from all three prequels, the game truly expanded the chaos-filled scope of the Star Wars series.