Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Was Star Wars: Battlefront Ever Really THAT Good?

So, here we are with the first truly major update to Star Wars: Battlefront II. While the game continues to simultaneously serve as an extra foot to shove in Electronic Arts' mouth and a spade to dig themselves deeper, many have compared it unfavorably with the originals. This is hardly an unfair comparison, the Battlefront duology was the single best selling Star Wars video game series of all time, after all. 

Yet, while EA's recent gateway drug to online gambling remains a lightning rod for criticism, a few have begun to ask if the comparisons are fair. After all, the original Battlefront II might have lacked the pay to win elements, but it was a comparatively simpler game built upon mechanics from over a console generation ago. So, was it really that good?

The short answer: Yes.

The long answer: Yes, but not for the reasons you might think.

If you were to sit down and play Battlefront again today, you would likely notice just how simple it is. Even accounting for age, the game was mechanically streamlined to a ludicrous degree in many areas, even in comparison to games of the time. If you were to stop and compare it to the likes of Counter-Strike or even the main Battlefield series, this quickly became evident. 

While classes were available, they lacked the flexibility of those found in other games. You could not switch out weapons for alternatives, limiting you to a largely stock set of gear. This led to some being overly specialized, crippling their effectiveness on more than a few maps. No matter just how good of a shot you were, you didn't want to be a sniper during the corridor fights of Bespin or Tantive IV. Equally, you would be lucky to find a use for some skills. The likes of the Engineer's mines proved to be remarkably surprisingly ineffective outside of a few circumstances. While great in concept, the mechanics meant that AI Zerg rushes or a well-placed grenade could undo minutes of work in a second. This proved to be equally true of what should have been otherwise spectacular abilities, such as orbital bombardments.

The features of many maps were also surprisingly mixed, as it seemed the creators were never wholly sure how to deal with certain subjects. Both Bespin maps were little more than a series of singular choke-points which forced the two sides to smash against in a relentless fight, with little room to maneuver. This was even more notable with the platforms which was little more than a single corridor running from one command post to the next. While that map did attempt to vary things with the use of fighters, like numerous other levels, it quickly became clear that they were a superficial element to the battle. Flying up in an X-Wing to engage fighters often served little benefit to the overall battle, as you were earning far fewer points than on the ground, and lacked the large payload to inflict some serious damage.

While much of this could certainly still be put down to simply making it appeal to a broad audience, there were still a large number of mechanics people would deride today. The kind which, either overly simplified one-on-one engagements or streamlined certain abilities until there was no real skill to them. Easily one of the biggest problems was often how weapons - especially the soldier's rifle - utilised a lock-on system. This was effectively auto-aim leveled at the chest, limiting the ability to use accuracy to the player's advantage. This was to say nothing of how some weapons simply lacked any and all impact, suffering either from poor hit detection or DPS. Notably the shotgun in that regard.

While Battlefront II did improve upon many areas, it still left a fair number of flaws. The maps were vastly improved, but the new modes lacked complexity. The likes of the starship combat only featured a few basic targets to concentrate your efforts on, and each vessel featured almost identical internal layouts. Frigates served only to have the player lose points due to their low health while bombers typically outstripped fighters in all duties, even dogfighting other ships, due to their more powerful (if slower firing) guns. 

This was also to say nothing of the new problems it introduced, such as the upgrade system. While certainly conservative and lacking the extreme grind its successors would become known for, it created a number of instant-win weapons. Not literally of course, but the sheer jump in power was ridiculous. The award rifle, shotgun, and pistol, in particular, stood out thanks to the advantages they offered. The rifle transformed a largely inaccurate weapon which fired on full auto into a battle rifle with pinpoint precision. Combined with the lock-on feature it meant that you could rapidly chew through enemy soldiers in two bursts at the most. The shotgun could one-shot enemy soldiers at medium range, while the pistol was turned into a scoped weapon just as powerful and effective as the sniper weapon.

Perhaps most infamously though, the early Battlefront games was how overly straight-forward they were. They often lacked the sheer scale many would expect of a military game, or the benefits of a true battlefield map. You were often limited to the advantages and vehicle deployment positions of one or two command posts, with few ways to have the map develop as you fought around it. The actual flow of battle would often only progress in one or two directions, with the maps designed to funnel troops into one another. (note how the only game mode was effectively "capture the flag" with one or two exceptions. Even space battles offered little variety).

This, combined with the prior issues created a situation where the game featured an extremely low skill ceiling. The sort of one where it focused on spectacle and creating a sense of power over truly competitive gameplay. 

So, after all, that you are likely wondering what worked then. Did anything? Yes. Ironically enough, the exact flaws outlined in that last paragraph served as strengths of an entirely different kind.

As a Battlefield style game set in the Star Wars universe, the Battlefront series was a failure. Yet as an experience of playing as a soldier in that universe participating in those grand-scale battles, it was a remarkable success. You see, people judging it in retrospect tend to compare it with this:

In actuality, it offered something more along the lines of this:

Really, think about it for just a moment. You have a battle system which is streamlined to the point of simplicity, populated by dozens of AI units which are hardly a match for you. It emphasises the use of gradual power-ups earned through chain-kills and those even lead into heroes themselves. While it's hardly a one-to-one comparison, when you go into it with the mindset akin to a Warriors game, its strengths start to quickly become clear.

For one thing, you have the aforementioned low skill ceiling. The game's core mechanics were simplistic compared to those of similar titles, but that meant that players could easily get to grips with them. Within one or two missions you were chewing your way through enemy AI troops at a rate of knots, but that didn't mean that you were a master of it. If you were stuck facing down a talented enemy human player, there was still a good chance you were going to be beaten senseless. Yet, because there were so many AI units about, because there was so much going on, such deaths rarely felt cheap.

No matter the situation you could always walk away having made at least a few kills, or gain an edge playing in a manner they could not inherently counter. This meant that players rarely felt as if there was some massive skill barrier preventing them from playing, or throwing them to the lions for daring to take interest in the game. See Starcraft for that sort of thing. Even if you were dying over and over again, that did not take away any personal victories you attained while playing. Someone could be an expert marksman capable of earning headshot after headshot, but anything from a fluke or overwhelming force could still be used to bring them down. You could play the game for ten years, know how to make one headshot after the next and even make the best use of healing items, but that didn't mean that a misaimed grenade or tank couldn't kill you.

Yet, despite the above comments, skill did still truly matter in its own way. Well, at the very least experience did with many key classes. Even with all the bonuses of ranking up and the obvious differences in certain classes, no single one was wholly useless and you could often find an easy way to approach playing them. While I might have ragged on the Sniper a few times, players still found uses for them in holding certain choke points with auto-turrets or serving as an auxiliary unit. As such, a talented player could get by on their lonesome against the AI and rack up a sizable number of kills for themselves. However, because the system utilised so many hard counters, it meant that there was always incentive to team up with a multitude of other classes. Either other players, or just AI units for some additional cannon fodder.

What was more was that the levels always seemed to emphasise situations which could lead to massed kill streaks against the AI. The aforementioned early Bespin levels were among the most obvious and flawed in this regard, as they were little more than a direct funnel driving troops toward one another. Others, however, were able to do this much more skillfully, with the likes of Polis Massa, Theed, the Death Star, and Kamino displaying superior designs. Even the much more open environments such as Geonosis, Dagobah and Hoth still reflected this in one way or another, due to the careful positioning of command posts or interior sections. This was a simple but oddly subtle and surprisingly clever design element, as it was disguised by the nature of the maps. With enough explosions or big events, you wouldn't notice them for some time while you were caught up in the action, and there were usually enough visibly open areas to keep you distracted. On Geonosis, the presence of big tanks, a sky filled with explosions and multiple entrenched bunkers was enough to keep you busy. Even on Bespin's platforms, the air battles going on overhead and risk of being blown off the sides assisted in this regard.

However, the map designs served a dual purpose. By focusing the attention towards key areas and having a direct flow of battle along intended lines, it meant the losing side had plenty of opportunities to turn things around. Any advancing enemy would still need to move through a gauntlet of reinforcements, incoming fire, and ambush points to keep going, and even without this, there were always secondary routes which could be used for sneak attacks. One favoured method on Polis Massa was having a squad of troops charge across the thin atmosphere of the astroid's surface and into the opposing hanger to wreck havoc. Either to sabotage their tanks or, in some cases, take their command post while the enemy units were advancing ahead, so they could catch them in a crossfire.

Many major advantages to players were often still a double-edged sword in one way or another. Even if it seemed as if they might be able to single-handedly steamroll through the entire game without slowing down, there was always some inherent weakness or flaw to their build. This was especially evident with the games' various heroes. While the Battlefront games released under Electronic Arts became little more than a rush to reach the heroes, especially in II, they were not so much of a staggering advantage here. While unlocking Luke, Vader, Han or even some of the lesser-known figures gave the player a massive power-boost, they were not directly helpful outside of serving as a battering ram. They had no advantages in vehicles, and their lifespan was shortened to a timer which could be whittled away by enemy fire. Explosions could still floor them, and concentrated efforts could still take them out easily. As such, they were useful for blunting an enemy assault or even clearing a command post, but they were not game-winners on their own.

The same was true of the vehicles for all their variants. Levels like Mos Eisley or Yavin IV featured one side with a noted advantage in terms of enemy armour, yet they could still be exposed to attacks without escorts or coordinated efforts. Even if a player was a veteran at picking out targets at range, an Engineer could still sneak up on them and prize the surprised driver out of his machine. Then usually give him a shotgun blast to the face before highjacking his machine.

In each of these examples, the game featured a diverse set of vehicles, heroes and classes to choose from. Yet, because of their streamlined nature, you could pick up on their role in seconds. While they certainly lacked the ability to tailor and alter their load outs, or even the capacity to swap weapons, you could switch between them and know exactly what you were getting. Even if you had never played an anti-vehicle class before, the presence of the rocket launcher and bonus items meant that you could pick up on its role and how best to use it in moments. Vehicles featured anything from bikes to interceptors, but because they had a layout intended for controllers and the same basic interface, you were less likely to make errors than in a Battlefield game or die due to unfamiliarity.

The same strength was evident through the games - They were easy to access yet still had room for mastery. This seemed to be part of the overall concept behind Battlefront, with the game almost perfecting the pick-up-and-play advantage consoles used to benefit from. It carefully balanced some of the more complex themes, mechanics and ideas people loved about other games, but made them simple and straightforward enough for anyone to get to grips with them. Then made them explosive and engaging enough so that they featured short but satisfying bursts of action. Most Battlefront levels could be over in just a few minutes. Yet, because they were designed so that the player could always be at the centre of the action and had so many additional ways to keep you on your toes, that never seemed to matter.

It also helped that many story elements or key maps featured unique bonuses to keep players entertained. Hostile NPCs who would fight both sides or death traps like the Rancor in Jabba's Palace were among the most infamous there. Bonus modes like droids vs gungans or scout troopers vs ewoks were also present, while the campaign proved to be remarkably engaging. While it did focus on many of the maps present in the multiplayer, it had enough spirit to keep things interesting. A narration by an unnamed 501st trooper covered the events of the Clone Wars to the Battle of Hoth, giving context and meaning to events. What's more, the levels themselves often featured unique qualities to them, such as different objectives, limited troop numbers, or entirely different foes than usual. This meant that, yes, when you played out Order 66 you faced down several dozen Jedi. Even without this, it led to wholly canon reasons and situation, such as the explanation as to why clones were phased out of service and what happened to the Separatist holdouts.

Yet, more so than anything else, Battlefront II succeeded in giving the player a solid basis for their own stories while retaining a true Star Wars feel. It utilised locations, themes and ideas from the films, but it wasn't unwilling to offer the odd unique touch here and there. It allowed you to see previously unseen areas, get the feel for fighting across Naboo or the Death Star, but left events open enough for players to tell their own stories in them. Ultimately, overall, it won out because it was loyal to the qualities set down by the films and its themes in every way. From the thematics, to the setting, to the ability to offer a seemingly simple experience, but do it so exceptionally well that players would keep coming back to find its hidden qualities. That's why, even today, you will find people coming back to it time and time again, for personal entertainment or even creating new mods.

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