Developer: EA DICE
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One
Version Reviewed: PC
Battlefront II is a frustrating mixture of general improvements over its predecessor marred by several terrible decisions. You've probably heard about one of these. In an explosive culmination of a year dominated by controversy over the growing prevalence of paid-for loot crates and the encroachment of service-style games, Battlefront II's unlock system has come under furious criticism due to its locking off of multiplayer features behind prohibitively slow progression and the high cost of paying to unlock those aforementioned features in a game that already requires an upfront payment of £50.
EA has been frantically trying to quell the fires it has inadvertently ignited, first slashing the prices of said unlocks and increasing the generosity of free loot-crates, then temporarily switching off in-game purchases entirely. No doubt EA and DICE are still scrabbling for a more permanent solution, and by the time you read this review the situation may well have changed again. One thing is certain, however: The damage is deep, and it will be a long time before the game's general reputation recovers if it ever does at all.
In some ways this is a shame, because there are times when Battlefront II really shines. Many of the base mechanics, such as shooting and vehicle handling, are much better than they were in the first game. Meanwhile, there are some exciting new introductions such as an entertaining single-player campaign and a much wider range of multiplayer maps set in environments from the prequel trilogy and the more recent films. But let's be clear, Battlefront II isn't a great game spoiled by the disastrous progression system. The iffy decision making extends to even the better parts of the experience.
Let's start with what is probably the game's biggest new feature, the single-player. It tells the story of Iden Versio, the leader of a squad of Imperial Special Forces fighting the Rebellion during the final days of the Empire. It's a story that begins with a real sense of purpose and momentum, as Versio and her comrades attempt to regroup after the destruction of the second Death Star. It also lends colour and context to the ordinary footsoldiers of the Empire, exploring the reasons why someone might fight for an organisation which from the outside perspective is so obviously evil.
Sadly, rather than double-down on this theme, halfway through the story changes into a much more traditional Star Wars affair. There's a wonderful level in which we see the ruthlessness of the Empire demonstrated in full, but after that the plot becomes a pedestrian stroll to an obvious conclusion. Part of the problem, for reasons we'll get into shortly, is that the narrative arc is simply too short, and so the writers aren't given time to explore Iden's peculiar morality or how some of the decisions she makes weigh upon her personality. They do give us Shriv, however, an alien sidekick with a wit as dry as a Tatooine summer. Despite his fleeting appearances, he rapidly became my favourite character in the game.
Fortunately, the campaign's play evolves in the opposite direction. What begins as a worryingly uninspired FPS slowly ups the ante to some spectacular battles both on-foot and in vehicles. Highlights include a desperate defence of an Imperial fuelling station which sees you shooting down X-Wings in your TIE fighter before single-handedly storming a rebel cruiser to disable its Ion Cannons from within. It's worth noting at this point that the vehicle control is much better than in the first Battlefront, with aerial and space combat now resembling a slightly more arcadey X-Wing vs TIE Fighter.
There are still some annoying niggles that derive from DICE's weird approach to designing single-player games, such as how weapons can only be changed at set points rather than letting players pick up the dropped equipment of their enemies. But overall it's one of the better single-player shooters DICE has designed.
That is aside from two other problems. The first of these are the Hero missions. These see Iden temporarily switched out for some of the more notable characters of the Star Wars universe.They're not bad, per se, at least not all of them. The mission wherein you defend Naboo's city of Theed from Imperial invasion as Princess Leia is a surprisingly tense last-stand affair, while Lando Calrissian's hero mission is a great blend of comedy and action. But none of them are as good as Iden's missions, and at one point devolve to the point where you're killing bugs with a lightsaber. More problematically, they take up a large amount of space in a fairly brief campaign that could have been used to further explore the characters created specifically for Battlefront II.
The other issue is that, for some strange reason, EA has decided to withhold the last three missions of the campaign until the launch of The Last Jedi. These will be released as free DLC, but it has the effect of making the campaign feel incredibly short. What's more, if you've dropped £50 on the game, it would be a bit galling to find out you have to wait another month before you can play the campaign to completion. Presumably the reason is it includes some Last Jedi-related content that Disney doesn't want spoiling, but it just seems like a very good way to for EA to incite further anger for no appreciable gain.
All told, I found Battlefront II's single-player a likeable if truncated distraction. I'm somewhat less enthused by the multiplayer, despite some obvious improvements. Structurally the multiplayer is broadly the same as the first game, its modes divided between large-scale battles such as Galactic Assault (which replaces the Walker Assault of the first Battlefront with a more generalised capture-and-hold mode in the vein of Battlefield's Rush), and the vehicle-centric Starfighter Assault. Alongside these are a bunch of smaller-scale modes like Hero Assault, a squad-focussed team-objective mode, and a straight-up deathmatch.
The main changes are to the multiplayer's breadth and depth. Firstly, the map roster has been expanded enormously, using the new and prequel universes as its basis. Alongside familiar locations like Hoth and Endor, players can do battle in the forests of the Wookiee planet Kashyyyk and in the lavish, leaf-covered streets of Theed. Particular highlights include the cloning facility on Kamino, where Battle Droids duke it out with Republic clone soldiers on the facility's walkways as a storm rages around them. Starkiller Base is another stunning map, where players fight across the bunkered surface of the planet before venturing into the bowels of the base itself.
As well as boasting a broader palette of maps, the gunplay has been overhauled. Weapons now feel much weightier in your virtual fingers, while the motley laser-blasts of the game's various guns have far more impact when they strike an opponent, punching fiery holes into Stormtrooper armour. In general the game leans closer to the Battlefield model. Fights tend to take place over longer distances, aside from certain key chokepoints where fighting happens at much closer quarters. It's still more accessible than vanilla Battlefield, however, striking a relatively neat balance between light arcade fun and a more serious multiplayer shooter.
As a spectacle, Battlefront's multiplayer is a wonderful thing. But the core loop of the game is strangely underwhelming. I think this is on account of the shift to more fixed objectives and chokepoint-oriented maps, which turn the battles from a gradually evolving scenario into something of a meat-grinder. You spawn, run to the front line, maybe get a kill or two, then die. Of course, each class has a variety of abilities they can use to attempt to break the deadlock, and you can spawn as various more powerful units to add variety too. But you have to earn match credits before you can spawn so much as a vehicle in any given game, while hero units like Rey or Chewbacca cost considerably more to deploy.
And that's all assuming you've unlocked the requisite character with regular credits in the first place. This brings us on to the main problem with Battlefront's multiplayer – the now infamous progression system. Basically, it's a mess, to the point where I'm still not sure I understand it. Nonetheless, I'll attempt a description. Alongside the Battle Points, there are two other currencies: credits, which buy loot crates, and crafting parts, which let you craft and upgrade specific Star Cards. Star Cards are the abilities that enable you to customise your character, ranging from passive abilities like health recharge to active abilities such as deployable turrets and various types of grenade.
There are over 300 of these Star Cards to unlock across the entire game. Some estimates have suggested that it would take hundreds of hours to unlock everything in the game. But that's not the main problem. The issue is that grappling with the progression system overshadows the basic fun of playing the multiplayer. You could try to ignore it, but then you're always going to be at a slight-to-moderate disadvantage to players who don't. So then you've got to figure out which Star Cards you want to unlock, because you don't want to spend your hard-earned scrap crafting on one only to find it's not to your tastes.
The combination of this, alongside the Battle Points system in the game proper, means that you spend far too much time in-game obsessing over various different numbers rather than actually enjoying the gorgeous spectacle and punchy combat that DICE has created. It's worth noting that Battlefront II isn't the only modern multiplayer shooter that suffers from this problem, but it's probably the most egregious example right now.
There are a couple of other issues I want to raise, too. Firstly, Galactic Assault matches go on for far too long, mainly because the game forces you to play the map from both sides before moving on to the next. This compounds that repetitive feeling of being constantly funnelled into a killing crush, as you have to play for what seems like ages before moving onto something different. Also, I don't know whether it's just bad luck, but the map cycling seemed to throw the same handful of maps at me, so it could take hours before I explored somewhere new.
The other thing I want to mention is that I didn't particularly enjoy playing as the Jedi/Sith heroes, because the lightsabers are terrible. For starters, the blade length is weirdly short, which makes Skywalker, Darth Vader et al look vaguely ridiculous. And when you attack someone with it, there's not much sense of impact or lethality. It's less like cleaving an enemy with a blade of light and more like whacking them with a big glowstick. I wouldn't mind, but Raven's Jedi Knight games demonstrated exactly how to do lightsabers fifteen bloody years ago.
So that's Battlefront II. The single-player is good, if fleeting and slightly underserved because of the Hero mission fan-service. The multiplayer is better than the original Battlefront at a core systems level but lumbered with a progression system that actively put me off playing the game. Third time lucky, perhaps?
February 24 2020 | 12:00