It's hard to do a franchise title right. It's especially hard if the franchise in question is the one that practically defined modern science fiction for millions upon millions of rabid fans. When a developer does handle Star Wars, it's necessary to create an authentic experience -- an obligation to ensure the franchise is being done justice. It's also necessary to ensure in-game events transpire similarly to how they played out in the films. But, for as important as these things are, there is also the requirement to create a legitimately good game on its own merits. Battlefront
achieves this balance, but not without a few groans and gripes along the way.
This is a multiplayer-centric third and first-person shooter. Multiplayer-centric means players who opt to stick to singleplayer will have something to do, but won't be thrilled enough to desire extended play. This is primarily due to three major solo play problems.
1) It's too easy.
2) It's not cohesive.
3) The AI exhibits a type of intelligence roughly on par with the average rock's.
Unlike Rogue Leader or the once outstanding TIE Fighter, Battlefront does not come saturated by high production value. The missions throughout solo play are entirely standalone, and barely tie to on another, regardless of whether you choose to play Galactic Conquest or the Historical Campaigns.
Fighting through space history a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away is fairly straightforward. Pick a side, begin at what is unanimously considered to be the approximate start of the conflict (for the Clone Wars that would be the invasion of Naboo by the Trade Federation) and win, win, win. Each victory will linearly catapult you into another mission in chronological order. Between them all come little snippets of film footage and some ultra cheesy briefings. These engagements are so poorly tied together that toward the middle of either historical campaign, you'll actually be forced to switch sides in the war, making any lasting drive to conquer the galaxy pointless. You're bad but now you're good because it fits better into the overarching storyline of the films -- the same one the game all but neglected to develop.
Galactic Conquest is quite a bit different than the historical actions. In this mode players pick factions. From there, a limited galactic map is presented. It highlights all potential battle areas for the chosen faction. The battle areas are represented by planets, which are themselves comprised of two maps each. Essentially, the player begins a turn by choosing a planet to invade. Should he be successful in this invasion of the map of that planet, he'll then be allowed to choose another conflict. Should he fail, the computer will attack a planet of its choosing. The eventual goal is to conquer all planets.
Acting as an incentive to more strategically take planets are bonuses. For instance, conquering both maps on Tatooine grants your army an uncontrollable Jedi Hero in the next battle. But that will only happen if you choose to activate this bonus as opposed to another that enhances the accuracy of your troops, allows them to regenerate health, prevents the enemy from using the in-game radar, and so on. It's a neat premise; had it been properly delivered in multiplayer there could be some very long, very brutal conflicts. As it stands, acquiring bonuses is of little importance, since the base singleplayer game is so terribly easy. Thus, playing Galactic Conquest is also of no point.
Battlefront is easy because of point number three: everyone is an idiot. The game appears to use a sort of context sensitive AI, meaning bots in the right positions will do stuff (like use turrets and vehicles and lay down cover fire), but those not immediately engaged in combat will idly stand around helping themselves to an endless breather. It's easy to understand why this is, given the processing strains that must be placed on the systems. Battlefield 1942, as an example, also offers a similarly weak singleplayer experience because there are simply too many AI units to keep track of efficiently. Unfortunately for Battlefront, not only are the AI units incompetent, they're frustratingly counterproductive and will act in a manner that hinders the efforts of your army. It's not uncommon to see the fools commandeer star fighters, tanks, and walkers, and then just circle the map without direction, or fly straight into the nearest canyon a building, or repeatedly take off and land, neglecting to actually fire their weapons at anything that needs a good shooting. In very specific scenarios, such as the Battle of Hoth, an AI might actually ride shotgun in the snow speeder and aid in taking down a walker with the tow cable. That's one plus.
The AI frustrations wouldn't have been so severe if they were more inclined to follow some of the basic commands that are offered (follow, hold, move out, pile in craft, exit craft). Had there been more commands such as, "Don't steal my damn Snowspeeder and fly it into the ground you stupid, stupid idiot," it wouldn't be bad at all. All of these complaints would seem to be largely restricted to the singleplayer component, but they do come into play online.
Battlefront is a cooperation-focused team deathmatch title that demands players fighting for either opposing army capture and control a variety of map specific points to limit enemy spawn locations and eventually deplete the ranks of the enemy. In multiplayer, there are also bots. The choice to have them is up to whoever hosts the match, but in general, you'll want 'em.
Yes, they are stupid, but the multiplayer bots add a real feel of participating in a large scale war to the title that would have otherwise been sorely missed, especially on Xbox and PS2, where the actual amount of human combatants is limited to 24 and 16, respectively (PC supports 32 online and 50 over LAN, but be careful to change your hosting bandwidth options before you begin).
In addition to looking cool while occasionally stealing craft and running amok, the bots add a level of hero vs. hero action that's pretty fantastic. Imagine running through the levels gunning down bots (up to 32). This is fairly easy. But, when you run into an actual human who happens to be commanding a small quad of bots to follow him, it's almost like running into a heroic general in charge of a larger force, and this immediately changes the dynamic of the game and forces players to very quickly regroup and very frantically fight for their own survival. So, despite their obvious singleplayer weaknesses that do carry over to multiplayer, the bots manage to add significantly more to multiplayer than they take away, because they help the game feel like two armies are actually clashing against one another -- two armies led by real people.
This is what Battlefront does extraordinarily well. More so than Battlefield or any other large scale online title -- of which we've seen practically none on the consoles -- Battlefront feels like a war. Part of this can be attributed to the sheer number of combatants on a map at any given time, as we've mentioned, but more of it comes from the vehicles, which aren't as fragile as those in the earlier efforts of the sort.
The massive walkers and tanks of Battlefront are devastating. Most are so powerful, in fact, that it's literally impossible to take them down alone. This gives all of them a real sense of power and makes them incredibly threatening. Holding a base is all fine and well, but when a C.I.S. Spider struts by carving your army into bits with its massive red beam of hurt, you might jump clear out of your seat and scream over the microphone for assistance, and you're really going to need it. Multi-Player Battles
Without a great deal of cooperation and coordination in taking these stronger vehicles down (the Imperial and Republican walkers, especially), it's practically impossible to win maps. Take Hoth... Letting the AT-ATs run rampant is like inviting mobile death into your home. Laser fire does absolutely nothing to them, and unless you're willing to coordinate twelve turrets to all fire on the beasts for about five minutes, you're not going to stop them. The only way to take down a walker is to tow it into the ground, and the only way to do that is with teamwork. The AI does a good job of spotting the legs and trying to wrap them (it even tries to tow the AT-STs, which we believe is impossible), but having another human in the back of a speeder is essential. Too bad for the Republic that these walkers also respawn rather quickly, which means getting the speeders loaded, back up, and back into the fight is essential. Of course, the whole time Imperial troops are running around trying to take bases, so you still need people in defensive positions.
Now the underlying strategy of Battlefront starts to appear. It necessitates teamwork by often pitting an overwhelming force of strength against a well entrenched opposition or an enemy with certain bonuses, like units that can easily navigate the terrain, or a wealth of turrets, or special vehicles like the speeder. Other levels are more straightforward shooting galleries (especially one on Bespin and another on Tatooine), but the primary focus of the game are these larger vehicular battles and to win those, you need cooperation.
Now it gets tricky. Battlefield and Unreal Tournament 2004 on PC provide a wealth of options to players as far as how they choose to go about winning missions. But, because Battlefront is so heavily influenced by the films and so scripted -- that kind of power vs. finesse balancing -- far fewer approaches are available. On Rhen Var, an ancient communications monitoring station the Empire uses, there's only one way to win for the Empire and that's to walk the walker just outside of the main Rebel base and begin ranged bombardment. Conversely, the Rebels can sneak through the ice caves and take the primary Imperial base. That's it. Trying something else is futile. On Endor, if the Rebels want to win, they'd better get two Wookies to jump on speeder bikes, circumvent the central battle area, and destroy the rear shield generator base, preventing the Empire from regrouping. If they don't do this and do it quick, defeat is certain.
So while the seemingly unbalanced balancing is there (a forced kind of cooperation), it's so rigidly developed that you'll find in many of the maps success is more realistically determined by the team that more closely follows a very exact plan. There really isn't much leeway, save for on certain maps where there is no clear advantage associated with one side or another. The Bespin Platforms are a good example. This particular environment focuses on very constricting corridors that funnel into incomprehensibly tight choke points for on-foot soldiers. The skies, on the other hand, are littered with X-Wings, Y-Wings, TIE Fighters and TIE Bombers. Control points are accessible through a single choke point on-foot, or by landing the vehicles on the far sides of the map and exiting. This particular level demonstrates the game's capability of offering more diversity, and enables players to approach situations in somewhat different ways, but then it also illustrates a new problem.
Some of Battlefront's locales are simply too constricting. For the land vehicles, the imposed obstacles of Yavin add to gameplay and hamper their effectiveness, but where air-based vehicles are granted, the actual playing field can feel so small that you'll often find yourself endlessly circling a target just so that you don't inadvertently exit the battle arena. Should you play on PC, you'll also find them to control rather unfriendly, even more so than Battlefield's initially daunting airplane mouse control scheme.
PS2 Vs. PC Vs. XBox
In fact, the mouse actually adds a lot of problems to the PC version. On Xbox and PS2, it's possible to either enable or disable auto-aim (disable being the unanimously approved method of choice). This enables players with a bit more skill to excel in firefights and alleviates some of the unfair advantages ultra-powered vehicles, such as the airborne Republican assault transport, have against their enemies. On PC, the mouse enables players pinpoint precision and eliminates just about anything, often making the game a little more frustrating than it needs to be. On the plus side, you're also more capable of rapidly assessing situations and defending yourself, but what good is any kind of defense when a walker can blow you away from across the map? Differences between the three versions don't stop there, either. We've already mentioned control and some of the fundamental player count discrepancies, but there are also quite a few graphic differences. Aside from being the cleanest of the three, the PC version also sports a great deal more flora in its environments. On PC, the already wooded Endor changes into an overgrown nightmare replete with a thousand camping spots, making it that much more difficult to weed out Rebel forces. All of the versions, thankfully, sport some admirably done visuals capable of rendering a great amount of activity on-screen at any given time. The engine also boasts clean shadowing techniques, vivid laser blasts, thick explosions, and, most notably, a subtle bloom effect that masks dull textures and enhances the situation by placing the player into the "heat" of battle. For the PlayStation 2, there are some hiccups in performance, but Xbox handles it well, and even mid-range PCs will be capable of running Battlefront smoothly.
While we've now talked about the graphics and the online gameplay differences between the three, it's important to still address some basic technical aspects. While this particular section of reviews is especially difficult to do because it's largely dependent on where you live and with whom you play, it should still be known that the Xbox, with its more friendly infrastructure, edges out the PlayStation 2 version, which has a tendency to lag on the more cluttered maps that require packets be thrown about left and right. All three, however, don't offer the kinds of advanced clan creation and tracking and player management features that should be incorporated into any future title of the kind.
And this leads us into my biggest issue with Battlefront. While it offers these amazing spectacles, thrilling battles, and remains a great account of what Star Wars battles must have felt like, there simply isn't enough content to keep the game going for months or years after its release. The maps are varied enough to be interesting, but they are limited in approach and amount. Given that there also isn't a lot of presentational value placed into online management, and the fact that the balancing quirks require the game to be played through in rather specific ways, it's hard to see this one propelling itself far beyond current multiplayer mainstays. The problems are especially apparent on PC, where Battlefront finds itself staring at some incredibly tough competition.
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