I can hear the sweeping John Williams score in my ears, but I’m forlorn.
As I play another match in EA DICE’s recently released Star Wars Battlefront II, my mind drifts to questions of open objectives, varied playstyles, and teams overcoming the odds. The game’s sights and sounds reassure me, “These aren’t the features you’re looking for.” After playing it this far, though, I know it’s just a trick.
I’m left wondering what could’ve been.
Swedish first-person shooter developer EA DICE has created some of the most memorable multiplayer battle playgrounds in video games. EA DICE routinely manages to offer exciting avenues of exploration and unforgettable “only in Battlefield” moments. Following this vein, Pandemic Studios’ Star Wars: Battlefront II came out more than 10 years ago and offered players a front seat to the bombastic conflicts in the Star Wars universe. Learning directly from EA DICE’s Battlefield series design, SW:BFII (2005) gave players vehicles, multiple ways of winning large-scale battles, and intriguing emergent gameplay in a Star Wars setting. It would seem to be a match made in heaven, then, for EA DICE to take up the reins and develop 2017’s Star Wars Battlefront II, right? Tragically, SWBFII (2017) learns neither from EA DICE’s outstanding pedigree nor the heights reached by Pandemic’s SWBFII (2005). While EA DICE has masterfully recreated the crack of blaster bolts and the locking of X-Wing S-Foils, they’ve done little to capture the spirit and wonder of Star Wars battles. Even outside of the game’s now infamous reputation for shady microtransactions and content withholding, SWBFII (2017) is a gorgeous yet hollow mess that yearns for more open-ended gameplay design.
Battlefield’s Innovative Ideas
It’s hard to measure EA DICE’s contribution to first-person games. While Battlefield has gotten criticism for being derivative in a stagnated AAA first-person shooter market, EA DICE’s ability to create a first-person parkour darling like Mirror’s Edge proves they’re capable of great innovation. Instead of focusing solely on speed like classic FPS titles Quake and Starsiege: Tribes, Mirror’s Edge introduced players to a whole-body kinesthetic freerunning experience. You don’t need to look further than Titanfall and Dying Light to see its impact on first-person games.
Despite appearances, Battlefield isn’t actually concerned with hardcore war simulation, but rather with using aspects of reality to create interesting game design wrinkles. For example, in Battlefield: Bad Company, EA DICE eschewed the FPS standard of hitscan weapons by introducing bullet travel time and bullet drop, vastly changing the nature of large-scale battles. Instead of every shot landing immediately after the trigger pull, you had to lead targets and account for gravity changing the bullet trajectory to be effective. Bad Company also introduced procedurally-generated destructibility, letting players use explosives and vehicles to destroy walls, cover, and even completely level buildings. With a little creative thinking, players could use the terrain destruction to create new avenues of attack, defensive fortifications, and more. These aspects are welcome additions not because they’re a recreation of “reality,” but rather because they make for interesting game design. At the core of each Battlefield is how players can fight their own battles.
One way players customize their battle experience is through character classes. EA DICE balances classes in Battlefield by giving them all unique strengths as well as specific deficiencies that force players to adhere to the range limits of their weapons, ignore certain types of enemy units in order to survive, and work with their teammates’ other classes to be effective. I can always fall into a Battlefield game because I know there will be a specific role to play to my strengths.
The original Battlefield series was also the first to bring dynamic vehicle-based gameplay to competitive multiplayer FPS. Vehicles, despite being very powerful tools, are balanced in a few different ways and are also often just hard to pilot. Most vehicles in Battlefield seat multiple players that don’t function at full strength without proper teamwork. While a transport helicopter can be an amazing asset to ferry a squad of soldiers into a fight quickly, it’s practically useless if no one can pilot it correctly.
Battlefield accomplishes a lot just by giving players an open environment to explore and myriad game systems that interact with themselves in unique and unexpected ways. There just isn’t another game series that lets you fly a jet high into the air, jump out of it, fire an RPG while midair at a pursuer and then climb your way back into your cockpit. The systems that underlie Battlefield’s design are dependent on teammates interacting with each other to their benefit.
In Battlefield, you don’t have to be the best shot to help your team win. You could choose a Medic class and throw down medpacks to greatly increase your squad’s strength as well as revive their dead bodies to get them back into the fight faster. You could also choose the Support class to mortar enemy embankments or make it harder for them to shoot back at you with suppressive machine gun fire. You can even just ‘spot’ the enemies to mark them on the HUD for your teammates to shoot; because information is paramount in Battlefield, multiple playstyles are validated and even celebrated. As someone who enjoys strategic moments in competitive games, EA DICE’s previous creations allowed me a ton of space to really turn the tides of battle just by providing solid intel and backup. My heart soars when a plan comes together in Battlefield because it’s not just fun to win but to know we accomplished something we couldn’t have done alone.
SWBFII Plays It Safe
Unfortunately, none of EA DICE’s boldest ideas made it into SWBFII (2017).
If you check out the class-selection screen, you’ll see some semi-familiar stuff. There’s Assault, an all-around trooper; Heavy, a soldier with a fortifiable turret; Officer, a light soldier with a command buff ability; and Specialist, a long-range and subterfuge class. We’re off to a good start. Unfortunately, class character is diminished with more overlap in their roles and reduced capability for them all. With the exception of the Assault’s Scan Dart (which paints an area with radar to reveal enemy locations to your team) and the Officer’s Command (which grants nearby teammates a temporary health boost), there’s hardly any teamplay possible between players.
Instead of the granular ability to contribute to your team’s success by alternate means, players have pretty much just one objective: kill the enemy team. Sometimes it’s “kill the enemies next to the thing,” which may be a building. Other times it’s “stand next to the thing and kill anyone who tries to get close.” Love it.
Even in the game’s flagship Galactic Conquest mode, which features objective-based gameplay for 20v20 players, you’re still funneled into a single way of winning the match. Terrain destruction has been rendered mostly useless; there are cosmetic destruction and small bits of cover that will deform, but the game doesn’t allow you to use destructibility to your benefit.
Then there’s the Battle Points system. They’re always there—when you’re selecting classes, when you’re running around fighting, when you’re dying… Battle Points are earned by getting kills and accomplishing objectives, and they’re spent on spawning as vehicles or special hero characters like Luke Skywalker and Boba Fett. That means that instead of just having vehicles exist in the world for players to climb into, they’re locked behind a menu where the game practically taunts you with “Not Enough Points.” Even when you have enough points, it’s possible you can’t even select the one you want since someone else might be occupying it and they’re usually limited to one on the map at a time. Crucially, all vehicles are single-seat only, which means you don’t have to rely on teamwork to use them at their full effectiveness. The single truth at the heart of SWBFII (2017) is that anything you want requires you to spend enough blood money.SWBFII (2017) offers players many ways of not using special units
These decisions combine to create an experience that feels extremely individualist. Why play alongside your teammates when you can be completely effective on your own? Why worry about class makeup when all of them accomplish roughly the same roles? Why fucking care about anything other than running back down the corridor into the meat grinder to rack up points so you can spawn as Darth Vader? All of these thoughts came up time and time again while I played SWBFII (2017), and there was just no shaking the whiplash of experiencing EA DICE’s famously superb audio work backending a shallow Star Wars experience. I wondered what an actualized Star Wars competitive multiplayer shooter would look like, and then I remembered Pandemic Studios’ Star Wars: Battlefront II.
Pandemic’s Star Wars Vision
Released in 2005, Star Wars: Battlefront II took much inspiration from EA DICE’s original Battlefield series to give players tons of Star Wars maps to choose from as well as a number of ways to tackle their objectives. Drawing from the original and prequel trilogies, SW:BFII (2005) benefited from truly creative classes and map designs to keep each battle fresh and dynamic.
Pandemic’s base classes were mostly the same no matter which faction the player chose (Rebel Alliance, Galactic Empire, Separatists, etc), but their abilities mattered to more than just each individual player. I could pick an Engineer to heal my teammates, and use their fusion tool to repair vehicles and supply droids. I could also choose a Shock Trooper to deal with enemy vehicles specifically, at the cost of being weaker against single troops. Pandemic’s vision for class balance, much like EA DICE’s original Battlefield series, was to give each class some special attributes while also giving them limitations to encourage teamplay. Sometimes those specialties weren’t directly related to killing the enemy or taking objectives, but they still contributed to the team winning.
SW:BFII (2005) included unique unlockable classes like its 2017 counterpart, but their implementation was vastly different in a few key ways. First, although the classes were also locked behind a point barrier, points were not consumed when you selected them, and the point barrier was much lower. Kills would still earn points, but the majority of your points came from capturing the large number of command posts strewn throughout each map. This worked as a gating mechanism to prevent everyone from picking these specific classes at the start of the match. Next, the unlockable classes were not especially stronger than any of the base classes, thus letting all classes retain their own special identity. Lastly and most importantly, the special classes were vastly different between factions.
While SWBFII (2017) is content to have almost identical special class capabilities between opposing factions—who could forget the B2-RP Rocket Droid, featured in a single 3D Clone Wars episode?—Pandemic leaned heavily into faction identities in their special classes. Rebels could flank the enemy with cloaking device-equipped Bothan Spies, and the Empire might send in jump-pack-equipped Dark Troopers with ARC Casters, ready to chain lightning between grouped-up enemies. The classes in SW:BFII (2005) were perfect asymmetrical multiplayer design. It’s clear why EA DICE chose to simplify classes so completely in their version; it’s a lot easier to balance, after all. But the risks that Pandemic took in their game have aged gracefully. There just isn’t a single thing in SWBFII (2017) that can compare to the joy of rolling and bouncing around a map as a superfast Droideka before slowing your movement to a crawl to blast enemies in shielded-assault form.
Maps in SW:BFII (2005) were designed with vehicles as a prominent part of the ecosystem: Snowspeeders on Hoth, speeder bikes on Endor, AATs on Naboo, and more. Instead of limiting vehicles to one per type per map and locking them behind a points menu, vehicles spawned naturally in the world when players captured command posts. SW:BFII (2005) vehicles were also very intuitive. You didn’t need to be a Star Wars technology expert to know that Snowspeeders and TIE Bombers seated two, one pilot and one gunner. Troop transport vehicles existed for the sole reason of ferrying teammates around to important objectives and were not for fighting. The team mattered more than the individual.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the space maps. In each space battle, both factions controlled capital ships facing the other down. Players could jump into various starfighters in the hangar bay or just stay back to control turrets through the ship’s computer. Fighters could choose to target support vessels to make their fellow fighters harder to take down or try to attack the enemy capital ship’s shield generators. Meanwhile, intrepid players could hop into troop transports to land on the enemy ship to assault it from within. All of this felt liberating, true to Star Wars canon and endlessly interesting. Each strategy was valid and important.
EA Forgot What It Means To Be a Team
This kind of innovative design seems to have curiously inspired EA DICE themselves when they released Battlefield 2142 in 2006 with their flagship Titan Mode, where two capital ships hovered over a battlefield and players could destroy the opposing Titan’s shields by capturing missile silos around the map or assault them from within by landing with drop pods and transport ships. SWBFII (2017) spits on this legacy by almost completely shunting off starship gameplay into a separate mode where there’s only one way of completing objectives in each map.
Pandemic understood that Star Wars battles are interesting logistically, spatially, thematically. It’s moments like the Millennium Falcon narrowly evading pursuers through a chasm, Snowspeeders attaching tow-cables to hogtie behemoth AT-ATs, and Hammerhead Corvettes slamming Star Destroyers into the Scarif shield generator that rise above the din of countless turbolasers and ion cannons. They’re moments that matter because they involve teamwork.
While playing SWBFII (2017), I tried to think of an encapsulation of how different EA DICE and Pandemic’s previous efforts are. To the game’s credit, it answered perfectly. At the end of each Galactic Conquest match, a little cutscene plays out showing how the two factions fared: Separatist Spider Droids sieging Clone Troopers on Kamino, Rebel transports making a narrow escape to Hyperspace, and the like. In the other games, we would’ve been the ones to inhabit those moments. In SWBFII (2017), we only get to watch.
When EA DICE rebooted the series with Star Wars Battlefront in 2015, it was justifiably excoriated for being a content-light cash grab to tie in with the release of The Force Awakens. For Star Wars Battlefront II, EA said they were really going to address all of the previous entries’ problems. It’s clear now that even if you ignore all the microtransactions and withheld content bullshit, SWBFII (2017) was built from the ground-up to be an extremely safe game; it limits class gameplay to the point of rendering it moot, it obfuscates intuitive vehicle design, and it doesn’t even allow players to experiment in its world. It trades the emergent team-based thrills of Battlefield and the swashbuckling soul of Pandemic’s Star Wars vision for an individualist point-farming corridor shooter. This game isn’t fit to bear the EA DICE nor Star Wars Battlefront name.
They were once a top JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Heritage for the Future player in the US, but then adulthood happened. Liam now lives just outside Washington, D.C., where they spend their time writing, drawing, designing games, exploring fashion, and keeping it dialectical.