Star Wars Battlefront II is the most controversial and deeply insulting major video game of 2017. DICE had a straightforward goal of ironing out the wrinkles found in their last crack at the series in 2015 and introduce a single-player campaign that could fit within the Star Wars canon, a goal they come close to achieving.
But whatever merits the game itself earned has been overshadowed by an utter trainwreck of terrible business decisions by publisher Electronic Arts, causing palpable outrage by both players and Star Wars fans. Everything from a highly predatory in-game economy, actively poisoning what could have been a promising multiplayer component, to desperate attempts at damage control like continuously updating and changing the game from versions given out to major news outlets to its early release period to its official launch.
And it is because of these damaging decisions the final product is reduced from a decent lark through the stars to a middling and insubstantial waste of time.
Meet Inferno Squad
The main campaign takes place near the end of the events of Return of the Jedi. The main hero is Iden Versio, the leader of the Galactic Empire’s special operations and counterintelligence group, Inferno Squad. After the destruction of the second Death Star, her team is tasked with carrying out one last major operation against the Rebellion with a secret unknown super weapon. But as the Empire’s methods become increasingly ruthless in its desperation, Iden and her friends start seeing their enemies and their allies in a new light.
Overall, the plot of an elite loyalist questioning their orders isn’t entirely original in the Star Wars universe, but credit has to be given to the motion capture performances trying to breathe life into the narrative. A lot of work went into at least presenting major story turns, betrayals, and character moments as something major and involving.
The biggest issue is that the gameplay that string these story beats together feel half-baked and perfunctory, little more than a highlight reel of features in the rest of the game than a deliberately scripted and involving experience. In addition to the usual grab bag of major action game features, awkwardly implemented stealth sections, bombastic action set pieces full of explosions, and legitimately exciting dogfights that manage to emulate the spirit of the Rogue Squadron games, the campaign is also full of dreary and repetitive stretches of padding. Go to a place, defend a point from hoards of brain-dead AI enemies, rinse repeat until the next cutscene.
What makes this even worse is that the campaign also suffers from pacing problems, bugs, and hackneyed fan service. I had to restart the campaign on three different occasions because a door wouldn’t open, there were weird hiccups and stuttering during certain battles that lead to a lot of cheap deaths, and the closest thing to a higher difficulty the game has is to throw larger waves of brain-dead soldiers at the player. Yet somehow through all of the padding in this four hour long adventure, there are entire levels dedicated to gratuitous introductions of certain heroes from the original Star Wars trilogy. The absolute nadir is a mission where you play as the iconic Luke Skywalker, and it amounts to fighting off waves of tiny bugs for ten minutes. He never pops up again.
But probably the most damning part of the campaign is how it slams to a halt. After hours of gameplay in locations that could have easily been shortened or omitted, especially the ones that amounted to a nostalgia-laden victory lap for several big name characters, the narrative starts to go in an interesting direction. Characters start becoming more fleshed out, things are set up to be paid off later, and the events of the campaign start to go in an uncertain yet exciting direction. Then it just cuts to the credits. This was most likely done to tease future story expansions down the road, but it still kills closure and leaves interest dead in the water.
True Star Wars
But DICE’s focus has always been its talent in making online multiplayer, which is where Star Wars Battlefront II shows signs of life. In addition to smaller modes like the objective-based Strike mode and the deathmatch-style Blast, there is the massive forty-player battle royale Galactic Assault and the vehicle-only mode Starfighter Assault (my personal favorite.)
Each match starts once you’ve picked a certain class of soldier. For example, Assault is your aggressor with an assault rifle and grenades, Specialists scout ahead with binoculars and give support fire through a sniper rifle scope, and Officers are more support-oriented with a bonus health granting rallying cry and the ability to deploy sentry turrets.
But what helps keeps matches interesting is the introduction of Battle Points. Every time you kill another player, assist the team, or play the objective, you build up this currency as the match goes on. Once you are killed you are able to spend these points in order to re-enter the fight as more powerful units like a Wookie warrior or a rocket trooper, call in a vehicle like a walker or even a starfighter to unleash death from above, or the priciest deployment of all: becoming an iconic Star Wars character like Han Solo or Rey with full access to their abilities and special powers.
And it is hard not to get swept up in the beautiful chaos that gets unleashed in an intense match. Painting targets with a Specialist so bombers in the sky can do a run. Being rewarded for a seven man killstreak and breaking through enemy lines with access to a tank. The shear and utter sadistic delight of twirling through the air and cutting players to ribbons with Darth Maul’s dual-bladed lightsaber. Even Starfighter Assault is chock full of these moments thanks to hero ships like the bounty hunter Bobba Fett’s Slave I or Kylo Ren’s TIE Silencer getting in on the action.
It also helps that DICE once again shows off their talent when it comes to map design. Not only are the maps pulled wholesale from the Star Wars films and look amazing (standouts include the water world of Kamino and the Death Star interior), but they are gorgeous mixes of dangerous and exciting geographical variety, especially in modes that continue to move the conflict around. A game on planet Takodana can start as an intense skirmish in a forest with open spaces and sporadic cover, then conclude as a close-quarters clash of chaos inside a large tavern.
The Exhaust Port
Which brings me to the major flaw that makes all of the effort by DICE feel wasted: the progression system. Much like other modern online game economies of the past three years or so, playing matches and becoming better at the game isn’t rewarded with an RPG-esque progression but with loot boxes full of randomly generated goodies. However, unlike the cosmetic rewards of customizable costumes, emotes, and emblems found in the likes of Overwatch, the rewards here include Star Cards, which can give tangible bonuses and advantages. These can range from something as small as faster reload speeds or slightly higher damage on your weapons to outright unfair boosts like regenerating health after every kill, faster ability cooldowns, or being invisible to enemy radar.
And despite the fact that the version I played was with in-game purchases disabled, every other element of the game makes it perfectly clear this system was built fundamentally on these powerful Star Cards, done to push a Pay-to-Win mentality.
There’s a highly convoluted crafting system where you can make specific Star Cards you want, but the Scrap needed to make them are found only in loot boxes and you need to have a certain amount of cards already to even have the option. The most blatantly overpowered Epic Star Cards can only be crafted as well so start saving up that scrap and get ready to play for weeks. Every time you are killed in a match, the game will show what Star Cards the player who killed you has equipped, pressuring you to either get good or grind for some more loot boxes so you too can have an unfair advantage.
There is an Arcade Mode where you can fight against AI enemies in order to earn in-game credits, but once you hit a certain amount of credits earned you can not earn any more until a timer runs out; one that takes hours to tick down. You will be spending dozens, if not hundreds, of hours playing online with other players who may have multiple overpowered abilities in an unbalanced slog of patience in order to get more loot crates. Multiple heroes have to be unlocked with in-game credits, and if you don’t have certain ones unlocked, the ludicrous Heroes vs. Villains mode is basically unavailable. Every single time you log in you get a daily loot crate, because first taste is free, and after every other match the game will stop dead in its tracks and bring up messages to tell you should probably open some more loot crates.
Every single conceivably predatory and mentally arm-twisting practice ever implemented in a mobile free-to-play game is on display here: tolerate insipid repetitive grind or pay for a chance at convenience. But those who pay are given super special treatment. Were this a cheap dime-a-dozen money sink found on the App Store, we’d laugh and move on, but a major AAA game by an acclaimed developer published by one of the biggest names in the industry released at retail price bearing the Star Wars license and marketed as a premium experience?
To make matters worse, despite the fact that these boxes can no longer be bought with cash – something even EA admits is only temporary – the damage has already been done. Almost every match I was in turned into a one-sided battle of attrition with certain players full of Epic Star Cards equipped running through the map and stomping everyone else. Yeah I got some kills in and managed to pull off some incredible saves, but my entire team lost usually because one guy got on a kill streak then spawned in as a hero and reduced everyone else to lightsaber-cooked hamburger within minutes. Not because they were better, but because they were lucky or had a couple extra hundred bucks to burn before EA shut the store down.
I love Star Wars from the bottom of my heart, and I really wanted to give the benefit of the doubt to Star Wars Battlefront II. The campaign wasn’t exactly stellar, but I didn’t completely hate the time I spent on it. The multiplayer conceptually is the best work DICE has put in to date. And everything from the music to the visuals to the weapon designs feels completely authentic to the franchise.
But when that work is actively crippled by an economy with no respect for its players’ time, locks unbalancing boosts and advantages behind the glorified gambling that is loot boxes, and goes out of its way to force players to pony up for these boxes, it makes me utterly disgusted by the hatchet job EA took to what could have been a promising experience.
If you love Star Wars and want to play online with friends, you be better off picking up the Ultimate Edition of the original Star Wars Battlefront or just wait until this embarrassment is in the bargain bin. The Force is not with this one.