t’s tricky for DICE to get away from the success of its Battlefield series, as well as the ease of comparison. Whether it’s Visceral trying a cops-and-robbers take on the Battlefield formula, or the DICE-forged space-set Star Wars IP Battlefront, what the Stockholm-based developer has done with the Battlefield series looms large over everything else that comes after.
For some, Battlefield Hardline was a reskinning of Battlefield 4. While I can see the logic of that comparison, particularly in regards to Hardline’s multiplayer, those describing Battlefront as ‘Star Wars Battlefield’ are not just oversimplifying, they’re missing the point of what DICE is setting out to achieve with its rebirth of the dormant Star Wars franchise.
Both Battlefield and Battlefront feature team-based multiplayer combat spliced with vehicular warfare but, beyond that, they absolutely feel like different games. That’s not to say that your core Battlefield skills won’t be transferrable to Battlefront, but they also have the potential to hamstring you, especially for the pilots out there.
At Gamescom, I went hands-on with Walker Assault mode, Fighter Squadron mode, and the cooperative Missions mode. Walker Assault mode was playable at E3, but Fighter Squadron was not, so this preview is predominantly focused on the newer mode (if you want to know more about Walker Assault, ask in the Comments).
The weakest of the three modes is Missions, which pits two players against increasingly larger and more challenging waves of enemies. It’s the sort of mode that feels like it’s been added to appease Star Wars fans who are intimidated by the concept of competitive multiplayer but still want to play a new-gen Star Wars title.
Basically, Missions mode is light on difficulty and nowhere near as entertaining as the two competitive modes on hand at Gamescom. That being said, Missions is a good place to start for learning the core ground mechanics of Battlefront, as well as the loadout options and testing which weapon best matches your play style.
There are little features from the Battlefield series that have been lifted for Battlefront, but more so in terms of the user interface. This includes a simple colour system to indicate how the weapon you’re looking at compares to the one you currently have selected. When asked if this logic would carry over to selecting ships for the aerial modes, Patrick Bach, general manager at DICE, acknowledged the similarities.
“Yeah, in a way,” he says. “We’re not going too deep into what ship does what, and how it handles but, yes, definitely, there are different traits on different ships. There’s no ‘you should only use this uber ship to do everything’. There are weaknesses with the Millennium Falcon, of course, but it’s a decent ship.”
Describing the Millennium Falcon as “decent” is something of an understatement.
During my time as a Rebel Alliance X-wing jockey in Fighter Squadron mode, I found the Falcon to be a coveted collectable. It’s not activated by scoring a kill streak; instead, it’s located low to the ground, like the repair and faster-cooldown pick-ups. It’s not exactly high risk for the high reward, but you need some flight skill to not smash into the ground or bridge above the pick-up. The problem was the Falcon power-up was located in the same spot every time, meaning that as soon as the player controlling Han Solo’s ship died, they could make a beeline back to it on respawn.
At least, that’s what I did. The Falcon has extra health and firepower, compared to the restricted choices of X-wings and TIE Fighters (for the demo), and it also has three special abilities that work on a cooldown system. These translate to extra speed for making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, a shield boost for surviving TIE Fighter assaults, and proton torpedoes for making short work of enemy ships. Put simply, the Falcon dominates in capable hands, more so if you understand that the guns track targets for a second after they’re out of view, and how to use that in conjunction with the throttle stick.
Fighter Squadron mode was played on PS4, but precision aiming isn’t nearly as important in the aerial mode as it is when on the ground. For Battlefield veterans, the controls are different. The right stick is used almost entirely to control the direction of your craft, while the left stick only uses the Y axis for speeding up and slowing down. There’s a bit more complexity at play with the throttle stick, though.
“With the left stick, you can actually move it, and put more power on the shields,” said Bach. “So as you’re being hunted, you move that back, and you can see the bar down on your screen moving over to defensive mode, meaning that your shields will be stronger, and the speed will go down, which means that you can use that as you’re speeding up and slowing down, as well as using it as moving power to shields, moving power to weapons, meaning that if you use that in a clever way, you can not only avoid being shot down, you can also use that as a braking feature, a handbrake.
“The guy hunting you, who’s probably in a more offensive mode, his ship is then faster, and all of his focus, all of his energy, is focused on the guns, meaning that that dynamic is quite good, as well, because as you are attacking someone else with more energy on the guns, you are actually quite open to getting shot down, meaning that someone else can spot you.” In my experience, shifting the stick back put more power in the weapons, which was perfect for dogfighting as staying stuck on someone’s tail necessitated pulling the throttle back anyway.
As I played more, I’d pull the left stick back in head-on encounters, dishing out an incredible amount of damage before flipping around to finish the job. In the X-wings, L1 activates your shields, while R1 fires proton torpedoes. For TIE Fighters, R1 does the same thing as the X-wings (and Falcon, for that matter), but L1 activates a speed boost, which is something that carries over to the basic handling of the Imperial fighter.
The TIE Fighters are faster and, from my appraisal, more manoeuvrable than the X-wings, whereas the X-wings have greater durability thanks to the shields and appeared to have better firepower. This meant some people were complaining about the TIEs being underpowered, but this gripe was absolutely not reflective of my experience.
Whenever someone locks onto you from behind, in-game voiceover chatter warns you that you have an enemy on your tail. The colour coding of the blaster fire from each respective faction – red for Rebels and green for Imperials – helps to offer additional information as to where you’re being attacked from, even if there’s a desperate need for Fighter Squadron to include a button to quickly look behind your craft.
As a TIE pilot, I used my extra speed and manoeuvrability to get closer to the ground, tearing into convenient natural trenches on the Sullust map or pulling the throttle back last-minute to whip around a radar dish. That latter instance put an end to the red laser fire, but it also didn’t appear to reward me for making the pursuing enemy pancake. When I was too far from the ground, I used three simple D-pad options for evasive manoeuvres. D-pad left and right roll to their respective sides, while D-pad up performs the always-handy Immelmann.
When Bach first described the basic controls to me, I thought it was way too simplified. After playing, I found that it’s immediately accessible (once you break the Battlefield flight-control logic), yet still rewarding for skilled pilots. Similarly, the option to pull left trigger when close to an enemy to lock on to a target felt incredibly simplistic. While it was easy to decimate greener pilots who prefer flying in a straight line, evasive manoeuvres meant that pilots who treat the lock-on-and-fire logic of Battlefront as an instant-win button combo are soon overheating their guns and temporarily defenceless.
All of this is done within a 10v10 space, with 20 AI ships thrown in on top to make things more frantic. The AI does get in the way of dogfighting with actual player-controlled fighters, but it doesn’t take long to learn how to spot AI ships, even from afar. As for how DICE ended up at 20 players for Fighter Squadron mode, Bach was eager to shift the focus away from a focus on all things numerical.
“I think one of the core ideas for this game was actually, from the beginning, not to focus on the numbers,” said Bach. “So the focus has always been, ‘What makes the game most fun?’ And the focus then being on the different modes and what is enough. What should it be to make it perfect? And you sometimes get this, like, ‘If you could only have more players, the game would be better.’ So you could argue, a million players would make the best possible game. ‘64 is shit, a million is a big number, therefore it is awesome.’
“We get the same with Battlefront: ‘Why have you removed the fun by removing players?’ That’s just the wrong way of seeing things. I think the whole numbers discussion is a bit polluted, and I think it’s running games, in general, right now, because games are so much more than numbers. Y’know, ‘How many maps? How many modes? How many players? How many guns?’ You don’t ask those questions in a movie. Why? Is the longer movie better than the shorter movie? ‘How many locations did you go to when you shot this movie? Because if you went to more locations, the movie would be better.’ It’s like, no. You never ask that question. You want enough. You want it to fulfil the fantasy and what you want to achieve. So the number 40 came from the fact that that’s when the game was most fun.”
As a Battlefield fan, it was hard to not feel deflated when 40 players was announced as the biggest multiplayer mode for Battlefront. But after playing that at Gamescom alongside the 20 players (+20 AI) of Fighter Squadron, I can tell you that it feels right. Despite the size of the maps, a faster respawn time meant there was rarely a shortage of enemies, and the firefights were as frantic as I’d hoped. It sounds as though EA has more to announce for Battlefront prior to release, but as a massive Star Wars nerd and a fan of the Battlefield franchise, I’m confident the series has found a new awakening at DICE.