I remember the first time I played Star Wars: Dark Forces back in 1995. It’s an oldie, but it was a goodie: a first-person shooter that put you inside a little corner of the Star Wars universe, where you could battle it out with blasters and thermal detonators to your heart’s content. It was primitive, sure, but it gave me a little glimpse of what it would be like to play a game that actually took me inside some of my favorite movies. "Someday," I thought.
Here at Star Wars Celebration, EA DICE has taken the wraps off the long-awaited reboot of Star Wars: Battlefront, and I think that someday may be awfully close.
At its heart, Battlefront is a playable simulation of environments, vehicles, weapons, and characters from the original Star Wars trilogy. It's the third game to feature the Battlefront name, and the first from DICE, a studio best known for the Battlefield series of first-person shooters. The reboot lets players dive into that world and use it as a sort of action sandbox, as part of either large-scale cooperative campaigns that include up to 40 players, or in smaller, one-off missions based on scenes from the films. The game includes locations like Hoth, the forest moon of Endor from Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker’s home world of Tatooine, and a mysterious planet named Sullust, and players are able to take on the role of everyone from a Rebel soldier to Boba Fett or Darth Vader. Whether it’s flying an X-Wing, a TIE Fighter, or piloting the Millennium Falcon, Battlefront clearly wants to check all the boxes on the fan wish list.
Fly an X-Wing, a TIE Fighter, or the Falcon
While there wasn’t any hands-on time with the game, DICE did show off some pre-alpha PS4 gameplay footage, and visually the game looked incredibly impressive. The demo campaign centered around a fight on Endor where a large group of Rebels battled against Stormtroopers, working together to take down a massive AT-AT. The gameplay itself looked like fairly standard first-person or third-person shooter material (players can toggle between either view), but where the game excelled was in creating the sense of truly being within the Star Wars films.
To recreate the worlds, DICE delved into the Lucasfilm archives to find the original props and models used in the films. Whether it was the miniature for the Falcon or Vader’s lightsaber, the items were all photographed, and the game’s developers used a technique called "photogrammetry" to create 3D models with highly detailed textures and coloring. The approach certainly seems to have paid off. When Stormtroopers took off from the Rebel attack in the gameplay footage, it didn’t look like they were jumping atop some crude approximation of a speeder bike; it actually looked like a speeder bike.
The same attention followed through to the sound design of the game, and that’s where Battlefront really captured my attention. The Star Wars films have always had a very specific sense of whimsy in their use of sound, whether it’s the lighter elements of John Williams’ score or the ever-present "Wilhelm scream." According to DICE, the studio obtained access to the original source tracks at Skywalker Sound for Battlefront, and brought all of those aspects along. It's critical to recreating the feel of the films, and what DICE showed had a coherence and authenticity to it that felt truly immersive. (DICE is also touting Battlefront as the first PC game to use Dolby Atmos sound, though I had a hard time hearing any dramatic changes due to the demo location itself.)
The soundtrack is key in recreating the feel of the movies
The authenticity of the visuals and audio was so pronounced that when Battlefront did step outside what has been directly featured in the movies — some soldiers in the Endor scene used shields similar to what the Gungans used in The Phantom Menace, for example — it was actually discordant, pulling me out of the demo. That’s ultimately a good problem to have, however, particularly given that players in Battlefront will have control over what kind of elements they mix and match in various scenarios.
Gameplay is still an open question
The prettiest pictures in the world won’t matter if the game isn’t fun to play, of course, and unfortunately that’s still very much an open question — we've all been burned by promising-looking Star Wars games in the past. It certainly looks like it will be fun to jump inside an X-Wing and take down a squadron of TIE Fighters, or blow up an AT-ST walker in the middle of the forest, but without playing the actual game it’s impossible to known how the AI or mechanics will perform in practice. But on a technical level, Battlefront appears to be the closest we’ve ever gotten to playing a Star Wars movie.
Thankfully we won’t have to wait very much longer to find out if the team at DICE has delivered the goods: the game is coming out on November 17th for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and on the PC. It’s just in time for the opening of J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens — and given that Battlefront will also include a free DLC scenario that links Return of the Jedi with The Force Awakens, it’s safe to say there will be many fans ready to jump on board. 20 years after Dark Forces, I certainly am.