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When I played Star Wars: Battlefront, the Empire won

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Visiting Hoth in one of the most anticipated games of the year

I charged up the snowy hill and crouched behind an outcropping of rock. Blaster fire echoed from the battlefield below. Over to my right, a monstrous AT-AT walker moved methodically across the hardpack, getting closer to the Rebel base with every step. I raised my blaster rifle to my eye, zeroing in on a pair of Rebels below. They were heading toward one of their satellite uplinks — keeping them active was the only way to call in a Y-Wing strike against the AT-ATs, after all — but some blaster fire later they fell to the ground. Not long thereafter, the Rebel forces had been vanquished; my team of Imperial troops victorious on this small, snowy planet.

Welcome to Star Wars: Battlefront.

Read next: Our guide to the best games of Fall 2015

The focus has been on the franchise, not innovative gameplay

It’s no exaggeration to say that EA DICE’s new title is one of the most anticipated games of the year, feeding off the revitalized passion for the franchise in the lead-up to J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That pre-existing fandom and nostalgia has been pretty much the only thing the game’s relied on to drive its hype. Teasers and trailers had been scarce until very recently, and even then the focus has been on recreating the Star Wars universe rather than on fresh or innovative gameplay. But EA’s strategy has been working, and here at E3 the publisher finally put controllers into people’s hands, letting them try out a Hoth multiplayer campaign for themselves. This particular mission is a tower defense variant, with one group — the Rebel Alliance — trying to keep hold of a series of satellite uplink stations. The Empire, on the other hand, is trying to keep them out of rebel hands, buying the AT-ATs time to do what they do best.

Star Wars: Battlefront screen grab

I’d been a little concerned during the gameplay trailer reveal earlier this week, because it was looking like the game was going to be extraordinarily busy. Tons of players running across the screen, spaceships, visual noise in the form of on-screen stats; after all the hype over visual design, I was worried that the logistics of functional gameplay would trip the game up. I needn’t have worried. Battlefront is simple and streamlined, allowing anyone that has ever played a first-person shooter to jump right in with next to no learning curve. That might sound like a small detail, but getting out of the way is integral to what DICE has pulled off: dropping players inside the world of Star Wars.

It felt like I'd stepped inside a long-lost cut scene from 'The Empire Strikes Back'

There’s been plenty of discussion of how the developer dug through the Lucasfilm archives to photograph and map the models, props, and weapons from the original trilogy, but all you really need to know is this: the final result in the game is staggering. This didn’t feel like I was watching a bad video game riff on the Hoth battle; this felt like I was truly inside a scene from The Empire Strikes Back that had somehow hit the cutting room floor. Everything from the Snowtroopers running alongside me to the Snowspeeders zooming overhead felt perfectly in place, so much so that I quickly stopped thinking about it altogether — no small feat, given that I’ve been grousing about mediocre representations of Star Wars vehicles pretty much since the arcade game.

At their best, Star Wars movies are about their soundtracks and sound design as much as they are about their visuals, and Battlefront takes its cues there as well. The score is taken from John Williams’ movie work, of course, and while everything in the demo that I heard was of the "rousing battle theme" variety it matched my gameplay wonderfully, and offered a perfect base layer for the sound effects to play off of. I won’t deny it: there’s a primitive, hard-coded instinct within me to react to that score no matter what I’m watching or playing, and Battlefront took advantage. The only thing that gave the sequence away as not being from the movie itself was a lack of Mark Hamill talking about tow cables. (Bringing down AT-ATs with a Snowspeeder and tow cable is part of the gameplay, but during the mission I was never was able to take to the skies. TIE Fighters, the Millennium Falcon, and a host of other vehicles are all playable.)

Star Wars: Battlefront screengrab

While running around and taking down rebels was fun unto itself, what I was most shocked by was a strange sense of emotional investment. As a point of reference, I’m not someone that enjoys multiplayer games just for the base thrill of shooting another player in the face; for me that all too often collapses into a one-dimensional exercise without any sense of story, scale, or characters. Battlefront does deliver that simple pleasure — you’re battling against a bunch of real-world opponents, after all — but the sheer fact that the game is pulling from a series of beloved movies is its secret weapon.

Pulling from a series of beloved movies is its secret weapon

As I scrambled across the snow, the stakes were clear, and I felt an emotional rush and sense of allegiance to my team that any other game would have a hard time matching. In all honesty, it’s just the legacy of the property. I’ve been invested in the fight between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire since I was a kid, and suddenly being able to take part in that — particularly in such a familiar and precisely realized environment — was a true joy. Everything else, including gameplay, was secondary.

It also speaks to DICE’s decision to forego a narrative single-player campaign altogether for Battlefront. I don’t know that I’d feel the same way about a game that was taking me through a narrative arc of some new character or location. The strength with the Hoth campaign is familiarity — if my team lost, I knew the outcome from Empire itself — and I expect that the maps that venture into uncharted territory may end up being less exciting than those that hew closely to the films.

Star Wars: Battlefront screen grab

'Snow Planet Fight' would probably be a pretty dull game unto itself

But that emotional link is also a clear potential danger. About three minutes before the end of our co-op demo, I had a brief moment of clarity: there was a lot of ground to cover, and Hoth is just a bland, boring white expanse. Snow Planet Fight would probably be a pretty dull game unto itself, and when the rush of playing within the Star Wars universe fades Battlefront could lose its novelty, becoming just one more game in a very saturated market.

With 40 different multiplayer battles included in the game at launch, there’s going to be plenty to explore before we find the answer to that question — not to mention lightsaber battles, and the ability to play as Luke, Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and a number of other favorite characters. And let’s get real: while I may be wondering about the long-term shelf life of the game, I’ve already placed my pre-order. It’s Star Wars.

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