When EA bought back the Star Wars Battlefront franchise in 2015, much ado was made about the significant work that went into making the game look and sound like a movie-accurate Star Wars title. But visual trappings aside, the actual rebooted Battlefront was an online-only shooter that lacked a lot of the depth of the earlier titles, and quickly shattered its user base with expensive DLC. It sold more than 14 million copies, but had very little staying power.
Now, with Battlefront II, EA has listened to the feedback and is bringing back a whole bunch of things from the original iterations of the game. The changes the company has made on the multiplayer side — like bringing back the other eras of the franchise, classes, and more accessible heroes — make Battlefront II more like a Battlefront game. But perhaps even more importantly, the new single-player story mode puts the soul of Star Wars back in the series.
At a demo event, I got the chance to play the first three levels of Battlefront II’s campaign, which puts players into the shoes of Iden Versio (voiced by Janina Gavankar), a new character who leads an elite Imperial special forces group called Inferno Squad. Battlefront II’s single-player mode is being developed by Motive, one of three studios working on the game (along with Dice, which is in charge of the core gameplay systems and multiplayer, and Criterion, which is handling the “starfighter assault” and arcade modes). According to Mark Thompson, game director at Motive, the campaign is built on top of the three pillars of Battlefront gameplay: playing a trooper on the ground, being an ace starfighter pilot in the sky, and stepping into the shoes of iconic Star Wars heroes.
As a special forces team, Battlefront II’s Inferno Squad is meant to help bring those fantasies to life, by offering a jack-of-all-trades group that lets players fulfill multiple roles, instead of the traditionally pigeonholed Stormtroopers that exist in the movies to only do one thing. To put it another way: being a Sandtrooper who only walks around deserts does not make a fun game.
The gameplay itself builds on the multiplayer core that Dice is developing. The actual mechanics of Battlefront II, including the weapons and abilities, all function the same way you’d expect. But it’s the single-player story that takes those basic pieces and transforms Battlefront II from merely being a reskinned multiplayer shooter that happens to have Stormtroopers and Rebel fighters, and gives it its own Star Wars identity.
Battlefront II feels like a Star Wars story, even if it is told from an unusual perspective of an Imperial soldier. The game starts off just before the end of Return of the Jedi, with Inferno Squad trying to prevent stolen intelligence from leaking into the hands of the Rebels. As Iden Versio, I crept around a Rebel ship, quietly avoiding guards, slicing open doors with the help of a miniature droid (who can also shock enemies for you as a special attack), and brought Imperial justice down on the Rebel scum.
A later mission offered a change of pace, set on the forest moon of Endor just after the second Death Star was destroyed, as Versio tries to escape the now triumphant Rebel forces. It’s a very different mood than the almost smug gunning down of Rebels of the first level. Instead, Iden and her squad are facing the terrifying reality that everything has gone wrong, and that thousands of their fellow troopers have been killed in an instant. It almost makes you feel bad for the Empire on some level, and the zeal of your squadmates as they take out their anger on Rebel troops is palpable.
The campaign also features the same attention to detail that the revived Battlefront series has become known for. Everything, from corridors of ships to the weapons, feel incredibly accurate to the films, down to the subtle scratches and chips on the blasters. My favorite touch? Shooting door panels will seal them shut in a shower of sparks, often with enemies on the other size — just like Luke does in A New Hope.
There’s still plenty of the game left that I didn’t get the chance to see, including any of the hero gameplay levels. And with roughly 30 years of Star Wars history unexplored between the end of Return of the Jedi and the start of The Force Awakens, there’s plenty of room for Battlefront II’s story to unfold.
But Battlefront II’s single-player mode is a reminder of how nice it is have a story-driven Star Wars game again — something that unfortunately seems to be a short-lived triumph, given EA’s shutdown of Visceral Games’ similarly linear title earlier this week in favor of a “broader experience.”
That feels like a shame, because if Battlefront II’s campaign is indicative of anything, it’s a reminder that Star Wars is about more than lightsabers and X-Wings; it’s about telling a story.
Update September 19th, 3:00pm: Credited Janina Gavankar as the voice for Iden Versio.
Star Wars Battlefront II releases on November 17th for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.