Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Editor's note: Attempting to review Star Wars Battlefront II right now is sort of like writing a Yelp review of a restaraunt that is currently on fire. Controversy about the game's lootbox system is raging, and EA has already announced changes to it (that come in addition to previous changes implemented after the game's beta). This review will be based on hands-on time with the game at a press review event and the systems in place in the game as they existed at the time of the review. We will continue to cover Battlefront II post-launch and will update this review with links to our future coverage.
Star Wars Battlefront II offers a ton of fantastic gameplay that Star Wars fans will enjoy, but right now it is badly hampered on the multiplayer side by its “pay to win” loot crate system. The single player campaign is fun and engaging, with great acting and exciting set-pieces, but misses numerous dramatic opportunities. I love the way that it provides so much Star Wars fun, but hate the way it tries to reach into my pocket at every opportunity.
Spoilers for Star Wars Battlefront II’s single player campaign and the Star Wars universe in general follow.
Single Player: Great mechanics but an uneven narrative
Star Wars Battlefront II has made a lot of noise about its main character, Iden Versio, being an Imperial special forces soldier, who snarls stuff like “The Empire’s time has come!” Big black helmet, working for the Emperor, salutes you sarcastically before flushing herself out an airlock to escape-type badass. And she is. For about the first hour of the single player campaign.
The single player campaign begins around at the Battle of Endor and the destruction of the second Death Star - i.e. the end of Return of the Jedi. Versio (played by Janina Gavankar) watches it explode from the surface of Endor, and in a testament to how awesome mocap acting looks these days, you can see her world come tumbling down.
It’s a powerful way to start the campaign, and hearing stormtroopers shouting encouragement to you and each other creates an interesting emotional experience. These are the people we’ve been watching get mercilessly mowed down by our heroes for nigh on forty years. We’ve cackled at their lousy aim, general stupidity, and vulnerability to Jedi mind tricks. They’re expendable, disposable, and worthless.
But now they’re your comrades in arms. The people you’re fighting for. And you’re the leader of Inferno Squad, the best of them, the one they look to for strength. While the rest of us are listening to the Ewok Yub-Nub song and celebrating, Iden Versio is fighting her way to an evac point, trying to save as many good soldiers as she can. The Empire flees, tail between its legs, when it receives orders from… some kind of droid with pre-recorded information from the Emperor? It’s not strictly clear, but he tells Iden Versio and her father Admiral Garrick Versio that the time has come for Operation Cinder, which will restore order and power to the Empire.
Unfortunately, the single-player campaign is held back by some distracting narrative missteps. Versio her comrades are part of a mission to bombard Versio’s home planet of Vardos. Versio repeatedly states that the planet and its people are loyal to the Empire, but for some reason, terrorizing their own planets (with their conscriptable population, industrial centers, and material wealth) is how the Droid Emperor hopes to force the galaxy back into line. It's a "plan" that just makes no sense.
But it wouldn’t have taken much to sell me on this idea. Give me one single line, just one, about how the people on this planet were starting to rise up against the Empire and needed to be made an example of. Tell me about how the Rebel Alliance has broken through the Imperial line and that the valuable resources on Vardos can’t be allowed to fall into enemy hands. But no. We get none of that
Problems mount as the story unfolds. The game attempts to tell us a conversion story, but never earns the pathos such a story needs to succeed.
All my narrative / thematic complaining aside though, the single-player campaign is fun and full of memorable locations that capture the Star Wars flavor. It takes you to some iconic locations like Endor, but the new areas are the most interesting, including lava-powered AT-AT factories, the debris field around the Death Star II, and the surface of a Star Destroyer floating in atmosphere. In one of the best missions, Iden Versio plays a key role in the battle of Jakku (which was featured in SWBF1). The action makes you feel like an elite soldier whose indispensable flying and fighting skills help win the day.
And I’m happy to say that I didn’t encounter a single Quicktime event or shell-shocked slo-mo scene in all of SWBF2. Call of Duty: World War II’s vehicle scenes, which have already worn dangerously thin, look even more dated when compared to SWBF2’s seamless transitions between FPS action and starfighter dogfights. My only mechanical complaint is that the stealth sections are ill-conceived. There’s no indicator as to how well-hidden you are, and sometimes it seemed like stealth take-downs alerted guards for no reason in particular. Occasionally, it seemed like you were on a stealth mission but the game designers gave you no option other than to go loud (or maybe I’m just terrible at stealth games, which is also possible).
However, I do wish that the campaign felt like it was building tension toward the final battle. While it’s fun and does not overstay its welcome (it’s about seven hours or so), the missions feel like a bunch of set pieces and random stuff rather than dramatic scenes placed in a specific order to maximize narrative effectiveness.
The single player campaign also features a number of side missions with Han and Lando that are the campy joke fests that the Star Wars universe is known for. The comedy in these missions is sharp, leading to some out-loud laughs. It’s clear that the writers were more comfortable with this subject matter than the Versio plot. Shriv, a new alien Rebel commander, is particularly hilarious in his seething disdain for Lando. He’s exactly the kind of sarcastic bastard that every good piece of Star Wars media needs.
It’s also notable that the actors do a stellar job. Janina Shankar and T.J. Ramini are terrific as Versio and Meeko respectively, doing the best they can with the middling plot. None of the original cast appear in the list of VO credits, but their replacements do some spot-on impressions, particularly John Armstrong as Han Solo. Harrison Ford may be sick of Star Wars, but Armstrong could carry the VO torch forever.
The single-player campaign isn’t the sort of nutritious, full-flavored story experience I was hoping for, but it’s decent narrative fast food. You get to fly X-Wings, blast TIE Fighters, punch stormtroopers, and shoot people in the face. It isn’t deep, but it’s fun and worth playing. Also, EA has promised us new single player content in Season 1. I enjoyed the campaign enough to want to see how it plays out.
Multiplayer: Multiple modes (but they don't all shine)
The multiplayer component of SWFB2 is exciting and fun to play. One of the stated design goals was to allow players to live out Star Wars fantasies of being a Jedi, a Stormtrooper, an X-Wing pilot, and more. The game generally succeeds at that goal, but stumbles when it attemps to integrate these different levels of combat.
The multiplayer system revolves around battle points. You acquire battle points by killing enemies, winning objectives, fighting for objectives, and dying while attempting to protect objectives. You spend these battle points in-game to use higher level hero units, such as Wookie Warriors, jetpack stormtroopers, core characters, and iconic vehicles. All hero units have unique abilities and more hit points than your average trooper.
I’m not a huge fan of this system because it means that better players will get access to the best characters and vehicles early, and once a certain number of them hit the field, you can’t use them, even if you have the battle points available. So if someone is already playing Rey, you can’t grab her until the current player dies. Also, hero characters shred standard troopers, which provides a ton of battle points, meaning that you might even be able to leap back into playing a hero character right after you die, denying lesser players the opportunity.
There are several game modes, but Starfighter Assault is the highlight. Criterion, the developers that handled vehicular gameplay, has crafted an easy to learn, satisfying space flight experience that spans all three major Star Wars time periods. You can jump right into the cockpit and immediately fly exciting, death defying missions. Gameplay is asymmetrical, with each side attacking each other’s fighter wings, cruisers, blockade runners, and bases. More than any other mode, Starfighter Assault feels like living the movies in the best possible way. They’ve also cleaned up hit detection a bit since the multiplayer preview event, though I still wish scenery collisions did damage instead of causing instant kills.
Starfighters are divided into interceptors, fighters, and bombers. Fighters are your hardy, workhorse ships: a happy medium between fast and tough, with decent maneuverability. Interceptors are the lightest armed and armored ships, but are quick and highly manueverable. Bombers are slow and turn like lead pigs, but carry heavy armaments designed to slam objective targets. Bombers need a bit of a tweak, as they don’t seem to hit quite hard enough to justify their sluggish flight. That being said, I give kudos to Criterion for making each fighter, in each era, on each side, different. The core concept and role of each fighter remains the same, but each ship’s special abilities differ significantly. Each ship also handles differently, with the prequel era Droid Tri-Fighter being my absolute favorite.
SWBF2’s shooter combat is solidly constructed FPS action with a fun Star Wars flavor. It sits in an interesting place between Overwatch and Call of Duty. With the exception of Blast mode (which is just “first to 100 kills” team deathmatch), all gameplay is objective-oriented. So just killing the enemy isn’t going to deliver you to victory. Classes (discussed below) are far more general than Overwatch’s extremely specialized characters, but are more interesting and varied than CoD’s, who are basically all just dudes with guns. Trooper health levels also sit somewhere between a tissue-paper thin CoD soldier and a ginormous Overwatch tank.
Troopers are divided into four distinct classes - Assault, Heavy, Officer, and Specialist. Assault is your standard blaster rifle-wielding core of any attack team, while the Heavy provides fully-automatic, low-damage covering fire. The Specialist snipes and occasionally sneaks while the Officer can provide AoE armor boosts and auto turrets. Between these four classes, I believe most gamers will find something that they’ll enjoy, and due to large team sizes and broadly useful character types, you don’t end up desperately wishing that someone would stop using their preferred class mid-match.
Strike mode lets you jump right into asymmetrical infantry combat where players attack and defend objectives, which includes holding points or setting and defusing bombs. These games take place on pared down versions of larger Galactic Assault maps. Strike games are done in ten minutes or less, generally and an easy way to leap into the game. In a few situations, I wished that the objectives (particularly the bombs) were a little easier to locate, but that’s a problem that will wear off after a few hours of play.
Heroes and Villains mode allows you to square off in 4v4 battles between Light side and Dark side hero characters. The game marks one character on each team for death, and teams must kill the opposing team’s marked hero, while protecting their own marked teammate. This leads to some interesting matchups and team composition experimentation that I really enjoyed. Jedi, with their ferocious melee skills and Force powers, seem like the favored winners, but you shouldn’t count out highly mobile characters like Boba Fett or badass blaster-oriented characters like Leia.
Arcade mode provides a Dynasty Warriors-type experience wherein players must kill a certain amount of troopers before time runs out, and each trooper they kill increases the remaining amount of time. This mode provides the opportunity to play local multiplayer, and many shooters have been missing this sort of casual experience. I’m glad it exists here. This mode also gives you the valuable opportunity to try out hero characters before you have to blow valuable battle points to play them in more serious multiplayer modes.
My main complaint with the multiplayer lies in Galactic Assault. It combines vehicle combat, starfighter combat, and FPS infantry action into one single map, all at the same time. I was hoping that this was going to be the ultimate Star Wars experience, but starfighter combat is not well-integrated with the infantry action. Almost all the objectives are happening on the ground. Starfighters can shoot at each other, but not much else. Don’t attempt any daring low-flying strafing runs, because wonky ship-to-ground hit detection means that you’ll almost certainly crash and die. And you have almost no way to visually identify troops on the ground. There’s no friendly fire, so you can shoot in the general area of relevant ground objectives and maybe score a few enemy kills, but that kind of slipshod gameplay doesn’t fulfill the promise of this game.
I would’ve loved it if the designers had added some kind of fighter-oriented objectives. Let a Mon Calamari star cruiser and a Star Destroyer hover over the battlefield and shoot at each other, occasionally striking the ground or deploying bonuses for their team. Fighters on either side could attack either capital ship in order to delay team bonuses or air strikes. Maybe a team that brought down the enemy cruiser could earn major bonuses for their team. As it stands, the designers just didn’t give starfighter players enough to do in Galactic Assault mode.
There are also a few terrific Starfighter Assault levels that could’ve been expanded to include an infantry element. There’s a Naboo level that involves clone trooper pilots attacking an enormous droid starbase. It would’ve been great to have an infantry battle raging inside the base, and each objective achieved inside the base affected the situation outside. Heck, let infantry soldiers man turbolaser turrets to attack starfighters and let starfighter pilots land inside the base to assist with the ground attack. If the developers’ goal was to let players live that Star Wars fantasy, then they should’ve gone all out.
As it stands, the most exciting Galactic Assault levels focus solely on ground vehicle and infantry combat. A particularly fun Endor level involves Rebel theft of an AT-AT and a desperate Imperial attempt to stop their own hijacked walker. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that, but to truly fulfill the promise of this game, DICE team really needs to think about how to provide meaningful strategic options that allow soldiers, starfighters, and vehicles to interact. It’s not even like they’re breaking new ground. Titanfall and Battlefield have been doing this for years.
Loot crate issues
The thing that’s really going to sink the multiplayer mode, and potentially SWBF2 as a whole, is the loot crate system.
By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard about the 40+ hours that it will take the average player to unlock key heroes like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. In response to fan outcry, EA has cut the in-game currency cost of these heroes by 75%, but that still means ten hours of play per hero, and many of the starting heroes are locked. Even worse, you can only buy heroes with in-game currency after you unlock higher level Star Card slots, which requires acquiring yet more loot crates! Fans argue that it’s unacceptable for EA to charge full price for a game with a free to play content model and that’s entirely reasonable.
But that’s not this game’s biggest problem. As mentioned in our previous multiplayer impressions article, Star Cards are found in loot crates, which can be purchased with real money, and provide significant mechanical bonuses to players. While you can no longer buy a pile of loot crates in an attempt to get epic-level cards, tying mechanical bonuses to loot crates means that the player with more Star Cards will always have an edge in multiplayer. And someone who spends real money will almost always have more Star Cards.
These aren’t small mechanical bonuses either. A rare (not even epic!) Bounty Hunter card provides a 15% bonus to battle point accumulation, getting you to hero characters far faster. The rare Survivalist card shortens your health regeneration delay by a whopping 30%. And a rare Resourceful card reduces your ability cooldown times by 20%! If you have this last card, you can use your abilities much more often than someone without a card. Even the common version of this card gives you a 10% cooldown reduction. There’s an enormous incentivization to maximize your collection of Star Cards, and the fastest way to do that is by spending real money.
While upgrading your Star Cards now requires you to rank up your player level, which can be only raised through gameplay, the other barrier, “card level” is dictated by how many cards you own for that class. So dumping money into loot crates can help you rush past this barrier, while someone buying cards with in-game money will progress much more slowly. You also unlock card slots based on your card level, so again, purchasing a boatload of loot crates will open slots up sooner. Even worse, there are three card slots, and players with all three slots unlocked will have significant advantages over newer or less experienced players with fewer available slots. And how do you craft Star Cards? You do it with crafting parts, which can only be obtained by (you guessed it) opening loot crates.
Players should also be aware that when you unlock a card slot for one trooper class/ship/hero, it does not unlock for any other trooper class/ship/hero. Each slot must be unlocked via acquisition of cards for that particular class. If you want to unlock the assault class's slots, you need assault cards. If you want to unlock Darth Vader's slots, you need Darth Vader's cards. On the plus side, devs let me know that the game is more likely to give you cards for a particular class if you play as that class frequently.
No game designer sets out to create mechanics that players will hate. No multiplayer dev wants to make a system that lets people buy their way to victory. This loot crate system is a business decision that seems far removed from anyone who cares about great games or providing positive experiences for gamers.
There’s a banner in the EA lobby that says “We exist to inspire people to play.” This entire game is catnip to a Star Wars fan like me, but this loot crate system inspires me to play something else. And that’s sad, because this game really is fun. I played it for sixteen hours for two days in a dark room in an uncomfortable chair and I still wanted to sit down and play more. It’s that awesome. But I can’t, in good faith, recommend that you buy it, lest future games include loot crate systems like this. Voting with our dollars is the only way to stop “pay to win” gameplay mechanics from becoming the norm.
I’m not against loot crates as a whole. I enjoy the Overwatch loot system. I like funny outfits and wacky emotes. Loot crates are for cosmetic items, not mechanical bonuses.
I understand that game development is a long, astoundingly expensive, risky process. I understand that the licensing costs for Star Wars IP is astronomical. But this is not the way to recoup your investment. This is the fast route to fan resentment, low early adoption rates, and canceled pre-orders. This game and its fans deserve better.