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I may be a curmudgeon, but that doesn’t mean I really want to sit here picking apart the specifics of what makes “an authentic Star Wars experience.” I really don’t. I didn’t start this conversation. I will, however, finish it.
The folks at DICE and EA have been throwing that idea around all year as they hyped up Star Wars Battlefront. They’ve talked to anyone who will listen about how they went to Skywalker Ranch and measured all the models and listened to the original sound files or whatever, and that’s how you know it’s the real deal. They’ve said it to my face, and they’ve said it right here on Playboy.com. They’ve even put it in the product description (“Immerse yourself in an authentic Star Wars experience”). They wanted to make a game that “can allow people to feel like they’re stepping into this world.” This is their rhetoric.
Had they not framed Battlefront like this I don’t think I would feel particularly inclined to judge it in this way. Battlefront as a franchise has never been about authenticity. It’s about Star Wars deathmatches. It’s about being like something else you liked but with Star Wars skins and outfits on everything. It was fine back then, when the first two Battlefront games were released, and it would have been fine now. I mean, how “authentic” can you be to anything with context-free multiplayer battles that you let you play as characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and run around battlefields ad nauseum?
Since they’ve been hammering this into my brain all year it stuck with me and colored how I think of Battlefront when I play it. So, first, what is Star Wars, really? In the broadest possible sense, it’s a setting for stories. Any kind of story is fine so long as you abide by the very flexible framework that exists for that universe, like how they have physical laws but you can defy those if the story warrants it just as someone might in stories about our world. At the most basic level, being a Proper Star Wars Thing in the way we typically think of Proper Star Wars Things (movies, books, comics, games) requires concrete storytelling. Battlefront doesn’t have that, so it begins at a disadvantage. That’s not an issue that can’t be overcome, though.
Back in April I expressed healthy skepticism about the developers’ rhetoric when I spoke with producer Craig McCleod at the big Star Wars Celebration, telling him that attention to detail is all well and good, but when it comes to Star Wars the soul matters just as much. It’s cool that they have X-Wings that are exactly the right dimensions, sure, but it’s the intangibles that will make or break that claimed authenticity since there is no story being told here.
It does get some of the intangibles right. When you’re on the ground on Sullust, a long, open, rectangular map, the chaos is a beautiful thing. Two-legged AT-ST walkers stalk the battlefield as starfighters circle above and lasers from ground troops fly, sending up sparks all around. When we talk about the “feel” of Star Wars that really gets it.
That feeling is amplified when you’re playing the Walker Assault mode. Hulking four-legged AT-AT walkers cast a big shadow, and it emphasizes the big difference between the Empire and the Rebellion: one side comes in force, and the other has to make do as guerrillas. Even if that mode is still effectively balanced to make it a fair fight, the “feel” is still there because nothing about it seems fair.
In any other mode that balance becomes a problem. The Empire and Rebellion don’t have anything resembling similar strength and so they don’t use similar tactics. If the Rebels fought straight up they’d get smashed. And since the other modes are more standard multiplayer affairs like fights over control points or variations on team deathmatch, you don’t have that distinction. It’s just two equally matched opponents fighting. This is made super obvious just by contrast to Walker Assault, which is the only mode that makes a real, good-faith effort to sell the difference between the two sides.
(As an aside, the control point mode isn’t really that Star Warsy just because the voice on the radio during the match keeps talking about control points, a very video gamey thing. Not sure how that’s supposed to be “authentic Star Wars.”)
But it’s the “hero” characters (the Emperor, Darth Vader, Boba Fett, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker) that ended up distracting me the most. On their face they’re cool—Darth Vader sauntering through the battlefield deflecting blaster fire and choking people out is super terrifying. But the game doesn’t sell their impact on the battle nearly hard enough. You’ll be in the middle of a heated firefight when a voice on the radio deadpans that Darth Vader is here. Not “OH FUCK DARTH VADER IS HERE” but just “oh yeah that boss guy showed up.” And then you take him down and it’s more deadpanning. We got him, guys. Darth Vader is dead. Cool. This is an event that could turn the tide of the war and we’re mildly enthusiastic about it, and the Imperial forces aren’t even perturbed.
This is an issue related to how these characters are used. Littering every map are powerup coins, the most common being things like rocket launchers or automated turrets or extra-powerful grenades. Then you have ones that let you fly a starfighter or drive a walker. The rarest are the hero coins, which let you choose which of the three big bosses of your side you want to be. I don’t know the programming logic behind how often they turn up, but it’s a few times per battle at least. If you wanna really sell the meaning of the death of one of these people then you’d probably need to end any battle when one of them dies.
But this is where we come to another part of EA and DICE’s rhetoric about Battlefront: battle fantasies. They liken the experience of playing Battlefront to being a kid messing around with action figures and starship models. This is another thing the game doesn’t really get right, because when you’re a kid with your toys you have full control while in multiplayer video games you do not. But also it’s something that conflicts with the idea of an “authentic Star Wars experience” just because playing with action figures is not that.
All of this really comes down to the sort of game Battlefront is. You simply cannot make a standard competitive multiplayer game and call it an authentic Star Wars experience. Walker Assault demonstrates the direction you’d have to take the multiplayer if that’s what you’re trying to do, but instead it opts for standard stuff most of the time.
So the question becomes: what really, in the developers’ minds, did it mean to make an “authentic Star Wars experience”? Only they can answer that, but what might be telling is what occurs as soon as you start up Battlefront for the first time. The game suggests you play a tutorial, which opens with a cutscene in which the generic Rebel character you will control stands in the snow on Hoth and reads a line originally spoken by Luke Skywalker at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back.
Is that what authenticity is, or is Star Wars Battlefront really just an average video game?
Phil Owen is a freelance journalist and critic based in Los Angeles. He tweets for free at @philrowen.
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