Friday, October 9, 2015

Star Wars: Battlefront Beta Impressions

EA has opened the final phase of beta testing for Star Wars: Battlefront to the masses and gamers around the world are getting a chance to play a limited selection of the final product. As a huge Star Wars fan, I was elated when EA announced they would be resurrecting the Battlefront series for the modern generation and set time aside so that I could play the beta as soon as the servers went live. After several hours of killing rebel scum, I'm a bit on the fence about whether or not the final product will be worth a purchase; my fan status makes me an easy sale but I wonder if gamers who aren't Star Wars fans will sense the force in this one. If the beta test is anything to go on, I don't think Star Wars: Battlefront will have enough depth to attract hardcore FPS fans though EA shouldn't have any problem mind-tricking their way to hefty sales on the back of a top tier license, upcoming movie release, and looming holiday season.

While EA is calling it a beta, it's probably more accurate to call the Battlefront build on offer a stress test/demo. This close to the release date, it's likely the console versions are already undergoing certification making the prospect of changing content based on player feedback dubious. Further, the general level of polish is well beyond any reasonable definition of 'beta'. Also, the frequent prompts to pre-order and menus that clearly delineate the content that is barred from the current build but will be in the final release gives the whole experience a demo vibe. Not that I'm complaining! Publishers seldom open up their AAA releases to such robust demonstrations and the opportunity to play a presumably near-final product before buying should help gamers make a more informed decision. For a company that is often maligned for not putting gamers first, even the strongest detractors will appreciate this as a classy move. Given that I'm treating the experience as primarily a demo, I'm assuming that the gameplay is representative of the final product and that EA is trying to sell the game by providing a sample of the best the game has to offer. Of course, it should go without saying that the final product may end up being drastically different from the build I had a chance to play.

I was a bit concerned when the Battlefront PC specs were announced. Though my rig exceeded the minimum requirements the recommended setup included a top tier video card and processor. Fortunately, my concerns were unwarranted as I had no issues whatsoever running the game at 1920x1080 on medium at a consistent 60fps with a GTX 760 and i5 4670. I played with many of the graphics settings and feel confident that most gaming machines bought in the last couple of years should have few problems running the game. For those with potato machines, the difference between low and ultra settings is surprisingly small; while ultra boasts crisper textures along with the usual stuff like full anti-aliasing, it's not like playing the game on low settings will turn everything to Minecraft. Overall, the game looks gorgeous and does a solid job of recreating the familiar locales of Hoth and Tatooine. Models are highly detailed and work at immersing the player in the battle. If I can raise any negatives, it's that the animations can be a bit jerky, especially when a player is controlling a vehicle, and the dynamic terrain stands out a bit from the fixed assets (though this may be an intentional design decision). In any case, these small negatives are easily overlooked given the amazing detail everywhere else. Battlefront is, without question, the most visually stunning recreation of the Star Wars universe in a game to date. Throw in the familiar sounds of blasters and lightsabres and provide subtle queues for the iconic musical score to chime in and you really do feel like you are participating in a cinematic battle.

The graphics really do look this good!
Unfortunately, where the graphics and sound do an outstanding job of selling the Star Wars experience, the gameplay leaves a bit to be desired. It's not that the core shooting mechanics are bad, but more that they are too simplistic. Auto-aiming is prevalent, and weapon reloading is replaced by a heat meter similar to original Mass Effect weapons. There are no classes and a limited weapon selection makes it feel as though each player is a carbon copy of the other. As a front-line grunt, I felt that I was rarely making a tangible impact on the battle as a whole and found it difficult to see my actions translate into the success or failure of my team. In the two multiplayer maps on offer, objectives are periodically highlighted and dictate where the action takes place but too often I felt like grist for the mill as I would instantly respawn into a barrage of laser fire and be dead within seconds - another faceless trooper who's sole job was to get shot. 

The few times where I felt I was making a difference were when I picked up one of the glowing powerups sprinkled around the battlefield. These powerups represent vehicles and hero characters and using them let's you take momentary control of one of a battle-changing mechanic such as an AT-AT walker or Luke Skywalker. Controlling the AT-AT is particularly satisfying as you call down air strikes and watch the kill count go up as opposing forces scramble to get out of the way. Unfortunately, the experience is on a timer and after about a minute of feeling like a vital cog in the war machine you are instantly spawned back to the field as a grunt. The design is so that every player will have a chance to play with the big toys and no one player hogs all of the fun but the transitions in and out of power are jarring. As an aside, the whole implementation of the vehicles as powerups instead of actual assets on the field feels odd though I can't provide a reasonable explanation for the alternative of why a TIE fighter would just be sitting on the ground at Hoth waiting for someone to jump in.

Success in taking down a walker is governed by a quick-time-event...
The maps themselves feel like they are competing with their game modes. The Tatooine map is relatively close quarters with rocky outcrops providing sneaky sniper perches. However, the random spawn points mean that rather then setting up a solid defensible position, standing still for even a few moments will have someone spawn behind you to shoot you in the back. Consequently, matches on Tatooine feel chaotic without a true sense of tactics. Hoth does a better job of creating a front-line that shifts as one side is winning but suffers from balance issues - in 20+ matches the Imperial side won every match. The air battle on Hoth also seems to have minimal impact on the ground game. In one match, we had an ace pilot who dominated the score board with twice the kills of his rival but winning the air game didn't translate to an appreciable bonus for the ground troops and, as the rebels, we still lost the match. The sense that I got from both maps is that the game is designed to allow players to be lone wolfs out only to rack up kills rather than work as part of a coordinated strike team. It's a sort of brainless jump in and shoot the other guy fun that is reminiscent of shooters from yesteryear that is unlikely to capture the long term attention of hardcore FPS fans.

EA is no doubt aware that Battlefront won't appeal to dedicated FPS gamers and I believe they have intentionally designed their game to appeal to a broader audience. EA isn't banking on Battlefront becoming the next e-sport but rather that Star Wars fans will be content to stand on Hoth and pretend to be a part of a climatic battle, even if they have no real impact on the outcome. The ten year old in me needs nothing more but the gamer can't help but dissect the watered-down mechanics in a gorgeous Star Wars skin.