Saturday, November 28, 2015

Video Game Review: Star Wars Battlefront

Although my wife and I have owned an XBox, a Wii, and a PS4 over the past decade or so, we're very casual gamers. The bulk of our video games are the Lego games, games that appeal to our specific interests (e.g., Godzilla fighting games, Star Wars games, Disney Infinity), and games that we bought out of nostalgia (e.g., Super Mario Brothers Wii). Despite their general popularity, we've never been fans of shoot-em-up games. In fact, I think I've played the original Halo only once or twice at a friend's home. The only exceptions, however, have been Star Wars: Battlefront (2004) and Star Wars: Battlefront II (2005).

After waiting nearly ten years for a Star Wars: Battlefront III, we were very excited to hear that EA was going to release Star Wars Battlefront in 2015. We were a little worried when we heard that there would be no single player campaign and limited two player options, though. We had really enjoyed the previous games' campaigns and often played against each other in split screen mode. Nevertheless, we pre-ordered Battlefront and eagerly awaited its arrival.

The Good
The Graphics
First and foremost, the graphics are amazing. When you're used to cartoonish games like Lego Batman III or Disney Infinity, you don't realize how incredible the graphics on a PS4 can be. It's hard to imagine the Star Wars universe being better rendered than it is in Battlefront.

Weapons Variety
The first and second Battlefront allowed you to choose a troop type, which dictated your weapon. Now you can choose from a variety of blasters of varying destructive power, range, firing rate, and cooling rate. The wife is fond of the DL-44 (Han Solo's favorite model of heavy blaster pistol with a low rate of fire but a high degree of lethality) while I prefer the RT-97C (a heavy blaster rifle with a very high rate of fire and relatively long range). The secondary weapons, such as ion torpedoes, are pretty decent, too.

Entertaining Single Player/Co-Op Missions
Although there's no single player campaign, there are single player and two player modes. "Training Missions", "Survival Missions", "Battle Missions", and "Hero Battle Missions" (collectively referred to as "Missions") can all be played by one or two players, which is exclusively how my wife and I play. In and of themselves the Missions are reasonably fun and challenging, at least for a couple casual players who haven't played a game like this since the original Battlefront games.

Hero Battle Missions give you a decent array of Heroes to choose from, including Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Boba Fett, Darth Vader, and Emperor Palpatine. Heroes in the new Battlefront are a lot more versatile and fun to play than they were in Battlefront II.

The Bad
No Clone Wars?
Both the original Battlefront and Battlefront II allowed you to play during the Clone Wars as well as the Galactic Civil War. If you set your battle during the Clone Wars, you could play as a Clone Trooper or a CIS battledroid. If you were fighting in the Galactic Civil War, you could be a Rebel soldier or an Imperial Stormtrooper. Each army played differently and the setting of the battle determined what vehicles were available for play.

Unfortunately, the new Battlefront is set strictly during the Galactic Civil War, which drastically decreases the historical scope of the game compared to its predecessors.

Limited Map Options
Currently all game modes are restricted to just four planets: Hoth, Endor, Tatooine, and Sullust. For Survival and Battle Missions there appear to be only one or two maps per planet. And then you don't even get to choose which of the two maps you play on; the map you get depends on whether or not you choose the Survival Mission or the Battle Mission. I believe that multiplayer modes have a few more maps, but all are set on the same four planets.

The new game simply doesn't compare to the earlier games when it comes to variety. Veterans of the original Battlefront will remember these maps:
Bespin (Platforms and Cloud City)
Kashyyyk (Docks and Islands)
Naboo (Plains and Theed)
Rhen Var (Harbor and Citadel)
Tatooine (Dune Sea and Mos Eisley)
Yavin 4 (Arena and Temple)
Battlefront II had even more maps:
Death Star
Kamino (Clone Facility and Tipoca City)
Polis Massa
Tantive IV
Tatooine (Jabba's Palace and Mos Eisley
Yavin 4
Limited Features for Missions
One of the appeals of the original Battlefront games was the ability to jump into a vehicle and fly/skim/stomp around the battlefield. If you want to play the new game's Missions instead of multiplayer modes, you won't be doing any of that. Training Missions allow you to zip around in an X-wing or a speeder bike, but nothing else. Neither Survival or Battle Missions allow you to use a vehicle.

What side you play is also limited. Only Battle Missions allow you to choose between the Empire and the Rebellion. If you play a Survival Mission, you're always stuck with the Rebellion.

Finally, while the game allows you to choose your blaster beforehand, you have no choice in what kind of soldier you play. The original games allowed you to play as dedicated snipers, jump troopers (I was very fond of the Darktrooper), demolitions specialists, etc. In the new Battlefront's missions you're always a generic trooper, albeit one with a relatively wide selection of weapons.

The Overemphasis on Multiplayer Modes
I suppose it's unfair to judge Battlefront based solely on the offline content, but that's really the only way my wife and I want to play the game. We have no interest in playing against a bunch of anonymous teenagers or hardcore gamers who will regularly wipe us out with a perfect headshot less than 30 seconds after respawning. Thus, we find it a bit irksome that EA put so much of its focus on the multiplayer portions of the game, with the Missions seeming like an afterthought. According to EA's Chief Operating Officer, Peter Moore, the single-player aspect was downplayed because "very few people actually play the single-player on these kinds of games. That’s what the data points to."

"These kinds of games"? I assume he means first-person shooters rather than Star Wars-themed combat games. Perhaps what he says is true of most first-person shooters, but I can't help but to wonder if EA didn't really consider the property the game is based on or the kinds of people that would be interested in it. EA seems to have assumed that the bulk of Battlefront players will be veterans of games like Call of Duty or Halo. One first-person shooter is the same as another, right?

But this is a Star Wars game. Maybe there are a lot of Call of Duty fans who want to play as an Imperial Stormtrooper for a change, but what about customers who are only interested in a shoot-em-up game because it's set in the Star Wars universe? Those who are only playing the game because they want to kill some Rebel scum or drive an AT-AT aren't going to enjoy themselves if they're getting slaughtered by experienced Halo players.

While it's fun to run around as a Rebel soldier or an Imperial Stormtrooper, focusing almost exclusively on simply shooting other soldiers is contrary to what Star Wars is supposed to be. Traditionally, Star Wars has been about telling a story punctuated by galactic combat. Some of the best Star Wars novels (e.g., the Republic Commando books by Karen Traviss) are about 10% action and 90% character development. Battlefront II had a great single player campaign in which you played a clone in the 501st Legion whose 25-year-long career began with the first Battle of Geonosis and ended sometime after the Battle of Hoth. The storytelling was simple, but it made you care about your unnamed clone avatar. Although entertaining, in its current form the new Battlefront aspires to be little more than a typical first-person shooter with a beautifully rendered Star Wars skin.

Was the Game Released Unfinished?
My wife and I are suspicious of any video game linked to some sort of event. One of the best examples of this is the first Lego Indiana Jones, which was released around the same time as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). The development of Lego Indiana Jones was clearly rushed so it could benefit from the movie's advertising campaign, resulting in one of the buggiest video games in a long line of often buggy (but otherwise entertaining) Lego games.

Because of previous experience, I was concerned that the release date of Star Wars Battlefront was timed to precede Star Wars: The Force Awakens by a month. Although the game doesn't seem to be as buggy as I feared it would be, I suspect that the developers deliberately minimized the amount of content so they could put their efforts into a game that looked good and functioned as expected.

One of the most common complaints I've read about Battlefront (and one I've mentioned above) is that the content of the game as released is rather thin. I think EA knew this was going to be the case, hence the early promises of future DLCs. Well before the game's release, EA announced that its first DLC would be the Battle of Jakku (Jakku is a desert planet that will appear in The Force Awakens). This download, which will contain two new maps as well as a whole new multiplayer mode called Turning Point, will be available for free. (It's still not entirely clear if the maps will be available for Missions.) [Update 12/5/2015: sadly, the Jakku maps are only available for multiplayer mode.]

If the Battle of Jakku is free, why didn't EA include the maps and Turning Point in the original game? Similarly, a week after the Battlefront's release, EA's Executive Vice President, Patrick Söderlund, promised "to support Star Wars Battlefront with new content well into the future" and said that EA would add "more of what you love about the game, like new maps and Star Cards, for free in the coming months, in addition to all of the content we have coming with Season Pass." The fact that they're producing free DLCs suggests that they knew they were going to release a $60 game with too little content and intended to fix it later.

I only hope that they throw some of us old-timers a bone and enhance the single player/split screen aspects of the game.

The Summary
All my ranting to the contrary, I actually enjoy Star Wars Battlefront quite a bit. I'm particularly happy with the graphics and weaponry, which go a long way toward making you feel like you're taking part in the Star Wars universe. I would have preferred a bit more content in the initial release, though. And the threadbare single player/two player material leaves a lot of us casual players who are fans of Star Wars more than fans of first-person shooters out in the cold. EA's stated intention of enhancing the game in the future gives me some hope that they might beef up the Missions or even include a single player campaign.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Christmas Tradition: 2015

I've written before about our family's tradition of buying a Hallmark Christmas ornament for each member of the family (here and here). Sadly, our local Hallmark store closed shortly after Christmas 2013, meaning that the annual trip to the mall has been replaced by the annual visit to I don't much care for the mall, but it's not nearly as fun to buy the ornaments online.

We bought our ornaments a little earlier this year. Last year we waited too long and there was a shortage of the Frozen ornaments that our daughters wanted so badly. They weren't available online (another problem with not having a nearby Hallmark store), so my mother in San Diego did her grandmotherly duty and harassed every Hallmark store in her area until she could get a couple.

Hallmark has continued the line of Star Trek characters that started with Captain Kirk in 2010. Although I'm not particularly enthusiastic about any of the Original Series characters besides Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty, I'm still a hopeless collector. Of course I bought Sulu last year and Uhura this year. And I can guarantee that I'll be buying Chekov next year.

Unlike the past few years, which have had some rather mediocre Star Wars ornaments, this year has some pretty good ones. I ended up buying Kylo Ren; Episode VII's mysterious Sith lord. There were several other Star Wars ornaments that I would have loved to get (especially the Y-Wing), but I'm not quite willing to spend $15 to $30 each on even more ornaments that will sit in a box for 11 months out of each year.

As usual, the children were allowed to choose their own ornaments. And again, I'm proud of the oldest daughter's choice. Two years ago, she was the one who chose the Bilbo Baggins ornament. She still loves The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so of course she wanted Smaug this year.

If only the other children had such good taste.


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