There comes a moment when first-person shooters begin to feel mechanical. The process of shooting down your enemies becomes one of simply cleaning up, removing the pesky moving things from the map. Alternately, it becomes weirdly, irrelevantly existential: Why am I here? Does that soldier really deserve to die? Did that stormtrooper have a family?
That moment came very quickly in the Star Wars Battlefront beta. Don’t get me wrong, the rooms to be cleaned are gorgeous: the landscapes of Tatooine and Sullust are almost photo-realistic and beautifully colorful, and blasters scream like you’ve been dropped inside a Star Wars movie. The problem, though, is that the game feels soulless. For all that it replicates the sounds and sights of Star Wars beautifully, I didn’t get a clear sense of direction from the beta, any hook to make me say, “This. This feels like Star Wars.” Instead, Battlefront is a merely passable shooter.
Maybe Walker Assault was that hook: I didn’t get a chance to play the beta’s biggest game type, because of scheduling issues of my own. Battlefront itself had its own problems, with the PvP game types unavailable for Xbox One users on Thursday evening. I did explore the other two of the three available game types: the hectic Drop Zone game type teams players up to capture strategic points on the map, while Survival sends waves of enemies against one or two players and Walker Assault features huge 40 versus 40 battles.
Survival does some things quite well: it smoothly introduces new enemy types and throws them at the player in a variety of ways, although the first six rounds available in the beta were unchallenging. From snipers to rocket troopers to the durable AT-ST, my Rebel trooper found herself ducking around rocks and firing away with decent aplomb – but only for brief encounters.
The blasters all handle roughly the same, and I became particularly fond of the wild, barely-controllable ride enabled by a jet pack. There wasn’t a lot of incentive to change weapons, especially because, in the PvP Drop Zone, players tend to spawn and die in quick succession. The fragility of the characters does make the game feel more like Star Wars than like Halo or Destiny: these characters aren’t wearing nigh indestructible armor, aren’t well-equipped or bred for war, and Battlefront makes that clear.
The player characters are on the more fragile end of the space soldier spectrum, able to take a few hits before becoming one with the Force. (The hero characters, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, seem to be the exception.) Rugged ground in the maps shown in the beta encourages strategizing without, usually, letting players wander too far away from one another or hold insurmountable sniper nests. There is a lack of urgency to the missions, though, even with Admiral Ackbar or a crisply British-accented Imperial officer shouting in your ear.
In this regard, Drop Zone was more immersive than Survival. For me, to be an Imperial was to work in groups, even without voice communication. Running over a hill with my stormtrooper buddies around me helped me understand why these guys were often on the winning side in the Galactic Civil War. In another round, seeing my Rebel teammates obliterated by a thundering explosion in front of me was a visceral, frightening moment. Battlefront knows how to go big, to overwhelm for a moment – until you realize again that you’re cleaning.
That moment showed how key sound is to the experience, too. Battlefront has a constant background symphony of Star Wars noises and imagery, as ships fight overhead and blasters fire. Sometimes, the sounds were oddly isolated: on Tatooine, Sand People calls were a recurring part of the sonic landscape, but I never saw any Sand People. Explosions in the sky didn’t match up to sounds on the battlefield. However, everything from blaster noises to the character’s breathing is sure to satisfy the player who just wants to be surrounded by authentic Star Wars sounds. The one exception is the melee attack, which has none of the crunchy weight of the character behind it. (A lack of controller vibration on impact probably contributes to this.)
Battlefront also ties in to an unremarkable browser game, the Battlefront Companion. Players can use this to collect credits and unlock cards. It’s easy to learn, and diverting enough, but seems inessential so far. Those cards are used to give an alternate set of gear to the Rebel or Imperial player.
At the end of the beta, my biggest worry for Battlefront was its longevity. When the full game launches, will the greater variety of locations and game types break up the unremarkable cleaning? Right now, the gameplay doesn’t feel distinct enough to set itself apart from the other big shooters, such as Destiny and Halo, which will be sharing its space this holiday. Battlefront never promised much story – the novel Battlefront: Twilight Company will do some of that heavy lifting – but the Star Wars wonder fades from even the most engaging battles very quickly. Only time – and the $50 season pass – will tell if this game is strong in the Force.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.