Star Wars: Battlefront: our hands-on preview

With Star Wars: Battlefront's release looming, fans were given a chance to sample its open beta. DC shoots first in his hands-on preview...

Like the gargantuan Star Destroyer that slowly fills the frame in the iconic opening shot of A New Hope, EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront reboot looms ever larger in the minds of fans as that 19th November release date draws closer and closer.

Anticipation took a hyperspace-sized leap forward this past weekend as the game’s open beta launched and fans around the world were given their first chance to experience the scope and splendour of the Battlefront universe for themselves. Den Of Geek was present on the icy killing fields of Hoth and other planets too, logging some serious hours and leading the charge; having ranked up and returned to tell the tale, we’re eschewing the usual victory celebrations, (too many dancing Ewoks for our tastes) electing instead to bring you a timely debrief, borne from the back of one tired-looking Tauntaun.

It seems only fair to mention that everything that follows is based on the beta build of the game and may not reflect the finished product. That said, with such a mammoth release schedule ahead, the game can’t be far away from going gold, meaning of course that the core gameplay is unlikely to change.

The key difference between the beta version and the finished product will likely be in the wealth of game modes on offer in the retail version: this weekend’s trial run offered two of the seven multiplayer modes available at launch; it also gave us a brief taste of the single player or co-operative missions that DICE, the game’s developers have offered in lieu of a single-player campaign.

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So what did we think? Well, from a technical standpoint, the game is stellar. The visuals are sumptuous, boasting high resolution character and vehicle models that beautifully reflect the weathered, ‘lived-in’ iconography of the original Star Wars trilogy – this, alongside a beautifully smooth framerate results in a stunning-looking game that is amongst the very best we’ve seen on the current generation of consoles. Sprinting across the icy wastes of Hoth (and leaving footprints in your wake) with your snow-dusted Rebel Alliance brethren, each character model sporting photo-realistic outfits and accoutrements from Empire Strikes Back does wonders for the immersion levels of each conflict. 

The same is true of the dogfights: whether in first or third-person, the fighter craft look amazing – a lot was made of DICE’s unparalleled access to the Lucasfilm vaults and the developer clearly didn’t waste their time when given the opportunity to see such seminal props up close. (They are of course to be commended for this: if we  were given the run of the Lucasfilm vaults, it would begin with a cacophony of Lightsaber noises, climax in a series of Kenner figure deathmatches and end with us being questioned by security after a heroic-but-doomed attempt to slip a full-size speeder bike inside our jacket…)

The sound is equally wonderful. From the dynamic score that strikes up during key moments of the conflict (such as when Vader or Young Skywalker enter the fray) to the in-game FX which have some incredible-sounding explosions and pew-pew sounds, the audio is a real treat and will certainly get the blood pumping in even the most hard-bitten and cynical of Star Wars fans.

But what of the gameplay?         

Much has been made, after all of the apparent lack of content within the game, of the decision to focus solely on the classic trilogy; the absence of space battles and the lack of a single-player campaign have all at some point resulted in concentrated salvoes of discontent, spewed forth from a fanbase who have real worries that the game won’t be the feature-rich title that it should be. 

The concern that perhaps EA are planning on releasing a game that will only become ‘complete’ by augmenting it with paid DLC aplenty should be a focus heading into the game’s imminent release; after all, the company do have previous when it comes to this kind of thing (Project Ten Dollar anyone?) and it’s only been a year since the release of Destiny, another online-only, progression-based shooter that faced criticism upon release for seeming somewhat incomplete.

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Although Destiny has managed to claw some of that credibility back throughout the past year, it goes without saying that fans of the game have had to repeatedly pony up the cash to develop the game that they want to love into something they can love, a pretty big ask, only made possible because the strength of the core title’s gameplay is so strong.  

That said, the same could well be true of Battlefront. Presently, there seems to be seven multiplayer game modes on offer from the beta version’s title screen, although it’s possible that there may be more yet to come. When you discount the inevitable Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill and Capture the Flag modes that are sure to be present and correct, one hopes that the remaining modes will add some creativity and therefore longevity to a game that like Destiny, boasts perfectly serviceable gameplay, but not perhaps enough to keep the interest piqued for months to come.

Does that mean the game isn’t fun to play? No, of course it is. Combat is fast-paced and the addition of Star Cards (in lieu of choosing classes) allows a level of customisation that will allow players to tailor their style and add depth to the game. Four weapons were available for selection during the beta but presumably there’ll be many, many more available in the final game, hopefully with options to customise them along with your character’s appearance (both of which were notably absent throughout the beta). Other power-ups can be purchased as you progress through the game, such as secondary weapons and the jump-pack which adds a dizzyingly satisfying, tactical aspect to combat encounters as you thrust crazily skywards like Boba Fett, laying waste to your earthbound foes, leaping from one encounter to another like a gravity-defying loon. It’s also quite thrilling to play one of the heroes; swatting down Rebel scum as Vader is terrific fun; even more so when you find the opposing side’s hero and enter into a titanic fight to the finish.

It isn’t all Star Wars awesome sauce though. Although the gameplay is certainly good, there are some (hopefully fixable) issues that DICE would do well to address before the game’s release next month. Some of the spawning points in multiplayer are laughably terrible. We lost count of the amount of times we materialised right in the centre of a rabid fire fight, dying horribly before being able to even raise our blaster. The same is sometimes true of the star fighter spawns: finding an X-Wing token on Hoth is a relatively uncommon treasure; this makes it doubly frustrating when you get blasted out of the sky the very instant you’ve given control of the ship. 

For aesthetic purposes, the dogfighting sections have an incredibly long lead-in as the camera swoops behind your craft. Why enemy players are allowed to draw a bead on you whilst you’re not actually behind the yoke seems mystifying to me but hey, beta, right? It must also be said that the one offered co-op mission is rather mundane; we hope that the entire game mode doesn’t just consist of a wave survival-type mode as this seems somewhat uninspired.

On the whole, the gameplay feels balanced, although there do seem to be issues with the hit registration; everyone knows that the Empire’s bucketheads are impossibly bad shots, but DICE seems to have taken the notion somewhat to heart. Although headshots can sometimes feel beautifully crisp, on other occasions you can pump blast after blast into a foe without them dropping or even taking damage. There’s also the crazily unbalanced Walker Assault mode too; we played countless rounds of this mode and whilst it’s a lot of fun, the Imperials come out on top almost every time. It’s very possible that this is because DICE wanted Rebel players to feel the same sense of inexorable doom that their movie counterparts felt… and believe me, you really do. (That, or we’re simply seeing DICE’s sadistic streak as they Imperial March their way to the dark side.)  

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Apart from the few trenches, there really is nowhere to hide on the frozen plains of Hoth; running across the icy wastes, horribly exposed to heavy fire from AT-ATs, AT-STs, ground troops and the odd TIE Fighter or Interceptor really does bring your life expectancy right down to decimals, and without even a measly Tauntaun to aid mobility, you should expect to die. A lot. 

We presume that the same battle mode on other levels such as Endor will reverse the tactical advantage by offering the defenders more places to secrete themselves, plan ambushes and turn the tables on their hunters. Walker Assault is fun, though, and adds novelty to the usual seen ‘em, done ‘em game modes found in this genre. Here’s hoping that Cargo, Droid Run and any other yet-to-be announced modes are equally creative.

So as our time with the Battlefront beta draws to a close and the credits roll, what are we left with? A rapturous ovation for its Swedish developers and a feeling of wild elation? Queues around the block and Star Wars fever like 1977… or a slightly empty feeling, more in keeping with The Phantom Menace’s release in 1999? Leaving the auditorium without really feeling your feet, kidding yourself that you’d been party to a masterpiece whilst a little voice in your head whispered otherwise?

The answer to that question is neither. Whilst the beta certainly wasn’t a disappointment, it wasn’t quite the smash-hit needed to silence the dissenting voices either. Until next month, Star Wars: Battlefront will continue to have both its fans and detractors – but only then, with full access to all of the modes (and after a full assessment of the game’s depth) can it be fairly judged. After all, always in motion the future is.

Star Wars: Battlefront is out on the 19th November for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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