Star Wars Hunters Is a Shooter That Makes So Much Sense for the Galaxy Far Away

Exclusive: The team behind Star Wars Hunters talks to us about turning this fun multiplayer hero shooter into a love letter to the galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars Hunters
Photo: Zynga

A few matches into a preview demo of Star Wars Hunters, the new multiplayer hero shooter from developer Zynga, the mobile touch-screen controls really start to click. Let’s be clear up front: I almost exclusively play on consoles with a controller, so it takes me a pummeling or two (or three) in the 4v4 shooter to get the hang of the movement, aiming, and special abilities on an iPhone screen. But it’s easy to get hooked by the world of Hunters even before you get good, especially if you’re already Star Wars fan. From the few hours I played the game with developers and fellow members of the press, it’s clear that the team at Zynga have made something that really feels like it belongs in Star Wars.

The game is set on a new Outer Rim planet called Vespaara, the location of the Grand Arena, where competitors from all over the galaxy duke it out in televised broadcasts that are beamed all over space. Televised gladiatorial games where Jawas standing on each other’s shoulders, an Ugnaught piloting a Droideka, a droid who thinks it’s a Jedi, a cute little Mon Calamari healer who zips around on a hovercraft, and other quirky characters compete for glory? It’s all very Star Wars! And this Arena, like others in the galaxy, is of course run by a Hutt boss, and even has a droid announcer.

“That was always the pitch, the idea of building the arena out,” senior art director Rich Kemp tells Den of Geek after the play session. “How do you make it make sense? I think that idea, as soon as it’s there, it just unlocks so much for the way these things work. Like, why would a Wookiee be dressed in a hoodie unless it’s for a show? Why would you have your lightsaber character dressing as a Sith Lord from the past?”

“It’s stuff you don’t see in Star Wars, but it’s Star Wars,” echoes art director Dominic Estephane. “Surely, you do go home and you just sit down and watch television, right? And what does that look like in Star Wars? That’s fun to explore.”

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Not the Star Wars Shooter You’re Used To

Fans looking for a shooter with a bit more personality and humor than what EA’s modern Battlefront games have offered in the past decade will find a more tongue-in-cheek, zany tone in Star Wars Hunters, down to the “pro wrestling-style” intros for the characters as you unlock them. Whereas Battlefront recreates the most famous battles from the movies and TV shows, Hunters explores what the people of the galaxy watch for fun in the years after the fall of the Empire.

Hunters is set between the original trilogy and the sequels,” Kemp points out. “It gives us a lot of flexibility to play with all those different elements and areas from the IP going on in other areas in transmedia, so you’ll see something cool come in from Boba Fett, something cool come in from The Mandalorian. The team are huge Star Wars nerds from every single era of Star Wars nerds from every single era of Star Wars, so you’ll even have people fighting to get something from the clone era in there.

“All of our costumes are inspired by various different parts [of the saga], some of them are really deep cuts that only the really hardcore will know and some are referencing the kind of core Star Wars experience. The balance is really to make it feel truly Star Wars really and then our own space in the Star Wars universe, but also really accessible as just a fun pick up and play shooter.”

As far as pick up and play, Star Wars Hunters is a pretty straightforward experience, one especially easy to understand if you’ve ever played any other multiplayer shooter before. In fact, the game takes clear inspiration from Overwatch and Halo. Like Overwatch, the roster is broken up into three classes—tank, damage, and support—and each character has their own play style, unique weapon, special abilities, and ultimate power. To succeed in matches across the game’s five main modes—including the Halo-inspired Huttball (yes, think Griffball but with lava traps and ziplines)—you’ll have to work to make sure to work together with your team and make sure you have at least one of each class in your squad. You wouldn’t want to jump in without that all important support healer, after all (i.e. me).

While the game is free-to-play, all the live service elements you’ve come to expect in a post-Overwatch and Fortnite world are present and accounted for, including a battle pass featuring both free and premium-tiered cosmetics to unlock, as well as daily challenges and story missions that reward you for completing them. Hunters will also have seasonal content, such as seasonal heroes, that you unlock with crystals, the game’s premium currency. Fortunately, you can unlock all the base 13 heroes through gameplay, although you can also use crystals to unlock those a bit faster. In other words, how much money you spend on the game will really depend on how quickly you want to unlock all the characters, your desire to get all the extra cosmetics (skins, avatars, etc) for your favorite heroes, and the seasonal stuff.

The mobile controls themselves are easy enough to pick up once you get the hang of playing on a smartphone screen. You move your character with your left thumb and aim with your right, as you would with a controller. You’ll use your right thumb to tap the different ability buttons, while the ultimate button sits at the bottom center. Star Wars Hunters on mobile defaults to Auto-Fire, which means your hero will automatically start shooting at enemies as soon as you aim at them, although you can toggle this off, if you’d prefer to shoot manually. I found Auto-Fire very weird at first, but got used to it after a few matches.

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Come for Squad Brawl and Control Modes, Stay for Huttball

The aforementioned Huttball is definitely one of the highlights of the initial mode offerings I played. The objective is simple: the first team to score three goals in the opposing team’s net wins. Obstacles across the map and the fact that the player carrying the ball can’t use movement abilities while in possession (I learned this the hard way while trying to spam Rhodian support character Skaro’s speedy adrenaline boost ability to the goal) make the objective a more difficult task than it might initially look. Oh, and there’s also the opposing team trying to kill you and steal the ball from you, of course.

The frantic chase after the ball is a riot, with tanks such as the melee-loving Wookiee warrior Grozz trying to clear the way for faster damage characters like the lightsaber-wielding dark side assassin Rieve to charge at the goal. A support like Skaro, meanwhile, picks off the opposing team from afar with her trusty dart gun, while trying to keep her own team alive with her healing ability. It’s the fast-paced, arcade-y shooter mode that you couldn’t get from past Star Wars shooters, and I’m very glad to finally have it here.

“If you play all of the game modes we have, they’re simple objectives, Huttball is a very simple game. But when you combine it with all the things that are very Star Wars-y, it becomes its own thing,” design director Scott Warner explains when I tell him how nice it is to have this kind of mode in Star Wars. “I made Halo games, so Griffball is something that we did as well. It’s an evergreen idea, people just understand it very deeply.”

Squad Brawl is the more straightforward deathmatch mode, the first team to 20 eliminations wins the day. It’s fun, I can see myself passing the time with this mode before bed, or tapping away at my phone screen while standing in a long line. It’s the easiest mode to just jump in and play without any additional objectives.

Meanwhile, the objective-based Halo Territories-inspired modes Power Control and Dynamic Control have you sprinting across the map to capture either static or rotating control points and defend them from the enemy team. The team that holds control points the longest wins. These modes are a bit more involved and require more teamwork than the run-and-gun of Squad Brawl. They were also the most exciting of the modes not called Huttball.

J-3DI in Star Wars Hunters
Credit: Zynga

We Have to Talk About J-3DI and Utooni!

I tried several heroes across all three classes during my session. My favorites turned out to be the lightsaber-wielding characters, the dark side-leaning Rieve and the droid that’s been programmed to believe it’s a Jedi suitably called J-3DI. The latter is a particularly good showcase of just how much thought went into getting the Star Wars details right. Obviously a droid can’t actually use the Force (sorry, Skippy) but J-3DI believes it’s executing a Force pull when it shoots out its hand to grab an enemy player and bring them in closer for a killing blow.

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Unsurprisingly, the team at Zynga spent a lot of time working with Lucasfilm to make sure they weren’t breaking any Star Wars rules with its unusual characters.

“As we were working on the fantasy of making a shooter, Lucas is very protective of their IP and they want it to resonate with everybody,” Kemp explains. “So first thing we want to do is say, ‘Well we have guns, we just want to reload, because it’s the easiest thing for people to understand.’ And they’re like, ‘You know what, lots of guns in this universe do not reload. They overheat.’ Then we have to go in game design and say, ‘How do we manifest that in the game? How do we make sure that people understand how it works?’ And I appreciate that because it makes the game more interesting.”

Then there’s Utooni, the hilarious standout of early trailers for the game. Utooni is actually two Jawa brothers who stand on each other’s shoulders inside a longer version of the Jawa cloak.

“It’s one of those ideas that we can’t track down who originally came up with it, but because of the conceit we can push it to be a little bit crazy,” Estephane says of Utooni. “It’s just funny to think of a recognizable Star Wars character like a [Jawa] and then having them stacked up on top of each other. Maybe there’s a height requirement in the arena? We don’t know. It’s just visually, what we try to do is have that Hunters layer on everything. If it was just one Utooni brother, it wouldn’t be as fun.”

“There are characters that are so cute and goofy that you underestimate them,” Warner adds. “I think oftentimes when people are playing against Utooni in multiplayer games, they underestimate how powerful the character can be. It’s the only character that can switch play styles that we have to its ultimate that is just a beam that wrecks you.”

Utooni is the first hero I tried during my play session. The brothers team up to form a damage hero that I found a little difficult to control at first, although that might have been due to my general initial discomfort with the touch controls. More importantly, what appears as a simple design concept at first soon reveals a welcome level of detail, especially in the way the brothers work together in the arena. One ability has the brother on the bottom quickly handing a different weapon to the brother standing on his shoulders, while another ability sees the bottom Utooni using his own blaster to knock back enemies. Their Ultimate ability is a beam cannon that both brothers ride around, devastating all the enemies in their path. Once the Ultimate hits cooldown, one Jawa quickly climbs up the other’s back. It’s an adorable animation.

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As you might expect, the devs have their own favorites when hitting the Arena.

“Diago is the arena’s boyfriend,” Estephane says of the blind Miraluka rifleman damage character. “It was fun bringing Diago to life, making him really charming and suave. Diago is the guy, he’s cool.” Star Wars video game veterans will of course recall the Miraluka race from the Knights of the Old Republic games! Remember Visas Marr?

Sprocket is maybe the most adorable of the initial heroes, a Mon Calamari support character who loves tech, including the remotes that orbit him at all times while he flies around the map. If you’ve ever played as Mercy in Overwatch, Sprocket is the closest to that playstyle, using droids to heal teammates as well as reduce damage from the other team. He felt like the weakest of the characters I played in terms of attack, so your best strategy with Sprocket is to hang back a bit and use his gadgets to support the tank and damage heroes in your squad.

“From a design perspective and story, [my favorite character] is Sprocket. He’s just too cute. He’s just so excited, so enthusiastic. He’s underestimated too,” Kemp says, adding that future skins coming to the game that will reveal new sides of cute characters like Sprocket. “We like to counterbalance with the costume design that we have. So we make sure that for each character, even if they’re a serious character, they might have more playful costumes, or vice versa. There’s a Sprocket costume that’s coming at some point that is really badass.”

A Fun Shooter First

At the end of our chat, the devs spend a few minutes emphasizing the importance of making Star Wars Hunters a great multiplayer shooter above all else and not just using its world-famous IP as a crutch. Sure, playing on maps set on the Death Star, Mos Eisley, Endor, and other recognizable Star Wars locations, and adding loads of easter eggs and references, is a way to grab users, but giving them a gameplay experience that’s actually fun and engaging is how you get them to come back for more.

“A fun challenge is that there’s like a Star Wars effect,” Kemp explains. “As soon as it’s got Star Wars on it, it’s automatically cool, it automatically feels awesome. So you have to get into that mind space of turning it off completely. We try to do that where all of our characters, all of our maps, everything we make needs to be an awesome shooter experience first, and then the Star Wars aspect amplifies it.”

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“A lot of times what you’ll hear from game designers is if it’s fun then you have something that’s good. I actually don’t completely agree with that,” Warner adds. “We have plenty of examples of what shooting looks like, and if i just said to you, the shooting is fun, you would ask, ‘What is it in service of?’ It has to have a point. So that marriage between the space fantasy IP and then the game feeling slick and approachable and as good as it can is where you get the real magic.”

Star Wars Hunters launches on Nintendo Switch, Android, and iOS on June 4.