The Renaissance of Star Wars Video Games

Will the new Star Wars games be a greater success than those of the past? And how will they fit into Lucasfilm’s universe-building plans?

In retrospect, perhaps it was impossible for Star Wars: Episode I to measure up to the hysterical levels of hype that were generated by the Original Trilogy’s wild popularity. Whatever disappointments followed, the summer preceding Episode I’s release was a great time to be a Star Wars fan. Just like Luke, who gazed not at the distant twin suns of Tattooine, but beyond them to an endless realm of potential, we imagined… we dreamed of the infinite possibilities that a new Star Wars trilogy could bring.

Sixteen more years have passed since that summer and now Christmas 2015 marks the release of the first live-action Star Wars movie in a decade. A new wave of filmmakers are guiding the saga, the stars of the original trilogy are reprising their roles once more and a blinding second trailer has meant that interest for the film is again running sky-high.

Amid the merchandising blizzard that is sure to follow, video games are certain to feature prominently. Not only do they regularly outgross Hollywood productions (Frozen was 2013’s highest grossing movie with $1.2 billion; Rockstar’s GTA V launched in the same year and amassed that amount in just over three days), but games also allow a new generation of creators to weave their own dreams into the saga’s mythological fabric. 

In truth, it’s not like game developers need new cinematic material to create great Star Wars games: classic games like X-Wing AllianceJedi Knight: Dark Forces IIShadows of the Empire, and Rogue Squadron were being released well over a decade after Return of the Jedi had signalled the end of the Original Trilogy. By 1998, the classic trio of films had been mined for well over thirty games of wildly different genres. Despite this relentless plundering of the source material, great Star Wars games continued to appear, allowing gamers to forge their own epic tales amidst the bombast and spectacle of the Star Wars universe.

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Whilst clearly a testament to the talent of developers and their obvious love for the toy box in which they were being allowed to play, many of these titles also added significant storylines to the franchise’s canon. The release of the prequel trilogy meant that creators in the Star Warsuniverse suddenly found themselves with a goldmine of new aliens, enemies, planets and vehicles to creatively exploit.

Fast forward to the impending release of Episode VII and the Star Wars video game landscape looks decidedly less cluttered. Whilst not quite as desolate and barren as Tatooine’s Dune Sea, there does seem to be a conscious move by Disney and EA to not flood the market. The release of The Phantom Menace back in 1999 spearheaded the mother of all marketing campaigns. You couldn’t turn a corner without being accosted by Darth Maul’s scowling visage. Along with everyone’s favorite gurning Gungan, he was everywhere: fast food, t-shirts, toys, and posters everywhere were emblazoned with their images.

Video games were no different and trailed in the film’s wake like the endless shambling zombies from The Walking Dead. Perhaps mindful that the shotgun approach hasn’t always been synonymous with producing titles of real quality, Disney seems to be holding a tighter grip on the reins for Episode VII. What follows then, is a rundown of all of the Star Wars video game titles that are currently announced, and one or two that are slightly more speculative. With Lucasfilm jettisoning the Expanded Universe and wiping the story slate clean, we’re also taking a look at how each of these titles could contribute to the wider Star Wars mythos:

Star Wars: Uprising

Sept. 10 | Kabam | iOS, Android

Is this the droid I’m looking for?

Depends. The game is described by developers Kabam as a “dungeon crawler” and “true RPG,” so if you enjoy those two genres, then you could be set. Releasing for mobile platforms this week, the game places you in the boots of a fully-customizable protagonist situated in an isolated sector of the galaxy controlled by the Imperials. The game takes place immediately after the events of the Battle of Endor: Emperor Palpatine has just met his end, and although this may have sparked mass celebrations on planets such as Coruscant and Naboo, more remote territories such as the Anoat Sector, where the game is set, have yet to feel the benefit of the dictator’s demise.

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In this backwater part of the galaxy, the rebels’ unlikely victory is nothing more than a whispered rumor, and with Imperial blockades preventing rebel involvement, it’s up to the local group of smugglers, bounty hunters, and other ne’er-do-wells to band together and end the Imperial menace themselves. The game promises to include some ambitious features such as high levels of customization, online co-op, and perhaps most intriguingly, massive multiplayer clashes that shape the future of in-game content. Even more enticing is the developers’ promise that, despite being a free-to-play title, nothing in the game will be locked behind a paywall. While ponying up real cash will allow you to dodge the inevitable loot grind, it won’t be a necessity or make the game less playable. 

A first step into a larger world?

Quite possibly. The Star Wars: Aftermath novel and Marvel’s Shattered Empire miniseries also debut this month and likewise promise to explore the state of the galaxy post-Endor. Like these other pieces of EU, Uprising also seems to deal with events away from the main-stage players, giving the game’s creators free license to explore the state of the galaxy as the civil war continues. The remote setting means that the story won’t be in any danger of treading on the toes of Lucasfilm’s cinematic releases.

That doesn’t mean that we won’t see any friendly faces, however. Cloud City will be a familiar location to all Star Wars fans, and though it’s yet to be confirmed, I’d wager that the chances are high that we’ll get to meet everybody’s second-favorite scoundrel, Lando Calrissian, somewhere along the way. The game’s developers are staying tight-lipped on this one though, so only time will tell.     

Star Wars: Battlefront

Nov. 17 | DICE | PS4, XBO, PC

Is this the droid I’m looking for?

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Most definitely. If you love Star Wars and you love video games, chances are high that this will be on your watch list. EA have drafted in DICE, of Battlefield fame, to craft a spiritual successor to the original Battlefront games, the much-loved first/third person-shooter series from the mid-naughties. Early previews of the game have been generally very positive with reviewers clamouring to breathlessly exclaim just how ‘Star Wars‘ the whole thing feels.

While I’m not sure a Star Wars game feeling like Star Wars is anything to write home about, it must be said that the visuals demoed thus far have been nothing short of awe-inspiring. DICE are experts of the genre, and if they’ve nailed the right feel to the game, then we could be in store for something very, very special. We’ve had a chance to preview the game and you can see that here.

The developers seem to be truly listening to fan input, too. Initial concerns about the game not offering Battlefront‘s classic third-person perspective have since been allayed, and DICE have also countered criticism about the lack of space battles by introducing Fighter Squadron, a distinct part of the game that centers exclusively on dogfighting. While the game mode may be restricted to the far reaches of a planet’s atmosphere and may not give would-be rocket jockeys the taste of deep space that they truly crave, it is at least something.

Not everyone is happy however. The absence of a single-player campaign has some gamers riled up, and the decision not to exploit the franchise’s rich and varied lore by creating an original story does seem like a missed opportunity… but if it means that DICE has used those resources elsewhere to create the very best Star Wars shooter that they can, I don’t think anyone will be grumbling too loudly come Nov. 17.      

A first step into a larger world?

To some degree, perhaps. The developer’s decision not to include a story mode means that we probably won’t be seeing any major additions to the Star Wars mythology. That said, we’re talking about two corporate behemoths like EA and Disney here, so there’s no way that there won’t be some sort of cross-media synergy at work. EA have already announced that a free Battlefront DLC pack will launch in conjunction with Episode VII and help to bridge the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens

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Remember that huge crashed Star Destroyer from the movie’s teaser trailer? The Battle of Jakku DLC promises to not only introduce this new locale ahead of the movie, but also allows players to live out the titanic conflict that brought this sucker down with a bump.

Untitled Visceral Games Star Wars Project

TBA | Visceral Games | TBA

Is this the droid I’m looking for?

Oh yes. This title hasn’t even been officially announced yet, but it’s already the worst kept secret since the Empire started work on a little construction project by the forest moon of Endor. Visceral Games are a studio internally owned by EA, and they’re best known for their work on the Dead Space franchise, although most recently they created Hardline, the latest instalment in the popular Battlefield series. Although nothing about this title has yet been confirmed by EA (apart from the fact it will be a Star Wars game), speculation has been rife as to the mysterious nature of the project.

Early job postings for the title made reference to an “open world” game, before those rumors really gained traction when Amy Hennig joined the project. For those of you that don’t know, Hennig was the lead writer of the hugely popular Uncharted trilogy, a smash-hit series of games featuring a cocky young rogue with a penchant for swashbuckling acts of lunatic bravery. Sound familiar? It should: the Visceral team, including Hennig, have posted plenty of images of their workspace of late, and everywhere you look there are lots of visual clues to suggest that a certain cocksure Correllian smuggler is the inspiration behind their efforts.

Hennig and co-writer Todd Stashwick. I count three Solo references. You?

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While a third-person action/adventure title charting the further adventures of Han Solo is a drool-inducing prospect, it’s important to remember that nothing is yet confirmed. Nolan North, the veteran voice actor behind many a triple-A title, recently broke cover and told press that Hennig and her team were working on a title similar to Star Wars 1313, a third-person action/adventure title set in Coruscant’s seedy underbelly.

Reportedly, Star Wars 1313 also featured a scoundrel-type protagonist, although to great disappointment, the game was eventually cancelled when Disney brought out Lucasfilm. Perhaps the similarity between the two titles provides a potential glimpse at the logic behind the decision. At any rate, official details remain sketchy and it’s highly unlikely that we’ll have anything confirmed until sometime in 2016 once the hype machine for Battlefront has well and truly run its course.    

A first step into a larger world?

Inevitably. Whether the game deals with Solo’s smuggler past or chooses to explore the period beyond Jedi once he becomes “respectable,” the adventures he’ll become embroiled in are sure to add significantly to the new Star Wars canon. Naturally, fan interest is most significant in the time period before A New Hope: how he came to own the Millennium Falcon and acquire a Wookie pal-for-life, the Kessel Run, running up his debt to Jabba, and getting into scrapes with Ol’ Lando Calrissian are just a few of the events that could make for a blistering action game. 

Whether Visceral will be free to explore these fabled moments is by no means a given, though. Marvel have already begun to develop the character’s back story in their excellent on-going comic book series, and they’re being given serious license to do so too: June’s issue #6 concluded with the surprising revelation that Solo is in fact married throughout the events of A New Hope. That old dog!

Then there’s the Han Solo spin-off movie due in 2018, helmed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, directors of The LEGO Movie. Lucasfilm head honcho Kathleen Kennedy has stated that a standalone Solo movie will feature the character in his late teens or early twenties, so it’s safe to suggest that maybe that particular time period could be off the table. Of course, much of this is pure speculation until an official announcement comes. Always in motion the future is…       

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Star Wars VR

Is this the droid I’m looking for?

Buddy, this is the droid everyone is looking for. A game set in the Star Warsuniverse that harnesses the unique qualities of virtual reality would be nothing short of mind blowing. Produced by Hammerhead VR, this unlicensed title uses the Unreal Engine 4 and appears to revisit several of the classic action sequences from the original trilogy. Sadly, the promotional trailer on Vimeo lasted about as long as one of Jabba’s dancing girls: Lucasfilm’s lawyers ordered a Cease and Desist and suddenly, the trailer was no more. Unfortunately, that’s probably all she wrote for this particular project along with any other unofficial Star Wars-based VR experiences, such as Star Wars: The Battle Of Endor, although you can at least still view footage of that particular title on YouTube.  

A first step into a larger world?

Yeah, and a virtual world at that. It isn’t all doom, gloom and legal warnings when it comes to VR and our favorite Galaxy Far, Far Away, though. When the Oculus Rift finally ships early next year, it’s almost a certainty that a Star Wars title won’t be too far behind. One of Lucasfilm’s primary reasons for lawyering up against Star Wars VR will be because they have their own VR title in the works. Industrial Light and Magic, Lucasfilm’s legendary in-house VFX team have already created the xLab, a division within the company focusing entirely on developing AR and VR properties.

So far, key applications have reportedly focused on in-house use, such as an honest to goodness holodeck, apparently used by director Gareth Edwards to redesign sets for the currently-shooting Rogue One. Commercial applications are sure to follow once the tech hits the consumer market so don’t be surprised if this time next year you’re strapping yourself into a virtual X-Wing for the most realistic run at the Death Star yet. Until then, I suppose we all better go back to bulls-eyeing womp rats in our T-16s and wait for an official announcement.

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