While most would agree that DICE’s 2015 Star Wars Battlefront was a very successful return for the beloved action shooter franchise that first debuted in 2004 during the golden age of LucasArts, it’s undeniable that something was missing in the revival. Not only was the game stripped of its trademark splitscreen multiplayer, but it also lacked a story. One of these sins is more easily forgiven than the other.
For all intents and purposes, Battlefront added nothing to the franchise’s larger narrative. Sure, it fleshed out a couple of moments in Rogue One‘s Battle of Scarif and it also remains the only new canon project to present the fateful Battle of Jakku on screen. While it was great to be able to play through the final battle between the New Republic and the Empire, a pivotal moment between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, Battlefront‘s Jakku level was an action setpiece, not a story onto itself. If you want the Jakku bits fleshed out beyond a video game simulation, you’re much better served by the novels Lost Stars and Aftermath: Empire’s End.
Somewhere along the way, Electronic Arts forgot one of the key things that made LucasArts’ Star Wars games so great: they added to the story. When players picked up Knights of the Old Republic or Jedi Outcast, they knew they were getting exciting new stories that mattered. In fact, the aforementioned games could easily place in a list of the best Star Wars stories ever told. To my mind, Knights of the Old Republic might actually be the greatest Star Wars adventure of all time. (Of course, it’s hard to really compare KotOR and the original Star Wars film, for example. One will never have the other’s element of interactivity at its core.)
Interestingly enough, Knights of the Old Republic was inspired in part by a comic book series from Dark Horse. Tales of the Jedi by Kevin J. Anderson and Tom Veitch paved the way for Knights of the Old Republic in many ways, exploring the unknown eras of pre-film saga Star Wars. What were the Jedi who lived thousands of years before Luke Skywalker like? What were their struggles? If you read Tales of the Jedi and then play Knights of the Old Republic, that part of the story opens up for you, and the narrative goes way beyond even that. (I should mention that neither Tales of the Jedi nor KotOR are canon anymore, but they remain shining examples of great Star Wars stories to this day.)
My point is that many of the best Star Wars games have drawn distinct connections with other parts of the canon while also telling their own stories. Even games that aren’t driven by narrative, the Rogue Squadron games for example, flesh out some part of the universe, whether it be a daring rescue mission at an Imperial detention center in the Maw or the recovery of Death Star plans on the planet Kothlis.
2015’s Battlefront, on the other hand, is a reenactment of the Original Trilogy, packaged with the same sort of slightly ill-advised nostalgia as The Force Awakens. This approach gives way to the idea that less is more – provide lots of the familiar without taking any risks. One could make the case that, like TFA, Battlefront didn’t really need to be anything substantially new. After all, it’s Battlefront, a series beloved by most Star Wars fans who were gaming in the early 00s. For years, people had been asking for a third game. In 2015, EA gave fans just that.
It’s unfair to blame EA or DICE, of course, as even they report to a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate when it comes to Star Wars. As far EA Studios boss Patrick Soderlund is concerned, Battlefront had a clear deadline: it was to launch side-by-side with The Force Awakens. Considering the game had only been in development since 2013, sacrifices had to be made to meet the game’s planned launch. EA launched Battlefront in November, only weeks away from the return of Star Wars to the big screen. (In fact, the Battle of Jakku DLC launched on the same day as the film’s release.)
“The one thing that we got criticized for was the lack of a single-player campaign. It was conscious decision we made due to time and being able to launch the game side-by-side with the movie that came out to get the strongest possible impact,” Patrick Soderlund explained in 2016. “I think the team created a really good game based on the premise that we had. I would say the game has done very well for us and reached a very different demographic than a traditional EA game. So from that perspective, it’s a success. Are we happy with the 75 rating? No. Is that something we’re going to cure going forward? Absolutely.”
EA and DICE are certainly trying to right the ship with this Battlefront sequel, which was officially unveiled at last weekend’s Star Wars Celebration Orlando. In fact, more than half of the announcement trailer is devoted to the game’s single-player campaign, which puts you in the boots of an Imperial special forces agent named Iden Versio, commander of Inferno Squad.
Versio and Inferno Squad, who, according to the upcoming novel Battlefront II: Inferno Squad by Christie Golden, were commissioned after the Rebels stole the plans for the first Death Star and tasked with putting an end to the late Saw Gerrera’s Partisans, fought at the Battle of Endor and watched as the Death Star II was destroyed above the moon. With the death of their beloved Emperor, Inferno Squad has a new mission: to destroy the people responsible for their leader’s demise, mainly Luke Skywalker.
DICE enlisted some help for the second installment. Two of EA’s other studios, Criterion and Motive, are developing specific aspects of the game. As far as the single-player campaign goes, Motive’s in charge of delivering a satisfying narrative worthy of Star Wars. (The story is being written by Spec Ops: The Line scribe Walt Williams and former IGN editor Mitch Dyer.) From what EA has shown so far, Motive seems to be on the right track, exploring an angle we’ve not seen too often in a Star Wars video game before.
“You hear a lot about the Sith Lords and the Force users, but in terms of boots on the ground soldiers, who are the heroes?” Motive Game Director Mark Thompson said in an interview with Mashable. “[The novel Battlefront:] Twilight Company was one of the first things that piqued our interest in telling a soldier’s story. Because obviously it was a novel about Battlefront, but there were some really interesting chapters told from the perspective of an Imperial Stormtrooper, talking about how they felt being inside the Empire.”
That’s an interesting idea – a hero of the Empire. It’s an angle that has been explored in the novels of late, especially in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath series, which chronicles the final days of the Empire. One of the main characters is an Imperial admiral named Rae Sloane, who, while conniving and certainly not a good person, is admirable for her sense of duty to the government she pledged her allegiance to, her bravery, and her determination to persevere in a faction that’s largely a boys club. There are things to actually like about Sloane, which makes her sort of a gray character. Someone bad, who we might find ourselves rooting for.
But even more important than the angle is when this campaign will take place. As seen in the trailer, Versio’s story will bridge the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, a largely untapped gold mine of an era waiting to be dug up by the many writers working on the franchise.
“It picks up right after Endor,” Thompson confirmed. “When we started to talk to Lucasfilm, we [realized] that the war didn’t end then, and there are a whole bunch of interesting stories that could be told in this time period.”
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Battlefront 2‘s story connected directly with some of the other stories that explore the post-Return of the Jedi era, such as the Aftermath series, Shattered Empire, and Bloodline. Thompson explained that Versio’s story would fit cohesively into the larger narrative of that era, a definite shift in EA’s approach to Battlefront.
“We were already pulling on a lot of interesting connective tissue [from Lucasfilm’s perspective],” Thompson said. “So we created this space where Inferno Squad and a hero like Iden could exist.”
The game’s story will span thirty years, from the fall of the Empire to the rise of the First Order, according to IGN, and it should be noted that Luke and Kylo Ren will also be playable in the campaign. Luke’s appearance in the campaign is certainly exciting, considering his post-RotJ story has been kept a secret since Disney bought Lucasfilm. His only appearance in between the two movies to date is in one issue of Shattered Empire.
That in itself lends this story a bit of significance, but it’s really Versio’s story the game should focus on if it hopes to deliver on the quality of classics like KotOR and Jedi Outcast, if it wishes to lift the veil on the unseen heroes of Star Wars, those who fight on the wrong side but do so with honor. If Motive delivers depth and thorough character work, we will certainly spend a lot of time questioning our feelings regarding Versio, who might just grow on fans the same way Rae Sloane has. That is ultimately what makes Battlefront II‘s story so exciting.
“You have many, many, many parts that, in my opinion, make up a Star Wars story. You have blasters and ships, you have families, you have faith and the Force,” said Bernd Diemer, creative director at DICE on Battlefront II. “But for me what really ties it all together is this hero’s journey. Even as a lowly trooper, you can evolve your character. You can get better. You can become the best trooper in the universe.”
Better to what end?
“We’re looking forward to the opportunity to convert everyone to the Dark Side,” Thompson told journalists at a preview event, according to IGN. If the writers and designers have done their jobs right, the Empire may indeed gain a few recruits come November.