Star Wars: Battlefront II opens its prologue on an interrogation scene and closes chapter three on the impending destruction of a planet. Rich in storytelling and character development: Battlefront II’s single-player campaign loads every moment with action, intrigue and clever dialog. It’s the sort of campaign you build a game around, only it was the multiplayer that formed the bedrock upon which this game was built.
Developers DICE, Motive EA and Critereon worked together to craft three core elements into one game, with Motive in charge of the game’s campaign, the single most-requested element missing from the multiplayer-only Star Wars: Battlefront.
“We took what they had and tried to weave it together and put our own signature on it,” said May Ling Tan, a game designer at Motive. “It needed to be as frictionless as possible, allowing players to jump into the campaign and enjoy the story for what it is. That mattered a lot.”
“We knew we had this absolutely colossal fanbase,” said Mark Thompson, game director with Motive. “We knoew they were a multiplayer audience and that a campaign was the most requested feature, the top request. They wanted a story, but they were very familiar with Battlefront’s multiplayer experience.
Because 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront didn’t include a campaign, the teams working on its sequel needed to ensure that they both maintained what people liked about that game and added the sort of single-player, narratively-driven gameplay that would both appeal to gamers and fit neatly into the Star Wars universe. The starting point, was sitting down with Lucas Film to figure out what sort of story best fit.
“During one of the first meetings we had with Lucas Film they challenged us with the idea, the question of what was unique about the Battlefront story,” Thompson said. “That was surprising. They were very interested in a brand and the different ways it can tell stories. So they wanted to know what a Battlefront story would be as opposed to something like Rebels or Clone Wars. How was it different than the theatrical stories told in movies or in comics?”
So the Motive team set about dissecting that question, trying to figure out what the gameplay fantasy was in Battlefront.
“That led us to the soldier’s experience,” Thompson said. “Which led us to a reduction of scale.”
The end result is a classic hero’s journey, the same sort that was so defined in the original Star Wars movie it is often used in lectures about story structure. In that classic story structure, a regular person is called to adventure, refuses that call, then with the help of a mentor starts to become a hero through encounters with enemies and allies. The budding hero ultimately faces a sort of death, finds their reward and then journey’s back to where they came from, but now as a hero.
In establishing the framework for Battlefront II, the team decided they wanted to tell a soldier’s story, one that leans on the best of these sorts of tales, Thompson says. “They’re actually more about the relationship within a squad and the personal struggles,” he says. “The details driven by personality and relationships.”
Where the movies show us the Death Star exploding from the perspective of the Rebels, the game shows it from the perspective of the stormtroopers who are on the ground and see it happen.
“Iden’s leadership is tested as she has to keep her composure and get herself and the crew of the planet,” Thompson says. “That’s how we framed the scale of the store to be more about the individual.”
Fighting Rebel Scum
The campaign is every bit as compelling as you’d hope for. While I only spent about an hour and a half going through the first few chapters of the game, I was already starting to like Commander Iden Versio and her cohorts. They’re bad-asses, but there’s also a strong element of camaraderie and, even in my short time with the game, a sense of change that could tear the group apart. Thompson tells me that user testing puts the campaign play-through at anywhere from five to seven hours with an average of 6.7 hours. That might sound short to people who are used to tackling campaigns in open-world settings that can run for dozens of hours, but I think six to seven hours is perfect. That’s about as long as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which I still believe to be the perfect sweet spot for length and content.
The game, and my time with it, opens on a prologue that has Versio strapped to an interrogation chair as an enemy of the Rebels. The scene can’t help but leave you feeling slightly disoriented. For most, the fiction of Star Wars has always come from perspective of the Rebels being the good guys and the Imperial Forces as the ones who generally do the interrogating. Early on, though, through your escape and battles, it’s easy to still see that while this is who you control in the game, Versio is not necessarily on the side of the just. The look and feel of the game are pitch-perfect and the story aligns nicely with what most already know about the universe, but delivered with a new, compelling perspective from the bad guys but also, essentially, foot soldiers. You’re still viewed as an elite soldier, by those you help along the way, but Versio is no Sith or Jedi.
By the time you’re assisting Imperial forces on Endor, Versio has already managed to establish her character. Watching her struggle with emotion as she sees the second Death Star explode - a moment also seen in Return of the Jedi - helps set the stage for what is likely to be a complex emotional journey for the character as she struggles with what is right and wrong and deals with her father, a seemingly heartless Imperial admiral.
It was the sort of chaotic, in-the-moment experience that can define a game.
Because the core mechanics of the campaign are built on top of DICE’s excellent controls, there’s very little to learn in the way of how to get things done. The game plays just like multiplayer, but with a solid cast and sometimes, smarter opponents. The vehicle controls are simply stunning, especially time in space taking out X-Wings, assault vehicles and protecting your own ships. All of that work was done by Criterion, which has long established its deft touch with vehicle controls.
“They took a lot from the first Battlefront and improved the controls and tactile feeling of the vehicles,” Tan says. “They polished the experience based on a lot of the feedback so they could fulfill the feeling of being an ace pilot and making each ship feel different.”
The space battles are simply sublime, some of the best I’ve experienced as a long-time fan of Star Wars games. Near the end of my time with the game, I was dropped into a TIE fighter, zipping through wreckage of the Death Star, dogfighting incoming Rebel pilots, defending larger ships. It was the sort of chaotic, in-the-moment experience that can define a game, but also just one element of a title that seems packed with ways to play.