Take one of the best-loved franchises in the history of pop-culture, mash it up with an online game and you have a recipe for the sort of fanatical devotion that is naturally combustible. Then add tweaks which would appear to favour those prepared to fork out huge amounts of money over and above that game's already far-from-trivial purchase price, and you might want to stand well back.
Sure enough, Star Wars Battlefront 2, the second instalment of Electronic Arts' flagship multiplayer Star Wars shooter, arrives in the shops on the back of a full-blown controversy that hasn't exactly eased EA's reputation for outdoing even its games-publishing peers in the cynicism stakes.
Following a Reddit-based storm, it has backtracked, disabling a system it added for the game's second iteration, which allows players to purchase Crystals with real money, which can then be converted into loot crates containing the key Star Cards which bring new abilities for the characters you play as, and which make all the difference to your prospects of becoming top dog online.
With this issue smoothed over, is Battlefront 2 the roaring success we hoped it would be?
EA says it is rethinking, and the purchase system will return at some point – hopefully after it has decided to rectify the miserliness of the game's base-level allocation of loot crates and in-game currency, which compares very badly with its predecessor. Until the results of that rethink come on stream, everybody who plays Star Wars Battlefront 2 will have to grind like mad to unlock anything like all the abilities and perks they want.
Which, at least, solves the old online shooter problem of jumping into a game and instantly coming up against rival characters with vastly superior attributes and load-outs. Frankly, you're only likely to be offended by the whole affair if you were already a hardcore player of Star Wars Battlefront. So, if you weren't, what is the new game like?
The best news for such gamers is that, unlike its predecessor, Battlefront 2 has a single-player campaign – and a pretty good one at that. It focuses on a new character called Iden Versio, who is about as Imperial as you can get: her father, Garrick Versio, is one of the Emperor's most trusted admirals, while Iden is the leader of Inferno Squad, an Imperial special forces outfit.
The action begins with Iden imprisoned on a Rebel Alliance ship; luckily, she has a very handy droid, which can bust her out so that you can then fulfil some of your Dark Side fantasies by controlling her on a variety of missions. Although, without wishing to perpetrate any spoilers, her tale takes a massive twist half-way through the campaign.
The storyline supports a variety of interludes, in which you get to play as characters including Lando Calrissian, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Kylo Ren, as well as to pilot X-Wings, Tie-Fighters, AT-ATs, AT-STs and so on. It operates as a clever means of teaching you the basic gameplay principles required for going online in the game, and does a good job of shedding further light on events during the period spanned by the original trilogy and Episode V2. But despite being split into 20 chapters, many of those are disappointingly bite-sized, and you'll struggle to spin it out for longer than 15 hours.
The multiplayer side of Battlefront 2, although it has been rationalised and rearranged slightly, will feel thoroughly familiar to those who played the original game. Perhaps too familiar: it lacks any big, innovative new mode.
One gameplay tweak, however, is welcome: you now have a chance to time a button-press during your weapon cool-down which will instantly bring that weapon back on-stream (and you can give yourself a bigger chance of nailing it by acquiring the requisite Star Card).
The modes from the first Battlefront, which involved facing off against AI bots, have now been grouped together into a single part of the game called Arcade, which is split into Dark Side and Light Side missions. That offers a pretty good means of honing the skills you'll need for proper multiplayer action, but unfortunately it doesn't play into the multiplayer grinding the game requires you to put in. That's because, while hitting milestones in Arcade brings some – albeit fairly ungenerous – rewards, it won't level-up the different character classes you'll play as in the full multiplayer element.
You get to choose between five multiplayer modes.
Galactic Assault is the prime one, in which two teams of 20 players can enact parts of those large-scale Star Wars battles, on maps that expand and with objectives that alter according to how the battle is going. In other words, it pretty much feels like Battlefield in the Star Wars universe (which it is).
Starfighter Assault is the large-scale space-fighting equivalent, which in Battlefront 2 somehow feels more accessible than its predecessor's equivalent. It still doesn't give you a vast amount of direction towards the objectives, but nevertheless is less confusing than before, and the simplicity and similarity of the various ships' control systems feels spot-on.
Four-versus-four Heroes Vs Villains has returned, too, pretty much in the same format as before (with more heroes and villains whose specific abilities you will have to master).
And there are two eight-versus-eight modes which spring no surprises. Strike claims to be objective-based, but is pretty much Capture The Flag meets attack versus defence – so one team is picking up packets of information and trying to get them to an extraction point, while the other tries to prevent them doing so.
Finally, Blast is good, old-fashioned Team Deathmatch.
Scenes from the movies
Both Blast and Strike can be expected to become the province of the more hardcore players, but even when we jumped into them during our early stages of playing Battlefront 2, they certainly suggested that developer DICE has at least got its matching system right.
We find the maps to be somewhat variable – again, they mostly offered little that felt wildly different from the original Battlefront, with corridor-shooting and pinch-points featuring heavily – although the majority of the Galactic Assault (and some Blast) maps should excite Star Wars super-fans, since they gloriously evoke locations from the films (especially Episode V2, with the likes of Maz's Castle on Takodana putting in an appearance).
Star Wars Battlefront 2's multiplayer is certainly exciting and fun – especially for those who didn't play the original game – but we would question whether it really adds enough which is demonstrably new for those who played the first game to death and are hungry for innovation.
And given the tweaks to the Star Card system, which effectively mean you'll have to grind even more than in the original game to get even your favourite class maxed out ability-wise (now that you can't spend ludicrous amounts of money to unlock everything), it's likely that the most committed Star Wars Battlefront 2 players will (rightly) continue to moan on forums like Reddit.
Overall, Star Wars Battlefront 2 is a fabulous game to play: it lets you live out your fantasies of participating in the franchise's epic battles in a gloriously high-tech and finely honed manner. And it's particularly wondrous to behold in 4K on an Xbox One X.
But it just leaves you with little nagging doubts about how its underlying structure is too concerned with parting you from even more of your hard-earned cash, and it simply doesn't offer enough truly new stuff for those who are likely to commit large parts of their life to it.
EA and DICE will surely address that via downloadable content, and thanks to the Campaign and Arcade modes it offers much more to those who prefer to play offline than its predecessor, so that should earn it a whole new audience.
It will be fascinating to see how Battlefront 2 evolves, especially in the near future.
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