Why Battlefront II is EA’s most ambitious game ever
[Originally printed in games™ 187]
How DICE, Motive and Criterion are coming together to build the ultimate Star Wars experience
Star Wars Battlefront II is the most ambitious project that EA has ever embarked on. It’s the biggest title in developer DICE’s history, a chance to for Criterion Games to take centre stage again and a stunning statement of intent for Motive Studios, making its debut following its formation back in 2015. This year’s Star Wars Battlefront II brings a grossly ambitious single-player concept together with a wildly expanded multiplayer offering to form – well, there are no two ways about it – the most important Star Wars videogame ever created.
While 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront may have been born out of a desire to give Star Wars fans a chance to live out their own personal battle fantasies in a galaxy far, far way – cast across some of the most recognisable fantasy battlegrounds of all time – this sequel’s ambitions are so much greater than leveraging nostalgia for sales. Battlefront II is looking to celebrate 40 years of Star Wars history by casting its net across all three cinematic eras of the universe, targeting fans young and old whilst giving us the opportunity to view the established canon through a lens that we’ve never experienced before – a new perspective on a hero’s journey well travelled.
DICE is no longer content with merely letting you relive a handful of iconic Star Wars battles with your friends, instead it’s going to make history and carve out its own piece of the sacred timeline. That makes Battlefront II essential for any fans looking to better understand what happened to Luke Skywalker, the Rebellion and what remained of the Empire in the 30 years between Return Of The Jedi and The Force Awakens. Battlefront II is going to touch on the original trilogy, the prequels, and the recently launched sequels, in a way that we never imagined. Like we said before, Battlefront II is the most ambitious project that EA has ever embarked on. That’s a process that’s as daunting as it is exciting for fans and studios alike, as we discovered talking with the development team.
“I came into Star Wars by watching the original trilogy, that’s just how old I am,” laughs Bernd Diemer, creative director at DICE and a loyal member of the German Star Wars fan club since 1984 – he even has the tattered membership card to prove it. Like many, Diemer’s first contact with the Star Wars universe was through the trilogy that kickstarted with 1977’s A New Hope but he – just like the rest of the folk at DICE, Criterion and Motive – recognise that this isn’t necessarily the case for many today. The Star Wars franchise is so much bigger than the original trilogy, and the studios would have been foolish to overlook fans that identify with other corners of the universe. “The first time you see one of these movies it holds a very special place in your heart,” Diemer muses, “and while old school Star Wars fans like myself might talk for hours on end over a beer about which movie is the best – and I don’t think that question could ever be settled, but that’s what we do of course because we are nerds – for a lot of people the prequels were the original touch point with this universe.”
While the quality of the prequel trilogy might remain a hotly debated issue between Star Wars fans, those films have – along with the wildly popular Star Wars Rebels TV series – undoubtedly inspired a generation to fall in love with the universe, its characters and their stories. Well, one character and one story in particular. For Diemer, any lingering doubts he may have had about the decision to bring the eras crashing together in one game – a gargantuan undertaking from the studio in terms of asset creation and content generation – were immediately exorcised as it showed Battlefront II to the public for the first time. “Honestly, during the reveal at Star Wars Celebration, when we first showed off our trailer, the first time that Darth Maul showed up… just by the reaction in the room I thought to myself, ‘I think we made a good call there’.”
The reaction he is talking about is the moment thousands of fans erupted into fits of hysteria – there’s something about that second lightsaber shard popping off that just gets the heart racing. But it wasn’t the resurgence of everybody’s favourite Sith apprentice – back in one piece, we hasten to add, as opposed to sporting those unsightly spider legs – that got the crowd going the loudest, for that would be awarded to the moment Motive Studios revealed the existence and the subsequent intentions behind Battlefront II’s all-new single-player campaign, an opportunity for players to get a little more insight into what occurred in the 30-year gap between Return Of The Jedi and The Force Awakens. An area that is, as Diemer puts it, “an amazing canvas to start imagining”.
Mark Thompson, game director at Motive Studios – the subsidiary formed under Jade Raymond in 2015 in an effort to help drive home EA and LucasFilm’s commitment to bringing new stories in the Star Wars universe to life in virtual spaces – is a little more pragmatic, although it proves to be difficult for him to contain his excitement. “It is a challenge, but it was kind of a fun challenge! This hasn’t really been done before – we are exploring such a unique perspective.”
In many respects, Battlefront II is making a bold move: it’s attempting to tell a story from the perspective of the Empire, starring an Imperial who isn’t necessarily evil or contemptible, but one that is struggling with loyalty and duty in the face of a crippling defeat. As the world crumbles around Iden Versio, the fierce special forces agent we will come to inhabit through Battlefront II, we will be given the opportunity to see the fall of the Empire, the rise of the Alliance and, given that the game spans 30 years, perhaps even the formation of The First Order. But it all begins with a defeat in earnest, one you will no doubt be familiar with by now.
“When you see the Death Star II explode in [Return Of The Jedi] it is framed as a victory,” considered Thompson, speaking at Star Wars Celebration 2017, giving an insight into the ‘moment of magic inspiration’ that pushed Motive to explore a part of the established cannon that’s still largely cast in shadow. “You see everyone celebrating and partying with the Ewoks on Endor, fireworks across Coruscant, and it’s this big celebration for everyone. [But] what would it be like to be a Stormtrooper on the ground, to look up to the sky and see the Death Star II explode? For that to be a moment of loss, a moment of defeat… when you take off the helmet in disbelief, look up at the sky and immediately put that helmet back on with a new hardened resolve about how you need to take that fight back to the Rebellion. That was the starting moment for the story.”
Motive began work on Battlefront II back in the fall of 2015, when The Force Awakens was still in cinemas and beginning a revival of sorts for the Star Wars franchise in the public consciousness. While the original story idea may have arisen organically, sounding like a pitch formed between friends over a drink, but it was the 30-year gap that excited Thompson and writing duo Mitch Dyer (a former games journalist) and Walt Williams (known for his work writing critically acclaimed shooter Spec Ops: The Line) the most. “We were asking questions as fans and as developers,” Thompson said. “You know, what happened in those 30 years? And so, we thought lets try and tell one of those stories that connects these two amazing trilogies together.”
The difficulty for Motive here is that it wants to create a hero that can stand credibly alongside the likes of Luke Skywalker and Jyn Erso, despite working for a side that has been typically cast as ‘evil’ within Star Wars’ clear cut black and white morality paradigm. While work was well underway on Battlefront II by the time Star Wars: Rogue One launched in 2016, the film’s commitment to exploring a different side of the Rebellion confirmed to Thompson and the team that it was on the right track with its efforts on the single-player campaign. “The way it talked about [the] Rebels as extremists for the first time was really interesting,” Thompson tells us. “Rogue One explored the grey areas of Star Wars morality, in terms of black and white, and we are kind of doing the same thing but from the Empire’s perspective.”
He is quick to note that Motive isn’t trying to re-write history or cannon. It isn’t attempting to convince anybody that the Empire was good, that the destruction of Alderaan was justified or that the creation of the Death Star was necessary, it’s simply trying to “explore a unique perspective” by casting us in the boots of a character that grew up believing in what the Empire was trying to achieve in the galaxy. “An individual can have their own personal perspective, their own moral compass, and can believe in the Empire or some of the things that the Empire stands for but not necessarily believe that the Death Star was great or that Alderaan had to happen.”
“So just that on its own is an interesting perspective, because usually the Empire is homogenised and dehumanised into ranks and ranks of Stormtroopers that we don’t know as people – we don’t know how they think. We are intentionally led to believe that they all believe in the same thing and they all blindly and obediently follow every order that they are given,” says Thompson, adding, “having someone take off the helmet, to find out who these troopers are as people, that becomes interesting because we can talk about perspective and shades of grey rather than just the black and the white of right and wrong.”
This will all be framed around Iden – voiced and captured by True Blood and Sleepy Hollow actress Janina Gavankar – and the group of elite, special forces Imperial soldiers under her command, Inferno Squad. They are designed to be the heroes of the empire; the commandos that would inspire legions of Stormtroopers into battle, the elite pilots that would have children dreaming of one day joining the Imperial academies. Inferno Squad are the true leaders of the front lines, the ones left in charge as the Admirals were forced to deal with Darth Vader indiscriminately thinning their ranks and the numerous shadow plays from an Emperor attempting to play family councillor between the at war Skywalkers.
For Steve Blank, creative director of LucasFilm Story Group, the decision to create Inferno Squad was born out of the company’s desire to bridge the gap between exciting gameplay and a compelling story. “We are making a videogame first and foremost. We wanted to find the right group of people that had the skill sets that would make sense in this game,” he said, speaking at Celebration, giving us an insight into what type of gameplay we should expect from the campaign. “We knew we wanted to have aerial combat, we knew we wanted there to be ground combat and we wanted this character to be proficient at both. And then from a story perspective, who would be the most devout? [To] sit there and watch something like the Death Star II explode and go, ‘I’m going to double down on this commitment to the Empire, this strengthens my belief in what we have and what the Empire stands for.’ All of that combined really led to this idea of special operatives. People who have that type of training and have that type of belief and the skills to really pull that off. The marriage of the two is where Inferno Squad came from.”
While details on the moment-to-moment action of this campaign are light, we do know that Motive is looking to let us live out this fantasy of being an elite trooper in this world. As an empowering hero through Iden, we will be given the opportunity to take part in ‘epic-scale battles’ across Battlefront’s classically open sandbox maps, but also be handed the chance to venture through quieter spaces and dense cityscapes. Iden’s droid – a customisable ID9 Seeker Droid, first seen in Star Wars Rebels – will play a big part in gameplay, seemingly able to incapacitate enemies stealthily and issue other Imperial gadgets. This will be integral, we imagine, as we venture to planets and cities unseen, such a Vardos, an entirely new planet in the Star Wars universe that represents the utopian vision of the Imperial rule – this will be one such opportunity to bring a more condensed style of play into the fold, conjuring memories of 2005’s Star Wars: Republic Commando more so than the chaotic mess of moving parts that defines the most recognisable of Star Wars battles.
Taking a story through the gap between Jedi and Force Awakens is one thing, but Motive piled more pressure onto itself. Iden isn’t the only character you’ll play as through this campaign, instead, just as you can in multiplayer, Battlefront II will also give you the opportunity to play as an established hero. That, Thompson tells us, took real collaboration between EA and LucasFilm. “I think we had as many opportunities as we did boundaries,” he tells us. “The LucasFilm story group works in publishing, in comics, in anything that can tell a story – even if that’s like a semi-interactive toy being developed by Hasbro. Everything for them has a story and so they can understand all of the different moving pieces; what’s happening in the movies, what’s happening in Rebels, what’s happening in everything that isn’t announced that they won’t tell us about yet,” he laughs, noting that LucasFilm was willing to hear out anything the group brought to the table, upfront about the difficulties that Motive may encounter with charting a course through this particular era. But one story decision was worth the debates, the time and the effort: the opportunity to pin a chapter around Luke Skywalker and give fans an insight into his movements following the fall of the Death Star II.
“They were willing to have a discussion about everything that we brought to the table, which was really, really cool,” Thompson says. “It’s just that sometimes they would give us that look which is to say, ‘we can go down this road, but it’s going to be a long road and it’s going to involve lots of discussions’ and sometimes it was worth it! When we decided that we wanted to have a chapter in the story playable as Luke Skywalker, that was one of those moments. They were like, ‘look, this is one of our biggest characters, his story ark is still active and it’s going to be difficult to tell a slice of his life in-between the events of movies that have existed for 30 years, and events of movies we don’t know yet’.”
“It’s one thing to play Luke as a character in the multiplayer, but then getting to live out a slice of his life in the campaign was one of those challenges that we thought would be worth the time and the effort. LucasFilm story group are always fully supportive, but they let you know in advance just how difficult it is going to be,” continues Thompson, adding, “This was one of those challenges that we thought would be worth it.”
Whether it will have been worth the time and effort remains to be seen, but the studio is certainly doing its best to deliver on one of the biggest fan requests following the release of the original Battlefront. This single-player campaign isn’t a stapled on addition to curb dissent, but an opportunity to bring the videogames on a par with the comics, novels and TV shows as an integral companion to the films – trusted with expanding the lore and stories of some of the biggest characters in the world, whilst still building new heroes and tales for fans to enjoy.
“LucasFilm challenged us to step beyond recreating,” says Diemer, who is quick to note that, while he didn’t work on DICE’s Battlefront, he was behind it every step of the way as a fan. “Look at Hoth, for example, it’s a pixel perfect recreation. When you step onto that level, you really feel like you are there and I think that is a tremendous achievement by the studio. But how awesome would it be if we can start creating inside of this awesome universe?
“This is especially true for the campaign, we felt as if there was a lot of opportunity. If you look at how LucasFilm is trying to expand the universe through comic books, novels and even movies like Rogue One – which is based off of two lines in the crawl of New Hope. It’s very interesting to see, because when you look at Star Wars it’s a very big universe, but there are many, many spaces between each of the movies – these are these interesting places for creating new stories. These are the places that we can start filling [the universe] with our own ideas.”
If the single-player campaign represents a chance to inject fresh ideas and new stories into the Star Wars universe, the expanded 40-player multiplayer could be seen as slightly more restrictive avenue for DICE, though it’s no less of a creative opportunity. At its heart, the multiplayer component of Battlefront II is a chance for DICE to deliver more of a good thing; to bring the spectacle, drama and cinematic flair of Star Wars’ most famous battles to player’s hands across an array of gorgeous locals. We mentioned the decision to bring all three eras of the cinematic universe into this one package earlier and, ultimately, it feels like a natural evolution the foundations the studio first established back in 2015.
“It was a relatively easy decision,” Diemer explains to us, reflecting on the decision to unite the universe together under this one Battlefront banner. “One thing that we realised is that, when we listened to our fans and also to our team, it was pretty clear that people wanted more.
So we started thinking, ‘well, how can we deliver more Star Wars?’ One way that we found to be very interesting is to bring more eras into the game, because then we were able to span – for the first time in an HD game – all movie eras. It [naturally] allows us to bring more stuff into the game.”
That, of course, wasn’t the only aspect DICE was interested in turning its attention to. As the LucasFilm group is no doubt aware by now, Star Wars fans have a habit of criticising and analysing every little detail, and they aren’t afraid of being vocal about the results – DICE wasn’t spared the same fate with Battlefront. In spite of its popularity – with EA reporting sales figures beyond the 14 million bracket – Battlefront was derided at launch for its ‘casual’ play, dearth of content and litany of performance issues that helped undermine the, frankly, stunning presentation and powerful audio design. In fact, games™ had this to say of the game back at review, stating: “Prolonged play is exhausting, with any and all searches for gameplay depth coming up empty. You cannot deny the quality here, but it’s hard not to ask the question that so many others have been asking since launch: is this it?” Battlefront has one hell of a vocal community, something that isn’t lost on Diemer and the team at DICE.
“Doesn’t it just?” Laughs Diemer as we bring up Battlefront’s vocal fan base, in what has now become a useful exercise in managing fan expectation and studio ambitions. “It’s good to have a lot of feedback. These voices are basically the same nerds that we have inside of our team as well. We have very strong opinions of what should be in the game and what should not, so it’s actually very helpful to have a lot of feedback to see what players actually want.”
Of course, the danger here is that studios can too often let creative control slip out of its grasp – or feel as if they are pandering to a fan base that thinks it knows what it wants. Thankfully, DICE seems to have addressed the problem areas, working to restore balance to the Force – nope – gameplay systems and depth in a way that makes sense: it’s tapping into its legacy and proficiency in FPS system design through years of Battlefield excellence, making it more accessible (see also: streamlined) and bringing it to Star Wars’ iconic battlegrounds.
This process begins with what Diemer calls “deconstructing Star Wars” or, to be more plain, the act of tearing apart the famous battles into their disparate components, done in an effort to build an experience that allows for emergent, player-driven experiences that feel heroic and cinematic. “What we identified is [something] that is very deep at the heart of Star Wars: that everybody should get the chance to be a hero,” considers Diemer. Only in Star Wars, he tells us, could “a lowly moisture farmer become one of the most powerful characters in the universe…” well, when you look at it like that, he isn’t wrong.
It’s a nice sentiment, but how do you make even a lowly trooper feel like a hero when confronted by the likes of Kylo Ren, Obi-Wan Kenobi or Count Dooku? DICE’s answer is team-play; in supporting structured and clearly defined class combinations, Battlefront II not only lets groups work as cohesive units, but the studio is able to answer criticisms levied at depth and customisation in the same breath.
“We wanted the troopers to have a fair chance of standing up against a hero and one of the good methods that we found was team play. Having classes is such a good way for gamers to form teams themselves naturally, and to form their own personal group that is perfect for going up against certain heroes. That also meant that we wanted to give a little bit more ways to personalise your own trooper, so that it becomes a little bit more like its own character and not just like a faceless shell that you slip into.”
By including a ‘diverse and powerful progression system’ Battlefront II shrugs off one of its predecessors biggest problems: there will be more to play with here than an array of Seventies haircuts and interchangeable blaster types. This applies to everything, from the basic troopers, to the starfighters, to, yes, even the heroes – with new abilities unlocked the longer you sink your teeth into the game.
This has also necessitated a change in the way heroes and vehicles are handled. Pick-ups in the game have been removed, replaced by a resource system that DICE believes will stop the culture of token spawn camping and give each player the opportunity to feel like a powerful hero in the world. “We wanted everybody to have a chance of becoming a hero that is a little bit more universal, so we decided to introduce a resource system where we can give you points by doing things that are not only kills,” says Diemer, noting that they will be awarded for everything from defending capture zones, subduing heroes and claiming valuable areas – whether you’re in Battlefront or Battlefield, playing the objective pays dividends.
“You get to decide when you are going to spend that currency on becoming a hero or entering the battle in a star fighter, or an AT-ST Walker, or as a special,” he adds, indicating that special trooper types will be available in game – such as a Clone Trooper with a jump pack – designed to bridge the gap between iconic heroes like Darth Vader and normal troopers, to give you a taste of the power that could be yours with a little dedication and focus.
When you look at the entire package, Battlefront II looks like a genuine attempt to answer fans, thank them for their patience, and deliver the ultimate Star Wars experience in return. Between the wildly ambitious campaign, the introduction of space-combat and a refined multiplayer experience, Battlefront II looks like it’s going to be an essential purchase for anybody that has ever dreamt of visiting a galaxy far, far away.