I remember playing DICE’s first Battlefront game, and my mates all saying more or less the same thing. This is good fun as far as it goes, but a little shallow. That wasn’t an uncommon opinion, many of the reviews said exactly the same thing, but to me it felt like the developer had made the right choice. A Star Wars FPS around the time Disney rebooted the main series was always going to have massive mainstream appeal, and DICE made a shooter that deliberately eschewed all the long-term cruft and focused on being fun for an hour at a time.
Oh one other thing – which again never bothered me, but it matters. People wanted a campaign. Battlefront was multiplayer-focused.
I give this context because we’re currently in the middle of a firestorm around Battlefront II. Essentially this sequel’s inclusion of loot boxes has become a focal point for a wider feeling of dissatisfaction with this business model, particularly when it comes to premium AAA products. Battlefront II’s implementation is built around ‘Star Cards’ which are essentially character perks, up to three of which can be equipped on a given class and all of which confer some kind of advantage.
Pre-release, the reaction was building. At release it exploded, with such fury that even Disney noticed. According to a report by Venture Beat, following a phone call with Jimmy Pitaro, Disney's consumer products and interactive media chairman, EA temporarily removed the microtransactions – suggesting not just an epic corporate slapdown, but a perception that this controversy will hurt the wider Star Wars brand.
I’ve been playing Battlefront II since release, and it is easy to see why it’s this particular title that has inspired such a reaction. I suspect that, at the core of everything here, is the nature of Battlefront II as an experience. I put it to you that this is a multiplayer game with two very fun modes, bulked-out with some throwaway extra playlists and a campaign that never really needed to exist. My point is that Battlefront was a slight package and Battlefront II is actually also a slight package – but the latter has a hundred levels of crap on top.
It’s worth pausing over what we’re looking for in the kind of long-term levelling system so common among FPS games. They’re not entirely positive things, locking off much of the game’s content and giving the best tools to the most skilled and time-rich players. They do give you ‘something to play for’ but, in an age where I spend maybe a couple of weeks on the very best FPS game before moving onto the next one, I find them more of an annoyance than an enhancement. The FPS games I go back to, like Counter-Strike: GO or Rainbow Six Siege, restrict the collectibles and loot boxes to cosmetics.
By the way, I’ve spent hundreds of pounds on CS: GO over the years. I regard that money as well-spent on a game I love; I’m not against loot boxes per se, nor do I agree with the histrionic accusations that they represent gambling. As with most business practices it’s about how well or badly they’re implemented and, from the first screen, you can see Battlefront II has implemented them really badly.
The game doesn’t have a title screen, but five tabs you can flick between, most of which are absurdly busy. The character tab in particular is a UI nightmare, with a giant list of units down the left side and a huge roster of heroes in the middle. The collection tab is even worse, just a giant jumble of nested and deathly boring junk – the kind of challenges that you cascade through just by playing the game – which the game forces you to go through to collect the miserly rewards. And more than anything else, these screens have been deliberately designed to make players feel bad.
The opening splash screen has three panels, plus an offset icon. One of those three panels is a video explaining in over-enthusiastic terms what Star Cards are and why you should love them. The offset icon is a ‘Get More Crates’ button. So it’s dedicating half the real estate of its welcome screen to the crates. But that’s not the half of it.
The busy menus that you have to flick between grey out the characters you haven’t unlocked, all of whom take a giant number of credits. To my absolute astonishment, in a Star Wars game, Darth Vader is locked. Darth fucking Vader is not included in the purchase price! I noticed this because, in one of the first crates I bought, I got a nice-looking Star Card for Lord Vader, went to equip it, and the game barred me from doing so until I’d unlocked him. So we have here a premium game giving out rewards that are dependent on players having made other purchases. It was a mind-boggling moment because the game made me feel bad for not having enough credits, and that is how the Star Cards system operates.
Consider too that acquiring one Star Card only means you have access to that ability, and probably at a rubbish level. Yep the Star Cards have four different levels of effectiveness and, while the top level can only be obtained through playing the game (according to DICE), it adds another layer of confusion and disappointment to getting what you thought was a cool upgrade. And the thing about Battlefront II is, as this stuff piles up over the course of several hours, you start to notice just how thinly spread it all is.
I know there are a lot of Star Wars maniacs out there, but let me tell you what Star Wars means to me. There’s a bloke called Luke who’s a Jedi, which is good, and he helps the Rebels beat the Empire and blow up the Death Star. There’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, all that good stuff, swooshy lightsaber fights, the end. I’ll go and see the Last Jedi, probably, but I’m not tremendously interested in the extended universe, and from Battlefront II I kind of expect the mainstream experience. In terms of heroes the game does alright, Luke and Yoda and Han Solo – no Obi-Wan though! Then I’m being asked to care about Star Cards for all kinds of minor rubbish. Darth Maul’s starship is the kind of thing that would only be iconic if someone used a replica of it to assassinate Donald Trump.
The thing is that, underneath it all, Battlefront II’s Galactic Conquest mode is very similar in feel to the original game. Which was great! And when you can forget about all the absolute garbage that DICE and EA have piled around this core, you go in and have a fun time – until, of course, you get blown away and notice your opponent was using three high-level Star Cards. Then you know they were doing 10% more damage than you, or had more health, and the perception of an unfair and paid-for advantage roots firmly in your mind.
The same applies to the new Starfighter mode, where dozens of players have TIE fighter and X-Wing dogfights in objective-based space combat. I really got into this mode for a while, it is spectacular at points and crescendoes into some tremendously close-fought wars. After a few games it had reached a point where I had no cards, my opponents always seemed to have them, and I was kinda sick of it. I spent all my credits on Starfighter crates, or whatever they’re called, got some low-tier mods that looked a bit pointless, and haven’t played the mode since.
Fundamentally, why should other players be doing more damage than me, or have more health than me? Introducing this kind of asymmetry has the terrible effect of tainting the overall experience: it’s not that these minor disadvantages are what’s getting you killed every time. It just eventually comes to feel that way.
This feeling even comes to taint the Hero Battle, a separate 4vs4 mode where players can chuck all the OP heroes at each other. Except, of course, the first time you go in you’ll have none of them unlocked, and have to play as Bossk while everyone else enjoys a massive lightsaber fight. Why aren’t all the characters just unlocked in this frivolous, minor mode that has been included purely for fun?
It’s an enormous pity because Battlefront II’s main modes are an audiovisual spectacle, and nail the Star Wars ‘feel’ in moment-to-moment play. You’ll be on a battlefield with laser bolts scorching past, then hear the screech of a TIE fighter overhead as it barrels into the Rebel forces. You’ll be up against it, the Stormtroopers flooding through broken defences, when all of a sudden Luke Skywalker and Han Solo turn up, beat back the advance, and allow you to re-group and hold steady.
The tragedy with Galactic Conquest is that it’s refined to a point of controlled chaos. You never know what’s going on at every point on the battlefield, and engagements are manic and often over in seconds. The only big flaw it has are the boring runs after respawning, and the incorporation of the Star Cards – which, the more you play, come to seem like a bigger and bigger deal. DICE has made a technically brilliant game, and it’s bizarre that it ends up giving you some of the same feelings as mobile titles.
Who knows where Battlefront II will go from here. The truth is that the problem isn’t microtransactions, which in some form are in the industry to stay, but this tone-deaf implementation. It is an example of what happens when the game is too slight to be monetised in this manner, but the business decision is to do it anyway – the result being unhappy consumers, damage to the wider brand, and an embarrassing climbdown from the publisher.
It’s a real shame because, remove all the crate nonsense and Star Card levelling, and Star Wars Battlefront II is a good blast. But there’s all this scaffolding around a main structure that, simply put, can’t take such accumulated weight. No wonder the whole thing has come crashing down.