The prequel films proved that critical success has no direct relationship to the success of Star Wars. No one liked them but everyone saw them. No one liked them but in Star Wars: Battlefront II (2005), elements from them were exhumed, brought back to life, and greeted as old friends. Mace Windu was a dull, emotionless waste of space and Darth Maul was a face tattoo and a cloak whose coolness never passed beyond the theoretical. But earning them on the Coruscant arena was a mini Christmas special for the budding fan-fic scenario writers and second-hand Jedi dreamers.
Star Wars: Battlefront II (2005) won no critical respect for graphics or controls. But it’s a piñata of which the above example is a single piece of confetti. Recognizing and inhabiting all the random figurines and knick-knacks in Pandemic’s upturned toybox of canon is a blast because it makes no sense. It strings together references and scenarios from a Star Wars mad-lib and smashes them together with tiny fists and big smiles. It’s like a big fluffy Star Wars-themed comforter. It’s so soft and inviting: who cares that its depictions aren’t accurate?
It was made essentially as the prequels were made: prioritizing stuff instead of story. Why does this work in an interactive form where it failed on the big screen? It would be because in inhabiting (not watching) a familiar world, the narrative of the story is not nearly so important as the narrative of play. Take the new teaser for this November’s Star Wars Battlefront II, which depicts the Emperor, alive after all, talking to an imperial commander over hologram. This carries absolutely no implications for the player as a player, nothing that would influence gameplay (unless he’s a late game boss fight, which I’m sure no one wants). This is for teasing only, for baiting people to a narrative that is not represented by the core Battlefront experience, which depends on fast excursions that are not narrative-rich but instead are widely destructive, mobile, variable, and fun. If this story teaser is a chord that represents the new game’s melody, it won’t get the tune right any more than its immediate predecessor did.
Nothing needs to cohere if inhabiting the mess is fun, and the original Star Wars: Battlefront II is still fun, in a way that the prequels and the new Battlefront games just aren’t. It’s as flawed and clunky as any third-person shooter from 2005, but even with its flaws (perhaps because of them) it more represents the appeal of Star Wars than any other game based on the property.
It’s an appeal I don’t necessarily share (see my article on Rogue Squadron II, my pick for the best Star Wars game of all time). But I still appreciate Battlefront II’s debonair terribleness, the pure obscenity of spawning as Boba Fett, wrestling with seventeen weapons and a janky jetpack engine before dying stupidly and saying, “Wow … it’s just like the movie!” The original Battlefront games were (and still are) beyond critical reproach, a phenomenon not shared by their modern descendants.
Before the new one comes out, I want to see if I can get it straight why the Star Wars: Battlefront II was so forgivable, so Star Wars-y, and so impossible in the games industry today. But in order to forgive it, first I have to figure out what’s wrong with it.
So right away you have to make two piles in Star Wars: Battlefront II. In the one pile, you should put the normal base-capturing team games with the galactic conquest campaign and the instant action multiplayer. In the other pile, put all the other modes: space flight, hunt, capture the flag, and so on. Burn that pile because no one needs it.
In that first pile, you have a lot of stuff pretending to be serious, which is good: bad things aren’t funny unless they’re sincere about it. Nothing is funnier than belief.
There are troops barking at each other and dying, political struggles teetering in the balance, brutal little quips from ostensible humans, squad controls that I refuse to believe anyone has ever figured out. All within a psychedelia of stuff from a movie series whose serious conclusion, before it got all weird and silly, involved flying jet skis and seventy-five Winnie the Poohs in burlap.
The maps are so unbalanced it feels like a purposeful gift to inexperienced troopers, or an instigation of couch debates over a game that hardly warrants it. It should be hard to get worked up over the Battlefront formula, in which your agency in the battle does not directly influence your team’s victory. And honestly, it is: for as long as I’ve played the game and argued about the inherent unfairness of some maps (grrrrr Kashyyk) I’ve never really gotten upset.
So there’s the first secret to its success. The lack of agency in the outcome of battles also makes it hard to get worked up over. You don’t factor into the troop count in the end: it’s not you making a last stand against the winning army, but you and one ammonia-snorting NPC you pray to the Force is holed up in a turret somewhere. Dying in Call of Duty gives you this real visceral sense that you’ve been killed, but in Star Wars: Battlefront II you feel expendable. So you never get too frustrated.
Even if the game works best when you have less agency, do the hero characters work in such a way that the game breaks under the weight of their overpowered influence on the battle? Yes. Yes, they do.
The first Star Wars: Battlefront didn’t have playable heroes and it was a more balanced and satisfying game because of it. But it was not more fun, and that’s the secret I’m getting at here. Screwing around with Force Push and with fricasseeing rebels on the hot end of a little laser sword was mindless and desirable. The hedonistic imbalance is one aspect that doesn’t play too well in today’s more rigid online communities: the heroes in the new Battlefront may be more balanced, but the field has changed. Fun is not nearly so important as fairness.
The original Star Wars: Battlefront II was of a different era, one in which an online console connection was a blessing. Couch multiplayer was how galactic empires rose and fell without team placement, chat rooms, or rankings ever entering into the discussion. Pandemic may have paved Overwatch’s way, but the experiences are not complimentary in the modern age.
It’s pretty symbolic of our age that the new Battlefront had such limited local multiplayer, so few maps, and such little variety. Gaming’s gradual impersonalization can’t be pinned on DICE, but it’s happened regardless and it’s happened to Star Wars. I was in college when the new Battlefront came out. People hauled out their consoles into the dorm common rooms to play … Super Smash Bros. Melee. Comradery makes so much in games forgivable, and I think no matter the original Battlefront’s faults, friends provide a great critical smokescreen.
Having fun with real people is a basic component of gaming, but one which the industry has started treating as an obstacle to consistent sales. The new Battlefront II doesn’t need to port clunky controls, enigmatic mechanics, or imbalanced heroes. It just needs to recapture the human element that’s at the heart of multiplayer gaming and, consequently and for another article at another time, at the heart of Star Wars in general.
Forgive me for not being impressed by a 3D model of Ian MacDiarmid. But will it help if the game isn’t fun? If not, then a fun game doesn’t need it.