Friday, October 16, 2015

Star Wars Battlefront Beta Impressions!

                Even if this concept is part of a marketing scheme, EA DICE Open Beta tests are a good sneak peek into what a game has to offer and what the expectations from that game could be. Having the opportunity to play a “demo” of an online game just before its launch is great, especially if we take in consideration the fact that most of the singleplayer games don’t have a demo even after their release. But Beta tests can be misleading and one has to be careful in selecting the information (good or bad) based on the Beta experience as not everything is relevant.
                I’ve given Star Wars Battlefront Beta a fair share of my time and I’ve analyzed it gathering enough information so I can give a detailed impression about the game. But keep in mind that this impression is still based on a Beta test and (some) things are subject to change.
                Star Wars Battlefront should be the 3rd installment in the well known series inspired by DICE’s Battlefield and set into the Star Wars universe, but it’s not. LucasArts was acquired by Disney in 2012 and the in-house development was halted and a multi-year Star Wars license for PC and consoles games development was given to EA leading us to this moment. The 2015 Battlefront is not a new iteration in the series but a reboot envisioned by EA DICE.
The new game’s action is set to take place in locations from the original trilogy and through DLCs in locations from the upcoming movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This is a bold decision by DICE to ignore half of the current existing cannon and movies which were part of the content in the previous Battlefront games.
                At its core 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront is still a shooter involving large scale battles with a higher than usual number of players fighting for the Rebel Alliance or the Empire, but things are much more different now than they look in the summary of the game.
The Beta had the players choosing between two PvP multiplayer game modes: Walker Assault and Drop Zone, each with its own map and the Survival mode which serves as a singleplayer or cooperative PvE experience. Each mode was radically different, but the basic game mechanics remain the same and they are somewhat different from what the fans of the series are used to.
                The Walker Assault mode had the biggest map in the Beta. In this 20vs20 game mode the Empire was pushing the Rebels with the power of two AT-AT Walkers which represent the main objective for both factions. The Empire has to defend the two Walkers by stopping the Rebel Alliance from controlling some radar dishes that allow them to call AI controlled Y-Wing ships as support to damage the Walkers shields making them vulnerable to the players attacks. This map and game mode had the closest design to what the older Battlefront games used to be, the players can take control of ground vehicles, static weapons and ships in a decently scaled battle.
The twist of this mode were the heroes. The players can take control of Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader through pickups, a mechanic that I will talk later about. The heroes are extremely powerful and quite resilient and can one shot any player with their lightsabers. Their presence on the field provides a huge advantage for each team and using them properly can slightly change the course of the round.
                Overall, this sounds like a tactical objective based map that combines some of the elements from Conquest and Rush modes into one, but in reality is a chaotic and not cleverly balanced winter battlefield where the Empire seems to have the upper hand because playing as part of the Rebel Alliance requires a lot more skill and coordination in order to take the objectives down in time.
Powering through!
Are you freezing?
Die big chunk of metal, die!

                The Drop Zone mode is an 8v8 objective based skirmish that takes place on a smaller and rather labyrinthine map on which Drop Pods spawn and have to be captured while stopping the enemy team from doing the same thing. The instantaneous respawns, the smaller map and closely placed objectives make the Drop Zone a much faster game mode which at times seemed more like a Team Deathmatch than anything else.
I was trying something!

                Last but not least is the Survival mode, which seems to be DICE’s response to the overall displease towards the singleplayer campaigns seen in their latest games. In Beta the mode took place on a small rocky region on Tatooine and could be played solo and coop but only on the lowest difficulty level. Those expecting something innovative out of this game mode are out of luck, because the Survival is a standard Co-op mode which has the players hunted by various AI units that spawn in waves from randomized locations which do a rather decent job for a lower difficulty in keeping the players engaged. I imagine that on increased difficulties Survival can get quite insane and this could make it more interesting, especially for those who are more completist by nature.

                The other content available in the Beta aside of the three maps and game modes was the unlocking system which nowadays is customary for almost every online shooter. There wasn’t much to see through unlocks as DICE probably didn’t want to spoil the fun of finding out what cool weapons and gadgets the game has in hold for the players, but there was enough to make an idea of what can be expected. The unlocking system is general and applies to both factions as the game doesn’t have any classes and it’s separated in two distinct categories: weapons and Star Cards.
The weapons are all too familiar for the Star Wars universe fans including various blasters and laser pistols seen in the movies that can’t have their stock stats modified. The Star Cards on the other hand are where the unlocking system gets more interesting. Based on their nature these cards can be equipped in hand as a sort of mini-decks that has useable weapons and gadgets. In addition to those equipped in the hand, there are also Star Cards that grant passive bonuses and are categorized as Traits. The weapons and gadgets provided through the Star Cards work on cooldown and/or charges, while the Trait cards grant passive bonuses according to the player’s performance during a round. As part of the mini-deck various things could be unlocked including multiple types of grenades, a blaster immunity shield, a sniper rifle with kinetic rounds that could pierce through shields and most importantly a jet pack!
There was also a character customization panel, but it wasn’t available for testing. This will probably provide various appearance customizations through skins, which wouldn’t be so bad, since the standard outfit for Rebel soldiers makes them look like hobos.
Unlocking new weapons and gadgets should provide enough variety fitting for each player’s style in such a way that not everyone runs around with identical loadouts (or at least that’s the hope). Time will tell how many more items are there waiting to be unlocked.
My killer loadout!
Remember this is a Beta.

                With the Beta content detailed I’ll now dive deeper and talk about the game mechanics because this is where DICE changed the game the most compared with the Battlefield series and the previous Battlefront titles.
For starters, the new Battlefront is still a 1st or 3rd person shooter. The two extremely different cameras provide certain advantages and disadvantages based on the situation. The 1st person camera is playing an important role in aiming, allowing for a better zooming and a correct gun to crosshair synchronization which facilitates a much more accurate aiming. The 3rd person camera is way better at seeing the surroundings and spotting the enemies sometimes before they spot you (especially if they play first person) as you can see over small obstacles, but doesn’t work that well at shooting stuff (at least not in the beginning). While a combination of the two cameras will make for an exploitable way of playing the slow switching between the two does prevent this from occurring straight in the middle of the battle.
Both cameras have their strengths, but there is always a problem in games that have such a system (ARMA 3, DayZ), the advantages that a 3rd person view provides usually outweigh what you can do through aiming. Considering the fact that Battlefront is a fast paced shooter with no recoil, quite accurate guns and just a slight “bullet” spread the 3rd person becomes insane at some point. After I unlocked the DLT-19 weapon, I’ve rarely found myself switching to first person and I mostly did it for long distance shots that were more of a caprice of mine than efficient playing.
You can't escape first person aiming and the upper ground advantage!

                For those used with the Battlefield series accommodating to Battlefront’s play style might take some time because as I mentioned before the game plays at a much faster pace and it’s extremely action centric with a smaller emphasize on group tactics. But the time lost getting used to the actiony style it’s won back through the simpler shooting, which should be easily mastered by any player of a more complex FPS game. The shooting is a spam of lasers from the recoilless blasters that are easy to aim with and don’t require reloading and the only truly controllable effect they have is their overheating.
The movement system is in a complete accord with the shooting, there is no leaning left or right to surprise the enemies and check the areas or any complex combat positions. The game resumes to a crouch and jump combination which works better with the frenetic gameplay and the 3rd person camera.
This gameplay bodes well with the Star Wars movies, which was never keen on masterful strategies and the battles were won through numbers, technological power, courage and of course the help of the Force.
I don’t mind this shooting style a bit, but the way the maps are designed and the game modes work make me think that Battlefront was oversimplified just to make it more “fun” which can be translated in accessible. Yes, tactics can created even with such gameplay, but they aren’t as important as they should be in a team versus team game and things get worse.
Overheating danger.

                The newest gameplay mechanic and probably the most controversial is the pickups system, which for those who played the old school shooters is exactly what you think it is. There are some holographic icons spawning all over the map which when picked up (hence the name!) provide various new things to use in combat.
Through pickups the players get access to secondary weapons, gadgets, ground vehicles, ships and even the heroes that were playable in the Walker Assault mode. It’s a system that stops the vehicle spawn camping by randomization, while also giving access to other cool new toys that could be overpowered if they were part of the Star Cards.
I found the way this mechanic is represented in the game completely arcade and somewhat out of the series’ and universe’s context. The pickups system is clearly an attempt to make Battlefront look less like a Battlefield game at something that should have remained the same as in DICE’s main series. Taking control of vehicles through map loot is an annoying decision that takes away even more of the strategically decision making, but worse than that it lures the players into running for icons on the map in the hope of getting a better secondary item or jumping into a vehicle.
Loot from floating stuff!
This feels more like Battelfront!
Die rebel scum!

                The Battlefield series has been accused in the recent past of being a slightly better reskin with each new title and this makes me believe that DICE’s changes to Battlefront were prompted by this. The Battlefield skeleton is still there, mostly because of the Frostbite engine, but layers of changes have been added over it in order to hide it resulting in a much different game and not exactly for the better. The original Battlefront games were appealing to both Star Wars and Battlefields fans because they had enough of both to make them interesting. DICE’s Battlefront is more impressive through the technical parts than the gameplay changes.

On the technical part Battlefront doesn’t seem to disappoint, the Frostbite 3 engine does its job as good as ever providing amazing looking landscapes showered with immersive lighting and shadows while running as smoothly as possible. The particle effects from explosions and weapon shots are amazingly detailed and I couldn’t get enough of them.
To top off the graphics, which are some of the best I’ve seen this year, the game has an extraordinary sound design that is hard to describe using words. The racket and vibration sounds caused by grenades are so refined that I could feel them with my whole body, while the sounds of blasters and shields colliding was transcending.
                Despite its greatness I do have a few complaints related to the technical part. On the graphics side of things there seems to be a lack of fluidity on the flying animation of ships which I’m not sure if it is caused by server lag or the way the ships fly. Also the hero’s animations are skimpy and sluggish and cannot even be compared to the standard characters.
On the audio part there is no technical complaint, the one thing that bothered me was the lack of audio settings other then the master volume, but this might be a Beta only issue.
                For a Beta, even if the game’s launch is only one month away, Battlefront’s graphics and sound were almost flawless and I’m excitingly looking forward to see the vegetation maps.

For me, the Star Wars Battlefront Open Beta didn’t have the initial impact that Siege’s Beta had. It took me a while to come back to the game and give it another try but it grew on me. Might have been the unlocks that made the game more interesting (jet pack!) or the fact that I got to play it with more friends or is purely superficial and I came back just for the sound design and graphics, but I came back and played much more than I thought I will. The game is fun in its own way, but I’m not sure how much is there to keep this gameplay entertaining for a longer period of time. We shall see at release how much of the beta impressions were accurate and relevant to the entirety of the game and if the content that comes with the release is going to keep this title alive for more than just until the upcoming Battlefield release. As I’ve seen it the game might be a hit or miss for either of the Battlefront or Battlefield fans, but surely is going to resonate well with the starved fans of the Star Wars universe. 


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