The sky barely squeezes through the towering trees as birdcalls fill the surrounding air. They’re almost drowned out by the sound of flowing water and the crunch of grass and rocks as I march behind my squadmates, dressed in dark green and brown uniforms. The light seems to stray away from them as we make our way through the forest, so that they only appear as flickering shadows even in the broad daylight.
Suddenly, the screech of laser fire cuts through the forest, and one of the shadows falls to its knees, extinguished. I raise my blaster and jerk my head around in a dozen different directions, before I spy white uniforms aboard speeder bikes emerging from the woods. The Imperial stormtroopers amass before us, and the battle is on.
Back in the real world, I’m still surrounded by devoted troops, although my situation is a bit less dire. I’m standing in a makeshift Rebel battle station that’s been filled with about two dozen people crowded onto several rows of bleachers. Before us, a battle on Endor’s moon plays out on a supersized screen hanging above a group of employees in black Battlefront T-shirts.
This was all part of an exclusive preview of the game at Star Wars Celebration ahead of its release on Nov. 17. A trailer for the game had premiered on the convention’s second day to much praise, but EA offered an extended preview of actual gameplay to anyone willing to stand in line for three hours (thankfully, the line traveled near the bathrooms.)
As I described before, the demo follows a Rebel soldier during a skirmish on the forest moon of Endor with Imperial forces. After encountering a group of stormtroopers, the player immediately equips a blaster rifle and begins firing away at the enemies. The majority of the demo is in first-person, although there is a brief segment played in third-person later down the line. Players can freely switch between both modes during the game, according to the developers.
It’s not long before the first real threatening enemy appears during the battle, as an AT-ST stomps into view. It’s quickly dispatched with a volley of rapid blaster fire, but another one soon appears. The demo takes its time here to show off the upgrades that are available, as a Rebel Alliance soldier deploys a bubble-shield that protects anyone inside from blaster fire, recalling the Halo games.
Another upgrade is the rocket launcher, which is put to use by a Rebel troop who fires it while hovering in mid-air thanks to a jetpack. The rocket slams into the head of an AT-ST, which detonates in a satisfying explosion.
Other upgrades will include playing as iconic characters like Boba Fett and Darth Vader, although that hasn’t been shown yet.
But back to the battle, which isn’t over yet. An Imperial Walker lumbers into view, standing almost as tall as the surrounding trees. Blaster fire and rocket launchers do no damage, so the player instead calls in a bombing run from a squadron of Y-wings. It appears that this “airstrike,” so to speak, is some kind of killstreak reward. The AT-AT crumbles under the punishing bombs, and the Rebel ground troops retreat to a bunker.
It’s noticeably quieter inside the station, although the player is temporarily startled by a mouse droid. Making his way through the bunker, the silence is broken by a Rebel soldier’s scream – and an all-too-familiar breathing sound.
Turning the corner, the player encounters the lifeless body of his squadmate and the imposing figure of Darth Vader, lightsaber at the ready. He fires his blaster in a panic, but it’s no use as the Sith Lord deflects the lasers and brings his weapon down on you in a death blow.
To put it simply, the game looks and sounds just as stunning as the trailer hinted at. The forest environment is beautifully rendered, and even elements like fire and water are blended seamlessly into the action of the game. The score appropriately rises to a crescendo and falls to a murmur in complement to the current scene, and it’s accompanied by frenzied radio chatter that adds to the intense battlefield atmosphere.
But it appears that Battlefront will add an extra dimension to Star Wars gaming by emphasizing vehicular combat. There have been plenty of Star Wars games that feature on-the-ground action sometimes mixed with driving ships or tanks, but it’s never really been a fluid combination, with one or the other usually underdeveloped.
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Although the developers have been reticent to show any gameplay featuring players commandeering ships or vehicles, they will no doubt be taking advantage of the possibilities offered by the universe to fly an X-wing through a canyon on Tatooine or pilot an Imperial walker across the Hoth landscape.
The only bone I have to pick so far, is that while it’s clear the game is borrowing heavily from the team warfare strategies of Battlefield and the run-and-gun immediacy of Call of Duty, it doesn’t appear to be forging an identity of its own. Right now, the gameplay resembles an upgraded Call of Duty sequel painted over with some Star Wars elements.
The developers have vigorously shot down these speculations, but it remains to be seen if they’ll hold true. If Battlefront is really going to be the Star Wars game we’re looking for, it needs to be more than just a clone of its groundbreaking predecessors.