Life Is Cheap in the Star Wars Universe, and ‘Battlefront’ Got That Brilliantly Right
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away turns out to be a pretty awful place to live.
I'm sprinting toward Rebel lines, blaster fire sizzling past me. I wind up a throw and arc a thermal detonator over the next hill just before I charge over the top.
It won't kill anyone—that's not the point. The detonator makes the Rebels scatter and break formation for a moment, buying me another second as I open up with my E-11. True to Stormtrooper reputation, my shots fly wild.
My glorious charge lasts three seconds. Four rebels spin around and atomize my buckethead ass. But in doing so, they split fire away from the main Imperial attack battering their lines.
As I lie dead in the snow, the Imperial line grinds forward a few yards. I respawn and prepare to do it again.
'Star Wars: Battlefront', gameplay launch trailer
This is how you win battles in 2015's mega-selling Star Wars: Battlefront—a light-hearted game with dark mechanics. Battlefront emphasizes collective effort, rather than individual heroism, as the path to victory. It's human wave tactics. As an individual trooper, the best the player can do is use their mayfly lifespan to create a momentary advantage. It's a brutal and nasty way to see war – and a perfect encapsulation of how grunts live and die in the Star Wars universe.
Though we see it through the glow of nostalgia, Star Wars is a pretty brutal setting. It takes a toll on heroes, for sure—Luke loses a hand, Leia a homeworld—but it's the blood of grunts that oils the galactic war machine. A New Hope begins with Stormtroopers wiping out a corvette crew. Countless soldiers die during the Battle of Hoth. Even rebel pilots, the pride of the Alliance, have a sickening attrition rate. Excluding the Millennium Falcon, only three pilots survived the first Death Star attack—and those are characters with names and faces.
The Death Star attack in 'Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope'
Most anonymous frontliners just do their bit and catch blaster fire, moving the great events of the Galactic Civil War forward one body at a time. Whether you're a Bothan or an Ewok, a Fleet Trooper or a Stormtrooper, the Star Wars universe is a bad place to be a grunt.
And Battlefront portrays that perfectly.
Battlefront doesn't just look like a Star Wars movie—it plays like one. While many online shooters emphasize squad combat and accurate weaponry, Battlefront is almost gleeful in making players act like Stormtroopers. While the maps are large, weapons tend to be medium-ranged at best, with scopes offering magnification without increasing accuracy. There are comparatively few sniper rifles—a rarity for an online FPS. It's a smart design decision, and mirrors the films.
Gunfights in Star Wars are not long-range affairs, nor are they tactical. Most combat happens face-to-face, with wild shots bursting panels and scarring trees. But while Stormtroopers have notoriously dubious marksmanship skills (despite Obi-Wan's opinion), the heroes aren't much better. When Luke, Han and Chewie raid the Death Star Detention Block, they fill the room with lasers until everything's dead. Not much precision fire there. Added to that, it's pretty rare for anyone to make effective use of cover. There's a reason for all this Old West hip-shooting: Wild gunfights are dynamic and fun to watch.
The problem is, that style of fighting is antithetical to modern FPS games, which are all about headshots, scopes and shooting while prone. To override this instinct, the weapons in Battlefront encourage players to get up close. Sniping options exist, but are kept to the periphery. Players can't lie flat and disappear into the landscape. Added to this, the terrain breaks line-of-sight, funneling players into choke points where charges and run-and-gun gameplay predominate. Most major game modes focus on taking and holding territory, particularly Walker Assault, which uses advancing AT-ATs to sweep the action into a smaller and smaller corner of the map. All Battlefront's elements, from weapons, to terrain, to it game modes, combine to create a heaving battle line with blistering close-range firefights around objectives. And this uniquely Star Wars battlefield leads to uniquely Star Wars tactics.
You may be rolling your eyes at the mention of tactics in Battlefront—and for good reason. After all, this article began with a description of running helter-skelter into enemy fire. But the game does have identifiable tactics, though admittedly clumsy and improvisational ones.
What drives the tactics in Battlefront is the short respawn time. This, combined with most modes being won by control rather than body count, means that life is cheap in most matches. Sure, you might get cut down a few seconds into a fight, but before long you're right back in it. That quick turnaround encourages players to push, to try to mob control points and overwhelm the enemy with blaster fire. Combined with the lack of in-game voice chat, coordination with teammates takes on a follow-the-leader mentality. When you move, you move as an armed rabble rather than a coordinated assault force. The result is an ad-hoc human wave attack, a rolling riot of bodies and blasters. The objective, to paraphrase Stalin, is to make the enemy choke on your dead.
But dismissing this mad rush as unstrategic misunderstands its nuance. These wave attacks operate by overwhelming the enemy, both literally and visually. When presented with multiple targets, defenders tend to focus fire on the most obvious few, letting the majority get closer. These loud, obvious frontal attacks also make flanking moves extremely effective. One or two players hooking around the side can force defenders into a devil's bargain—either they turn their backs on the main assault, or trust someone else to do it. Even if all the attackers die (and that happens regularly) quick respawns refill the ranks.
The result is that Battlefront tactics work on collective effort rather than individual heroism. Killing the enemy is an intrinsic part of that, but so is soaking up fire. Every little bit helps. An individual player's goals here are short-term: get to capture points, kill enemies, capture the points if you can. If you can't, at least you caught lasers for someone who could. Apart from the occasional spectacular moment, it's a high-casualty grind—one where small sacrifices add up to victory. There is little heroism to be found in Battlefront. In fact, it's the first film-to-game adaptation where you mostly play as an extra, and your walk-on role is always a brief one.
Which, in the cruel warfare of the Star Wars universe, is exactly as it should be.
Follow Robert on Twitter.