A promising story about an Empire turncoat isn't given nearly enough room to breathe.
Image courtesy of Electronic Arts
When Electronic Arts acquired the rights to produce Star Wars games in 2013, the company prioritized the most obvious idea in the world: Battlefield’s developers making a multiplayer Star Wars game. Star Wars Battlefront launched a few years later, and more than anything else, DICE masterfully captured the Star Wars aesthetic. It was gorgeous to look at, a game that grabbed my attention for a while, despite a general disinterest in multiplayer games. I simply wanted to play in that world. I wasn’t alone, either; one of the biggest demands for the sequel was a story mode, which Battlefront II definitely has! Unfortunately, its good ideas are never given enough room to breathe.
Warning: What follows are minor spoilers for Battlefront II’s story, but nothing major.
While most Star Wars stories have players fighting the Empire, Battlefront II flips the script. The story focuses on Iden Versio, leader of an elite group of Empire soldiers called Inferno Squad. “Today, the Rebellion dies,” mutters Iden, after purposely getting captured by a group of rebels, allowing her to covertly sabotage an intercepted Empire transmission. Following in the footsteps of The Force Awakens, Battlefront II puts a woman front-and-center, and opens the door to an interesting angle of storytelling: stories of those inside the murderous Empire. Placing the Empire’s foot soldiers behind masks successfully dehumanized the Empire into an easily digestible story of good vs. evil, but like Finn in The Force Awakens, every Star Wars fan couldn’t help but wonder what motivated everyone else to fight for such an sinister force.
But Finn was one character in a movie spinning a lot of plates, which presented Battlefront II an opportunity to dig deeper. It mostly doesn’t.
Battlefront II opens on a strong note. After Iden establishes her Empire bonafides, her group joins the fight on Endor during the closing moments of Return of the Jedi. Warned the Death Star has become vulnerable to attack, Inferno Squad is directed to eliminate any nearby rebels. Just as they’re celebrating a victory, an explosion billows in the distance, as it’s slowly revealed the Rebellion has struck gold a second time—the Death Star is gone, and theoretically thousands (tens of thousands?) of their friends and colleagues are dead. Though Iden’s shock quickly turns to action, for anyone who’s rewatched the Star Wars movies too many times over the years, it’s a powerful moment, in which your ingrained reaction—pumping your fist alongside R2-D2, Luke Skywalker, and everyone else, as they making meaningful progress against a powerful group of galactic fascists—is pitted against a natural instinct to empathize with the character you’re controlling in the game. It’s very smart.
What happens during the fall of a fascist regime propped up by falsehoods? The way Iden speaks about the Rebellion and the Empire, she’s either a full-on believer in the Empire’s goal of dominance and submission, or a lifetime’s worth of emotional indoctrination and propaganda has left her blind to the consequences of her actions. That’s not the story this game decides to tell, but even when Battlefront II makes a not-so-shocking pivot to Iden realizing she’s on the wrong side of the conflict, after the Empire exacts cruelty on her home planet, her journey of understanding could have been equally worthwhile.
Unfortunately, Battlefront II is barely given a chance to explore this. The way Iden quickly moves past the psychological horror at the destruction of the Death Star proves to be more about how Battlefront II needs to move from one story beat to the next as fast as possible, without giving the characters motivations for their actions. Iden joining the Rebellion and actively undermining the organization and belief structure that’d defined her for decades happens in a flash. The change of heart isn’t the problem, it’s our lack of exposure to her reasons why, and how a person would reckon with their troubled past.
Given the many interesting pieces it’s playing with, it’s not hard to play Battlefront II and wonder if the writers had a more intricate story planned, but it didn’t pan out.
It’s a story with limited space to develop, and the structure does it no favors, either. Just as it seems like we’d be spending time inside Iden’s head, you’re unceremoniously whisked away to play as Luke Skywalker, as he explores a planet drawn to him by the Force. In the moment, it works; shifting from a capable soldier to effortlessly whipping enemies around with your hand is rad. But it signals one of the game’s great sins, one it repeats during Battlefront II’s brisk, four-to-six hour campaign.
In multiplayer matches—after you’ve done enough grinding, anyway—it’s possible to play as “heroes,” overpowered classes meant to briefly dominate the map as a named Star Wars character. Battlefront II’s story wants to make sure you play a bunch of those characters, too, even if there’s little reason to justify it. In almost every instance, it comes across as hamfisted and forced, undercutting whatever momentum the narrative had built for Iden. Why is Leia, the Rebellion’s most trusted general, asking a turncoat to seek out the love of her life, Han Solo? Because it wants you to play as Han Solo with a really gross beard.
It makes sense for some characters to make a cameo in a Star Wars game, but too often, they’re done at the expense of the story actually driving Battlefront II, and walk the game into fan fiction territory. Some cringey lines don’t help matters (“Someone told me once that rebellions are built on hate”), but a better game would have kept the focus largely on Iden.
One of the more unexpected joys of the game’s writing, though, is the humor. Shriv, a grumpy alien who constantly finds himself in situations where people choose ridiculous heroism over logic, is a delight. And one particular moment with Lando had me howling:
But there are other issues undermining Battlefront II’s ability to tell a convincing story, too, such as the random times the game will tell you to not “leave the mission area,” even though the only thing I wanted to do was to walk down the stairs and see if a collectible was hiding. Battlefront II hides chests for you to unlock in story missions, but mysteriously punishes you if you decide to engage in the act of exploring in order to actually find them. It’s very strange.
All the more painful are the moments where everything clicks. During a particularly satisfying mission on Jakku, the desert planet at the start of The Force Awakens, you're cruising around in the sky, blasting down Tie Fighters in an X-Wing, while seamlessly jumping between missions on the ground, as you help the Rebellion in various skirmishes. It provides an all-too-brief look at the kind of single-player Star Wars game fans have been demanding since EA gained control of the series in gaming form, and why so many were crushed when the company decided to pull the plug on Amy Hennig's adventure game. I'd play a whole game that was more like that.
Though EA hasn’t announced a sequel to Battlefront II, it’s hard to imagine they won’t make another one, despite the controversy the game’s courted so far. The story’s ends on a cliffhanger, too, suggesting there’s more story to tell. Janina Gavankar gives a noteworthy performance as Iden, even if she isn’t given enough to work with.
Hopefully, that changes next time.
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