Star Wars Battlefront II starfighter gameplay trailer that was released last week prompted me to think about the state of SW video gaming in general. Since the movie franchise has been resurrected, one would expect to be swamped by video games with that theme, only… somehow, it hasn’t really happened. There are games you can play on your smartphone, for sure, but the selection of new PC and console games, compared to the storm that came e.g. when The Phantom Menace was released, seems very poor. And there is something about those games that lacks to meet our expectations.
As the starting point of my thoughts was the Battlefront trailer, maybe it is better that you watch it first if you haven’t done so already (it is pretty, so no loss of time). Before you do, I am going to attempt a guess: one thing in particular is going to stand out and each of you is going to notice it no matter what. Let’s see if I get it right.
Done watching? Good. Certainly visually spectacular, isn’t it? And that one thing we’ve all noticed – it was Master Yoda in a starfighter, right? There were others, but this old little green Jedi stands out as something very unusual. And in my opinion, that image describes pretty well the state of Star Wars computer games nowadays: the amount of them is surprisingly small, and they seem to “hybridise” things rather than focus deeply on one particular aspect. It wouldn’t be a problem if these aspects weren’t lightsaber combat and starfighter battles, two things that define the Star Wars universe more than anything else. Yet we hardly have any “pure Jedi experience” or “pure starfighter experience” games nowadays, what we get instead is a Jedi Master sitting in a starfighter in what is originally a ground tactical shooter game.
The Expectations of a Star Wars Gamer
Let’s talk about the purpose of Star Wars gaming, if we can be so bold as to claim there is such a thing. People play games for different reasons. Some play for the story, some play for challenge, some because of multiplayer community, and so on. But if I want to play a Star Wars game, I usually play it because I am a Star Wars fan. I could play Counterstrike, but I want to play a Rebel or a droid. I want to play a strategy, but I want to conquer Alderaan rather than historical Japan. Many games could provide better challenge, have better story or more balanced abilities, but this one I want to play because I want Star Wars experience. This is a personal opinion, so feel free to disagree: I believe a Star Wars game should first and foremost convey that feel; everything else is secondary.
Let’s put it this way. You and your friends are school-age and watching Star Wars for the first time. It is amazing. After the film ends, what do you do? You go out, pick up some sticks and run around, re-creating lightsaber battles. “I am Darth Vader! I am Luke! I am Darth Maul! You are dead!” Or maybe you play that you are Rebel pilots, blowing up the Death Star, or you ride your bikes down a narrow forest path pretending you are the scout troopers on Endor. In any case, you re-create the experience of the films for yourselves. And that is what I believe is the Star Wars video games’ primary purpose as well.
Ever since video games ceased to be just a pixel jumping and hitting other pixels, the game makers have had the chance to create an immersive experience using different genres. In Star Wars, it meant the birth of “ground war” games (such as Battlefront), games where you play a Jedi, strategies, starfighter simulators, or even a podracing simulator. But how many of those do really exist? Has there been a decent (or any) starfighter simulator since X-Wing/TIE Fighter in 1999? Why has no one re-created a podracing game with contemporary graphics? Instead, all we get on that front is a 3D shooter with elements of Jedi combat (which isn’t actually Jedi combat) and space battle (which actually isn’t a space battle… probably). It is right for Battlefront to incorporate these experiences, because they are part of Star Wars “war experience”. The problem might be that if, for instance, Battlefront covers – or rather *seems* to cover – certain part of the SW experience, other game makers are less likely to try to compete in the same field. Simply out of fear that they might be compared to Battlefront and lose. Example: if somebody wanted to make a “TIE Fighter” experience, they might fear that Battlefront supporters would diss it by saying “…but it has no ground battle!” One of the keys to overcome such fears is that the game makers make it clear what is the audience they want to target and what do they want to achieve.
No Hoth, No Game
Let’s go back to the children’s play: So which are the film experiences we want to recreate? You want to fly a starfighter and dodge enemy shots. You want to duel someone with a lightsaber. You want to tie an AT-AT with a cable. You want to use your Force powers to push, mind trick, or choke and zap your opponents. Equally importantly, you want to walk the corridors of Trade Federation battleship, Mos Eisley or the Cloud City and feel like it is movie-accurate, like you are in there. “Hey! Look, it’s the carbonite freezing chamber!” “Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan climbed exactly through this shaft, I am going in!”
The 2015 SW Battlefront failed dramatically on the last front, for example. Pages and pages of reviews dissed imbalance in the game, the fact that so much download was paid, or lack of single player campaign, but the chief failure – which I can’t understand to this day – is the lack of putting at least all the “basic” film locations into the starting bundle of the game. We first want to see Endor, Hoth, Tatooine, Bespin, Naboo, Geonosis, the Death Star… And only after you run out of film locations, you can start adding fancy stuff like Sullust, which even many fans have never heard about. In that way, 2015 Battlefront did everything wrong: first, it released barely a handful of maps, and later, it started releasing non-film locations. It is nice to get maybe tactically interesting map, but for that, you can play any other 3D shooter.
Focus On One Thing
The main field where the selection of SW games nowadays is lacking is the selection of genres, as outlined above. Most of the games realise that SW experience is complex: it involves lightsabers and starfighters and those don’t really go well together play-wise. Many of the big SW games of late realised this and put the “extra elements” in, but it feels like an afterthought: for example The Old Republic is primarily a RPG, yet it had originally a starfighter mini-game and later added starfighter multiplayer combat, none of which were particularly interesting. It was a valiant attempt, to be sure, and a good thing to do, but it doesn’t fill in the place of an actual starfighter simulator. Whether the same thing will go for Battlefront’s space battles remains to be seen. What I feel I can say already is that I expect the lightsaber/Jedi combat in Battlefront to feel like an “afterthought” (the same way it did in its previous incarnations): the bulk of the game is focused on something else, so we can hardly expect a dozen of combos and fine tricks a proper lightsaber duel should include. (Most of the time you won’t be dueling anyway, you’ll be mowing down ranks of droids or rebels.)
What I would like to see is a pure “Jedi experience” game: like the old Jedi Academy, perhaps, only with modern graphics. Lots of Force powers, lots of neat lightsaber styles and tricks and combos. I want to be able to parry and dodge strikes, not just get hit and lose certain amount of hitpoints. The same goes for a starfighter game, a podracing game, what have you. It is great that Battlefront is serving its players a starfighter combat, but what I want to be able to do is to fly into the Death Star trench and hear my friend’s voice in my headphones: “Red Two, you’ve got a TIE on your tail, I’m after it!” I want to be able to switch full power into my rear deflector shields or into my engines, I want to feel like I am flying an X-wing and not something generic where you press a button, it fires and that’s it.
I don’t really understand the lack of attempts on this front. I understand the fear of losing money because the game may not be successful enough. But surely the Star Wars name alone guarantees the interest of scores of people? The makers of Star Wars games (and this is for all you potentially creative spirits out there) need to realise that those should first and foremost be aimed at Star Wars fans, and only then at everyone else. If you try to compete with Counterstrike or with WoW, it is a brave attempt, but why do that if, in the words of Master Kenobi, there are alternatives to fighting? Offer the one thing nobody else can: the experience of blowing up the Death Star, or of dueling Vader. Properly.