Darth Vader is awesome. We all know this. Even if you’ve never seen a Star Wars movie, you know that Darth Vader is someone you don’t want to mess with. He’s gigantic. He wears space samurai armor. He has a red laser sword. He’s voiced by James Earl Jones. You don’t want to be on the bad side of that. All that imposing badassery is exactly why kids love to roleplay as Darth Vader. No one scares Darth Vader. Nothing hurts Darth Vader. That bully that torments you at recess? Darth Vader would destroy him. Early bed time? Not for Darth Vader. Time-out in the corner for breaking Mommy’s favorite cookie jar? No chance of Darth Vader agreeing to that! Pretending to be Darth Vader is the ultimate power fantasy. Getting to be Darth Vader in Star Wars: Battlefront II and mowing down hapless rebel soldiers gives you exactly the adrenaline rush and satisfaction you’d think it should. You are a whirling red and black sawblade buzzing through balsa wood. You are become death, the destroyer of worlds.
But what if you don’t get to be Darth Vader?
There are two levels to Star Wars: Battlefront II. There’s the game and there’s the business model. The game is a flashy and enjoyable assymetrical facsimile of combat in the Star Wars universe. The business model is a now-defunct loot crate gambling system that has left its indelible impression on the game. Even though publisher Electronic Arts was forced to temporarily disable the real-money microtransaction sales for the game until they can overhaul the approach, that design infects the progression system to the point that it’s impossible to play it without feeling its influence. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere.
Loot crates, videogaming’s latest bugaboo, are the key to it all. As you play the game, (credit to the developers for at least giving you some in all modes, even singleplayer) you gain a miserly trickle of credits, which you can use to purchase loot crates. Besides the usual cosmetic gewgaws like emotes and victory poses, loot crates can give you Star Cards that modify your powers and traits. Collect enough Star Cards for a particular class or hero, and you open another slot, up to a maximum of three slots total, to mix and match modifiers. Gain slightly more health or a teeny bit faster regeneration time for grenades.
It’s not that simple, though. There are levels to those Star Cards. Higher level cards will have better modifiers. Gain a scooch more health than the other guy with more health. Regenerate grenades a few seconds quicker than the player that regenerates grenades faster than the default. And so on. Beware the player with purple legendary cards, for she has the most health and the fastest grenade restocking. Helpfully, the game shows you the loadout of the person that just killed you. Ah! He had three top-tier cards on his Assault Trooper while I only had one common card. Chances are he probably killed me because I was looking the wrong way or firing just off to the left, but maybe, just maybe, he killed me because his cards were better than mine?
Like some free-to-play games, it’s a system that encourages jealousy and impatience. Progression is largely dependent on loot crate acquisition. Why put up with the slow dribble of credits if you could just buy your way up? Before the market was turned off, Star Wars: Battlefront II allowed real-money purchases of crystals, a secondary kind of coinage that could be used to buy loot crates. A helpful shortcut, if you will, to bypass some grind. “Why would you want to actually play this game?” the system sneers. There’s an easier path to power. A Dark Side. There’s still some grind, of course. You can’t unlock weapons and card slots without leveling the class or hero first, but buying a bunch of crates will net you some decent cards and crafting parts to create the cards you want, and you can turn duplicates into credits to feed back into the slot machine. If not pay-to-win, it was definitely pay-to-jump-ahead. It’s an evolution of Battlefield’s shortcut unlocks, but with the added frustration of being at the mercy of random loot crate results.
Is it gambling? I’ll let others decide that, but if it walks like a porg and quacks like a porg… It’s certainly nothing new to players of FIFA or Madden Ultimate Team modes, and collectible card game players have been dealing with blind booster packs for decades, but there’s a reason Disney reportedly smacked EA with a hydrospanner here.
When a business model takes over a game’s design, it’s hard to see anything beyond that. “But,” you say, “EA turned off the real-money purchases, so everything is good now!” True, they did disable the store, yet the progression system still remains. With no way to buy your way forward, everyone is left to deal with a framework designed to push you towards opening your wallet. It’s a level playing field, but it’s at the bottom of a crater. Even after a rejiggering of hero costs (oh yes, you have to buy them with credits too) the rate of credit and card acquisition is agonizingly slow. Like Yoda’s most inscrutable platitudes, nixing the store is a bass-ackwards solution to a clear problem.
The tragedy of it all is that the actual gameplay is damn good. Shooting and movement is spot-on thanks to years of DICE working on similar games. Whether in third person or first person views, it works. Galactic Assault, DICE’s latest spin on objective-based versus multiplayer, combines territory control with item hunts, point captures, and escort tasks. You’re guiding a droid tank through the streets of Naboo, then assaulting a palace, or you’re slowly whittling down the health bars on advancing Imperial Walkers. Even as those frontlines shift, there’s a delicious progression as players rack up Battle Points to unlock higher-tier troops for that match. At first, it’s jetpack wearing clonetroopers or a wookie warrior, then heroes like Chewbacca or Boba Fett join the fray and things really pick up.
When kids play with each other and pretend to be Star Wars characters, there’s a clear hierarchy of heroes. Being a lowly stormtrooper or rebel soldier is near the bottom of the rankings, along with prissy C3-PO. Sitting comfortably at the top of the pyramid is Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. Father and son badasses. (Spoiler!) One light and one dark. EA and DICE know this, which is why they cost the most to unlock in Star Wars: Battlefront II’s byzantine progression system. In the meantime, the game comes with newcomers Rey or Kylo Ren already unlocked for use in matches. Or Bossk. You know Bossk, right? Bossk. He’s the lizard guy that was tapping his foot for a few seconds in The Empire Strikes Back. Has any kid ever wanted to be Bossk?
Now imagine you’re the kid stuck playing Bossk. Star Wars: Battlefront II, like the great game of pretendsies, only allows one of each hero at a time. There’s only ever one Rey. There’s only ever one Kylo Ren. But since everyone wants to be the space ninjas with superpowers, it’s always a race to grab them first. And they’re overpowered enough, even without high-end Star Cards, that a good player can keep them alive for a really long time. As long as they don’t die, no one else can take that hero. If you want to play the cool characters, you have to kill more enemies faster than your teammates to get that opportunity first.
The tension between doing good for your team and competing with your squadmates to get to the hero you want to be is the meat of Galactic Assault. Do you sit on the chokepoint in the Yavin temple hangar to rack up more kills, or do you rush to the next objective and help your team? It might be useful to guard the clone databank, but it would be very neat to run a thirty count killstreak as Darth Vader. Is that really going to help the team? Maybe not, but thirty kills, man!
If you’re one of those people that held off the last game due to the lack of a singleplayer campaign, Star Wars: Battlefront II addresses that complaint. As Iden Versio, an Imperial special forces officer, you’ll go from the destruction of the second Death Star and the death of the Emperor all the way up to The Force Awakens. It’s a rote but competent affair that won’t hit any emotional highs or dazzle with impressive set-pieces, but it takes you through a whirlwind tour of “There’s that one Star Wars place!” and “Remember the guy with the cape and the malt liquor?” It checks the boxes and doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s a bit light and consequence-free, but it will do. At least until the free upcoming story DLC adds more to the tale.
Oh, and my sweet Lord, this game does wonders in the space battles department. You’ll fly around Star Destroyers and through Death Star debris, zipping between laser blasts and missiles. Eventually, just as in Galactic Assault, in Starfighter Assault games, you’ll spawn in hero ships like the Millenium Falcon and Slave I. Or that one green ship that looks like a bathtub turned upside down. Is it Bossk’s ship? Regardless, you can fly in it, if the cool ships are taken.
Here we are with a game that largely succeeds at presenting arcade warfare in a Star Wars skin. It’s fast and gorgeous. Battles feel frantic without being overwhelming, and team goals change as matches proceed. Playing as hero characters is a celebratory experience, and taking one down as an insignificant grunt is a dopamine blast. But then you get shot, and the other guy has two purple cards and one blue card and you’re reminded that the last loot crate you opened only had an emote and a pittance of crafting material. Don’t let the hate flow through you. You’ll always have Bossk.