You may have heard that the Force will be awakening on December 18. To provide an outlet for our excitement, we’ve assembled another Vulture Advent Calendar — in this case, 25 Star Wars–themed stories, one per day until Christmas. None of them will involve midi-chlorians.
There’s something disingenuous about the marketing for Star Wars: Battlefront, the recently released video game that puts you in the boots of both Rebel and Imperial forces with the primary goal of shooting each other. In a sense, there’s something disingenuous about the game itself.
Battlefront is an online multiplayer game, which means you are competing against and fighting alongside other human players. But in prerelease commercials, it was being savvily touted as something more than a game — rather, as a transcendant interactive experience. The first notable ad traded on the idea of nostalgic payoff, that this was the game we’d been waiting our entire adult lives to play:
The second built on that foundation by seeming to promise an unprecedented level of immersion — you will literally disappear into this game:
Both ads suggest that we’ve never had the opportunity to do this before, to really live inside the Star Wars universe, kind of like that Disney World ride but with no lines and no limits. It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s also a lie.
Make no mistake: Star Wars: Battlefront is a pretty good game about shooting things in the Star Wars universe. The X-Wings roar and the TIE Fighters shriek, Rebel lasers go splat and Imperial blasters go pew. It’s also good by default — while there are other Star Wars games you could play, there are no modern ones that look this good or have this many potential players waiting for you to join in and play with. It is fun because shooting things in video games is fun; we’ve known this since Wolfenstein 3-D came out in 1992.
We’ve also known, since Star Wars: Dark Forces was released in 1995, that shooting things in the Star Wars universe is fun. But in the 20 years since Dark Forces came out, a whole lot of Star Wars games have hit the market, and a number of them have done interesting, engaging things with that universe. Star Wars: The Old Republic, which just received a big update a month ago, is pretty much World of Warcraft but with Jedi and Sith and droids. Though far from perfect, it does a far better job than Battlefront of letting you actually inhabit the world of Star Wars, because it has characters and stories and dialogue. Star Wars: Battlefront is, as the name implies, about shooting things.
There is no question a place on shelves for a game like that — but if the game isn’t going to offer depth, it should at least be very good at what it does provide. Battlefront is not. The fighter ships feel floaty and odd, you can see just about every blaster beam but your own, and man, are the speeder bikes useless — as is the gun you start with, which isn’t all that distinguishable from the guns you can eventually unlock.
Many of the game’s failings are basic things that other recent first-person shooting games do well (including the Battlefield games produced by DICE, the developers of Battlefront). It is possible to enjoy the game in spite of them, but hard to ignore them completely, because there is not a whole lot to do in the game. There are lots of variations in rules and structure, but not many maps to try them out on. (Don’t worry, though, there are plans to sell you more, on at least four separate occasions in the near future.)
What’s most misleading, though, about Battlefront being sold as the Best Way to Immerse Yourself in Star Wars is the fact that it focuses so squarely on things that the movies were never about. The trilogies, both original and prequel, were about so much more than just the Wars in their name. Conflict was a thrilling backdrop that took a backseat to high adventure, derring-do, and New Age spirituality. War brings our heroes together and nips at their heels; it is something they want and need to win, but it’s not why we care.
This is why Battlefront makes for such a strange centerpiece in the aggressive campaign to make Star Wars the center of our pop-culture lives this December. It’s the backdrop without the drama. It bears mentioning that this Battlefront isn’t the first game to bear the that name — it’s a reboot of a 2004 game released for Playstation 2, Xbox, and computers. That game was also squarely focused on combat with no meaningful narrative included.
This could conceivably be used as a defense for the 2015 Battlefront — it’s no less than its namesake, and just look at how much better it is at everything that game did. But the context was also different. That game was just one in a vibrant constellation of mainstream, big-budget games such as Knights of the Old Republic and Republic Commando and Lego Star Wars and Star Wars: Galaxies. Maybe you couldn’t live out the perfect Star Wars fantasy in any single game, but you could certainly find what you were looking for in one of them. There are a lot of gamers and Star Wars fans who likely won’t find what they want in Battlefront, which perhaps explains why EA is already putting up its deflector shields in response to suggestions that the game is underperforming.
One of the main reasons so many people have loved Star Wars for so long is the subtle way in which it suggested that its universe was real and lived-in, full of planets inhabited by interesting people who we’d be able to encounter if only we could get off this damn desert. That’s why arguably the most important image in the entirety of Star Wars isn’t of a lightsaber or an X-Wing or Darth Vader’s helmet. It’s Luke, staring out at the setting of Tatooine’s twin suns. There was more out there.
The same can’t be said of Battlefront. When you look up in the game’s skies, you know there’s nothing else to find.