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Star Wars Battlefront Review: The Next-Best Thing to Being in Star Wars

6 minute read

The good: Captures the look of Star Wars like nothing else, great collectible card system
The bad: Spotty A.I., not enough variety in the single- and two-player content
Bottom line: This is the best Star Wars Battlefront yet

Star Wars Battlefront, EA’s reboot of its online-mostly Star Wars shooter set during the original film trilogy, may be the slickest sojourn to a galaxy far, far away yet.

Twin stars beat down on a Tatooine basecamp as a sky-blotting sandstorm encroaches, turning the light strange. Rose-hued dusk sparkles off powder snow in a rendition of The Empire Strikes Back‘s Hoth. Ewoks whoop and holler from Endor’s torch-lit huts nestled under redwood canopies. And all of it so nearly photorealistic the distinction hardly matters. Electronic Arts’ DICE studio wrangles near-perfection from every pixel. This is what Star Wars should look like.

But does it feel like slipping into that beloved world once you’re playing? If you lop off the hero’s journey at the films’ core and leave just its cowboy shoot-o-ramas, then I’d argue yes. It’s a notion the decade-old Battlefront games were always chasing, celebrating dozens of players going nuts with blasters, lightsabers, X-Wings and Tie Fighters. DICE’s reboot embraces nothing if not original developer Pandemic’s free-for-all fundamentals. Which leaves the second more important question: Does it distinguish itself from a cynically timed The Force Awakens cash-in?

Rare Photos of George Lucas Behind the Scenes of Star Wars

George Lucas and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) on the set of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope in a galaxy far, far away.Lucasfilm
Lucas gives direction to Sir Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi) in Episode IV.Lucasfilm
Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) and Harrison Ford (Han Solo) sit around Lucas on the set of The Empire Strikes Back.Lucasfilm
Lucas with Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), along with Hamill and Ford on the set of Episode IV.Lucasfilm
Lucas directs Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) and Carrie Fisher.Lucasfilm
Harrison Ford and Lucas share a moment in Endor on the set of Return of the Jedi.Lucasfilm
Lucas on set filming the opening scene of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.Lucasfilm
Lucas reviews concept art for Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones.Lucasfilm
Lucas inspects a model pod racer for Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.Lucasfilm
Lucas makes sure that the Death Star is fully armed and operational for Return of the Jedi.Lucasfilm
Lucas holds up Jango Fett's helmet.Lucasfilm
Natalie Portman (Queen Amidala) and Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) listen to Lucas' directions on the set of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith.Lucasfilm
Lucas directs a lightsaber battle between Ian McDiarmid (Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious) and Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu) on the set of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith.Lucasfilm
Lucas sets up camp next to a Bantha on the set of Episode IV.Lucasfilm
Lucas finds the droid he was looking for.Lucasfilm

Pick up a blaster, clap on a jetpack and drop into any of the game’s 16 missions (for one or two players) or nine multiplayer modes (from six to 40 players) and the answer builds to a resounding and uncynical “for the most part.”

Electronic Arts

Here you can wing through Beggar’s Canyon behind the stick of an X-Wing, dogfighting waves of Imperial fighters with silken controls that at times evoke the feel of developer Totally Games’ old Star Wars space sims. Or straddle a 74-Z speeder bike as an Imperial Scout, hunting rebels while darting between redwoods at perilous velocities that shouldn’t work in a video game but thanks to clever level design somehow do. Or crank the difficulty setting to “Master” and attempt to survive as a hero or villain (like Han Solo or Emperor Palpatine) in grueling score-driven matches that require rapid strategic repositioning and vigilant, hair-trigger gunnery. Or queue up “Supremacy,” a rowdy 20 versus 20 tug-of-war that pairs iconic vehicles with infantry struggling to take and hold control points situated in vast, elaborate playgrounds.

The original Battlefront games had single-player campaigns, story modes that softened newcomers’ landings. Star Wars Battlefront jams its prologue into five unlinked “training” snapshots from the game’s four launch locales (Tatooine, Endor, Sullust and Hoth), each with unique starred goals that yield credits. Credits are the game’s loot chase, unlocking a gallery of better weapons and character models or upgrades to multiplayer equipment and abilities. You can bulk up on credits by shifting to optionally solo or cooperative Battles (arena-style “first to 100” shootouts) and Survival missions (play as a lone rebel soldier fending off waves of increasingly deadly enemy soldiers and vehicles), squaring off against computerized opponents.

Most of the optionally offline battles transpire on the ground, meaning you play as either a Rebel/Imperial soldier with a gun and maybe a rocket launcher or stash of explosives, or a hero/villain with superhuman abilities (lightsabers and force powers and so forth). It’s a distinction worth mentioning only because the underemployed aerial battles are so satisfying, and it’s a shame DICE restricts them to the game’s multiplayer pillar. Fighter Squadron, the online go-to for dogfighting that includes flyable vehicles like the Millennium Falcon, offers the thrill of battling unpredictable human pilots in aerial scrums, but robs us of the joys—only teased in the Beggar’s Canyon training mission—of fending off waves of tactically varied enemy fighters. It feels like a massive oversight, that DICE didn’t include these as Battle or Survival missions.

Electronic Arts

But the reason you’ll want to play (and keep playing) Star Wars Battlefront is to collect and upgrade all two dozen of its “Star Cards,” unlocked by ranking up in multiplayer matches. Think of Star Cards as DICE’s way of breaking up the tyranny of rote classes (like “infantry,” or “sniper”), replacing them with a freer spread of special abilities or weapons you can assign to suit a broader range of tactical roles. Instead of handing you a few grenades and a special weapon or placing those things around maps as pickups, most Star Cards can be played as often as you like in a match, their frequency dictated by cool-down timers that run between 15 and 30 seconds. (The few that are limited can be bolstered by snatching power-ups liberally sprinkled around maps.) It’s elegant, easy to understand, but also one of these deceptively simple ideas that masks tactical complexity.

While the opposing A.I. does a terrific job assaulting, flanking and generally being formidable in ground missions, Battlefront‘s notion of allied automatons often leaves you to dangle. In the game’s “first to 100” battles, for instance, enemies automatically get points for dispatching you or your companions. By contrast, you have to personally touch the spinning tokens fallen enemies leave behind to secure each precious handful of points, and your computerized allies won’t lift a finger to help. At the higher difficulty levels, it’s nigh impossible to win without conscripting friends to help, which may be by design, but feels a little shortsighted.

Otherwise I’m having a blast with Star Wars Battlefront, if in the loose, unfussy sense I might a popcorn flick, without pretensions. By stripping out the story and making the whole affair a leaner grab bag, DICE is pitching an immaculately visualized arcade-casual experience. And yet it harbors harder-core perks, if you’re a completist. While I’m still in process of fully vetting all the multiplayer modes, I’m kind of in love with the Star Card system, even if it’s probably going to peak much sooner than Halo 5‘s 1,000-plus card collectibles. But then Halo 5 doesn’t have lightsabers, or force lighting, or thermal detonators, or the option to eventually play as Rodians, Sullustans and Twi’leks. And for diehard Star Wars fans, that will be more than enough.

4 out of 5

Reviewed on PlayStation 4

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Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com