DICE’s take on the much-loved Star Wars Battlefront series has been fraught with problems. Its first attempt, released among the hype maelstrom accompanying 2015’s The Force Awakens, was an aesthetically spectacular but unsubstantial effort, disappointing both fans of the original games and those eagerly anticipating the Battlefield creator’s take on such a rich, storied universe.
This left a lot riding on last year’s Star Wars Battlefront II (BF2) — and, for a while there at least, it seemed that EA and DICE were getting things right this time. A single-player campaign, representation of all eras of Star Wars (unlike the Original Trilogy-centric focus of the first game) and, most crucially of all, the ditching of the first game’s community-splintering season pass with all updates coming free, were just what the fans needed to hear.
This air of positivity was quickly dispelled, however, when BF2’s open beta landed last October. Not only had the sequel doubled down on the first game’s already unpopular Star Card system (where players could customize their avatars with interchangeable abilities and buffs), an extensive microtransaction system made it clear that real-money purchases would be all-but essential to stay at a viable power level. Even worse, cards and heroes would not be available to buy directly, but through a loot box system that gave players even less guarantees regarding the speed and manner in which they progressed.
The internet was not happy. Not happy in the slightest. EA/DICE not only squandered all the brownie points earned off an already-cynical gaming public, it kicked off a long-simmering controversy about loot boxes as ‘benign’ gambling that not only took the games press by storm, but also hit the mainstream. By Christmas, even the average non-gamer on the street had heard of BF2, but only because it was making kids gamble. Cue six months of feverish backtracking and PR triage from EA, starting with a temporary hold on microtransactions. When neither this, nor the already-promised flow of free modes and new maps, had failed to soothe gamers’ ire, DICE announced an extensive rework of the game’s progression system — ditching real-money purchases of progression items altogether — in an update that eventually arrived on March 21.
Now, after that very cursory summary of a staggeringly fraught and convoluted first six months for BF2, the question a month after the update is: has it fixed the game?
The problem with that question is that it depends on how you define ‘fixed’. Does it improve the player experience? Well, it’s certainly nice to know that you can have control over your progression without the lurking pressure of a paywall, and the ability to play all hero characters and vehicles from the outset is a huge boon. Whether it’s any more fun, is a much trickier question.
Now there’s an elephant in the room about BF2 that everyone seems deathly determined to either ignore, or aggressively shout down if anyone even dares mention it.
You see, the thing about BF2 is that it’s… um… actually pretty good.
Put your pitchforks down people, hear me out. When it comes to the actual in-game action, BF2 provides one of the purest Star Wars experiences you can find in games. It’s certainly not perfect — we’ll get to that in a minute — but it improves greatly on the first game in aesthetics, feel and most of all level design. If you want a good drop-in, drop-out Star War Simulator that gives the most authentic feel of being in the movies’ battles you can buy, BF2 does a spectacular and often thrilling job.
Unfortunately, the simplification of the progression economy (making all Star Cards available and upgradable with skill points earned when your player level rises) doesn’t address the underlying structure, which was constructed around the principle of fostering imbalance to drive real-money purchases.
Let’s start with the Star Cards. While intended to bring a quasi-RPG level of character progression to the game and providing a higher level of diversity to the builds available, it’s inherently problematic as the bedrock to an action-oriented multiplayer game. It naturally creates an imbalance between players based on play time and optimization: if you’re a new player, and/or aren’t the kind of digit-fetish min-maxer who’d sit there and calculate the strongest/most overpowered builds, your role in matches is rarely going to be much more than providing cannon fodder to higher-leveled players.
So, all you’ve got to do is just get leveling, unlock and upgrade yourself some cards and you’ll be back up to speed in no time, right? Well, not so much. Despite how much the game loves telling you how much XP you’ve earned every time you as much as fart in the enemy’s direction, leveling still feels painfully slow and the single skill point you get per level will still only buy you a single Star Card, or a single upgrade point.
This means that it takes five player levels to buy, then fully upgrade, an individual card. To complete a maxed out three-card loadout takes fifteen levels. Even if you’re a good player and raking in 15–20,000 XP a round, it’s still a hefty amount of work, and we’re just talking about one of the infantry classes here. You still have the other classes, ships, heroes and hero ships needing the same process. If you’re a less skilled player, you’re going to need the steeliest determination over a long period of time to even hope to level everything up fully. Oh, and if you’re thinking of just looking up the best cards and concentrating on upgrading them, forget it: the best ones are gated behind class/ship/hero level (which are separate to your overall player level — basically, everything has a level in this game), meaning that you have to play several hours’ worth of everything to unlock them all.
This gives you the choice of either constantly switching in an attempt to get as many things upgraded to a competitive level at once (a process I’d conservatively estimate at 20–25 hours’ play, and that’s for good players), or pick, say, a favourite infantry and ship class and a favourite hero, get them maxed out and go back and work on everything else later.
The question is, after numerous hours of getting creamed by better-geared players, who would want to abandon their hard-won buffs and go back to square one? Now bear in mind, I speak from the perspective of a perfectly mediocre player who averages around 5000 points per round, and who generally doesn’t have boundless hours to throw into the ground. E-peen enthusiasts may balk at the opinion of someone removed from the l337 crowd, but I’m not speaking for them. I’m speaking for the average player of average ability, the exact demographic at whom these microtransactions were aimed, and whom the current, now payless system is going to affect more keenly. If you want to level up a decent spread of classes and heroes, most of us will have no choice but to spend a lot of time getting dominated before we can feel on a level playing field with other players.
In short, the pay-to-win factor may have been excised from BF2, but the deterrent designed to encourage said practice is not only very much still there, but is in fact the framework upon which the progression mechanics are hung. Just because it’s a former pay-to-win game doesn’t mean that it isn’t still geared toward whales: some whales just pay in hours rather than dollars.
And don’t get me started on the continued lack of a dedicated Medic class, or in fact any class that gives you decent options for play styles other than ‘pew pew bunnyhop fuck I’m dead’.
For all the things that BF2 does right — and it does so, so much right — this overhaul still can’t exorcise the ghost of EA’s shitty decisions in its development. Even a series of quality new maps and the fun and surprisingly tense Ewok Hunt mode (which basically turns the Empire’s fight on Endor into Aliens) can’t completely sweeten the bitter pill that is an anemic, grind-heavy progression system that will quickly decimate your enthusiasm if you let it.
Despite all that, however, the game still sings to my colossal Star Wars nerd side, and ultimately my advice to anyone who’s curious about jumping in is the same that I’ve given since last November, as summed up by the logline at the top of the page. Do it for casual fun, for the fan service and abundant Star Wars feel, and you’ll find this game an absolute blast. DICE is an industry leader when it comes to beautiful-looking, epic-sounding class-based shooters, and BF2’s moment-to-moment gameplay is lathered with this brilliance. Anyway, thanks to its underwhelming sales performance it’s also cheap enough to justify purchase as a fun, casual palate-cleanser to be played in between sessions with bigger games, or for the perfectly solid campaign that yields some nice nuggets of info about the as-yet little explored period between the original and sequel trilogies.
Just be ready for some conflicted feelings towards the game’s systems, and if competitive multiplayer and rewarding progression are more important to you? Keep your distance, just don’t look like you’re keeping your — actually, no, screw that. Run.
Yeah, look. It was either that reference or making you all sit through yet another line about this ‘not being the game you’re looking for’. I mean, do we really want to go there again?