Battlefront II’s Tiny Story Time

[Note: heavy out-of-context spoilers for a game released almost three years ago.]

The strongest thing I could say about the campaign(s) in EA’s Battlefront II is that the acting and visuals are excellent. Janina Gavankar fully embodies protagonist Iden Versio. The mocap animation is excellent, and the combination of voice acting and body language is incredibly moving. Gavankar brings a lot to what she is given. Her best scenes play off her stern but proud father, Admiral Garrick Versio (Anthony Skordi); her overly loyal squad mate and eventual lover Del Meeko (TJ Ramini); and the at first just intense but eventually scene-chewingly over-dramatic Gideon Hask (Paul Blackthorne). Late addition Shriv Suurgav (Dan Donohue), a bitter and sardonic Duros commando who helps round out the Rebel version of Inferno Squadron once Iden and Del defect, adds a little bit of oddball charm and comedy. As with the best of Star Wars, the emotional core of this narrative is a family drama / soap opera framed in the context of a war among the stars, packed with romance, betrayal, and a complicated parent-child relationship.

I also have to say that when it comes to level design, the developers clearly tried to experiment, to make every level feel fresh. Some moments require stealth, and some are guns-blazing action. You fight on the ground and in space, on foot and in vehicles. Some missions let you live out big, beautiful (and bizarrely slowed-down) starfighter dog fights. Some levels have you leave Iden behind to take control of one of the classic Star Wars heroes in a team-up mission with a supporting member of Inferno Squad. There’s even a mission in which you step into the shoes of Han Solo, eavesdropping on conversations and attempting to locate a potential intelligence contact in Maz Kanata’s cantina (though the level quickly pops up HUD indicators pointing out who you need to talk to, and most of the rest of the level is the usual pew-pew).

With that out of the way, the story moves too darn fast. Fair enough: this is an action/shooter game, so there are very few slow, quiet moments. But that means that we don’t have the time or room to explore the emotional depths of a scene, or to clearly track a character’s arc, or even to get more than bare-bones exposition dumps over holograms and comms channels as you advance across winding maps. Many key plot shifts–like Iden and Del’s decision to defect, and their eventual romance, or Iden’s complicated relationship with her father–just aren’t given adequate time to fully convey the emotional logic of characters’ actions. I was willing to go along with most of it, but that was purely based on the skillful acting, where for instance an expression and changed tone in the elder Versio’s reunion interaction with his daughter conveys a lot more than the actual words in the exchange.

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There were certain story beats that had to be met in a very short campaign, and the developers were clearly relying on the audience to follow along by connecting events on screen with expected tropes of Star Wars and cinema. Writers Walt Williams and Mitch Dyer use quite a bit of the script to load in a lot of references to the new Star Wars continuity. The story is clearly for die-hard Star Wars fans, and it’s clear that the writers expect players to recognize at least most of these references just as they expect them to recognize the allusions to tropes that were better developed in other stories. Huge portions of the game revolve around Operation Cinder and the Battle of Jakku, and so allusions are made to the events of the Aftermath trilogy and the Shattered Empire comic miniseries. They’re more than just allusions, though; without the context of these other stories, I would imagine that a player would struggle to have much understanding for what was happening in the overarching background plot and why, as the game seldom takes the time to explain or provide much connective tissue between events. Then again, in a game about shooting people, it is enough to feel that the Empire is evil and thus would do evil things, and the Rebellion is good so will try to stop the evil things.

There are technically two campaigns in Battlefront II, but the second is just an epilogue to the first and a continuation of its predecessor’s time-jumping, cliff-hanging ending. We’re rushed through some heroic last stands and a handing-off of the torch to the next generation, but it feels like it’s just echoing what the sequel trilogy spent three movies attempting to do, truncating that down to a couple hours dominated by blaster-fire-filled gameplay. Once more, the game leans on reference, as a full appreciation of the significance of Inferno Squad’s sacrifice is dependent upon a familiarity with The Last Jedi. It’s all well and good for Star Wars continuity to be shared between projects, and one of the benefits of a shared continuity is that later stories can grow out from older ones, or even recast those older tales in a new light. But I don’t particularly care for the Marvel-esque impulse to graft inter-connective tissue between every new release, such that a new title can’t be fully appreciated on its own. I believe a story should be able to stand on its own two feet. Design the story to function on its own, and then decide how you want to tie it to the larger narrative galaxy.

The whole game feels like a ghost of a larger story. It’s disappointing that we don’t get to see that story. I liked the characters introduced in Battlefront II, and I wish their arcs hadn’t been so truncated and by-the-numbers. Still, while playing, I was never bored or snorting with derision. It wasn’t a “bad” story; it was just reduced.

Maybe the multiplayer will keep me around a while, though I doubt it will hold me like the original Battlefront II did (just a feature of encountering that game at the right age). If playing make-believe with Star Wars figures in big battle mashups is something you’d like at all, I can see how you’d love the game. But I’ve long enjoyed games most of all for their ability to put me in a story, whether scripted or dynamic, and to make me feel something unique by making me inhabit another identity and assume agency for difficult choices; this game, in contrast, just wasn’t all that committed to story–and what story it had relied on, and was presented as, a traditional cinematic narrative, designed for passive interaction with its characters and plot twists. EA knew where the money is, and that’s in long-term players buying new features for multiplayer matches.

All that said, the campaign was far more cinematic and emotionally evocative than the tale of good clones willingly going bad that was the core of the original Battlefront II. It’s good to keep that in mind, at least. The newer release’s story might have been condensed, but it was told with plenty of spectacle.

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