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.

20200726010217_1

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.

20200726010523_1

Review: Children of the Jedi

Children of the Jedi (Star Wars: The Callista Trilogy, #1)Children of the Jedi by Barbara Hambly

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

From what I gather, people typically love or hate this book. In a book in which Luke falls in love after entering into a remote relationship conducted through computer chats with a dead person, I think it’s reasonable to expect that it would be polarizing. My own feelings about it did not reach either extreme, however.

There were things I liked. I liked this depiction of Leia as a strong statesman who has not fully pursued her latent Force abilities, and who is haunted by her witnessing of the destruction of Alderaan. I liked the treatment of the Death Star architect war criminals, and Leia’s complicated feelings on that subject. I liked the fleshing out of Elder Houses and some of Leia’s background in Alderaanian royalty (though I like what the new canon has done with this far more). I liked C-3PO’s role in the plot, and I liked that he wasn’t treated solely as comic relief or an afterthought; I find that I really like whenever someone finds something for Threepio to do in a story. I liked some of the weird science philosophy musings on the nature of sentience and the division between synthetic and organic intelligences, but I didn’t expect a Star Wars story to ask heavy questions about the nature of consciousness and what defines a person as distinct, or whether someone can be replicated in a move from organic to robotic (which the book cutely distills to a question of identity as to whether someone might be “another Corellian of the same name”). I similarly liked Hambly’s effort to wrangle with the limitations of the Force when it came to mechanicals. And I liked the new alien races and many of the new characters–I especially loved the nature-loving ex-stormtrooper Triv Pothman and the Force Ghost of former Jedi adventurer Callista.

There were also things I did not like. I did not like the pacing of the book, and the tone often felt very not-Star Wars, whatever that means exactly. It often was slow, reflective, and grounded. For a Star Wars story, I found these elements to be somewhat boring. Also, Luke is really wrung through over the course of the story; in an effort to limit his god-tier Force powers, the narrative breaks him down physically and mentally. He acts like a heroic Jedi throughout, though torn by his personal connections (in other words, he acts like Luke). But it is exhausting to read how exhausted he gets, how much pain he experiences. He is in perpetual excruciating pain and operating with pretty extreme sleep deprivation for much of the book. It’s a bit much, but I get that authors often struggled with how to use Jedi Master Luke. I similarly did not care for his relationship with Callista (and definitely prefer that Luke ends up with Mara, who is a more interesting partner for him). They fell in love too fast and with too little reason. How she is brought back to life is also rather morally questionable. And while R2-D2 gets to be useful, I really hate how he almost kills Han and Leia (even if he didn’t have control of himself at the time).

There are other things that I don’t feel strongly about. Han and Chewie were more support characters, but they were portrayed accurately. The battle moon that serves as the central threat of the novel is just a Death Star Lite, but at least it’s not another literal Death Star. The supporting threat of a cyborg augmentation that allows a Force-user to control droids seemed wildly bizarre to me. The Ismarens would have been more interesting villains if more time had been spent on them, although Roganda, calculating and bitter former concubine of Palpatine, felt at least like a unique sort of threat. There are a lot of tropes that don’t feel like they should be in a Star Wars story, like what amounts to a minor zombie threat, although I recognize that zombies (or something similar) have ended up in use in many Star Wars stories, so it’s hard for me to identify what exactly felt off about it. Mara Jade and Lando Calrissian have insignificant cameo appearances, and they’re not really out of character but they don’t really have the chance to act in character, either. Finally, the novel is necessarily dated by its release before the prequel trilogy, so a lot of the details about an enclave of Jedi children, and the apparently accepted presence of Jedi families, no longer make a lot of sense, even though I could accept the broad idea that Jedi would care for Force-strong younglings.

I liked the writing and the weirdness, even though I didn’t like how everything worked as a Star Wars story about the Big Three heroes of the original trilogy. I’d be interested in reading non-Star Wars works by Hambly. I don’t regret reading this book, and it’s definitely not the worst Star Wars book I’ve read. On the other hand, I wouldn’t join with those who love it in recommending it to others. It was, if nothing else, an interesting experience.

TCW 7.12 “Victory and Death”

So that’s how The Clone Wars ends. Somehow both self-reflective and frenetically powered by near-constant action and thrills until the closing moments. Tragic, yet with the faintest glimmer of hope (more because of what we know comes next than because of how it actually ends). A triumph in storytelling and animation, especially looking back over the show’s entire, convoluted history. And a work that compellingly deepens the themes and emotions expressed in Revenge of the Sith.

That was the first thing I did after finishing Episode 12 last night: another viewing of the final prequel film. Having in mind the events on Mandalore, and the scenes that we see just a little bit more of in the show, added fascinating new layers. While my opinions on every Star Wars film shift over time, I’ve generally been impressed with the tragedy of Revenge, but that is so much more amplified with the context of the concluding chapters of The Clone Wars. Now more than ever, Revenge becomes a story of missed opportunities, of small failings. Now more than ever, it’s a story in which the protagonist has been failed by everyone and everything he believes in, where the people who could keep him in the Light are pushed away from him.

I like the tiny things I can read into the movie now. Things I couldn’t read before because they weren’t there before, because they weren’t even a glimmer in Lucas’s eye when the movie was made. I like being able to read a moment’s hesitation on the part of Commander Cody before he orders the firing on Obi-Wan. I like when Palpatine says, “Every single Jedi, including your friend, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is now an enemy of the Republic,” and thinking about how he leaves out Ahsoka. Ahsoka, who has very recently seen Anakin. Ahsoka, who is no longer a Jedi. Ahsoka, who is supposed to talk to Anakin and give her perspective on the Council and help him feel understood when he feels pinned down and betrayed by their hypocrisy, but who never got the chance. I like to think that if Palpatine had mentioned Ahsoka in that moment, Anakin might not have gone along with it. He could let Anakin believe, or hope, that Ahsoka would be excepted and spared. And of course Palpatine directly activates Order 66 among Rex and Ahsoka’s own loyal troopers, anyway. And of course Ahsoka never gets that final chance to commiserate with Anakin, and when he can go looking for her again, she is presumed lost and he has become Darth Vader.

I think my preference would have been for a little more resolving action. A little more setting up how Rex and Ahsoka departed, how they split up, what they intended to do. Of course, we have the Ahsoka novel and Rebels to fill in many of those gaps. And they weren’t moments that the show needed to explore; they were outside its scope. It had reached its end, and while it connects so strongly with other stories later in the timeline, I appreciate from a storytelling perspective that it did not dawdle to wrap everything up with a neat bow, did not document every little twist of continuity to be regurgitated as a factoid by obsessive fans down the road. (By the way, that whole kerfuffle about how Clone Wars contradicted the flashbacks in Ahsoka? It’s not that big a deal at all, and different media can of course tell different stories about the same events–it’s kind of the nature of myth, after all–but I think one could just toss the divergences in the book in-universe up to recollections in dream, or flawed memory, and simply move on with one’s life, rather than sweat the trivia.)

I’m glad this season existed. The Clone Wars now feels complete, even while there are plenty of stories to tell about all that happened during those wars. (Moments referred to in the show but not shown, either because they were side references or from Legends. Stories with other characters not chronicled across the galaxy. And where is Echo in the end? What does he do after he’s rescued and joins up with the Bad Batch?)

With that chapter completed, and another viewing of Revenge of the Sith under my belt, I think it’s time to rewatch Rebels too (and finally see the final season of that, as well). I really love Filoni’s contributions to Star Wars!

TCW 7.11: “Shattered”

Wow. Order 66. Even knowing the outcome, even knowing for years now thanks to Rebels that both Rex and Ahsoka made it through the Clone Wars, this was an intense and anxiety-inducing episode. The score was anxious and melancholy, occasionally punctuated by the tunes from Revenge of the Sith that accompanied its own depiction of Order 66. The pacing was incredible, such that we couldn’t believe that almost a half an hour had passed by the end. And there were so many moments that felt, again, like a slightly different action, a moment aside with a character, a more frank conversation, could have changed everything. It was really cool to see scenes and moments from the movie bridged right into the episode. And Maul, after being put in his place and sent on his way by Ahsoka, is absolutely terrifying–and brutal! I don’t know what the final episode might do; I don’t know how you can conclude it all in just one more episode. This is wild. This is great TV. This is great Star Wars.

Apparently, the final episode is set to air a little earlier. This Monday, it looks like. That’s still too far away!

TCW 7.10: “Phantom Apprentice”

This Siege of Mandalore arc is adding so much nuance to Revenge of the Sith, which is already an above-average Star Wars film.

I love how much Maul recognizes and has figured out Sidious’s vision–how close he was to figuring it all out in time, how much he realizes he was just a pawn in a grandmaster’s game, how he could have almost destabilized it all. When he is foiled, because Maul is always foiled, I could sort of feel for him. He knows what is coming and he’s going to fail to stop it.

I love the moment when Maul and Ahsoka have something approaching a parley, and how that moment feels like one of the critical shatterpoints (to use Mace Windu’s preferred term) of the entire saga. Someone on Twitter suggested the following quote from the Revenge of the Sith novelization as the epigraph for this arc, since these episodes have eschewed that Clone Wars tradition:

This story happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It is already over. Nothing can be done to change it.

I found myself thinking about that in relation to the episode. It fits so well, and it really pops in context of the Ahsoka/Maul confrontation. You can’t help but feel that if Ahsoka had sided with Maul, everything could have played out very differently. Maybe the Sith would have still ruled, maybe the galaxy would have descended into chaos…or maybe a weary and battered Jedi Order would have been able to rebuild the Republic (or something better) over time. I felt as though Ahsoka was facing options that could have completely reprogrammed the outcome of Revenge of the Sith–but of course, her fate and the fates of her friends are already set in stone. There was fantastic tension, not only for this story, but for the bigger story whose outcome we already know in full.

I love how Obi-Wan was really trying to reach out to Anakin. He knew the Jedi Council was wrong and felt awful for giving Anakin the assignment of spying on the Chancellor. That much was clear in Revenge of the Sith. But it’s heartbreaking that Obi-Wan tried to turn to Ahsoka, knowing she would understand how Anakin felt in facing the hypocrisy of the Council, hoping that she could get through to him–heartbreaking because we know she’ll never get that chance.

I love the beautiful, wild, jaw-dropping lightsaber battle between Ahsoka and Maul. The mo-capped choreography is incredible. The wide-ranging setpieces used to host the sprawling fight are impressive, as well. The final high-beam fight has a dangerous, acrobatic energy comparable to Anakin and Obi-Wan’s fight.

I even love the tacky episode title, living up to the spirit of the goofy serial names of the other films, nodding to The Phantom Menace of Sidious’s grand plot against the Republic and the Jedi, and (it would seem) ultimately referring to Anakin, who has been groomed to be Sidious’s new apprentice all this time, as Maul now knows.

I love so much about this beautiful, exhilarating, emotional episode. Only two more left, and then The Clone Wars will be complete!

TCW 7.9: “Old Friends Not Forgotten”

What a rousing start to the Siege of Mandalore arc! From the opening title sequence to the ending cliffhanger, this was another great episode of television–at 30 minutes, still short, compared to the 50-to-60-minute standard of bingeable dramas nowadays, but a little longer than the typical Clone Wars episode or comparable cartoon.

I’m sure every fan delighted in the use of the old Lucasfilm logo and classic film scores. There are also a number of great nods to earlier episodes of The Clone Wars, and to the larger franchise. A particularly great moment for me happens early on, when Anakin uses a faked surrender to secure the capture of a critical bridge–a plot point that echoes Obi-Wan’s delaying deception from the series’ introductory movie.

This episode also lets Ahsoka put Anakin and Obi-Wan to task when she’s reunited with them. She’s clearly learned from her experiences among non-Jedi, and the politicking and cultivated distance from the vulnerable now frustrate her. Obi-Wan continues to act like a model Jedi, but in distancing himself from Mandalore, in trying to respect Satine’s fervent defense of neutrality and pacifism, Obi-Wan presents as weak to his young friend, as worrying more about what the Council will think than what is right. And frankly, I think Obi-Wan’s concerns are justified, but I understand Ahsoka’s perspective, shaped by Anakin’s impulsive, action-oriented persona and further defined by her exposure to the galaxy’s citizens who struggle and suffer because of the Jedi’s neglect of their concerns.

When Obi-Wan and Anakin get called off near the end to rescue Palpatine, Ahsoka gets in a brutal jab at Kenobi. He’s not going to help the people of Coruscant, she says; instead, he’s going because the Chancellor needs help. Obi-Wan says that’s not fair, but Ahsoka retorts that she wasn’t trying to be fair. When this arc is over, I’ll be very interested to rewatch Revenge of the Sith, and I can’t help but think already about how this exchange must color Obi-Wan’s perspective throughout the events of the film. By the end of Revenge, he’s failed his best friend, the Jedi Order, the Republic…and this young self-exile, too. It’s a lot for him to carry.

Ahsoka and Anakin also had a touching farewell, points of which brought me near to tears. Is this truly the last moment they ever had together (until years after he becomes Vader)? While they ended on good terms, will Ahsoka regret choosing to be more distant? It’s very Jedi-like of her to be willing to let go of a friendship, but her attitude toward him, while grateful and respectful, could make him feel that he’s already lost her. It’s not Ahsoka’s problem, but it’s still likely to have had an impact.

If I had a criticism, it would be that the show expects us to understand the Maul situation better than is perhaps warranted. Even having recently finished a rewatch of the earlier seasons, enough weeks have passed with the steady drip of new episodes that I don’t have a crystal-clear recall of what happened at the end of Maul’s reign over Mandalore. And I had read the Dark Horse comic chronicling what happened to Maul after Sidious reclaimed him, but that’s been even farther in the past. While many of the people watching this new season are probably hardcore fans, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there are a lot of new viewers, hopping on via access to Disney+. I can’t be the only one straining to recall details, and some might be scratching their heads in pure confusion. Of course, the show has always played rather light with exposition and connective tissue–think of Admiral Trench’s reappearances, or what exactly was going on with Mother Talzin, or even how exactly Maul came back the first time. But just because it’s a feature of the show to avoid clearly explaining developments between episodes or seasons doesn’t make it a good feature. While there was a lot happening, I was surprised that the creators couldn’t take time to provide even a couple of sentences of dialogue to explain just how Maul ended up back in control of Mandalore. Maybe we’ll get that later. Either way, the little bit of confusion this caused me doesn’t take much away from an otherwise great episode.

TCW 7.8: “Together Again”

Ahsoka and the Martez sisters finally escape from prison and resolve the immediate threat of the Pyke Syndicate in this episode, and the Martez arc comes to a satisfying close. After some ups and downs, Ahsoka has earned the fondness and trust of both of the sisters, and she’s realized that she can’t hide from her identity as a former Jedi, nor can she avoid the higher moral calling ingrained in her. As the sisters tell her toward the end, she acts like the model of how they want Jedi to be.

And now we’re off to deal with Mandalorians, Maul, and more. For all I know, this will be the last we see of the Martez sisters, which would be a shame. This episode raced by at a sprint, with major plot and character moments loaded into what felt like near-constant action. It’s an impressive feat. So much is happening this season, but I wish they had maybe a few more episodes in the season to further explore characters like these sisters, or to get into some of the side stories of the war that previous seasons indulged in. No time to think about that, though, it would seem. Onward, to Mandalore!

TCW 7.7: “Dangerous Debt”

This episode is an action-packed extended prison break and chase sequence, with a lot of visual and musical references to the classic films. It feels very Star Wars, and it’s fun to watch, even though not all that much really happens, and our heroes more or less wind up back where they started.

Sure, now we can see how things might lead back to Mandalore, and Trace and Rafa reveal more about their tragic backstory (although Rafa’s narrative felt bizarrely scripted, as though she was reading an especially florid bit of prose from her diary). And I enjoy the dynamic between Ahsoka, Trace, and Rafa so much that I sure don’t mind spending more time with them. But this episode, while fun to watch, felt like the show was spinning its wheels. If I learned anything from The Mandalorian, though, it’s to trust that even a seeming filler episode can pay off in the long run.