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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New experiences on a new computer

I do sometimes have reason to work from home, and I’d reached a point where my desktop computer simply wasn’t all that reliable for that task. It was the final straw for me, and so I purchased a new (well, refurbished) computer and a new monitor. That ends a ten-year reign for my last desktop. I built that computer, and I upgraded it at least a couple times over the years, and it served me well. I have nothing but fondness for that machine, though I’ve now set it aside.

With a new computer came opportunities to test games and graphic settings that would have taxed–or entirely overwhelmed–its predecessor. Look, it’s not like I went out and bought a top-of-the-line computer. But it could at least comfortably handle current-gen titles!

The first thing I tried out was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Jurassic World: Evolution. I’d played the hell out of that game, but always on lower graphics settings, and I still experienced frequent frame-rate drops, lag, and crashes. It now looks incredible running on the higher-end graphics settings, and the game loads quicker and runs smoothly without any perceived technical issues. The lighting, the vegetation, the building and people textures, and even the already-lovely dinosaurs were all vastly improved!

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Notice the details within the Explorer itself, with sharper resolutions and more clearly defined textures. You don’t get the best part of the experience with a still image, though; the movement of individual blades of grass in the wind and the dynamic lighting and shadows make me feel like I’m really there.

I mostly play games that are older or from mid-sized or smaller studios, so consequently I can typically get away with fairly limited or outdated tech. I actually struggled to think of another game that I wanted to play that would actually test out the computer’s abilities a bit more. I ended up purchasing the second Star Wars: Battlefront II (which really seems like it should just be Battlefront IV). I didn’t push things that hard, opting for medium graphics, but the game played smoothly, and I had a lot of fun with it.

Interestingly, the gameplay itself was incredibly smooth and I don’t think I ever had any noticeable framerate drops or weird pop-ins or anything to disrupt the experience, but the cutscenes, which all looked incredible, often had little hiccups of drops in performance in between scene transitions, especially for those scenes following the end of a level. This isn’t going to mark the shift of my attention to a greater number of AAA titles (not that that was ever very likely, given my interests), but it at least means I have a computer I think can safely handle the occasional newer Star Wars game, like Fallen Order or the upcoming Squadrons.

Also, while I’m not interested in “reviewing” the newer Battlefront II, I do want to talk about its story. That story is surprisingly short; I’ve played less than 10 hours in the game so far, including in some of the Arcade and Instant Action modes, and yet I’ve already completed both “campaigns” with the middle difficulty setting. That said, I think it’s clear enough what one of my future blog post topics will be about…

A final thought for this post, though. My Arena save file is on the old machine. Maybe I’ll transfer it at some point. Maybe I’ll start a new one. But I’m betting that my attempt to play through Arena might have truly met its end (an end that admittedly came months ago). I actually feel okay with that.

Apparently the park manager is supposed to *manage* the park

Holy heck, I just realized that I’ve been playing a major portion of Jurassic World: Evolution entirely wrong.

In a nutshell: the game has two types of ratings to determine the success of your parks. One is a dinosaur rating, which uses the total number of dinosaurs, the number of distinct species, the cumulative ratings of individual dinosaurs (based on completeness of gene code and addition of genetic modifications), and the general welfare of the animals to determine how well your park is doing. The other is a guest rating, which looks at security, capacity, and satisfaction to similarly assess the human side of the park’s performance. Both ratings work on a five-star scale, and the average of their scores dictates your park’s overall five-star rating.

Guest satisfaction has always been a struggle for me. It’s easy going at first because you don’t have that many guests, so throwing in a few basic goods and services (restaurants, shops, and restrooms) will satisfy them enough. But as the park grows with the draw of more and better dinosaur attractions, guests demand more. I’ve always struggled to get from 4.5 stars to 5 stars because my dinosaurs toward the later stages of a park’s life are so popular that the park is overrun. I manage it, but it often requires a lot of buildings that make my park look ugly and cluttered and that slow down the performance of the game. And even then, guest opinion oscillates quite a bit. I remember using the trick of shutting down and reopening parks to get the guest count down so that I could beat the system and get a five-star park rating when I was ready to move on to the next island.

Only there’s no reason to “beat the system” because you can build a successful park that stays steady at five full stars, no matter the island or challenges before you. I’ve been overlooking obvious management features all this time.

Most buildings aimed at guests have three types of features to control: the number of staff, the type of product sold, and the price of the product. I’d fiddled with these controls before on many occasions, but I never found much rhyme or reason behind them. I don’t know if these features have been improved since release or if I just didn’t spend enough time with them, but they’re crucial when used correctly. As your park builds in popularity, you should be looking to your structures to see which specific buildings are popular. They might warrant staff increases if they are maxed out with visitors; that way, more guests can use a given building at a time. In contrast, it might be time to tear down a seldom-used facility that’s not contributing to guest satisfaction or park revenue. As something gains in popularity, people are more desirous of premium items at that location, and they are more willing to pay more. Manage these features, and you can have a tremendously successful five-star park that still looks neat and orderly, that doesn’t have constant fluctuations in guest satisfaction, and that more efficiently uses limited park resources (chiefly space and power).

I don’t think I ever figured this out before, not even back when I completed the original campaign the first time around. If I did, it was late in the game, I may have never maximized the value of that knowledge, and I must have forgotten in the many intervening months before I returned to the game. But I doubt I figured it out, at least not fully, or else it’s hard to understand why I found the sandbox and challenge modes to be such a turn-off. Now the challenge modes are piquing my interest more, and I think I will check them out once I get through the copious story content available (and after I go back to optimize my other parks in this campaign save file).

I wrote the following in my original review of the game:

There are a lot of deep statistics that are never explained anywhere in the game, but you only have to get a cursory understanding of any process to make it work. I still don’t fully understand how staffing, item quality, and price affects guest satisfaction with a particular store, and other than knowing that sales price should at least be higher than my own cost, I never did bother to figure it out. I didn’t need to. After I grew frustrated with one park always hovering around 4.5 stars because my continued success would draw down guest satisfaction as demand would continuously outstrip supply, I discovered via a forum tip that you could just close your park down briefly–then everyone would be excited with the reopening and the overcrowding would be gone, solving the problem for a while. Again, the game can be challenging, but it’s typically open to being exploited–and since it’s all about the bottom line with profits and divisional reputation, the game sort of encourages that exploitative mentality.

That doesn’t read like someone who ever figured out how to manage guest buildings. In my defense, my experimentation never really seemed to pay off. I’d try too early in a park’s life, when screwing with the values was more likely to increase how much a facility was costing me, instead of rewarding me with increased paying guests or higher profits. Later in each park, the process of building new stores was so ingrained that I didn’t ever seriously reconsider my tactics. Now I know that some buildings would go unattended even as guests complained about a lack of a good or service that those buildings supplied because they weren’t placed in areas of high guest activity, near major pathways or exhibits. Simply adding more buildings wasn’t solving the problem. Guests weren’t going to go out of their way to find a hidden restroom tucked behind a power plant; they’d instead wait on the overcrowded, obvious restroom and complain about that. It’s a realistic system, but one that is never explained in the game.

It’s a little embarrassing that it took me this long to figure it out. At the same time, at least I did manage to figure it out on my own!

While I thought this was worth writing about because it showcased a more complex hidden system within Jurassic World: Evolution while providing a hopefully amusing personal anecdote, I’d be glad to hear that someone considering the game, or already struggling with its management systems, found this and saved themselves a lot of time and frustration! And I’d sure love to hear any other tips or tricks people have for providing the best park management experience for all their guests. It took me this long to figure out this basic gameplay component. I shudder to think how long it might take me to learn and master more advanced strategies…

What’s that in the trees?

I’ll probably have a more traditional post up tomorrow, but for today, I just want to share a screenshot I took last night in Jurassic World: Evolution with the Capture Mode feature. I’m just thrilled by how it turned out; it might be my favorite screenshot I’ve taken in the game, and it feels like it captures a lot of the mood of the franchise. I hope you like it!

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Reopening the park

I’ve spent much of my free time over the past week playing a lot of Jurassic World: Evolution again. I hadn’t touched the game in over a year, but the realization that I’d missed out on several newly released campaigns, and a lot more dinosaur content releases, got me excited to get back to the park. After a binge of DLC purchases, I was ready to start. And I was immediately amazed by the breadth of updates, even outside of what came with the new expansions.

The flavor of the base game has changed somewhat. New facilities have been added. New dinosaurs are available. There have been a variety of gameplay tweaks. And most entertaining for me, dinosaurs can now attack and damage ranger vehicles. With this new spice added, I decided my first objective would be to start the original campaign over again with all these new features baked in. So that’s what I’ve been doing so far. My old save is lingering as a milestone to mark my former accomplishments, but I want to play through the original content while dealing with additional guest needs and dinosaur threats. That choice to start anew has been rewarding for me so far.

That decision also means that I haven’t really touched much of the DLC content–the primary reason I wanted to get back into the game! But I’m fairly confident I’ll keep playing and reach all that eventually. In the meantime, I’ve perused the many locked research topics that have been added with the expansions. Boy, am I eager to get to some of the new prehistoric creatures included! And I might be most excited about the return to the original Jurassic Park in an alternate universe story set after the events of the first film.

It’s fascinating to realize how many of my initial gripes, and how many items on my ideal game version wish list, have been addressed with the new content. It also seems that I anticipated some of the directions that they went with further development. The game feels far more robust. Of course, that means that I’m now far from 100% complete with the game–and reviewing some of the achievements, I’m not sure I ever will get there. But that’s okay!

I’ve found that I’m also more willing to forgive the game’s flaws. I think it helps that I knew what to expect. The only direction for my opinion to go is up, as I react to new features. I already really liked the game, and I’m really impressed by how much the game has been improved in the base experience. But I do still get the feeling that the base game’s story probably should have at least included the Secrets of Dr. Wu expansion; we’ll see, but I think that it will probably better resolve the main campaign’s story.

I love spending time with stories set in this franchise. Especially while I find myself drawn to comforting experiences, I couldn’t ask for better entertainment than an in-depth involvement in the operation of Jurassic World.

Bad timing, good game

One of the games I played in the early days of the pandemic was Plague Inc. I haven’t done much with that game for a while, after a couple days of many, many rounds at attempted world domination. It was interesting, not a genuine epidemiological model but a clearly expressed way to communicate to a layman like myself how a germ is spread, with plenty of gamified bits added on to keep the player engaged, like the ability to deliberately evolve your pathogen. I liked playing it. It felt sort of ironic and subversive at first, to be playing the game while we were all packed away in our houses. But now is just not the time.

I can say that the human response in the game, even on the easiest setting, was robust enough that humanity typically won. Yes, that means I’m bad at the game. But it was also kind of encouraging. Every time I lost, humanity won. It’s not easy to wipe us all out, thankfully.

Now isn’t really the time for a review of a game like that, though. I don’t blame the game or its makers. It came out 8 years ago. I don’t blame anyone who is playing the game now or having fun in said game or wanting to talk about the game. But I’ve done what I can with it. And now I’ve said what I can about it.

Why’d I choose to write about it even a little bit? Well, I kept thinking I’d get around to talking about it. The right time never seemed to emerge. Now isn’t the right time. But I’ve been feeling paralyzed with anxiety whenever I try to sit with my thoughts this weekend. It was already a topic I’d thought about touching on. With nothing else coming forward, I was left with this. I went with it. Maybe a bad decision, but I’ll live with it.

Stay safe out there, everyone.

 

Wrapping up these GTA posts

This GTA post is to say that I’m done with the GTA posts. If you were avoiding the site because you’re just annoyed by this game series (or even justifiably upset with or disturbed by it), then it should be fine to return to it after today.

I’ll still be playing San Andreas for a while. Maybe after this, I’ll get back into some of the newer games I’ve been playing or wanting to play. We’ll see. It’s also possible down the line that I might have another post or two related to San Andreas. In writing these posts, I’ve thought a little more about how GTA games–especially in Vice City and San Andreas–provide the player with the opportunity to engage in an amoral tourist trip through the life of a career criminal engaged in organized crime, but while that’s already quite artificial in concept on its own, the artificiality is further inflated both by the intense parodic nature of the games and their starting point as stories based on pop culture representations of criminals and organized crime. In other words, the portrayals of the Mafia or street gangs are about as authentic as Olive Garden. I’m not sure that there’s a full post there, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about. And I might just want to recap my experiences with San Andreas whenever I finish this playthrough. I’d be particularly interested in writing about Carl’s goofy personality or the heavy use of foreshadowing employed to communicate the true natures of Big Smoke and Ryder and to set up certain plot beats. But any such post, if it ever happens at all, is a long ways away.

For now, I’ll settle back into something more like weekly posting. And I’ll write about other things. I got whatever this past week’s set of posts represented out of my system.

Now, if you like San Andreas or have actually been reading my posts with some level of interest, I’d like to close out today’s post with a series of screenshots I’ve taken from my time in HUD-free play. Enjoy–or don’t! And stay safe out there, everyone.

Relearning San Andreas

On my most recent return to the world of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I’ve played around with the options quite a bit. It’s been sort of vital–I’ve been playing on PC, and with a 360 controller, requiring frequent tweaks of the game’s controls. I also encountered a baffling glitch of the game colors, requiring some forum trolling and game resolution tinkering before that was solved. In playing with the options so much, I also played around with options related to display and sound. One of the best decisions to come of that has been the removal of the minimap, radar blips, and HUD.

Removal of the HUD and other extraneous UI features immediately focuses me on the game world. It’s certainly an aged game, but that game world is still often quite beautiful, bizarre, and fascinating. Plus, I haven’t lost much in the removal of those UI features. Mission-critical information is still displayed as needed; for instance, if a mission is timed, a countdown timer still appears. And I can still quickly switch on the HUD through a quick dive into the options menu if I want to. And there have been a couple occasions when I have wanted to, to check the time or my health bar, but I’ve become less reliant on seeing those hard metrics. I’ve become better able to interpret day and night cycles, I’ve better learned how to navigate the city, I’ve gotten in the groove of taking C.J. for regular meals, and I’ve learned to adjust to working with less information that causes me to focus on what’s actually happening in the game instead of monitoring feedback about it.

It’s lovely to remove the distractions from the minimap. I have to actually learn how to navigate. I actually pay more attention to directions and place names supplied in dialogue. I’ll go into the pause menu to consult the map, but now I’m driving through the city relying on in-game signage, a sense of direction, and a consideration of how the city is actually laid out. What’s so special to me about that experience is that I’m rediscovering a city I used to know so well from hours and hours spent playing in it years and years ago. It’s nostalgic, yet it also makes me very alert about landmarks and streets that feel vaguely familiar. And it puts me more in the shoes of C.J., who is also relearning his city after being away for five years at the start of the story.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle with the absence of the UI overlay is that I am unable to see my health. This was easy enough to adjust to in theory, but in practice it means that I can never be sure if the next gunshot might kill me. This has been an interesting challenge, and I’ve not yet felt cheated by any combat. It just heightens my sense of risk in combat, making every gun battle and car chase more visceral. I have to take more of an effort to avoid damage, as I’m always facing the possibility of death. I can’t play around with the same level of risk once my reliance on an ever-present metagame representation of exactly how many more hits C.J. can take is removed.

Police presence also presents in a very different way. Before, you could always see a clear indication of how much attention the cops had on you. Especially after replaying the HD games, and getting used to the constant feedback of flashing search areas and cones of view on the minimaps, the complete removal of any indicator of police presence or attention is unnerving. Now, it’s only clear that I’m wanted when I’m being chased by the cops. Escape from an immediate chase doesn’t guarantee that the next police encounter won’t renew pursuit. I find that I don’t want to escalate engagements with cops because of the heat that could be brought down on my head. As a result, my fear of cops in the game is increased–I’m never sure when I see a cop walking on a beat if he might choose to try to take me down. This in turn deepens a sense of verisimilitude. This is supposed to be a game about black gang life in the nineties, but of course, it’s a game led by a team of white Brits writing from the perspective of outsiders who are deep fans of hood films and gangster rap, and it’s in a franchise marked by excessive violence, wild parody, and a mocking disregard for taking any subject too seriously. But when you don’t know if you’re wanted, and you can’t always connect why a cop might pursue you with an immediately previous action, the game mechanics almost accidentally create a system in which cops are always a feared enemy out to get you, even if you haven’t done anything. You can’t trust them, and if you fight back, you’re just asking for a world of trouble.

I’ll close with an anecdote. I guided C.J. to a local fast food joint, and while walking back toward his home, he was approached by members of a rival gang. They quickly took to shooting at him, and he fired back in self-defense, taking them out. The gunfire attracted the interest of some nearby cops, and C.J. fled. I remember thinking I’d escaped them all, only to find another beat cop, nightstick at the ready, coming up behind me down an alley. The imagery of running from this cop, hopping fences and hoping to outpace him, stuck with me. It wasn’t the usual bloody and excessive action of the typical GTA experience. And it wasn’t an “authentic” experience. It’s certainly not reflective of anyone’s actual lived experience. But it stuck with me. And it made me feel that I had very briefly slipped into the game’s alternative world. I can’t fully deconstruct what the experience meant to me, but it fascinated me, and if nothing else, it encouraged me to continue the UI-free experiment.