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

Lost in Continuity

There is a fairly well-known contradiction between Rogue One and Lost Stars, resulting from a time gap in events in the earlier-published novel that are not easily reconciled with the A New Hope prequel film.

Ciena is on the Devastator for three weeks before they capture the Tantive IV over Tatooine. Lost Stars, p. 149. This action was on “the first day she was finally thrown into action against the rebels,” and from the description, it certainly sounds like participating in the seizure of the Tantive IV was her first combat duty. Id. This would contrast with the Devastator‘s presence over Scarif and its involvement in the final moments of the fight there. And that battle seems to take place hours or (at most) days before the opening of A New Hope, not weeks. So either Ciena was aboard the ship but completely unaware of the Scarif engagement, or there was a longer gap between films than implied.

There’s also some confusion about characters involved in the Tantive IV operation. From Lost Stars:

The captain seemed bored. “Hold your fire. There’s no life-forms. They must’ve short-circuited.

This is apparently taking place on the auxiliary bridge. Id. at 151. In From a Certain Point of View, however, we have a whole story involving that specific officer–“The Sith of Datawork,” by Ken Liu. Here he is identified as Gunnery Captain Bolvan. FACPOV, p. 27. And his reasoning seems anything but bored–instead, he’s caught up in bureaucratic decision-making. This isn’t a direct contradiction, and FACPOV is more loosely canon than other sources, but it doesn’t quite jive with me. I think it’s just the imprecision of language, the use of only “captain” in the Lost Stars description, the apparent contrast in the officer’s motivations, and even the suggestion of where Bolvan would have been stationed (would a gunnery captain be controlling the entirety of an auxiliary bridge?).

In contrast, the anonymity on the Death Star and Thane’s lack of awareness about events on Jedha or Scarif make sense together. Again from Lost Stars:

The Death Star was meant to function as a world of its own, which meant it had creature comforts most other military postings didn’t: decent food, rec areas, cantinas with latest-model bartender droids, commissaries with selections of treats and luxuries, albeit at a stiff price.

LS, p. 156.

Furthermore, Thane is not of a rank to be kept apprised of even the heading of the Death Star. When they arrive at Alderaan, Thane does not immediately know. In fact, “He’d felt the main engines at work, so obviously the station had traveled somewhere important,” but Thane guessed Coruscant. Id. at 159-160. We know from Rogue One that the Jedha bombardment was a single-reactor test; it makes sense that now that the Imperial leadership knows that the technology works, and it won’t be an embarrassing dud, they want the common soldier to observe this sign of Imperial dominance with the destruction of Alderaan.

Ever-brilliant Jude remarks:

Naturally, I understood the cannon’s full potential . . . . The superlaser is fueled by an array of giant kyber crystals, which gives it nearly unlimited power. But I had thought it would be used to break up asteroids for mining purposes. Or uninhabited worlds. Not this.

LS, p. 165.

This is fitting. Even the destruction of Jedha is supposed to be reported as a “mining disaster” in Rogue One. And the secrecy surrounding the events, even among station personnel, makes sense. Darth Vader bluntly declares to Krennic in Rogue One, “There is no Death Star.”

There are some other, extremely minor, apparent canon contradictions. Much later in time, in preparation for the battle of Jakku, Thane remarks:

Sir, with all due respect, nobody has ever captured a Star Destroyer. And don’t tell me it’s because no one has ever tried. Yeah, way back in the day, we managed to take out a governor’s destroyer over Mustafar, but since then, the Imperials have shored up their defenses against infiltrators. These days Star Destroyers are nearly invulnerable.

General Rieekan does not deny this; instead, he insists, “Those crews aren’t as die-hard as they used to be . . . . We’ve had ships as large as attack cruisers switch allegiance in other battles, haven’t we?” Thane retorts, “Those have thousands of crew members. Not tens of thousands.” LS, pp. 501-502. That reference to a destroyer over Mustafar is actually a neat reference to the destruction of Tarkin’s flagship Star Destroyer at the end of Rebels season one. But the implications of the dialogue are that infiltrators have only destroyed one Star Destroyer (Rogue One shows others destroyed, but not by infiltrators, so I don’t think it’s a contradiction), infiltrators have never captured a Star Destroyer, and a Star Destroyer has never surrendered or switched allegiance, in contrast to the smaller attack cruisers. This seems to be contradicted by yet another source–Aftermath.

In Aftermath, Leia has released a message following the destruction of the second Death Star, in which she says, “Already we’ve captured dozens of Imperial capital ships and Destroyers . . .” Aftermath, p. 34. While I haven’t read the full Aftermath trilogy, I know that it concludes with the battle of Jakku, and so this first book is definitely taking place before Thane’s conversation with his superior officer. This is a contradiction that can easily be resolved in a number of ways: the implication doesn’t equal the facts; Rieekan or Thane are misspeaking; Leia’s message is inaccurate or untruthful (which seems out of character for Leia, so this explanation is unlikely); or perhaps Rieekan and Thane simply don’t know about the captured Destroyers (given that Leia’s message is highly publicized propaganda, and General Rieekan is a high-ranking Alliance officer, this is also unlikely).

It’s funny; I know that I’ve called out obsessive attention to continuity before, and Lost Stars is not thematically or narratively flawed because of this, and there’s no reason to always take characters literally when in real life and other fiction characters lie or lack key facts or simply misspeak. But it’s still something that nags at me just a little bit, that draws me out even if for a moment.

Of course, to the extent that Lost Stars is contradicted by the continuity of events developed by Rogue One or any other later release, I don’t fault Claudia Gray or view this as a problem with the book’s narrative. It’s part of working in a shared universe (though I do wonder why no one could have hinted to Gray about the gap, given that they must have been at least working on ideas for Rogue One before the publication of Lost Stars–maybe there wasn’t as much of an overlap in the development cycles for these two titles as I am assuming). And it’s mostly explained by the enormity of the ships involved, the sheer thousands (and, in the case of the Death Star, millions) who served, and the likelihood that only on-duty officers would be engaged in or perhaps even aware of rather highly classified military maneuvers.

It’s just an interesting case study in how even the more carefully plotted new, unified canon already has some worn seams and need for a bit of hand-waving or retcon. It’s not a bad thing. But any organically developed, ever-expanding universe will eventually encounter this problem. And the other approach–relying on a preset road map for all events–would likely be stifling for creative personalities brought on and might even feel lifeless and stale to its intended audience.