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.

Back to Star Wars, Hard

The true Star Wars faithful gathered for Celebration in Chicago over this weekend. I was not one of them. Yet the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker was enough to light the fire in my heart once more. It never really goes it. Sometimes, it settles to embers, but there’s always been something to reignite it.

So while I was not in Chicago, I still had a weekend that was overly devoted to Star Wars. After seeing the trailer at work on Friday, I struggled to stay focused on anything other than Star Wars, and I watched Return of the Jedi when I got home (between the second Death Star and Palpatine, it was Episode VI that the new trailer most put into my mind). I’d already been reading the Ahsoka novel, so I read some more of that. I dived back into Battlefront II and Empire at War. And now I’m writing a post about Star Wars again.

That trailer looks so good to me! There are so many mysteries, and I’m eager to see it. Experience has shown that I’m more excited for new saga films over anything else in the franchise, and the trailers for these movies are always great. Each time, it takes at least the first teaser to get me to finally acknowledge how excited I am. I’d actually been saying last week or so that I felt like The Last Jedi felt like a fair conclusion to the sequel trilogy and would have been an acceptable place to end the saga, so while I was curious to see what they’d do, I didn’t feel like anything was missing or unjustifiably incomplete. Now, though, there are so many tantalizing details, and I’m really eager to see what kind of story is being told here!

The other Star Wars announcements mattered less to me, as usual. I’ll probably get to much, though not all, of the new stuff eventually. The Jedi: Fallen Order game looks disappointing to me. I think there are already enough stories about Jedi on the run during the Dark Times, and the trailer felt very much so like a Light Side version of The Force Unleashed, a game I didn’t really get into at the time. And the protagonist appears to be another bland white dude. That all said, I’m sort of starved for a narrative-focused Star Wars game, and while I’d prefer an RPG, I’ll take this! Which means…maybe I’ll be looking into another console sooner than I thought? I love the Switch and Switch games, but it’d be nice to play more of the Star Wars games coming out. If I do get another console, it’ll probably be a PS4. I’m more interested in the exclusive titles available there versus the Xbox One.

Oh, speaking of Star Wars RPGs, VG247 had an article about Obsidian Entertainment’s planned plot for Knights of the Old Republic III. I really wish that game had happened. The Old Republic was reasonably fun, but I’ve never cared for MMOs and have always preferred single-player experiences. A mark in Fallen Order‘s favor is that Chris Avellone, formerly Obsidian writer for games like KOTOR II, is one of the writers for this new game.

Last thing I want to get to: I played a shocking amount of Empire at War this weekend and finally beat the Rebellion campaign. Yes, it was on Easy, but now I can mark both of the main campaign modes on my list of completed adventures (it was years ago, but I’m pretty sure I won the Empire campaign on Easy too). I mostly had fun, and I just pushed through the point I normally get burnt out. The gameplay just doesn’t mesh with the Rebellion-on-the-run feel that the setting, and the game’s story, establishes. But I’ve complained about that before. (Although I could complain now about some story issues I had, mostly related to the larger continuity. Just for instance, this came out after Revenge of the Sith and benefited from the expanded lore and setting of that film, but it didn’t include Bail Organa in the formative rebellion in any substantial way, and it had Captain Antilles affiliated with Mon Mothma instead of Bail for some reason, switching over to the Tantive IV only towards the end of the game.)

There is, however, something very interesting thing that the game did: after Alderaan’s destruction, the Death Star immediately set course for Yavin IV. I barely got Mon Mothma out in time. I defeated the Death Star’s support fleet, but with no Red Squadron, I still lost the moon. The Death Star then destroyed Wayland (a planet I’d conquered after the early story mission, because why not, and which I successfully defended from a later invasion attempt). Finally, Han showed back up with Luke and the droids, and I could send a sizable fleet to win the battle and leave the Death Star’s destruction to Luke. That final fight played out in the stellar wreckage of Wayland. There are three reasons why I like those developments:

  1. Everything happening is so sudden, shocking, and unpredictable. It puts you in the mindset of the fledgling Rebel Alliance as it faces potential devastation, with no obvious way out. I expected Luke to show up, I expected a warning before the Alderaan destruction cinematic, I expected the game to be predictable and give me time like it had at every other stage. I couldn’t rely on convention or the film’s narrative. It made me feel a little anxious and desperate, then really relieved when Luke finally showed up.
  2. It clearly established this narrative as an Alternate Universe. Sure, this was before the canon reset, but the implication up until that point is that we might have been playing a game that was supposed to be telling a definitive story of the Rebellion. Even if we had to ignore the gameplay and the narrative-defying conquest of the galaxy in the name of the Rebels, the core story being told could be seen as “truth.” The ending relaxes those rules and says, no, this is just a fun story, hope you enjoyed playing with the toys. Any galactic conquest mode to follow is more playing in the sandbox, no more or less “true.”
  3. It actually disrupted the conquest-focused gameplay and returned the emphasis to Rebels barely staying a step ahead of an over-powerful Empire. Too bad the rest of the game isn’t like that…

That’s more than enough about that game, but before I drop the subject entirely, let me quickly show you a story in four images:

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Now, will I ever play the Forces of Corruption campaign? Maybe. More unlikely things have happened (like finishing the Rebellion campaign), and my Star Wars appetite is currently insatiable and probably will remain so through December!

My Five Favorite Games in 2018

It’s the end of the last day of January 2019, so I suppose I’d better get around to a retrospective on my favorite video game experiences of 2018, if I’m ever going to do it. Coming up with my five favorite games in 2018 proved difficult. You’ll notice it’s not five favorite games of 2018, which would have substantially limited the playing field. Rather, it’s the games that I played in 2018, which was still rather difficult. Looking over the reviews I posted over the year, I found that (a) I really hadn’t played all that many games in 2018, and (b) many of my video game experiences were downright mediocre. In fact, because I didn’t do a list like this for 2017, I’m bringing in Super Mario Odyssey to round things out, even though I wrapped up my experience with that game in December of the year prior.

So, in order of preference, more or less, here it goes…

5. Star Wars: Battlefront II

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No, not that one. The 2005 one, of course. I still have a lot of fun playing this game, and I’m beginning to suspect that I may never fully tire of it. I don’t care that it’s getting older. I still load this up when I just want to have fun. And believe it or not, this title, released over a decade ago, had relevance once more in the past year, as it received new patches for renewed online multiplayer in late 2017 and early 2018. So all in all, it’s just as good a time to hop into the game again (or for the first time) now as ever.

4. Super Mario Odyssey

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It’s cute. It’s fun. It’s sprawling, and it can be challenging. There are lots of collectibles–many of those collectibles, like outfits and hats, are rather fun to collect. It’s colorful, quirky, and weird. It’s a damn good Mario game and a damn good platformer. It was the first game that I played for the Switch, and it instantly made the console worthwhile.

3. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

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If you’ve ever played and enjoyed a Super Smash Bros. game, you should like this. A huge roster of fighters, a variety of game modes, and a colossal pile of stages give any gamer more than enough content to work through, and there’s more to come. It’s flashy and addictive in single-player. It’s brutal (for a horrible player like me) but still fun in online multiplayer. And local multiplayer matches are still a blast.

2. 7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat

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This was a game I encountered by accident, and it was a deceptively simple and surprisingly rewarding game to play with a rich narrative spun out of chance and my own efforts at cross-generational success. This was a beautiful game, and I’m only disappointed that the planned series to follow seems unlikely to ever manifest. And this is also a really cheap indie title, so you really have no reason not to give it a try!

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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I’m not a Zelda fan. I loved this game. It’s not only my favorite game that I played in 2018, it might be my favorite game ever. As I’ve said before, BOTW is a “massive game, and densely populated with secrets and surprise encounters. Experimentation and exploration are always rewarded. Most of the time, if you think to combine game systems to try something new, the game seems willing to let you do so. Add the characteristic quirkiness and clever puzzle-solving of a Zelda game, and it’s easy to see how this became an instant classic (and a new favorite of mine).”

And so concludes my list. What were your favorite gaming experiences in 2018? And what video games are you looking forward to playing in 2019?

All the Games

After a couple fits and starts, I finished Broken Age. This could warrant a full review, but everything I would want to say can be summarized as follows: excellent characterization, lovely plot that finishes a bit too abruptly, lots of cute little jokes, absolutely beautiful, BUT the gameplay is often frustrating in the worst traditions of adventure games. Two of those points bear emphasizing. One: the art is absolutely gorgeous! A series of screenshots are below, to hopefully support that claim. Two: the gameplay can be so infuriating!

So much of the time is wandering around the map, collecting random items from the environment, from dialogue choices, and from puzzles, then figuring out where the items might ultimately come into play. There’s a lot of backtracking and trading of random crap for other random crap. Sometimes it seems logical, or even obvious; sometimes, the use of an item for a given situation can seem clever. But most of the time, it just seemed arbitrary. The world and the characters were so quirky, lovely, and charming; the plot had some fun twists and pivots and re-connections; but the impact of those elements was lessened as I trudged back and forth in the most point-and-clickiest way possible. You ever find yourself faced with a frustratingly opaque game challenge requiring a specific solution, while you want to scream another, more apparent option? That’s so much of this game for me. Especially when there are so many characters to talk with, it was frustrating to see that being able to propose obvious solutions or to ask obvious questions was just stripped out. In short, the game felt…artificially difficult (or at least its second half did). In the last act, I frequently consulted a guide, increasingly impatient with the bizarro limitations put into place. If you played a lot of classic point-and-click adventure games, though, you might have a more positive experience.

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Besides Broken Age, I also played a couple of weird little indie projects that released to a lot of acclaim but basically passed me by until now.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch is zany and fun, with a surprisingly heartfelt and endearing story under the wacky Saturday-morning-cartoon premise. It’s a fairly short but worthwhile experience.

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Then there’s The Stanley Parable. This was fun, but I lost interest fairly quickly without exploring most of the branching paths and endings. I spent most of my short time with it forcing endings through disobedience. The narration was charming, but I thought the game a bit too clever for its own good (and really, exploring “choice” in a video game and in life has been done more subtly elsewhere, hasn’t it?).

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I also jumped back into Hotline Miami a little bit recently. This game’s just perfect at setting a mood. The jarring, twitchy controls. The bizarre cuts between levels. The splashy blood. The bright colors. The pounding music. The game honestly makes me feel a little ill and a little disassociated after a while, like I’m getting into the head of a psychopath–or as close as I’d want to be, anyway. Gamification of the violence drives home that disturbing feeling, too. It’s a surreal experience, and the gameplay and music provide a powerfully addictive combination. I’ve played the story once or twice, and I’ve also played individual levels on occasion. But I don’t think it’s a game that I could ever 100%–I’d have to spend too much time getting really good at really disturbing shit.

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Moving out of indie games, I’ve returned to Jurassic World: Evolution, as well. A recent update included a new challenge mode. So far, I’ve fiddled around with the easy mode, taking my time, having fun, then realizing in a panic that while I would probably eventually get to 5 stars, I was definitely not going to meet the par time. This could prove to be a quite challenging mode, especially working all the way up to Jurassic difficulty while meeting the par times, and it may or may not be enough to keep me in the game for a while (if only to try to return my status to 100% completion).

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Finally, I’ve been playing ever more of Star Wars: Battlefront II. The 2005 edition, of course. It’s just so fun and easy to hop into even if I don’t have a lot of time to play.

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And that’s all for games. The final post, on television, will follow tomorrow.