LucasArts' 2005 'Battlefront 2' Nailed Multiplayer 'Star Wars'

LucasArts' 2005 'Battlefront 2' Nailed Multiplayer 'Star Wars'

LucasArts

Long before EA rebooted the series in 2015, the first sequel to 'Star Wars: Battlefront' was already a trailblazer

Long before EA rebooted the series in 2015, the first sequel to 'Star Wars: Battlefront' was already a trailblazer

The history of video games could be told through Star Wars simulations. In 1978, Apple Computer released an unlicensed, uncredited compact cassette where you, a novice cadet for the Rebel Alliance, are tasked with blasting vectorized TIE Fighters out of the sky. It’s comical by today’s standards. You can just picture a bright-eyed group of programmers returning home after a late-night screening of A New Hope, resolving themselves to recreate the mysteries of the Jedi in beautiful Apple II electric green. Video games were treated like aspirational proof-of-concepts in the late ‘70s, so it’s funny that even in an era of hypotheticals, one of the first things we wanted to do was play Star Wars.

The Atari 2600 took its swing in 1982 with The Empire Strikes Back, in which a snowspeeder takes endless pot-shots at an AT-AT on a peyote-hued Planet Hoth. LucasArts’ Super Star Wars for the Super Nintendo ditched any attempt at simulation whatsoever, and injected Luke, Leia, and Han into a Super Mario World-like platformer. The 1994 classic TIE Fighter opened up a blocky sector of free-roaming space, and drubbed on a moody narrative fitting for the sinister prerogatives of the empire. It’s still one of the best Star Wars games ever made, which is exhibitive of how difficult it's been to make the fiction interactive. The Star Wars universe is full of so many distinct, vivid fantasies, and I think that’s why they often fail when translated off the silver screen and into player’s hands. I don’t remember much about a game like Star Wars Episode 1: Racer, other than how much it didn’t feel like the podracing scene.

Obviously, that’s beginning to change with technology. EA's 2015’s Star Wars: Battlefront, for all its shortcomings, was a beautifully rendered Star Wars game. We’re living in a moment where coders can make Luke Skywalker’s dirty-blonde locks bounce in the light Endor breeze, which is a privilege that would make those early Apple II programmers scream in agony. This year Swedish developer DICE is releasing Star Wars Battlefront 2. It looks gorgeous. Hopefully the developers will clean up some of the complaints dogging the previous entry, and move us closer to the alpha-and-omega Star Wars game we’ve been playing in our dreams since we were six (it helps that they've already added a single-player story). It’ll also be going up against a pretty stiff pedigree. In 2005, long before the series was rebooted, LucasArts published a different game called Star Wars: Battlefront 2. For my money, it was the first time a multiplayer Star Wars game truly worked.

The funny thing about the first Battlefront 2 is that it predicted the narrative that’s been laid out for DICE’s forthcoming sequel. The original Star Wars: Battlefront was fine. The now-defunct Pandemic Studios flagrantly aped Battlefield's structure and imported a bunch of Star Wars models to fill out a simple class-based roster. It felt like you were playing a really well-made mod, except that it cost $60. The criticisms honed in on the game’s bad single-player modes, braindead A.I., and the simplistic shooting mechanics. Sound familiar? Yeah, the thinness of 2015’s Battlefront is a tradition that dates back to the series’ roots. This was also in 2004, during the dregs of the prequel cycle, Occasionally you could play as Count Dooku – who’s a strong candidate for worst Star Wars character of all time. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that there won’t be a Star Wars game released between now and the end of time where Count Dooku is a playable character ever again.

But Battlefront sold well, and a year later when Pandemic returned with Battlefront 2, it felt like they stuffed in everything they had to cut from the first game. It was like the anti-Madden - the sort of sequel that immediately made the previous game irrelevant. Like, the first Star Wars: Battlefront was a multiplayer, Battlefield-style Star Wars game where you couldn’t pilot an X-Wing or a TIE Fighter. That’s inexcusable right? Battlefront 2 understood that, and added interstellar space battles, 24 diverse maps, and a perfectly reasonable single-player campaign. It almost felt like a mea culpa, like Pandemic intentionally set out to make Battlefront 2 as generous as possible.

Personally, I think Battlefront 2 was the first time a developer captured the magic of Star Wars in a multiplayer engine. It’s something that didn’t seem possible. Players break immersion all the time for competitive advantages – it’s why you routinely see fully camouflaged commandos doing bunny hops with an M16 mounted on their shoulder in Counter-Strike. But Battlefront 2 never had that problem. I remember how challenging it was to down an AT-AT with a Snowspeeder. You needed incredible precision to wrap the cable around its legs, and most people who tried ended up crashing into the ground. But it was possible, and when you pulled it off, it felt sublime. The franchise never attracted a serious pro scene, and I think players simply weren’t interested in cooking up optimal strats or exploits. It was like a role-play – a joint effort by both sides to maximize our Star Wars experience. Sure you could eventually down an AT-AT by firing enough lasers into it, but that wouldn’t be nearly as fun, right?

After Battlefront 2, the franchise was handed off to U.K developer Free Radical Design who started working on a sequel in 2006. Players famously got their hands on leaked alpha footage that showed off massive, fully-contiguous planet-wide conflicts. You could chuck thermal detonators at Stormtroopers, jump into a spaceship, and blast off into the sky to join the Star Destroyer assault overhead. The prospect was mouthwatering – a natural extension of Battlefront 2’s playground - and people were naturally upset when the project was cancelled. The ache was personal. We’ve wanted to do something like that since the ‘70s. EA understood that. Their ad campaign for the 2015 Battlefront revival centered on a haggard thirty-something pencil-pusher staring wistfully at an old, dirty R2D2 mini. It was a ballsy pitch, and it made their intentions clear. Remember when you and your friends used flash lights as lightsabers? This will feel like that. Hopefully EA’s sequel will treat those nerve-endings with respect. If nothing else, Pandemic gave them a great blueprint.