Only a few weeks ago, I was looking forward to playing Star Wars: Battlefront for the first time. The trailers showed something special: a game that looked and sounded exactly like Star Wars. Previews for the game were mostly positive, and couldn’t wait to play it.
I wasn’t expecting that actually getting to play the game would become something of a battle in itself.
For me, the saga started with a genuinely lovely and very helpful EA representative who put me in touch with EA’s also lovely but – through no fault of their own, I’m sure – spectacularly unhelpful PR agency. I emailed the agency on November 5th. I didn’t hear back. On November 18, the day after the game came out, I sent them a panicked email.
They responded swiftly, with a sincere apology, and no game.
On November 23, I got offered a download code, but unfortunately not for a console I actually own.
I was a bit surprised by this. I hadn’t realised it was possible to run out of a digital good of which practically infinite copies can be made at close to zero expense. Apparently, EA have managed it. Perhaps they’ve run out of space on their hard drive. They did offer me an Xbox One or PC code, but I don’t have an Xbox One, and if I tried to run Battlefront on my PC it would probably melt.
I was a bit disappointed, but I wasn’t too worried. It’s not like the world lacked for chatter about Star Wars Battlefront, what with it being one of the most visible iterations of the world’s most inescapable cultural juggernaut. Disney has Star Wars-branded fruit, for God’s sake! They didn’t need me chiming in.
Then I borrowed the game from a mate and figured I may as well give it a go. I gently inserted the disc in the PS4 and started a (stunning-looking) tutorial, which rapidly proved unplayable because my X-wing’s guns wouldn’t stop firing. Turned out the R2 trigger on my controller was broken. This was the second time this had happened to me in a few months – PS4 controllers are notoriously fragile. Sony knows this, but I’m not sure if they care. Presumably there’s some kind of cost-benefit ratio that means it’s cheaper to just replace broken controllers rather than tweaking their manufacturing process to produce one that works.
I took my controller back to Dick Smith, as I’d originally bought it from their online store. Unfortunately, Dick Smith seem to be going bankrupt; they’re selling everything insanely cheap, customers are strip-mining their stores, and consequently they have no stock left of anything they’re advertising that anyone actually wants, right on Christmas time. This has driven their poor staff insane and now they all talk like Major Major Major Major from Catch-22. My conversation with their salesperson went like this.
ME: “Hey, my PS4 controller is broken. I’d like to swap it for a working one.”
DICK: “I’m sorry, that’s an online purchase.”
A moment’s silence.
ME: “But… wait. You’re the same company. Are you telling me you can’t swap it?”
DICK: “No, we can.”
Another moment’s silence.
ME: “So… can you do it then?”
DICK starts fiddling with his computer.
DICK: “Actually, we’re out of stock. Sylvia Park has a couple left.”
DICK tries to call the Sylvia Park store. The phone rings out several times. Following DICK’s advice, I leave and head to Sylvia Park, where there are no parks at all, so this takes quite some time. Eventually I get to talk to another DICK, who mumbles as lunatic customers bustle around, stripping the store of anything not nailed down.
ME: “Hi, I’d like to exchange this broken controller.”
DICK: “Sorry, but that’s an online purchase.”
ME: “…But can you exchange it?”
He checks his computer.
DICK: “We’re out of stock.”
ME: “The other store said you had two!”
DICK: “Yes, well, we do. But we don’t have them. They should have called us to confirm.”
ME: “They did. Twice.”
DICK: “Well, yes, but we wouldn’t have heard it. Look, the phone’s ringing right now, and I can’t hear a thing.”
Dick indicates the ringing phone under his desk. A co-worker arrives and they watch it ring together. Eventually it stops.
ME: “Okay. Can I just have a refund?”
DICK: “It’s an online purchase.”
I have a bit of a bitter laugh.
ME: “But can I have a refund?”
I took the refund, and went to JB HiFi, where they quickly and efficiently relieved me of my money in exchange for one of dozens of PS4 controllers they had in stock, just like a real store.
So I went home, and sat down to not play Star Wars Battlefront.
A Few Screens Of Death
This is the pre-game lobby screen for Star Wars: Battlefront. It’s addictive. I played this screen for nearly three hours. As you can see, I liked it so much I took a bunch of screenshots. The screen has the following features:
- It tells you the names of players who are dropping in and out of the lobby in frustration over the eternal wait for a game.
- It plays the Star Wars theme music at you. It’s lucky I like the Star Wars suite, because I will hear it approximately a million billion times as I stare at this screen. No-one else in my flat likes the Star Wars theme, though – or if they ever did like it, they hate it now, and they didn’t mind telling me so. I had to resort to wearing headphones.
- On the right side of this screen is an incredibly well-rendered representation of a piece of Star Wars paraphernalia, like a Stormtrooper mask, or a lightsaber. Sometimes, if you twiddle the right thumbstick, you can rotate this object very slightly, which is the best thing about this screen except for the hold music.
- Up the top is a list of my friends who are currently online, with helpful statistics about how much they have accomplished in StarWars: Battlefront. apete1986, for example, has 0 of a possible 2,000 points, has 0 total kills, has a kill-death ratio of 0.00, and has 0 of 75 mission stars collected. So do all my other online friends. I kind of wondered why the game was bothering to report on the statistics of people who have clearly not played it. Perhaps they, like me, were also staring at this fucking screen, wondering what had become of their life.
By the time I turned off the PlayStation 4, I had I won the battle for myself. I loved this screen.
While I was waiting for a game that, at this stage, was strictly hypothetical, I had time to do Google searches for things like “can’t find Star Wars Battlefront game ps4.” The results were educational. Forum after forum filled with people who, inexplicably, couldn’t play one of the world’s most popular multiplayer games. I figured it wasn’t anything to do with my networking setup, because I work for Bigpipe and my internet is about as good as it gets. Just to make sure, though, I fired up Rocket League to see if I could get into an online game. I had one within seconds.
While spent the rest of my weekend far more productively – driving around various Auckland malls looking for (and utterly failing to find) a particular lip gloss that was on special that I wanted to get my wife for Christmas – I pondered the curious nature of modern multiplayer games. The main mode of Star Wars: Battlefront is online multiplayer. It’s restricted to one person on one console attached to one TV, all united in a single game via the internet. It also has an offline single-player mode, as well as offline co-op modes, but the meat of the experience is online – and if you can’t get online, there’s no experience.
And, once you can get online, if the experience is simplistic and infuriating and inordinately repetitive to the point of dullness, it’s probably just Star Wars: Battlefront.
You Just Lost The Game
Late on Sunday 13 December, I managed to get into a game of Star Wars: Battlefront. Imperial Walkers were outside the gates of the rebel base on Hoth, and I, a raw recruit with no skill points, was grimly determined to make a difference. A laser rifle was thrust rudely into my virtual hands and I was hurled into a pitched battle. My weapon was prepared, and I was ready to do my part. I ran several steps into the blinding glare of Hoth’s sun, gleaming on the perfectly-rendered snow. Then I got shot by five different Stormtroopers at once and died.
This happened about ten thousand times, and it became tiresome after the second time. I was never in a game that my team won. (The only exception to this rule was when my team played as the Imperials on Hoth. We barely even needed to shoot anything as our AT-ATs sauntered to victory.) Over the course of this A Long Time Ago Groundhog Day, each beautifully-rendered death earned me a sliver of experience points, which eventually allowed me to acquire gear that enabled me to survive a tiny bit longer and would have been quite nice to have from the beginning. Every completed game, your points are totted up and you’re allowed to spend them on new ability cards, or weapons, which slowly allows you to eke out a decent chance at survival in the next round. For example, a lot of players have jet packs. I’d quite like to have one too, but I can’t get one until level 15. Don’t get me wrong: I am very much invested in this horrible system and I will absolutely keep playing until I acquire my jetpack, but the undisguised avarice of DICE’s upgrade system makes it all feel too much like work. I suppose it does function as a fantastic representation of what it is like to be untrained, ill-equipped cannon fodder in a pointless war.
Star Wars: Battlefront is also an interesting departure from Star Wars canon; not just because Return of the Jedi-era Luke rocks up to fight The Empire Strikes Back-era Darth Vader on Hoth, but because the stormtroopers are (mostly) non-brain-dead humans and can actually fucking shoot. This has never happened before in Star Wars lore. Some fans complained about these inaccuracies, because they are freakish dyspeptic assholes who can’t stand the slightest playfulness with the Star Wars canon that forms the entire foundation of their ego, probably. I quite liked the departures from canon, because anything that annoys that kind of person is alright with me.
Unfortunately, nearly everything else about the game drove me nuts. Death is damn near instant and is your constant companion. Powerups are inconsistent. Vehicle control is all over the place. Teams are often wildly unbalanced, with a couple of super-nerds for whom Battlefront is both love and life dominating everyone else. There’s no obvious way to coordinate with your matchmade teammates – everything is just a random scramble. And that’s when the matchmaking actually works. Often enough, it just kind of doesn’t, leaving you staring at another pre-game lobby screen of death.
If it wasn’t for the stunning graphics and attention to detail, it’d just be another mediocre multiplayer shooter to be avoided. But it’s gorgeous. The graphics are better than the CGI in the prequels. Often, as I died and died and died and died again, I wished for a moment, a piece of peace, in which I could wander around the maps and just kind of look at things. The frenetic pace of the game lets it down, so much. If only there were more multiplayer modes where you could take things slower, be more tactical, and be allowed to think. But Battlefront allows you no such thing, and – if you stick to multiplayer – it means the game’s considerable ambience can only be experienced in the nanoseconds between each new death. This spawn-die-spawn-die pattern creates a kind of perversely emergent gameplay, where occasional diamond moments are formed from the crushing weight of frustration, repetition, and mediocrity.
The promise of OMG moments like this, coupled with the hook of the upgrade system (and the promise of upcoming, paid-for, downloadable content) will be more than enough to keep many people playing. Even so, the up-front unfairness of the systems they’ve created, and the frequent inability to actually get a game, will inspire many, many repetitions of that most iconic of online multiplayer catch-cries: “This is bullshit!”
But now a word about the offline play. This mode is ridiculously fun, particularly the co-op. It gives you access to decent gear, like jetpacks, straight away. It lets you play with, or against, a friend right there on your couch. Technology! It’s challenging, but never feels unfair. Paired with Battlefront’s stunning looks, it feels like living through Star Wars. I don’t understand why this stellar portion of the game is so utterly divorced from the rest of it, or why you can’t play the online multiplayer with a friend on the same console, but such is life. If only the rest of the game had this level of accessibility and fun – but that promise is now a long time ago and far, far away.
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