Star Wars: Battlefront II

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Being a nominal member of Generation X, I fairly grew up on the Star Wars franchise. I was even young enough to enjoy Ewok Adventures, an abortion which should never have been realized for any purpose. Since those days I have played most or at least around half of the games inspired by the movies, skipping only the obvious lemons and the obligatory crap MMORPG. I adored Tie Fighter and loved Rogue Squadron and even managed to enjoy both Knights of the Old Republic games (even the uninspired sequel.) All this fannishness and a low used price tag led me to Star Wars: Battlefront II. This is the second review I've written for this game; the original claimed that the level design was a bright point. I have since spent many more hours with this game, and learned that there is no bright point. This realization resulted in this second review.

Introduction

Battlefront II is itself a sequel, unsurprisingly enough to Star Wars: Battlefront. Both titles are a sort of combination of a first person shooter and Rogue Squadron, oriented entirely to online play. There are four factions set in two eras, namely the clone wars and the reign of the empire. Each faction has a number of units, several of which are basically identical across factions, and two of which are more or less unique to each. About fourteen planets make up the world of Battlefront II, with some special guest appearances by the Death Star and Jabba's palace. There is a single-player campaign in which the player portrays a member of "Vader's Fist", an elite legion of first clone troopers and later stormtroopers responsible for carrying out all of The Empire's most critical missions. Many of the most critical battles of the saga are featured within this game in some form, with the notable exception of any important space battles.

BFII is available for Xbox, Playstation 2, and PC. This game sounds like one of the best things ever, but in fact it falls short in basically every area, at least on the Xbox. Read on to find out just where, and how.

Basics of Gameplay

Battlefront II has four basic modes: single player campaign, instant action, conquest, and network. Network play is further divided into LAN and Xbox Live!, while any game modes but network ("System Link", or LAN play) or single player can be played cooperatively or competitively using two to four player split-screen. Game play modes include Conquest, in which the goal is to take and hold a number of Control Points ("CPs") and Capture the Flag in which the goal is, unsurprisingly enough, to capture the flag.

Conquest Mode

Conquest Mode is reminiscent of the classic game Star Control. There is a galactic map with a number of planets on it; the player moves a fleet or fleets around the map getting into battles. Some points have planets there; when attacking these, a planetary battle commences. When two fleets meet, over a planet or not, a space battle begins. In the space battle, a "landing craft" can be flown into the enemy hangar and landed, and it becomes a spawn point on the enemy flagship, within which several hard targets can be destroyed for points. When 180 points are achieved by your team (points are lost for suicides or team kills) you win.

Graphics

Since this is a Video game, I will begin the review with an examination of the graphics, which are at best the standard fare. On the Xbox (to which this review applies) the graphics demands are often well in excess of the capabilities of the hardware, and frame rates will often drop below 5 fps. The game makes heavy use of fog, reflection, and transparency effects — apparently too heavy. While some of the simpler levels (with less triangles) will render out all right, any time there are a lot of actors on screen, especially while explosions are going on, you will have to enjoy the play-by-mail version in which it is not clear if you are doing what you are trying to do and the video display resembles nothing so much as a series of postcards mailed to you from the actual "Battlefront". In general, polygon counts are about what you'd expect from an Xbox title, so this level of "performance" implies some serious sloppiness.

The game can be played in either first or third person mode. The only indication you have as to where you're being shot from is an arrow which appears at the center left, right, or top of the screen, which is something less than useful. Using the third-person view helps this considerably, but presents you with the usual problem inherent to this approach: objects between the camera view and the player model are made transparent only intermittently. This is not a graphics effect, but the usual simple incompetence. It is entirely possible for example to be up against a tree, whose trunk will be made almost fully transparent (with the usual accompanying slowdown) but whose leaves will entirely block your view of what you're trying to shoot at. This sort of thing will happen to you constantly while playing this game in third person mode.

Since it is a graphics option of sorts, I should mention the "Enemy Icons" option here. We normally call it "IFF" in the real world, but aparently a lot of little kids play Star Wars games, so that was considered to be too complicated for this title, I guess. While there is an "enemy icons" option which puts a red diamond over the head of every enemy, this feature is stupidly implemented. First, there is no "friend icons" option to put (for example) a blue icon over the head of every friendly, and more incredibly, you can see the icons long before you can see the enemy unit, and the icon often even appears when the enemy unit is fully occluded by a rock or tree. So, you can attack enemies you can't see - but there might be a friendly there, too. Why do I know there's an enemy there, but I don't know if there is a friendly there? Presumably the same occlusion test is used to check whether the AI is allowed to shoot you, and if the icon is drawn above an enemy position, because every so often you get shot from nowhere. Normally your killer is shown when you die (unless they die before the camera can find them) but sometimes instead you see a rock, or a tree, or a wall, and the enemy unit hasn't had time to take cover.

Sound

There is but one bright note here, which is that the audio from this game is provided in Dolby Digital (perhaps that's where all the CPU time went.) Personally I spend most of my time with the sound off; the music gets boring quickly and the voice samples are horribly annoying. As is typical for any game, there is only a very limited set of samples and there is no intelligence behind selecting which one is used in any given situation. Heavy overuse of voice samples diminishes their actual value, since there is a tendency to tune them out. Weapons samples are the same boring stuff that's always been used, and they sound kind of mushy. In short, I turn the sound off even when I don't have to.

Play Control

Play control is not awful, but it is done with the use of a gamepad. In my opinion, this harms every first person shooter. The tendency is to try to fix this problem with auto-aim, but unfortunately in the Star Wars universe "blaster" shots move more slowly than crossbow bolts, which means that you need to put a considerable "lead" on your shots when shooting at any distant, moving enemy, and this game's implementation of auto-aim almost entirely destroys your ability to lead targets. Because turning and aiming are done with the right thumbstick, yet basically every function other than shooting something is on a thumb button, the player will have substantial difficulty fluidly utilizing the jump, roll/crouch, vehicle entry and target lock buttons.

There is also an auto-lock feature, but this will get you killed, over and over again, as you auto-lock a target which then runs behind cover; you are now facing this target and trying to shoot them no matter who you aim at until they are unlocked. This happens when they die, get too far behind cover, or when you hold the B button which you do not have time to do during intense combat. You need to be using the right thumbstick to turn and aim! It is possible to freely remap the controller (an unusual but much-needed feature in most console games) so you could swap the target zoom function (click right thumbstick) with the lock feature and possibly improve the situation, but you're by far best not using auto-lock. Unfortunately, this means you're by far best off never using lock at all.

Level Design

In my first review of this game, I mentioned level design as one of this game's bright spots. Unfortunately, more experience with the game has taught me that the level design is actually one of the game's weakest points. There are errors in a number of maps (most notably Felucia) which the player can walk through, falling to their death beneath the surface of the world. Sometimes a vehicle will also spawn on top of the player and force them down through the level geometry, but this is a game engine bug and not (as far as I can tell) a map error. There are also any number of spots (again, especially on Felucia) which look like you should be able to walk or jump through them but which are impassable. Spawn locations are also incredibly ridiculous and spawn facing is just as nonsensical; there is neither rhyme nor reason involved.

Physics

Probably the least pathetic aspect of this game (besides possibly the net code, which I have not yet tested) is the physics engine, but even it has some serious failings, not least the aforementioned bug that causes players to be forced through the map by a vehicle that shouldn't even have spawned until the player clears the area. Vehicles are also supposed to inhibit vehicles from spawning, but I have had fighters spawn under my landing craft in space missions, sharing the same space, and which caused both vehicles to explode when the landing craft was lifted off. A more common and thus serious problem is that your shots will hit empty space next to an obstacle like a wall. Apparently ether objects or your shots are larger than they appear; probably the latter, in order to make hitting targets easier. In general though, physics work like they ought to. You can even stand on a tank and your facing will change accurately as it rotates and so on, something that a lot of game engines have a hard time with.

Artificial Intelligence

In my first review, I used the phrase "Worst. AI. Ever." and I stand by that statement in this review. It's not only the worst, it's also the cheapest. One of the basic, fundamental problems of playing human vs. AI is that the computer can always figure out where you are, the computer always knows where your head is, and the computer gets a head shot (or whatever) when it decides that it will. While there is usually a random element, that random element generally decides simply whether there will be a hit or not, and where it will be located.

What does this mean to the player? First, you must understand that your "friendly" units are not only mostly useless, but they will actively screw you over, worse even than the average human player. First, they are serious "keeblers" and will grab up any health, ammo, or energy packs that they need even a little bit, regardless of your condition. Second, they do not care about you, and will not lift a finger to help you (except for the engineer unit, a little bit.) They might coincidentally attack your targets, but it's not to help you. This is actually part of a larger problem which is that the friendly AI has no ability to make decisions whatsoever. For example, in the "Conquest" game mode you need to take all the Control Points ("CPs") to win. Yet the AI will run right past an unguarded enemy CP on his way to attack someone or take some other CP, even when the enemy is currently taking your last CP and is about to start the 20 second win countdown. By the same token, they can be intent on their own goals and run right past you trying to defend your CP from five enemies, a tactic which gets you both killed. AI units also have a severe tendency to run into and even halt in your line of fire! Time and time again, your units will try to give whoever you are shooting a big hug, leap on a grenade which is about to kill the enemy, stop in front of you while you are zoomed in and sniping, et cetera.

However, the enemy AI does not share this problem, at least not to the same degree. The enemy will actually make it a point to take CPs, whereas in general if you do not take CPs in the single-player game, no one will. AI units are also apparently held semi-tightly to certain paths, as you will consistently seem them taking position in the same locations even when you are in some other position. This has its advantages in that in a few levels (such as on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyk) you can go around the enemy and accomplish some objectives without taking much fire, but in general it means that not only will friendly units stop in your way randomly, but they will also stop in your way regularly. Think of how hard it would be to drive down the freeway if ninety percent of the time you got within ten carlengths of the back bumper of the car in front of you they hit the brakes, and you will have a good idea of how frustrating your friendly units will be. I have gotten to the point where if I am winning substantially, I make it a point to kill the friendly unit that runs in front of me just to get them out of my way. Unfortunately, even if you're trying NOT to shoot them, they have a significant tendency to eat enough of your fire so that they die (and decrease your points and kill counts) and protect the other guy long enough for him to kill you.

The problem with the computer knowing where you are and what you are doing at all times is compounded at least tenfold when you set the enemy AI to "elite" mode. Your units stay just as stupid as ever, but the enemy suddenly starts getting regular headshots and full-body shotgun hits on you, starts effectively shooting you with turrets and vehicle weapons, et cetera. The problem here is that even when human players wouldn't even be able to see each other, you're getting shot in the head, because the computer seemingly just ratchets up the headshot percentage. Add to this the fact that the computer can occasionally shoot right through level geometry that acts like a solid wall to both you and your bullets (notably the turret consoles inside the capital ships during space battles) and your death count will start heading up, up, up. This game has problems in a lot of areas, but the AI is definitely its weakest point.

Game Modes

Network

Battlefront II provides a number of game modes to attempt to increase replay value. Unfortunately, there are some serious and obvious omissions, such as good old Deathmatch mode. There are also no free-for-all gameplay modes whatsoever; all play is team-oriented. The player has only Conquest, capture the flag (which on some levels is a single-flag, and on some levels is a two-flag affair) and "hunt" options, the latter of which is only available on a few worlds. In the hunt game mode, you play the native creatures vs. a hunting party; on Endor you play an Ewok, on Kashyyk you're a Wookie, and so on. Unfortunately, the most interesting potential hunt would be on Felucia in which you would get to play a big monster-thing, an option which is not included. BF2 thus has at best about half of the game modes that the typical network game has. The stupidity is compounded by the fact that you have to play good vs. bad in an era, so unless you play cooperatively (an option which thankfully is included) you are either playing Clones vs. Republic or Empire vs. Rebellion. There's no way to play Republic vs. Rebellion for example, or Empire vs. Empire, some fairly obvious options to include in the game.

Single Player

I previously mentioned the single player campaign. It is worth noting that the game's predecessor has four single player campaigns which allow the player to take the good or the bad guys' side. This one only lets you be bad, which is admittedly more fun than being good (let's face it, this is a game about blowing up people and stuff) but which doesn't allow you much experience with the units of the different sides without just jumping in and playing the game. There also are no free roam modes or anything like that, which could considerably help the player understand the game. In addition, the difficulty of the single player campaign is badly flawed, a sure sign of a rushed game (or idiots in charge - I'm no Kreskin.) One of the levels in the middle, in which you use Boba Fett to take Kamino, is probably the most difficult in the entire campaign. I've played it literally a couple dozen times, and beat it once without cheating, leaving literally less than five seconds to spare. The first time I cheated, I still failed the mission; the second time, I passed it with ten seconds to spare while invulnerable. Also, while I mention Boba Fett, I should mention that there's no gauge to indicate remaining jetpack flight time before you plummet to your death, a trait he shares with the Dark Troopers and the Jet Troopers.

Miscellaneous Bitching

I could complain about this game all day. For example, it shares a problem with PopCap games like Bejeweled or Dinomite - if you are about to lose because of a timeout or similar, but you fix the condition before the game ends, the game can still end before it notices that you should not have lost. When taking a CP back, and when the 20 second timer is counting down (you have 20 seconds after the last CP is taken before losing) the game will decide you have lost even if you have already taken the CP away from the enemy (you don't have to claim it, just neutralize it in order to prevent a win.) There are other cases in which this is true, but this is the most serious; for example, in the space battles you are not always informed that you have taken out the enemy's shields once the shield generator is destroyed. Sometimes it is necessary to go look at it, or to pass through the door before it will be recognized; sometimes even this is not enough, and ten or even fifteen seconds will pass before the game has realized that you have accomplished an objective.

Another serious issue (mentioned previously) is that of spawn locations. While I understand that units have to appear somewhere, the game seems to take delight in spawning the enemy in the location worst for you, and spawning you in the location best for the enemy. You can be fairly sure that if you spawn at a CP which is being taken, you will not spawn facing the enemy - but you can be fairly sure that the enemy will spawn facing you, and maybe even start firing right away. For some reason you seem to spawn facing nothing (and usually facing the rear of the battle for your forces) but also you seem to spawn facing away from the CP, while the enemy tends to spawn facing the CP. This alone is enough to get you killed more often than not, especially when the AI difficulty is set to Elite. In general, enemies should spawn as far away from players (and vice versa!) to best maintain the illusion that they are not simply appearing from thin air, but this game seems to simply pick a random spawn point at which to start either you or the enemy units, which is as likely to be behind you as it is to be in a different, empty room (e.g. during a space battle.) Units also will spawn freely in space battles; not all of them come from a hangar or any other logical location. As is traditional for sci-fi movies and games, basically all the action happens more or less on a single plane, and even the background battle graphics are spread out thusly, but enemy units will often come from far above or below you.

Summary

This game is an excellent example of maximum return for minimum input. A minimally finished game (at least it doesn't crash, or at least, I haven't gotten it to do so yet) was released, and welcomed by the gaming public. The game is as inflexible as possible, and being a console game it is highly difficult to modify to repair its shortcomings, with the most notable flaws being the inability to play arbitrary factions versus one another, and the truly awful AI decision-making process. The hilarious thing is that even with all these flaws I've enjoyed this game a great deal, but I think in the balance I'm going to greatly regret not putting the time into another first person shooter, for example Halo (which I've played through on the PC, and which I wasn't amazingly impressed with there.) Unless you truly need to play this game, you should fire up the ol' 486 and play some Tie Fighter instead; it's still the best Star Wars-themed game, by far. Even with this game's failure in all areas, I can't give it one star, because I often enjoyed playing it (when it wasn't pissing me off completely.) Consequently, it gets the ol' two stars (of five - but I'd give it a 2 on an integer scale of 1 to 10, as well.)

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