When EA and DICE released Star Wars Battlefront two years ago it was riding the wave of enormous hype generated by the anticipated return of the sci-fi franchise with J.J. Abrams' big screen sequel The Force Awakens.
Battlefront was to video game fans what the film was to film fans. It marked the return of a beloved franchise and had everything it needed to be a rousing success. We enjoyed it, but reviews were mixed with some lamenting a lack of content in the initial release.
With the sequel, the developers at DICE, Criterion Games and Motive have to do a lot more to win over fans. Audiences know the teams are capable of recreating the film franchise, but now the game itself needs to grow and evolve.
So far, the Swedish studio is delivering, widening the game's scope to include maps and characters from every Star Wars film to date (not just the original trilogy), as well as a robust single-player campaign and the promise to offer future maps, modes and characters for free.
At Gamescom, Starfighter Assault was revealed, which builds on Fighter Squadron, a mode for aerial combat in the first game that was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the whole product. Functional rather than fun, it was simplistic to a fault.
Starfighter Assault is different, with objective-led play and a fleet of varying ships with different abilities and uses. At Gamescom we played the mode, and then sat down with designer John Stanley and producer Rob Wyle of Criterion, the studio behind the mode, to discuss it.
How does the new mode address the fan criticisms of Fighter Squadron?
Rob Wyle: So, with Starfighter Assault we built all the ships' handling from the ground up, so each ship... At Criterion, we have a real passion for the handling and the way vehicles feel, so we took them, we did a lot of prototyping, we've done a lot of iteration on them to make them feel as much like a Star Wars starfighter as possible, and also add as much gameplay into each one as possible.
Also, with the levels themselves, rather than being a kind of... an arena where we just drop a lot of fighters to fight it out, we've tried to create a little bit of a narrative between the levels, and that includes the objectives, which try and encourage team play, encourage players to stay together and focus on these objectives. It kind of keeps the action all together.
John Stanley: Yeah, so really just trying to add a ton more depth to the gameplay. So hopefully you realise from the control system, as Rob was saying, there's a great deal more freedom there, so you're able to pick on players you know, but ... You know, we aim for that depth of mastery as well, so full role control and really allowing you to stay in and have more epic dogfights.
The mode consists of these multi-stage maps, was this a decision made in response to the popular Battle Station mode in the last game's Death Star DLC?
JS: For us, I think, as we said about adding this small piece of narrative to each of the locations, it just makes sense to have this space play. It really adds kind of tension. So, the defenders can win at any moment, the attackers can't rush back because they really have to keep pushing. And likewise, the defenders can push to... If you manage to get a win in Phase One, then that's going to feel much better than just pipping it at the end.
RW: It was popular, but it also really fitted in with what we wanted to do as a studio with the mode. We really wanted it to feel like something that could've happened in a Star Wars movie. And that also had a great deal of focus around what we were doing at each stage.
In Battlefront 2 there's a lot more ships and a greater sense of individuality and classes in the ships. How do go about developing a fleet of these ships that would feel unique and different?
RW: It's a tricky thing to do. We've got an awful lot of ships across an awful lot of eras. Generally, we would start with the classes themselves, so we've got the three classes that should feel... If you play one, if you play a bomber class from the Empire, or a bomber class in the Y-Wing, it should at least feel similar-ish, in that they're heavier, they're slower, they're really well armed and armoured. But, even within those classes, the individual ship should also feel different. So, the Y-Wing is actually a little bit more manoeuvrable, and the Y-Wing's got its ion cannon, which is pretty authentic to Star Wars and stuff, and it has the astromech droid to help with repairs, whereas the TIE bomber has just an awful lot of missiles that fire around taking out objectives.
So we usually will start by balancing the classes themselves, and then go further in-depth to balance the individual ships, and then all those things have to be balanced against one another, and then against the objectives in the level itself.
How has development on Battlefront 2 differed from your role in the first game?
RW: So Criterion's involvement in the first game was... We just did some work on the speeder bike level on Endor. We were working on the speed-bike handling and the level itself. In Battlefront 2 we took the whole section of Starfighter Assault, so... we took on more vehicles and went into space, so it's differed quite a lot.
The post-release content, which EA revealed will be free to all players, is that going to include Starfighter Assault content? Is that something you can talk about?
JS: Starfighter Assault is being shipped with the main game, but it's also planned right now for the first DLC for Starfighter Assault, which is based around The Last Jedi.
[PR interjects] Yeah, there will be varying content that we'll announce more as the months go on.
Criterion developed the VR mode in the first game, that let players pilot an X-Wing. How did the experience inform Starfighter Assault?
JS: What we found with VR is that being able to immerse players into a starfighter is something really powerful, and I actually saw that when we were here at Gamescom last year, and the kind of response to that was amazing. So, taking some of those lessons and then inviting them into Battlefront 2, we've made sure that we've gone all out with our visuals, with our audio, with our handling, just to really make you feel like you are the pilot of the starfighter.
Star Wars Battlefront 2 releases 17 November on PS4, Xbox One and PC.