Star Wars: Battlefront
US: 17 Nov 2015
Shooting a gun in a game is a simple action. You aim a cursor at a target and press a button to pull the virtual trigger. It’s a simple action, but when you look at a standard controller and all the buttons used for shooting, the action quickly gets complicated. Suddenly there’s a button for looking down the sights of the gun, for reloading the gun, for crouching, for switching guns, for activating a secondary function of the gun. Then, there’s all the complexities not linked to a button: knowing when to reload, how fast each gun reloads, how recoil affects your aim, that looking down the sights improves accuracy, that crouching improves accuracy, that moving decreases accuracy, that running prevents you from shooting, etc., etc. Seen this way, the modern shooter is actually a damned complicated beast.
Which is why I’m loving Star Wars: Battlefront. It breaks the shooter mold by removing certain systems that are considered sacrosanct for shooters to possess. This has resulted in the game being called shallow and uncomplicated by many reviewers and players, and I don’t actually disagree with them. Where I disagree is that “shallow” and “uncomplicated” are inherently bad qualities in a game.
Last year, I wrote about an action-platformer game called David. Its momentum-based controls felt awkward and wrong to me, too floaty and imprecise to be fun. Platformers should be all about precision and absolute perfect control—I thought. But the more that I played the game, the more I grew to like the controls, and the more that I came to understand their nuances.
We naturally get used to playing games a certain way. Differences are awkward, differences can also be good, but awkwardness? Awkwardness is bad. It’s a dilemma. Personally, I think the worst thing that a game can do is mimic the controls of another game exactly, prioritizing the player’s familiar comfort over its own self-identity. When all games have standardized controls, all games feel the same, and this has been the case with shooters since 2007 when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out and took the gaming world by storm, becaming the control template for a whole generation of big-budget shooters.
Then there’s Battlefront, which to my happy surprise removes several elements from the standard shooting game and ends up feeling like a breath of fresh laser-blasted air.
The most obvious change to the formula is the lack of need for ammo. The laser blasters never run out of “bullets” because they’re lasers, so every gun essentially has infinite ammo. It feels strange at first to play a game in which a cheat code is part of the basic design, but the ammo issue turns out to be surprisingly unimportant to the moment-to-moment gameplay. In any other shooter, most players will likely die before they ever come close to running out of ammo. In Battlefield, there’s a class of soldier with the ability to drop ammo crates for his team—I almost never see people use that ability. It’s just not that necessary. The presence of an ammo counter in these games, that UI indicator that makes you think that bullets are some limited resource, has more to do with mimicking reality than with gameplay. That mimicry matters for Call of Duty, but not to Star Wars.
Our total ammo stash may be unimportant to the gameplay, but the clip size of the gun itself is very important. That clip size determines how fast and how often we reload. The act of reloading breaks up the pace of shooting and gives each gun a unique feel. Do you have a gun with a large clip, allowing you to shoot a lot, or with a small clip, demanding precise aim? The clip size becomes a reflection of our playstyle. Guns in Battlefront don’t reload, but they do overheat. The more that we shoot, the faster the gun heats up, and if it overheats, it has to vent, which leaves it inoperable for a few seconds. You can manage the heat by keeping track of a meter that fills as you shoot. These two systems (reloading vs. overheating) may be very different, but they have the same effect: Guns are differentiated based on how fast they shoot. The personal touch is still there, the “ammo management” nuance is still there, but in Battlefront, this exists in a simplified form that’s divorced from the virtual ammo issue.
The other very noticeable and thus very awkward change is that laser guns don’t have recoil. It makes sense. There’s no gunpowder exploding, just a beam of concentrated light being flashed in a specific direction like a super powerful flashlight. This is only awkward because so few shooters dare to make weapons that don’t recoil. We’ve been trained to believe that recoil is representative of power. If held wrong, a powerful shotgun could break our shoulder, or a sniper rifle can shatter our ribs. A gun without major recoil is weak. It’s a paintball gun or a BB rifle.
But this is a limiting train of thought. These weapons aren’t real, and they aren’t trying to mimic reality, so why should they adhere to the limits of realistic physics? The best thing that Battlefront does is force us to reconsider the identifying characteristics of a weapon. If recoil is no longer an indication of power, what is? There must still be some trait that separates a laser BB gun from a laser shotgun. In this case, once again, it’s all about firing speed. The slower a gun shoots, the more damage it does with each shot. There’s still a very obvious physical trait that differentiates weak weapons from strong weapons, but it’s not the obvious trait that we’ve been trained to look for.
The removal and streamlining of all these systems does something interesting to the game. It takes an experience that was already considered fairly simple and intuitive, the point-and-shoot shooter, and simplifies it even further. It thus becomes an easier game that doesn’t demand a lot of a skill from the player, and while that ease won’t earn it any passionate fans, that ease does earn it a longevity missing from other shooters.
Battlefront is a game that I can feel good coming back to after a month’s absence. Unlike other shooters that start off by being fun and then grow less so as I find myself inevitably outclassed by more dedicated players, Battlefront starts off by being fun and remains fun indefinitely because these streamlined systems work to even out the playing field and counteract the insane skills of the dedicated players.
It’s been called a casual shooter, and I couldn’t agree more. It seems that “casual” is still a bad word in the big budget gaming world, but it’s a word that I’ve come to love. I like casual gaming experiences, and I’m glad to finally have one in a shooter.