Preview: Star Wars Battlefront II multiplayer is fun, but still suffers from lootbox issues

Star Wars Battlefront II has a fun, large-scale multiplayer mode reminiscent of their venerable Battlefield series with a glossy coat of Star Wars paint on it. There’s a ton of great content here, but it's currently marred by a lootbox system that could be called "pay to win" and might anger the community, as well as poor integration between troop combat and starfighter combat.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include clarifications about how the loot crate system and weapons currently work in Star Wars Battlefront II. EA explains the system in their official blog post.

Strike

Strike mode features mostly familiar FPS gameplay with all the Star Wars flavor that makes this game so appealing. Troops from different Star Wars eras engage in asymmetric, objective based game play involving setting off bombs to destroy objectives or taking and holding points. It’s pretty limited but it’s decently fun, especially when you start involving the major characters from the franchise. It’s also extremely fast-paced, with matches rarely lasting over ten minutes.

This mode also features smaller maps that emphasize asymmetrical, objective-based close combat. This also minimizes the amount of long sprints across big empty fields that you find in EA’s other offerings, such as Battlefield. Soldiers are tougher than your average CoD soldier but far flimsier than an Overwatch tank.

This mode has a familiar team-oriented vibe the centralizes objective-based play, but keeps the semi-serious military feel of games like Call of Duty, where job niches aren’t so deep that if someone pulls the rock to your scissors you’re immediately dead. You’re still a guy with a gun, and you have self-defense capability. Simultaneously, the rock/paper/scissor gameplay means you can’t just lone-wolf it and expect to do as well as someone who sticks with their squad.

Characters are divided up into four classes: Assault, Heavy, Officer, and Specialist. The Assault is your standard issue trooper and has a blaster rifle which he can trade out for a hitscan shotgun blaster for a limited amount of time. He also gets a bouncy thermal detonator with a timed fuse (that you cannot cook) and a scanning dart that can reveal enemies outlines behind walls. The Heavy gets a fast-firing automatic blaster that he can temporarily switch out for a much faster, more damaging hitscan minigun, an energy shield that covers the top half of his body, and an impact grenade that goes off as soon as it hits something. The Officer can rally the troops in a small area, giving them armor for a limited time. They also get a flash grenade and an auto-turret. Lastly, the Specialist is the sniper class, and gets a scoped rifle that they can swap out for medium range three-round burst hitscan blaster and radar stealth, a pair of heat vision macrobinoculars that can see through walls, and a shock grenade that slows enemies down.

Blaster bolts have travel time and are not hitscan and hip-firing is reasonably accurate. This creates a faster rhythm than most military shooters’ ADS-or-die gameplay. While there’s no friendly fire, you can’t shoot through your allies, making teamwork more critical. Like many other shooters, your health regenerates over time if you can avoid damage for a few seconds.

The game also has an active reload system. As you fire your blaster, it generates heat. If you manually reload, it dissipates this heat. If you wait until your blaster is fully overheated, you enter an active reload system, displayed as a slow draining bar beneath your targeting reticle. You can wait until the bar hits zero and your blaster cools off. You can pull the right trigger when the bar is in a blue zone, and the gun will instantly reload. Or you can pull the trigger when the bar is in the yellow zone, and the reload bar will fill yellow and slowly drain. During this time, you can fire as much as you want and you will not generate any heat. If you pull the trigger while the bar is in the red zone, you will screw up the reload and it will take longer than if you had just used a simple tactical reload.

Starfighter Assault

Starfighter Assault mode focuses on the epic space battles of the Star Wars series, drawing from the prequels, classic, and current films. Levels include areas like Kamino, the clone factory water world from the prequel trilogy, with many large, disc-like buildings with plenty of space to fly above, and perilous areas below, between the disc buildings and the raging sea. Another level forces you to fly amongst the debris of the second Death Star while trying to bring down or defend a Star Destroyer. You are almost never flying in the vast, featureless emptiness of space, and thus the SWBF2 avoids the endless turning battles of the original X-Wing and TIE Fighter games, and gives each level a distinct personality.

Like Strike mode, gameplay is asymmetrical, with one side defending and the other attacking. Both sides have different objectives, whether to destroy large capital ships, blow up tractor beam emitters, destroy shield generators, or protect ponderously slow and stupid AI bombers as they approach key targets. One of the best missions takes place around a vast space station, and Republic pilots must destroy one part of the ship to open the bay doors that let you enter the inner sanctum of the base to attack the core. And you must fly out before the shields come back up and trap you inside. It’s a fantastic mission that I thoroughly enjoyed, and it doesn’t suffer from odd hit detection issues (which I discuss below).

Ship types are broken into Fighters, Interceptors, or Bombers. Fighters are tough all around ships with high damage potential against other small ships, while interceptors are fast and agile. Bombers are slow, ponderous vessels with heavy armaments designed for taking down objectives with high hit points. Or at least, they’re supposed to be good at that. Given how slow they are and how poorly they manuever, their torpedo payloads really need to deal more damage to make them worth flying. That complaint aside, it’s important to note that the Fighters, Interceptors, and Bombers in each era aren’t merely re-skinned versions of each other. They all handle differently and have different abilities. I applaud the devs for that decision. It would’ve been easy to do a simple re-skin, but they took the hard way out and the game benefits. The flight mechanics were easy to learn and felt tight and satisfying, even to demanding space sim fans like myself - with one exception.

SWBF2 has some sketchy collision detection. It’s really easy to kill yourself by crashing into objects, debris, asteroids, and large capital ships like Star Destroyers. Several times, I died trying to fly through gaps that it looked like my fighter could fit through. Given that flying through daringly small spaces is core to the Star Wars experience, I’m surprised at how badly Battlefront 2 handles this. And since the victory condition of the mode revolves around a pool of collective “lives” that your team shares, it’s extra frustrating to lose a life this way. Some of the levels, particularly the one that takes place in an asteroid field, are difficult to navigate, and you will lose a lot of ships to the rocks. I wish crashing dealt damage to your ship instead of destroying it. It wouldn’t be canonically correct (Star Wars fighters are made out of balsa wood and prayers), but it would make the game more fun.

All my complaints aside though, I had fun playing these modes. They’re enjoyable and exciting and they capture the Star Wars fantasy. For super fans like myself, they’re a real treat.

Galactic Assault

Galactic Assault mode has more problems than the other modes I've discussed. This mode feels like a steak-flavored bubble tea smoothie. Steak is awesome. Bubble tea is delicious. But the two don’t mix well. Galactic Assault mode is that smoothie. Its combination of troop-based action with vehicle-oriented gameplay never quite gels. Even these twenty-on-twenty matches feel sparsely populated on maps that are too large for troop encounters and too small for exciting dog fights. When I saw the trailers for this game, I envisioned an experience where X-Wing pilots could strafe Stormtroopers, while they grabbed anti-aircraft rockets to down their enemy’s air support. I dreamed of coordinated land and air assaults with a constant push and pull of battle as pilots took to the skies to counter tank pushes.

Galactic Assault aspires to this but never achieves it. Starfighters move way too fast to meaningfully engage soldiers on the ground. Even when you ADS with fighters (which gives you a significant visual zoom) you can’t make out the soldiers below. I killed a few by blind firing near objectives, but this was far from the experience I was hoping for. You are mostly limited to shooting at enemy fighters. But if no one decides to hop in a fighter, you end up having very little to do. As far as I could tell, there were no starfighter objectives to achieve in Galactic Assault. Problematic collision detection means that you can’t make daring low altitude strafing runs (think The Force Awakens) because you’ll crash and die.

Galactic Assault also stumbles in its presentation of the iconic Hoth battle. You don’t use tow lines to trip AT-ATs. No sir. AT-ATs are now slow moving payloads that need to reach the Rebel base. Rebels need to find and use missile launchers (scattered around the battlefield) that temporarily stop the AT-ATs and render them vulnerable. Then everyone and their mom needs to focus fire on them to whittle down their enormous health bars. Because this section of the map is huge and consists almost entirely of rolling hills covered in snow, the game play works out like this: Rebels rush for missile launchers. Only one usually reaches it. He runs with it to get within range of the AT-AT. He usually gets killed by a lone stormtrooper. That stormtrooper now has to babysit the missile launcher because he can’t destroy it or steal it. He just has to wait around until he too gets killed by a Rebel. That Rebel then runs with or tries to use the missile launcher. He probably gets killed too. It’s a back and forth that I just don’t find fun, because of the vast size of the Hoth map. 

You can fly an X-Wing, but its blaster fire makes no impact on the AT-AT unless it’s been temporarily disabled by a missile. And it flies too fast on too small of a map to really perform a proper strafing run - if you fly outside of the map’s invisible walls, the game scolds you and tells you to return to the mission area. You can pilot an AT-AT....sort of. This functions sort of like a bad version of the AC-130 from Modern Warfare 2. It puts you in the sort-of pilot seat of the AT-AT. Except you can’t steer. And you can’t speed up or slow down. And you can only turn your head so much. And your point of view is actually up above the head of the AT-AT for some reason. You can use some of the AT-ATs abilities, including the world’s slowest blaster bolts (near useless against fast moving troops) and the (admittedly awesome) orbital strikes. But you only get to do this for about a minute or so, and then the game punts you back into the body of a basic soldier. The AT-AT is an iconic Star Wars vehicle, and I expected a better experience.

However, in a mission on the surface of Endor, Rebels engage in GTAA (Grand Theft AT-AT!) and stomp it down a ravine toward another Imperial base, and stormtroopers have to use the same missile launcher mechanic as fire rains down on them from the AT-AT and Rebel troops. The AT-AT is still just a payload, but it dominates the center of the map, shoots at you frequently, and creates this dramatic, inexorable pace that the AT-AT is known for. This was probably the best Galactic Assault mission I played, and it involved absolutely no air support. I loved this, but it also was not what I was promised.

It feels like DICE (the shooter devs) and Criterion (the vehicle devs) worked in two totally different silos and then tried to mash their individually cool work together, but this hasty integration isn’t fun. Eat a steak and drink a bubble tea, but don’t put the two in a blender.

What makes this even more frustrating is that it’s not like EA has no experience with integrating two scales of combat. While it’s not exactly the same, Titanfall integrated dual scale combat seamlessly by giving both Titans and Pilots meaningful strategic options to engage one another. No such options exist in Battlefront 2. Standard troops can fire their blasters at passing starfighters, but a lack of homing weapons, low damage, and blaster bolt travel time means that you’re better off shooting at enemy troops instead. Besides, it’s not like that TIE fighter can see you anyway. And the Battlefield series has been doing this for years. This lack of interaction between troops and starfighters is a real head scratcher. When asked about this, the devs promised that they are going to continue to work on the game and develop this mode. So I’m hoping that it will improve as time goes on.

Battle points

All multiplayer modes revolve around battle points. You score them when you play objectives, die on objectives, damage enemy players, kill enemies, or get killed by heroes. (Engaging with objectives yields the lion’s share of these points, which was a very good design decision.) Once you gather enough points, you can unleash super soldiers like Trade Federation super battle droids, vehicles like the AT-ST, and hero characters like Han, Leia, and Chewie and the various Sith and Jedi. In Starfighter Assault, this includes ships like Slave I, Luke’s X-Wing, the Millennium Falcon, or Darth Vader’s TIE Advanced. All hero units (with and without wings) have unique abilities to master, and a big pile of hit points.

Unfortunately, if you’re a mediocre or lousy player, you may never get to play the best characters in Galactic Assault or Strike modes because the average match doesn’t last long enough to accumulate enough battle points. And if someone on your team is already playing Rey, Luke, Yoda, Vader, Leia, etc. then you can’t choose to play them even if you have the battle points available. Exacerbating this situation, the Jedi are so powerful that they can rip through dozens of normal troops like tissue paper (think this scene from Rogue One).

This issue is somewhat alleviated by the existence of the Heroes and Villians game mode, where everyone plays heroic characters in a 4v4 Light Side versus Dark Side match up on a tight map. Each team has a “target player” that the opposing team must kill to score a point. First team to ten wins. It creates a fun simultaneous attack / defend situation where team composition plays a key role. Jedi initially dominate with their Force powers and incredibly damaging lightsaber melee attacks, but blaster-oriented heroes like Leia and Boba Fett can do tons of damage at range, especially if their Jedi tank for them.

Starfighter Assault mode is a little bit more forgiving because objective targets are often enormous and easy to attack, making scoring a thousand or so battle points in a single life easy. I got to try several heroic starfighters and they are fun and powerful, with the exception of the Slave I. Its oblong shape is very easy to crash, and in the teeming battlefields of SWBF2, that’s a big liability. 

Arcade and Blast Modes

There’s also an Arcade mode, which consists of a series of scenarios wherein you play different major characters and thwack through a certain number of troops in a set amount of time, sort of like Dynasty Warriors set in the Star Wars universe. You can play this single player or local splitscreen. It’s not deep, but it gives you an opportunity to try out hero characters and their unique powers before playing them in a complicated and frenetic multiplayer game.

And for those who can’t get enough of Team Deathmatch, there’s Blast mode, a 10v10 game mode on a tight map where the first team to 100 kills wins.

Lootboxes are still a problem

With all that said, there's still one thing that needs to be addressed: the lootbox system is going to be a big problem. In SWBF2, you can purchase lootboxes full of Star Cards, which provide meaningful mechanical bonuses to gameplay. These bonuses ramp up significantly if you happen to be lucky enough to open a pack that contains rarer, more powerful cards.

You can buy lootboxes with credits that you earn in-game or you can spend real money. The fact that many cards have required levels attached to them means that players can't just spend a lot of money in order to instantly power up with the game's biggest bonuses, but there's no escaping the reality that spending real money will allow players to access mechanical bonuses.

Each character type, hero, and starfighter type has three slots for Star Cards. When you start the game, you have one slot open.You open up additional slots as you level up. A player with all three slots unlocked and filled with cards could potentially have a significant advantage over a player with only one slot.

Epic cards can no longer be randomly obtained via lootboxes (a change from the beta based on negative player feedback) and you must grind your player level and class level up to a certain point before you can craft an epic card out of crafting parts. You obtain crafting parts via lootboxes. Exacerbating an already bad situation, you will level faster if you win matches, which could be easier if you’ve already spent money on lootboxes, so when you reach the appropriate class and player level, you can craft an epic card immediately. At the high end, I was seeing cards that provided mechanical bonuses as high as 50%.

This is not Overwatch or Call of Duty: WWII where you can quietly ignore the aesthetic lootbox system if you don’t want to engage with it. After the outcry that surrounded the beta, I’m shocked that this hasn’t been fixed in advance of the game's launch. It's a shame, because the core gameplay of SWBF2 is actually a lot of fun.

Will Star Wars Battlefront II succeed? 

Between last year’s Rogue One and the recent The Last Jedi trailer, I haven’t been this hyped about Star Wars since I was a little kid. When I had the chance to attend a two-day press event with SWBF2, I was thrilled. I’m hoping that EA/Criterion/ Dice improve starfighter hit detection and give troops more interaction options to connect the ground and air combat in Galactic Assault.

Despite these shortcomings, I’ve never seen a game offer so much in one package: asymmetrical shooter action, rich team-based gameplay, space sim dogfighting, and a horde mode, and there’s a whole single player campaign that I haven’t gotten to play yet. It’s a pretty fantastic value, but the “pay to win” lootbox system may deeply damage early adoption, even if the developers respond to fan feedback by making further changes post-launch.

This is a prime example of maximizing profits at the cost of fairness and fun, and it could backfire on EA. I played this game for sixteen hours over the course of two days, and I still want to play more. It would be a shame to see this game fail due to its lootbox system.