What, exactly, constitutes a war? Here on Earth, the definition is a little unclear. The United States has been in some state of industrialized conflict for the majority of its 240-year history, but the U.S. government hasn’t actually declared war since the days following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. We’ve had a whole slew of “wars” that weren’t technically wars (but actually were) in the interim: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again. The decades of antagonism between the U.S. and the Soviet Union is referred to as a cold war, but this situation never actually reached the level of full-scale armed conflict.
Even loosely defined, though, the struggle at the heart of Star Wars between the tyrannical Galactic Empire and the scrappy underdogs of the rebel Alliance barely rates. The major battles of the movies were all relatively small-scale, bloodless affairs (no disrespect to the independent contractors aboard the Death Star). But if you extrapolate from our experience of war here on Earth, casualties of a conflict on this scale—considering the number of planets and the incredible technology involved—should easily number in the trillions. Even if factoring in stormtroopers’ legendarily poor aim, we still have to assume an off-screen body count of hundreds of billions. But Star Wars, despite its name, is a solitary hero’s journey. It’s not a story about the multitude of faceless enlistees suffering the horrors and indignities of war. In Star Wars Battlefront, these unsung non-hero heroes finally get the recognition (and screen time) they deserve.
Battlefront has no real campaign to speak of, and the available single-player modes are fairly limited. Multiplayer is the thing, and Battlefront provides a suite of intriguing options, including a pitched aerial dogfight, a 20-on-20 free-for-all, and an “Imperial Assault” mode where rebel troops are tasked with taking down two Imperial walkers being protected by an equal number of Imperial troops. In this mode, capital ships ornament the horizon as wall-eyed stormtroopers compete with rebel corporals to see who can die the fastest. Random battlefield power-ups put you at the controls of an X-Wing or an AT-AT. This is Battlefront at its glorious best.
When Imperials attack the Alliance in the icy trenches of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s hardly the Battle Of The Somme. You can count the number of onscreen deaths on two hands. In Battlefront, players will die many, many times before victory is achieved. The accelerated cycle of death and rebirth can be frustrating—troops are surprisingly, realistically fragile—but it also speaks to the game’s greatest strength. For the first time maybe ever, it’s more fun (and, arguably, effective) to play as a generic soldier than a lightsaber-wielding murder wizard.
But Battlefront’s most appealing feature is also its most glaring weakness. In the six-on-six Heroes vs. Villains mode, for example, players go five rounds with Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, and Boba Fett on one side, and Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo on the other. Each squad is accompanied by three grunts, and a round is won when all three of the opposing heroes are wiped out. It’s a weird scenario, and not just because there’s no chance the Emperor would be caught dead slumming it with a bounty hunter. The larger issue is this: Playing as a hero sucks. When Luke and Vader meet on the field of battle, it should be an epic moment. In Battlefront, the reality is a whole lot sadder. The stilted lightsaber hacking is almost enough to make one yearn for the days of Ben Kenobi feebly waving his laser sword at a former protégé.
At this point, with less than a month to go before The Force Awakens hits theaters, Battlefront is a necessary balm for Star Wars fans to get their fix. But it’s difficult to say whether it’s anything more than a temporary pick-me-up that will be forgotten the minute the movie is released. Despite the myriad modes, the scope of the game feels small. Channeling Emperor Palpatine, EA has foreseen this and promised additional content in the coming weeks and months—for a price, of course. Hopefully, the company’s powers of prophecy are better than his.