We're entering the age of dream gaming. The old limitations of videogames have essentially been overcome. If developers have the resources, they can create a playable representation of anything. We all wanted to duel as Jedi, and with the creation of Jedi Knight we could. We longed to dive-bomb tanks in a Spitfire, dodging flak and skimming across the desert. Battlefield 1942 let us. We wished to fight in an endless online war, playing as a tiny cog in a conflict spanning continents. PlanetSide granted our wish. But there's still something missing. We still love Star Wars. We still love gaming. We still dream of piloting AT-ATs, watching the puny rebel forces fleeing underfoot. And now, LucasArts are going to make our dream come true.
Star Wars: Battlefront takes all the fun, carnage and chaos of Battlefield 1942, wraps it all up in a shiny stormtrooper uniform, and sends it off to find its destiny online. It's such a simple, cute idea - give the peope what they want, make it good. It's going to be massive.
We spoke to Jim Tso, LucasArts producer for Star Wars: Battlefront, and asked him exactly what we should expect from the game. "Hoth is the obvious example. Everyone knows the Battle of Hoth. What we're doing is providing the vehicles, the environment and the character classes, but what happens in the battle is up to the players. It's kind of a running joke here at LucasArts: we always have to have a Hoth sequence for every Star Wars game we do. But I don't think you've ever played the Battle of Hoth this way. You and I could hop into a snowspeeder and you could be the rear gunner, firing the tow cable, you and I could actually be re-enacting the scenes from the movie. This is completely freeform."
Knights of the Old Republic shifted the goalposts a little, taking place 4,000 years pre-a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. That time-buffer allowed Bioware breathing space for some ideas of their own. This time around, Battlefront is going to dodge the issue. They're taking direct inspiration from the movies, and they're letting you play as your heroes. "There are two things we focus on when we make a Star Wars game," Jim explains, "most of the time it's not a problem, but we need to mention it. The first thing we focus on is fun; you know, the gameplay. And then we have to make sure that what we present to you feels like Star Wars. That means tweaking the weapons, or the equipment, to make it seem right. I think Star Wars as a universe is pretty appropriate for the type of games that we're doing. We're trying to fill in the gaps with what you didn't see in the movies or read about in the books."
Star Wars is a coherent universe that extends way past the original trilogy, into the realms of comics, books, and the occasional Christmas musical extravaganza. There's a wealth of material out there, and LucasArts are taking full advantage of this. "One of the things that will be really apparent when you sit down to play the game will be the variety of the environments," says Jim. "Our ideas are ones that Battlefield simply can't do. We're a science fiction based universe and can therefore get away with a lot more. For example, one of the maps we're most excited about right now is Kamino (the water planet where the clones come from). It's dominated by huge platforms that extend above the water. It's always raining torrentially, there's a big storm, it's a very cool looking level that looks like nothing that's been done before." In Episode Two, we see Jango Fett flitting from stage to stage, using his jetpack to leap across the void. What are the chances of a similar toy to play with in Battlefront? "Yeah" replies Jim, "that does make sense. But we'll leave it at that for now..."
Imagine. Every night the Star Destroyers come out of hyperspace early, necessitating a ground assault. As you get home from work, the AT-ATs begin their relentless march across the ice fields of Hoth. Every night, you get to be the hero, Wedge Antilles, Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker and Han Solo, rolled into one. And every night, 31 other heroes, online, join your cause, running around like force-enabled madmen. This is the dream of entire generations of Star Wars fans. It's telling that every online game has, in one shape or form, been home to an unauthorised Star Wars mod, including Battlefield 1942. Now, LucasArts are putting their full weight behind what will undoubtedly become the definitive online StarWars game.
Their willingness to experiment within the formula belies a canny eye for what works in multi-player gaming. In any online shooter, the chance to rise above the melee, whether it's in a WWII Spitfire in Battlefield 1942 or one of Halo's banshees, is a profoundly liberating experience. As is screaming out of the sun, hurling volley after volley of laser death into your fleeing opponents. But if vehicles are handled badly, it can be disastrous - just look at Counter-Strike's abysmal vehicles. Happily, Jim has it all worked out. "We're looking at each map and choosing which vehicles make most sense. Obviously, the X-Wing will be available on more than one map, but we're not going to stick it in every map. The jungles of Yavin is our smallest level, and it's really more of an infantry battle. Endor's an enormous forest, and not really appropriate to aircraft. You don't see them in the movies, and they wouldn't really work in the context of that map, flying above the trees. Endor's really all about the AT-STs and speeder bikes, whereas Tatooine is mostly desert, and it's dominated by X-Wings and TIE-Fighters."
LucasArts have also taken note of some of the problems players are running into when trying to pilot aeroplanes. The carcasses of crashed Spitfires and rusty Zeros litter virtual battlegrounds from Britain to the Philippines, where pilots were too eager to take time out to learn the archaic controls of WWII craft. LucasArts plan to make flying an X-Wing far more straightforward. "We're using Star Wars physics," explains Jim, "which tend to be a little different to real physics. If you're piloting a helicopter in real life, it has performance characteristics, that overcomplicate things. If we take an X-Wing, in theory it can hover in space or over the battlefield - if you want to present an easy target. In theory you shouldn't be able to crash an X-Wing, unless you're pointing at the ground and zooming in."