The sell couldn’t have been any easier for Titanfall 2 and Apex Legends developer Respawn Entertainment. The studio, following months of anticipation, took to the stage at Star Wars Celebration 2019 to finally outline its vision for Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. It was intoxicating. It was vague. And, honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about it.
What I do know is that Respawn’s founder Vince Zampella arrived with a pitch so convincing that the studio has been able to nail a dream reveal of sorts. This was big on the tell and extremely light on show. That pitch, if you aren’t already aware, sounds a little something like this: “This is a Jedi fantasy, story-driven game,” Zampella said at the event, struggling to be heard over the swell of noise erupting from the bleachers. “We are known for multiplayer shooters, but that’s not just who we are. This is a story game – no multiplayer, no microtransactions; this is about being a Jedi.”
Inside the story
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order story explained, as Respawn details how it is embracing the "dark times" of the galaxy.
Cue rapturous, deafening applause from the audience along with every corner of Star Wars fandom collectively losing its shit on the Internet. The truth is, the studio is saying all of the right things right now even if it is doing very little to back it up. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order sounds like the game many of us have been waiting for two generation cycles to play – we will likely never receive another Knights of the Old Republic sequel, the Star Wars Jedi Knight series of games have been exorcised from canon, and so this is likely the next best thing on the horizon.
Fallen Order is a single-player, third-person action-adventure game that's going to let us embrace the role of a Jedi and everything that entails. I'm talking thoughtful, tactical combat that pushes you to methodically assess and address powerful foes as they appear, utilising an array of Force powers and Jedi weaponry to get the Imperial Inquisitors off of your back. And it's all being developed by what is arguably the most consistently brilliant studio in the industry.
Of course, given that Respawn showed us little more than a cinematic gameplay trailer and a couple of pieces of concept art, there’s a lot of information to parse and a hell of a lot of unanswered questions – especially as the Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order release date is so damned near. And yet, in spite of the ambiguity, there was something electric about that damned pitch, wasn't there? About the idea of EA putting its resources behind something that seems like the direct anthesis of its entire publishing line and top-level strategy. So, let’s dig into it. Because there’s more to the reveal of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order than a back-of-the-box story synopsis and a marketing line purpose-built to get even the most ardent EA haters on board.
“I’ve had the honour of working on and creating, some of the biggest IPs in gaming. Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Titanfall, Apex Legends,” says Zampella, eager to use Celebration as an opportunity to take a well-earned victory lap. “So to be able to add Star Wars, one of the biggest IPs in the world across any medium… this is just a childhood fantasy come true for me.”
This is a project that Zampella is incredibly passionate about; you can hear that in his voice as he speaks about Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. This is a project that he has been thinking about for many years. He's been waiting until the stars aligned before pressing ahead, taking advantage of the deal EA struck in 2013 to exclusively develop Star Wars games for Disney for many years to come.
One of the missing pieces of the puzzle was God of War 3’s game director Stig Asmussen – a creative with an eye for world creation, having fulfilled roles of lead environment artist and art director for previous titles in the series. “I’ve known Stig for a long time; I’ve been trying to get him to work with me for longer,” Zampella continues on. “God of War 3 is one of my favourite games of all time. He finally said yes, and I was like, ‘yeah, let’s go!’”
This collaboration has led to us receiving Fallen Order. In the 2019 release, we will take on the role of Cal Kestis – an entirely new creation for the wider Star Wars Universe. Cal is one of the last surviving members of the fallen Jedi Order after the purge of Order 66, lost and alone following the systematic execution of the only family he has ever known at the hands of the Empire. He is a Padawan on the run, living under a strict creed of: “Don’t reach within, don’t stand out, and accept the past; Trust no one, trust only in the Force.”
What Respawn has put together here, under the creative direction of Asmussen, is a story-driven Star Wars game to be released in an era where publisher EA has openly rebuked the idea of creating single-player-only video games. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is an outlier, and it’s an opportunity that even Asmussen is surprised is happening. "This is something you never get to do in games."
“I came out here in 2014, but we’ve been talking about [doing] Star Wars even before that. I got this opportunity to build a brand new team from scratch. This isn't something you really get to do very much in this industry, especially in triple-A. Since we were an indie studio, and because Titanfall was such a big success, I had the opportunity to build slow and steady," Asmussen continues, and his reference to Respawn being an 'indie studio' is referring back to the early days of the studio before EA purchased Respawn in 2017 for a reported $400 million following the release of Titanfall 2.
Respawn has, frankly, a ridiculous amount of freedom, particularly at a time where – from the outside looking in, at least – it seems as if the walls are closing in around so many EA-owned studios. The fact that Respawn had one hell of a pitch ensured that it would be able to take its time in pre-production, working with Disney to sow the seeds of Fallen Order's story out into the wider universe. That Titanfall and its sequel had such an impact in the industry has clearly afforded the studio the freedom to form and execute its vision as it pleased. And the results are certainly something.
Building a different type of EA game
The fact that this is a studio staffed by engineers responsible for some of the most successful franchises in gaming history ensured that Respawn would be able to make use of the Unreal Engine 4 as the basis for Fallen Order's development, as opposed to using the heavily modified Source Engine that formed the foundation for the Titanfall games and Apex Legends – or the latest iteration of Frostbite, DICE's proprietary (and much maligned) engine that EA has pushed all of its internal studios to utilise throughout this generation.
Would FIFA and Madden's game-feel be better now had EA Sports been able to stick with the Ignition engine? Would Anthem have turned out differently had BioWare been allowed to continue working with the Unreal engine, technology is had utilised successfully to create the Mass Effect trilogy? Would Visceral Games still be here, delivering its own vision of a single-player Star Wars adventure had it been allowed to do the same, rather than struggling against Frostbite's infamous idiosyncrasies having never been used or designed to create third-person action games? It's impossible to say – development is difficult at the best of the times and a game engine is just one piece of an otherwise near-impossible to assemble puzzle. If Respawn is once again successful here, once again using a third-party engine, it will surely add more fuel to the fire that EA's studios should be given the scope and space to develop with a little more freedom.
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Respawn has established itself as a developer driving interactive entertainment forward, and this is something that Asmussen has been able to harness to attract some top tier talent that should get you very excited. Fallen Order is being created by industry veterans that have worked on the likes of “Uncharted, God of War, Batman Arkham, BioShock, Metal Gear, and, of course, Titanfall and Call of Duty."
"To say we are a mash-up crew is an understatement, but everybody has a really high pedigree. When I come into work every day, when I feel the vibe and I feel the energy in the studio... then I get my hands on a controller and I can see that we’re making something that’s really, really fun. It makes me feel great to know that we are on the right track, and I’m super confident that we are onto something special.”
What's next for Respawn and EA?
Respawn is clearly onto something here. The cynic in me wants to shout about how Respawn failed to show any gameplay at this reveal, that a studio that is known for developing first-person shooters should have something to prove when transitioning to the third-person action space with a focus on tactile melee combat. The truth is, no studio has really delivered on the power fantasy of being able to move and fight like a Jedi Knight. But the massive fan of Titanfall in me wants to give the studio the benefit of the doubt – surely Respawn, of all of the studios out there right now, has earned the benefit of the doubt. Surely, if anybody is going to nail the feel of lightsabers and the expression of Force powers in free-flowing gameplay, in an industry where so many others have failed, then surely it's going to be Respawn, right?
The truth is, we just don't know. The decision to hold back a full gameplay reveal for EA Play in June has left us with more questions than we have answers, but it's difficult to argue with the assertion that Respawn has come out of the gate swinging with Fallen Order. As it reads on paper, this is the Star Wars game we have been waiting so many years to play – the spiritual successor to the Star Wars Jedi Knight series of games in terms of playability, with such a focus on story that it's hard not to conjure up images of Knights of the Old Republic. The onus is now on Respawn to make that a reality.
With EA pushing for all of its internal studios to embrace the Games as a Service model in recent years, it's a real blessing that we're getting Fallen Order at all. In fact, Visceral Games' ill-fated Uncharted-style Star Wars game seemed to fail for that exact reason.
The fact that Respawn began production of Fallen Order before it was purchased by EA – a move that allegedly prompted EA to close the Dead Space and Battlefield Hardline developer, Visceral Games, in an egregious act of resource management – is likely the only reason that the game exists in the form that it does today. It was simply too far in the chain of development to be worth dramatically altering.
For the Star Wars fans left disappointed by the lacklustre campaign offered up by EA Motive and DICE in Star Wars Battlefront 2, Fallen Order seems like the answer to so many prayers. For the players out there that are increasingly concerned by EA's pivot towards Games as a Service, not to mention the impact this has had on core studios like BioWare, Fallen Order will likely look like divine intervention. The sad truth is that there is now a hell of a lot of pressure on Respawn's shoulders now.
To enter a realm of pure speculation here, EA will be expecting huge returns on Fallen Order. Were this game to prove that there is still an audience out there that is hungry for story-driven action games, enough so that the publisher would consider course-correcting its internal initiatives to, say, give BioWare the freedom to create Dragon Age 4 as a single-player game free of any enforced multiplayer elements or micro-transaction shenanigans, then this is going to have to do well. Like, incredibly well. I'm talking, Star Wars Battlefront (2015) numbers, with respect to sales, and God of War (2018) numbers, with respect to review scores and awards.
Will that happen? Well, given that we haven't seen a second of gameplay footage I couldn't possibly begin to tell you. Respawn engineered a reveal for Fallen Order here where it certainly sounds like it is prepared to face this challenge head-on. In Cal, it has produced a convincing protagonist, building the character into an intoxicating corner of the universe set just years out from Star Wars 3: Revenge of the Sith. The way it has collaborated with Disney to sow the seeds of its story out through the official comics, Clone Wars, and Rebels is impressive, as too is the promise of us having the capacity to "evolve" our lightsaber over the course of the game, not to mention the opportunity to team up with a former Jedi Knight and an adorable little droid. I want all of these things. I can sense your feelings, you want all of these things too. I know it to be true.
Who's the new guy?
We want all of these things from a Star Wars game and we want them done right. Respawn just so happens to be saying all of the right things in response. What it needs to do now is prove that it can back its words up with a game that's worthy of them. As I said before, Respawn has earned the benefit of the doubt. As I said before, Asmussen has clearly built one hell of a team here, enough so that it has the confidence of EA behind it to go off script. It probably doesn't hurt that Apex Legends is also one of the biggest games in the industry right now, though that's neither here nor there – Fallen Order has been in development for over four years, after all.
Still, we need to see it in action before we can really make a judgement call one way or the other. The truth is, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order doesn't look great, it sounds great and there's a big difference there. The truth is, there's a genuine chance that Fallen Order could decide the future of EA. If Respawn can produce a truly excellent game here, if it can prove that there is value in story-driven, single-player only campaigns, then the future of BioWare, DICE, Criterion, the EA Sports divisions, and the publisher's legion of satellite studios may begin to shift accordingly in response. If Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order proves to be all talk, then this will likely be the last single-player only game the publisher finances for quite some time to come – the final nail in the coffin, as it were. It's one hell of a burden and to Respawn I say this: "Remember, The Force will be with you... always."
If you want to get even more excited, read about how Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order will be a completely story-driven game (with no microtransactions either).