'Immersion' is a word that keeps coming up amid all the hype for Star Wars Battlefront. EA's promo site blares out that Battlefront is "THE MOST IMMERSIVE GAME", presumably of all time. But the kind of immersion EA and DICE seem to be going for - the sensation that you're actually taking part in the Star Wars battles you know and love - is impossible to maintain in a multiplayer environment. You know that moment in the Battlefront reveal trailer when Darth Vader stepped onto the scene, and your inner nerd squealed with euphoric glee? Imagine that this is what happened directly after the camera cut away:
Watch as Lord Vader glides around like a Sith on rollerskates. See as he swings his lightsaber wildly while strafing about, his upper and lower body animating as though they aren't connected. Laugh as he absentmindedly dive-rolls into a doorframe for no apparent reason. Weep at the thought of being one of the poor soldiers standing in his way, struck down with a single, seemingly effortless swipe. Nothing on display during this comedic cluster from Star Wars: Battlefront 2 feels at all reminiscent of the 'real' Vader's commanding presence, beyond the fact that he's wearing black, has a cape, and wields a red lightsaber. And frankly, the thought of watching a similar scene unfold in the new Battlefront's Frostbite 3 engine mortifies me.
In the first two Battlefront titles, the blatant disconnect from the weighty duels of the films feels more acceptable. These games value fun 'What if?' scenarios over authenticity, allowing for goofy clashes between Princess Leia and General Grievous, or pitting the almighty Emperor Palpatine against that conehead Jedi, Ki-Adi-Mundi. The colorful, not-at-all-lifelike graphics and exaggerated animations look fine by PS2 and original Xbox standards, giving the action a lighthearted, almost cartoony tone. It's as though you're taking part in a warzone created by a youngster's imagination and populated by Kenner Star Wars figures come to life.
But this Battlefront has no room for such playful silliness if it's going to truly immerse players. I'm a Star Wars fan who's ready to jump into a game promising a stunningly accurate recreation of the films, and a photorealistic rendition of Darth Vader acting like an idiot is going to shatter the promise of that immersion. Like watching Yoda zoom around a racetrack on his Jedi Council seat in Super Bombad Racing, or cringing when Boba Fett gets KO'ed by a lowly Gamorrean guard in Masters of Teras Kasi, seeing such iconic characters reduced to video game caricatures cheapens their impact, defeating the entire purpose of including them in the first place.
Granted, neither of those goofy Star Wars spinoffs offered anything close to immersion - but the new Battlefront does. From what we've all seen, every aspect of the 40-player battles has been built with the goal of achieving immaculate authenticity. OXM's look at how Star Wars Battlefront is literally made from the movies reveals a painstaking attention to detail in recreating the feel of the Star Wars universe, and it seems that DICE went all out. The developers had the kind of access that diehard Star Wars fans dream about, using full photo scans of the actual movie props to create the in-game models and getting access to the original film recordings, which design director Niklas Fegraeus likens to "handing the Mona Lisa to somebody."
All that work went into creating the kind of experience that could transport gamers into the cinematic Star Wars universe. Yet all it takes to punch through that wonderful illusion are the players themselves. Hand your replica of the Mona Lisa to enough people, and eventually someone will draw a moustache on it. Admittedly, I can also be one of those players, sometimes stricken by the impulse to 'break' whatever's presented to me in a game for my own amusement. When controlling Darth Vader in the opening level of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, I felt compelled to jump up and down like a caffeinated jackrabbit, ridiculing the way Vader's cape physics scrambled (and failed) to realistically simulate the effect of these exaggerated motions. Maybe I've got problems, but I'm not the only one.
It seems like DICE knows that Battlefront's primed to become the lifelike Star Wars game that people have wanted since... forever, taking certain precautions to maintain accuracy. The decision to confine AT-ATs to on-rails pathing feels like an attempt to tightly control their impact on a match, and eliminate the potential for players to turn these colossal war machines into a mockery of what they were in the films. But the Hero and Villain units present the same conundrum, with no word yet on how they could be designed to put players in control while still emulating these characters' cinematic presence. Because players determine the match pacing and their own competence, comically inaccurate representations of the source material aren't only possible - they're inevitable. I certainly don't remember the climactic duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi looking like this.
The Darth Vader of the Star Wars films is the villain's villain: an imposing force of evil with the gravitas to intimidate through presence alone. Vader rarely has to brandish his lightsaber, because his mastery over the dark side of the Force makes his subordinates feel like ants in the presence of a god. And in the few instances when he does meet a challenge, his strikes are calculated and labored, a burst of mighty energy bookended by moments of consideration or a few demoralizing words. But multiplayer battles can't afford these kind of slow, tense skirmishes, especially on the 40-player scale of Battlefront. Were the movie Vader to encounter his video game self, he would no doubt Force-choke him to death for his buffoonery and incompetence.
When players are in control, anything - including immersion-demolishing absurdity - can happen. I'm excited for Star Wars Battlefront, but I'm not looking forward to the sight of a stunningly realistic Darth Vader teabagging a Tauntaun, or Boba Fett clumsily shooting at nothing, or the Millennium Falcon crashing into TIE Fighter squadrons head-on. And none of those icons have faces; just imagine the uncanny valley factor on Luke, Han, or Leia. I'd rather that Heroes and Villains weren't in the game at all, because if I'm going to be immersed in an experience that puts me in the presence of Darth Vader, he needs to feel like Darth Vader. And while I want so badly to believe that it could be possible, it currently feels like EA and DICE are making me a promise that's impossible to keep.