Star Wars Battlefront (2004) review

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... some men shot and stabbed each other to death. PSM2 performs the post-mortem

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For the most part, online gaming is utterly detestable. The servers are almost always loaded with despicable American mentalists who should be sealed inside a barrel and kicked into the ocean. And, as the omnipresent rumble of indecipherable mumbling coarses through your headset, you ask yourself "Why am I here? Why am I playing videogames with a bunch of feckless, furrow-browed simpletons?". Then you retreat to the cosily predictable world of artificial intelligence, snug in the knowledge that someone called 'FaceStabber' isn't going to plunge a knife into you and call you names.

Battlefront, however, is a very different beast. You're forced to work in teams, meaning you can't take an enemy position without help from your comrades in arms - even if they are humourless shitheels - and as a result, a strange sort of camaraderie is formed between you and your faceless cohorts, making the whole thing feel surprisingly wholesome.

So why all the fighting, then? Well, simply put, you have to claim the battlefield by systematically capturing enemy checkpoints. Clearing an area of enemies changes their beacon's logo to yours, and before you know it you've won the round. Thing is, though, checkpoints can be won back, so a frantic scrabble to keep on top of your pilfered strongholds quickly becomes the norm. It keeps the third-person blasting frenetic, and battles can literally last for hours if both teams know the ropes and give as good as they get.

The best thing about Battlefront is unquestionably the ability to enter and use any vehicle on the battlefield. Since the game delves into all corners of the Star Wars universe, the selection is amazingly varied. There are starfighters galore including X-Wings, Y-Wings, TIE fighters, TIE bombers, Snowspeeders and Jedi Starfighters. Then there's the heavy artillery; AT-ATs, AT-STs and several of the large walking tanks from the Clone War scene from Episode 2. Then we have a multitude of other stuff such as Speeder Bikes, Landspeeders, TaunTauns, Sail Barges and... well, you get the picture.

There are lots of things to drive, fly and shoot from, and most of them are a joy to pilot. Soaring across the Dune Sea in an X-Wing while a battle rages below is utterly magnificent, and stomping around in an AT-ST is empowering like nothing else. It's a dream come true for anyone who grew up with the films. Inevitably some vehicles are just plain rubbish, however. Most of the Trade Federation tanks are slow to the point of being completely pointless and the same goes for the AT-AT - it might sound like the best thing ever, but an awkward camera angle spoils things somewhat, along with the obvious lack of pace. Still, it's there if you want it.

Most of your enjoyment will come from the starfighters. If you're not zipping under an AT-AT's legs in a Snowspeeder, you're barrelling your X-Wing through a tight canyon in pursuit of a fleeing TIE Fighter. And when you consider that all of this is being played online with actual people (provided you're online of course) you can't help but be impressed. Pandemic have achieved something spectacular here, even though it's terminally flawed. Let us explain. Controlling your character feels awkward. It's like he's a piece of cardboard fluttering in the wind rather than an actual man, and the targeting system falters as a result of this; it's too nimble for it's own good, often flailing and stalling at the most inopportune moment. The promised ability to switch perspectives has also been a bit of a letdown; it's all third-person, save for a rather ineffective over-the-shoulder view we rarely found ourselves using.

The camera is also an erratic monster. In most starships, you'll be hard-pressed to see anything you're attacking and it focuses so closely on the characters that the action feels cramped and rigid. Any third-person shooter that commits the cardinal sin of having a god-awful camera should be gagged, bound and thrashed - we don't have time for finicky, unpredictable problems that could have easily been remedied.

But what if you're not online, as most people aren't. Well, there's a great big single-player mode in there too - which basically takes you through time from the Clone Wars of Episode 1 to 3 through to classic 'Wars locations of the holy trilogy with game AI playing the parts of everyone else. Unfortunately, the AI opponents are too floundering and dimwitted to present any real challenge or sense of involvement. When the novelty wears off, you'll find a simple shoot-'em-up where 80% of the fun is the Star Wars setting.

But then the game is so full of 'Ooooh!' moments that we're torn between loving and loathing it, even though we know that if wasn't plastered with the Star Wars license it'd be an average squad-based shooter, greatly inferior to the likes of Freedom Fighters. For all it's visual grandeur and novel open-ended warfare you too often make excuses for Battlefront's mistakes. Unless you've already forked out for a network adapter we say think carefully. The campaign mode is a trawl through a series of dumbed-down multiplayer missions and, when it comes to Star Wars, merely 'quite good' isn't good enough.

Star Wars Battlefront is released for PS2, Xbox and PC on 24 September

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