Star Wars: Battlefront - exclusive!

These non-player characters aren't limited to simple activated moments. Throughout the levels, you'll come across a third AI side that may help, or hinder your progress. "On Endor, the Ewoks will help the rebels," says Jim. "At certain command posts, they might try and steal Imperial speeder bikes. As an Imperial player, you're going to have to deal with that, as well as the rebels. On Tatooine, the AI controls the Tusken Raiders, who'll attack both teams on sight. They'll try and take over command posts as well." This is deeply hilarious on so many levels. As a stormtrooper, not only will you have to deal with Rebel forces popping blaster bolts from behind overturned logs at your defences, the Ewok army are causing their own unique brand of mischief, running off with all your hardware. How the AI behaves depends on the race and time period. The Tusken Raiders that you run into on Tatooine will always be hostile, along with the Sarlaac pit. Yes, a Sarlaac pit. "You have to be careful around it, because if you get too close, the tentacles will come out and grab you. One of the tactics we've come up with in our office, is to toss grenades at your enemies, to knock them down into the pit."

While the grand, overriding strategy is provided by the Galactic Conquest mode, in-game tactical depth is provided by you choosing a player class, depending on the role or objective you wish to achieve. "Each side has different characteristics - for instance we expect the Imperials to have a little slower movement speed, while being a little bit tougher. Of course, the stormtroopers are meant to be wearing armour."

The make-up of those classes will change between sides. "There's definitely going to be the basic infantry trooper, there will be someone with an anti-vehicle focus, with a bigger gun and then we'll probably have some type of scout unit with a sniper rifle, some kind of long distance gun. Then, we'll basically depart, with some special units for each side."

This is where the game is likely to come alive. Star Wars is filled with glorious incidental detail, tiny ideas that can be expanded on. Finding fun tasks is simply a matter of sitting down in front of a wide-screen television with a notepad and a tub of popcorn. "For the Imperial side, their special unit right now is the Imperial officer. He can heal troops, he can also deploy a probe droid to steer remotely around the battlefield. The cool thing about the probe droid is he can also call in a bombardment from orbit. He can drop off a beacon, and sound a warning, but then that area is pretty much going to be pummelled from space." The Clone Wars are dominated by automatons, robots forged deep in the underground factories of Geonosis. In a novel touch, you can ditch the limitations of pale flesh, in favour of titanium and silicon. "We have the basic battledroids from Episode One, or the super battledroids, which is the silver guy from Episode Two. You can also play as the droidikas, which are the guys with the shields who roll around. The droidikas are almost like mobile gun turrets, which when they're deployed move very slowly, but can fire at incredible rates." When they're not open, you can move freely, in a Super Droidika Ball fashion, but you'll be vulnerable to fire. And, presumably, to your own team-mates trying to push you down a big hill.

Although LucasArts are considering a pilot class, the cockpits will be open to all. Jim explains the decision like this: "Anyone can pilot a vehicle, but pilots are the only class who can fix vehicles. When they're in a vehicle it will slowly regenerate health reflecting a pilot's familiarity with his craft. And, pilots are the only ones who auto-eject when a vehicle explodes... but in the case of the Rebel pilots, they also have a grappling hook: that's really useful for getting up on to the top of an AT-AT or a wall." Expect Tarzan-like tree-swinging, to rival even the most nimble Wookiee.

All this sounds wonderful. Star Wars: Battlefront is literally a dream game. As with most high-intensity online games of this kind, there is one potential stumbling block: what about gamers who aren't tied to their local telephone exchange by fibre-optic cable? Will players without a broadband connection be able to get their Snowspeeder fix? Of course they will. Pandemic are building bots for you to fight with offline, to either practise fundamental skills so you don't make an embarrassment of yourself online, or just to muck about with. Of course, you can boss them about, like your own personal Clone army. Consider yourself a better looking Yoda. Jim thinks they've figured out a better way of working with friendly AI than most developers. "The way it works is, you won't be able to give every bot on your team orders. It's done in a radius - bots within a certain area will respond to your direction. The plan is to make that as context sensitive as possible. If you're not in a vehicle, there'll be really basic stuff like 'follow me', 'stay here', or 'attack that target'. If you're in a vehicle it might be 'get in, get out.'"

You won't be forced into playing the maps separately, either. The plan is to put you right in the middle of the Galactic Conquest mode, allowing you to make choices, develop strategies and learn about the fundamental tactical choices you make in the meta-game. Imagine a simple turn-based strategy game, where between turns, you stick a hulking great blaster pistol to the base of your visor, and take part in the invasions you've set in motion.

There's so much to look forward to here. We've been waiting for this game since first-person shooters were invented. It has roots in every Star Wars game ever coded, from the original arcade cabinet, where you shot down wireframe TIE-Fighters, to X-Wing and TIE-Fighter itself. LucasArts have dabbled in online gaming before: X-Wing vs TIE-Fighter was a game ahead of its time. Now, they can pour all that experience, and all that passion, into creating a truly populist game, while moving online first-person shooters in a new direction. The use of AI partners is a novel, brilliant move. In the past, online maps have felt empty, simple arenas of death. Battlefront is taking us one step closer to fighting in a living world. The Galactic Conquest campaign is another leap forward - building a bridge between the persistent world of PlanetSide and simpler, stand-alone maps. There's so much potential. But it only takes one fumble. Tso understands the challenge: "When you say that yes, it's Star Wars, with everything that makes Battlefield fun, then the expectations are sky high. But we have to make sure that we're making something interesting, that lives up to what everyone wants." And that's why Battlefront has risen right to the top of our wishlists. The Force is strong with this one.

We're eagerly anticipating playing Battlefront in winter 2004.