Respawn is going to tell a different kind of Star Wars story in its upcoming single-player, third-person action game Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. We got our first look at it in action today, at E3 2019, and we left incredibly impressed by what the studio has shown off so far. While the focus was certainly on the "thoughtful combat", as Respawn calls it in our feature focusing on the Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order combat, we are also eager to dig deep into the studio's huge narrative ambitions.
Respawn, known for creating mechanically rich and ambitious multiplayer first-person shooters, such as Titanfall, Titanfall 2 and Apex Legends, is letting us experience just how disastrous the fall of the Jedi Order really was. Set shortly after the events of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, we will take on the role of Cal Kestis, played by actor Cameron Monaghan of Gotham fame, a young Padawan that survived the execution of Order 66 – the purge of the Jedi Knights orchestrated by Emperor Palpatine – as he attempts to continue his training from the shadows, while attempting to evade the Empire and its deadly Jedi-hunting Inquisitors.
“Many Star Wars fans, ourselves included, are really interested in the dark times, so we wanted to explore that mysterious, dangerous period,” Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order's game director Stig Asmussen announced at Star Wars Celebration, a veteran of the games industry who is perhaps best known for his work overseeing God of War 3. “The team at Lucasfilm have been amazing collaborators, helping us explore and further develop this part of the timeline where the Empire is at the height of its power and any remaining Jedi are in hiding. Within this narrative, we’ve crafted a game with intense, yet thoughtful and fun melee combat using the lightsaber and Force powers, allowing anyone to fulfil their Jedi fantasy.”
For many a Star Wars fan, this is a dream come true. For the folks working at Lucasfilm, a group of creatives who have been eagerly attempting to expand the universe following a purge of its own, as all extended universe content was stripped from canon following Disney's acquisition of Star Wars in 2012, the pitch was something it could immediately get behind. “When Respawn approached us with the idea for this game, we were immediately supportive. A single player, story-driven title in the Star Wars universe was exactly what we were looking for, and we know the fans have been eager for one, as well,” Steve Blank, the director of franchise content & strategy for the Lucasfilm Story Group, noted while speaking at Celebration. “Focusing on Cal stepping back into the shoes of a Jedi post Order 66 opens up a lot of gameplay opportunities and rich story threads to develop for this new character and his backstory.”
Embracing the darkness
What is it about this period that the studio found so exciting? Aaron Contreras, head of narrative at Respawn, used his time speaking at Celebration to reaffirm his belief that this time is so fascinating because it represents one of the biggest challenges the Jedi have ever faced – absolute extinction. "For a thousand generations, the Jedi were the Guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic, before the dark times and before the Empire. Our story is set during those dark times. The Empire is at the height of its power. The Jedi are reviled as traitors; the Inquisitors roam the galaxy hunting for any surviving Jedi and other force sensitives."
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It's here where Jedi: Fallen Order picks up. We will meet Cal on Bracca, a brand new planet engineered by Respawn in collaboration with Lucasfilm, that's located off in the Mid Rim – a part of the galaxy that was once home to some of the bloodiest battles between the ancient Jedi Order and the Sith in the days of The Old Republic, thousands of years before the rise of Darth Vader and the fall of the Republic. Now, Bracca it's strewn with wreckage as a result of the Clone Wars; Cal is a member of the Scrapper Guild, hiding his past in plain sight, attempting to conceal his true power and identity.
"Cal works on tearing apart derelict starships – mostly decommissioned Capital ships from the Clone Wars – and it’s really hard and dangerous work. The dark times have shaped Cal, and so he keeps his head down, pulling himself back from the world around him. He can’t trust anybody with the secrets that he carries for fear that it will endanger them," Contreras continues, though the young Padawan can't stand on the sidelines forever – it just isn't in his character. "Eventually, Cal does get involved, and it puts the Inquisition on his trail. He’ll have to face the trauma of his past and learn to trust in new allies and The Force. If the Jedi Order is ever to rise again, Cal must persist through failure and adapt. He will gain a new understanding of what it means to be a Jedi – a Guardian of peace and justice after the bad guys have won and all hope has been lost."
Story is everything to Respawn
As you've probably gathered by now, building an authentic Star Wars story is a huge focus for Respawn with Jedi: Fallen Order. The studio has reportedly brought in six narrative designers to work on the game – to put that in perspective, EA Motive had two narrative designers on staff to oversee the direction of the single-player campaign for Star Wars Battlefront 2. Respawn's own team includes Contreras, who oversaw the reactive narrative component to Mafia 3, and Chris Avellone, who, alongside countless other projects, wrote Knights of the Old Republic 2. Fallen Order will also see famed Star Wars writers getting involved in crafting this new corner of the universe, such as Matt Michnovetz – who is perhaps best known as the head writer for the Star Wars: The Clone Wars' sixth and seventh seasons, as well as a writer for episodes of Star Wars Rebels' second season. An impressive grouping of narrative designers and writers have assembled behind Fallen Order, and it's doing enough to alleviate any worries that we may have had that Respawn wouldn't well positioned to create a single-player, narrative-driven game. For now, at least – we're still yet to play it for ourselves, after all.
Still, pulling this together has been easier said than done for Respawn. Building a game around a licensed IP is difficult at the best of times – it's easy to forget, but Rocksteady's Batman Arkham trilogy is still a bit of an outlier in the wider games industry. Batman is big, but it's no Star Wars; there is perhaps no brand in the world that is as big and as successful, let alone under such a substantial amount of scrutiny from the fanbase, as Star Wars. Honestly, it's kind of surprising we are getting something set in such a delicate and mysterious part of the canon at all.
Blank describes the creation of the Fallen Order as a "labour of love" when he touches on the challenging, but necessary, processes in place to align the various parties with a vested interest in expanding the Star Wars universe. "It takes time, a lot of effort, and a lot of people having all sorts of conversations from across Lucasfilm, Respawn, EA, and Disney. When it comes to crafting something together with a specific story... as I said, it’s a labour of love. Everybody pitches in here, we all kind of get together and get straight to the point of making something incredible," he says, adding, "everybody is driving towards the same goal of creating a badass, kickass Jedi Star Wars game for people to love." Everything we've seen of Fallen Order so far would suggest that Respawn is undoubtedly on the right path to deliver.
New friends and familiar faces
Respawn is working on walking a delicate line between creating new Star Wars lore and reusing fan-favourite assets and elements from established canon. It's one of the elements of Fallen Order's design that will ensure that it feels faithful to the universe it is set in while still bringing value to the table. "We had to use different approaches when creating existing things in the Star Wars universe and creating brand new content," says Fallen Order producer Kasumi Shishido, speaking at Star Wars Celebration. "We are introducing a lot of new planets and characters. Nailing down existing locations, for example, was really important for both teams. So we did that by going back and forth on style guides, concept art – and even now we still do full level playthroughs together [with Lucasfilm], over and over again, just to nail this."
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It's the new elements that have really caught our attention. In particular, there's Cal's droid BD-1 – or as it's known internally, 'Buddy-Droid 1' – whose voice has been created and performed by legendary Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt. If that weren't enough, the basis for the droid was actually inspired by Contreras' own beloved dog. Hey, Contreras, I demand pictures of your dog in a mo-cap suit. Like, for real, make it happen.
Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, Fallen Order. On Cal's journey to complete his Jedi training, he will, Respawn has teased, meet some familiar faces that out there in the wild. While there are no hints as to who just yet, there's the likes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Ashoka Tano all out there and in hiding, so the mind can only wonder. Perhaps more interestingly though, Cal will also make a few new alliances along the way. One such will be with Cere, played by MadTV alum and voice actress Debra Wilson. She, Contreras teases, "plays a former Jedi Knight and takes on the role of mentor to Cal in many ways, but it’s not the traditional Padawan/Jedi Master sort of relationship. Instead, there’s this group that sort of comes together to form a strange family, a team that bands together to explore the galaxy. That’s really the real heart and core of the story.”
The power of the dark side
That group of new allies is going to be much needed, because Cal won't be able to fight the Empire and its deadly Imperial Inquisitors alone. In fact, the young Force user has caught the attention of an elite Inquisitor, the Second Sister, a character who seems to have her own strong connection with The Force, and her personal guard, the Purge Troopers. This would be a situation that would strike fear into the hearts of a seasoned Master Jedi, let alone a young Padawan apprentice that is yet to complete their training or have their hands on a fully functioning lightsaber.
While the Second Sister and the Purge Troopers may look entirely new if you've only been following along with the action as seen in the movies, they are actually coming from the larger pool of Star Wars storytelling. The Second Sister was created by writer Charles Soule and artist Giuseppe Camuncoli, introduced in issue #19 of Marvel's Darth Vader last August, should you be interested in diving into her backstory ahead of getting your hands on Fallen Order this November. The Purge Troopers were also introduced in the Darth Vader series of comics, and they are more than up for the challenge of cutting down whatever remains of the Jedi Order.
“There are always a lot of rumours floating around the galaxy of Jedi sightings. While it’s the Inquisitors' job to hunt them down, as there are so few of them, they send these Purge Troopers to investigate," says says Fallen Order producer Kasumi Shishido, speaking at Celebration, of the group of Stormtroopers purpose trained to hunt down and decimate any and all Force sensitive users left in the galaxy. "If the Purge Troopers find a Jedi they call it in, but they are also specially trained to fight Jedis, so when they do encounter them they are incredibly eager to fight.”
Fight for survival
What will you fight back with? Well, that's something of a closely guarded secret. While Respawn has reaffirmed its commitment to creating a system that will engineer visceral, one-on-one combat scenarios, the studio seems hesitant to detail it in any real depth. Game director Asmussen calls it "thoughtful combat", a system that will empower players to utilise lightsaber abilities and Force powers that evolve as Cal becomes more comfortable and capable throughout the story. That's key, because, as Asmussen tells it, Fallen Order is "not a button-masher" instead, it's leaning on an increasing sense of mastery and depth. As for that lightsaber, well, "I don’t think we are going to be talking about that until we release the game,” teases Asmussen. “It’s so intimately tied to the story... it’s just full of spoilers. What I will say is that over the course of the game it will grow and evolve, and, in many respects, it is a reflection of Cal.”
Is that a frustrating answer? Absolutely. Does it make sense? I begrudgingly concede that it does. The truth is, I'm so eager for more information because Respawn looks to be carving out an awesome little corner of the Star Wars universe to play in. By throwing us all in at the deep end of the "dark times" of the galaxy, we will have the opportunity to enjoy a side to the franchise that we so rarely get to see explored.
If Respawn is putting as much care into the mechanics and systems of Fallen Order as it is the narrative – and history would lead me to believe that it will – then we're looking at something very special here. It's as the developers said, this has clearly been "a labour of love" but it's one, Respawn maintains, that will absolutely be worth the wait. “We’re putting our heart and soul into this game,” says Shishido, “so we really can’t wait to show you more.”
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is set to launch November 15, 2019, on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.