Okay, we’re in business: it has taken half a decade, but EA has finally made a Star Wars game worthy of the name. Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order is, in a sense, a game of component parts. There’s a dollop of Uncharted here, a dash of Metroid there, and a surprising whiff of Dark Souls. But in the hands, what it feels like most of all is a Respawn game. Fallen Order is the work of a new team at the Titanfall 2 developer, assembled from scratch in order to build third-person action games. They have done so at the first time of asking, and with a flourish.
The Respawn producer who walks me through my 45-minute hands-on session at E3 2019 admits to having been a bit disappointed by the response to the game’s showing during the EA Play press conference last weekend. Onlookers said it looked a bit too easy, a little too linear, maybe a tad too basic. Not a bit of it. While the difficulty has indeed been toned down for E3 – as is often the case, where tight appointment timings mean you can’t really have people dying 20 times on a mid-boss – we still die more times than we’d care to admit during a wave-based combat gauntlet that serves as our introduction to the game’s mechanics.
Simple but effective
The foundations of the combat system are certainly simple: light and heavy attacks, a block button that can be tapped for a parry, a dodge that can be modified into a roll with a double tap, and a jump. Up on the triggers are three Force powers – push, pull, slow – that can either be tapped for a quick move, or held for a stronger effect.
But those are merely the basics, and things stop being basic pretty rapidly. Enemies attack with purpose and hit hard; combat is not merely about whaling away on an opponent until they fall over, but involves breaking through their defences, at which point the next hit will kill them. If that sounds a little like Sekiro then yes, well done; my new producer friend admits the team at Respawn were taken aback by the two games’ shared DNA when FromSoftware's game released a few months ago.
It’s not quite as punishing, admittedly. In Sekiro, you need to perfectly time several parries in a row simply to stay alive. Here, on the rank and file at least, one good parry is all you need to blow their defences open. The timing window is generous in the extreme, at least in the E3 demo – I’m told it’s considerably smaller in the game being built back at Respawn, but even with stricter timing this is no Souls-like game in terms of difficulty.
Yet it is in other ways. The game is broken up into a number of discrete planets, each housing levels that, while appearing linear, loop back around on themselves in a Miyazaki kind of way. There are meditation runes at which the protagonist can heal up, recharge his droid’s limited stock of healing items, access the skill tree to power himself up and respawn enemies in the region. Next to one rune we find what appears to be a chasm, but which we’re told is the bottom of an elevator shaft, allowing you to return to safety later in the level.
There’s an element of Metroid too in the gentle gear-gating that blocks your progress through the levels. Impassable obstacles are shown on the map in red; when either you or your droid have acquired the relevant power, it turns green to show you can now pass through. Some will lead to treasure; others will be points on the critical path. This is no linear stomp, nor a short game. Respawn won’t be drawn on the game’s length, but I’m told this will not be the sort of 12-hour character-action game you might imagine.
But at this stage, the combat is the main draw. I wrecked an AT-ST in, like, 20 seconds using only a lightsaber. This is, finally, a game that nails the feeling of being a Jedi: you are fast and powerful, attacks connect with real heft, and the finishing blows that follow a successful guard break ratchet up the power fantasy with a little spectacle while also feeling like a fitting reward for a job well done. The parry is delightful, whether you’re seeing off a stormtrooper’s melee swing or perfectly deflecting blaster fire.
There will be no Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Dark Side Sith powers in the game, Respawn has confirmed.
The dodge can also be perfectly timed, and dipping away at the last second from a hulking droid’s haymaker is a wonderful feeling. The powers are a little harder to get your head around – I’m given all of them at once, rather than acquiring them piecemeal through the game, and keep forgetting which is on which button. But they’re great fun when you get it right, and can be used in some creative ways. I quickly grow to hate a flamethrower-bearing Stormtrooper, but using a level-two Force Push against one that’s near a wall turns the poor chump’s fuel-tank backpack into a time bomb. Lovely stuff.
I wasn’t expecting much from Fallen Order, if I’m honest. Respawn certainly has pedigree, but that has to be offset against EA’s miserable track record with the Star Wars licence. The demo presented during EA Play didn’t convince me, and I still believe that the protagonist is one of the blandest I’ve seen at this or any E3. And yet. Yet. What I find instead when the game is in my hands is the most pleasant surprise of the show so far. It’s a Star Wars game that feels worthy of the name; a game that is nothing like anything Respawn has made before yet still bears its hallmark; and a game that, well, look. I told you about the AT-ST, didn’t I.
To learn more about the newest games, be sure to read our list of all of the E3 2019 games that have been revealed so far.