Why DICE is mad to cut the prequel era from Star Wars: Battlefront

The highlight of my recent visit to the Star Wars Celebration in Los Angeles was hearing a guy behind me remark, with the air of a man casually broaching a deeply-held religious conviction, that “oh, I only take photos of Mandalorian and Dark Trooper cosplays”. I don’t have a clue what a Mandalorian is - taking a *cough* wild guess, I’d say they’re a nomadic group of multi-racial bounty hunters and mercenaries who extol confrontation as a means of spiritual growth. But I love that this chap knew, I love that he’d found somewhere in the real world to say so without undergoing a barrage of wet willies and Indian burns, and I love what such utterly anal behaviour reveals about the franchise’s intricacy and sprawl. You know a universe has ripened to maturity when people are able to get this precious, this fastidious about what they snap with a bloody mobile phone.

Once a fiction built governed by simple binary oppositions - Light vs Dark, Empire vs Rebellion, X-Wing vs TIE Fighter - Star Wars has erupted over the years into a snakepit of races, factions within factions, technologies, philosophies, solar systems and personalities. It’s no longer enough to wear your lightsaber red or blue. To qualify for serious enthusiast status, you’ve got to know which of the seven duelling forms you favour, and which particular master from which particular era you want to study under. You’ve got to know about the Rule of Two, the precise location of the Twirling Twi'lek, and whether you take your Gungan Midnight Sundaes straight or with a handful of frozen methane (disclaimer: I have made at least one of these up).

All of this scope was on full display at the expo, as was the ingenuity of cosplayers. Among other feats of artistry, I laid eyes on a family gussied up as a full Tatooine slave-girl-and-guards ensemble, a sort of Dark Side C3PO, a George Lucas lookalike and a small army of Clone Troopers who’d taken it upon themselves to act as conference security. The imagination and dedication of fans was everywhere. Everywhere, that is, save for the room where LucasFilm showed me the first gameplay footage of DICE’s Star Wars: Battlefront.

Here, the mood shifted from carnival revelry to that of a cathedral. A hallowed awe presided, as producers and directors talked us through the various painstaking ways DICE has fed classic movie props into the Frostbite Engine. The polychromatic slurry of the wider universe was totally absent - the new Battlefront is almost exclusively about the events, characters, props and sets of the first three films. It’s a back-to-basics approach that undeniably suits DICE’s legendary commitment to photorealism. Every scuff and smear on every prop has been preserved with pin-sharp exactness using photogrammetry, whereby pics are snapped of the original object from every angle, then combined to create a 3D model.

The results speak for themselves: you can practically see your face in the reflection from Admiral Akbar’s aubergine skull, and pick out individual machine scratches on the handle of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Still, after my tour of the convention floor it all felt a bit stifling and clinical. Boiling things back to Episodes 4-6 makes sense if you go by audience reaction to the prequels, and is certainly the safer approach given that the new game will serve, in part, as near-launch marketing for a wildly expensive new movie trilogy. But does DICE risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

It’s perhaps time we acknowledged that the prequel films, stinking crocks of Bantha fodder though they are, have changed the landscape of Star Wars for the better. In seeking to flesh out the wider cultural and political machinations that gave rise to the original trilogy’s more innocent tales of throaty space fascists, ace pilots and rubbery swamp-dwelling mystics, they have thrown open the gates to all manner of eccentric side stories and gossip, whether orchestrated by Lucas-approved novelists and TV scriptwriters or by enterprising kids in attics with too much time on their hands.

Much ink has been spilled - sometimes maddeningly, often entertainingly - on topics like the genetic quirks that lead to Force sensitivity, on the fine degrees by which the more callous, militant Jedi set themselves apart from the Sith, and on the origins of non-human characters who are little more than goofy extras in the first three movies. The prequel films have also piled up delightful breeds of gizmos and spacecraft for mechanically-minded writers and fans to pick at, showing how the tech of the Old Republic era bled into that of the Galactic Empire.

You wouldn’t shelve any of this alongside the collected works of Tolstoy, of course, and some will maintain that the shambling awfulness of The Clone Wars flick is too high a price to pay for a few additional flavours of Stormtrooper helmet. But it’s hard to walk past a trio of pre-school Darths whispering excitedly under the eye of a portly Asajj Ventress, and not feel that somehow, everything has turned out just fine.

The pulling-back of LucasFilm’s camera has also, you could argue, been of huge benefit to Star Wars game developers. The Phantom Menace doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, but the 1999 film can be forgiven, just about, as groundwork - a series of disastrous doodles in the margin of a vastly superior yarn, demonstrating how cinema’s most venerated fiction might be revisited and re-engineered. And of course, the original Battlefront games wouldn’t have been the same without their libraries of Clone Wars-era ships, heroes and backdrops.

I went back to the third and least terrible of the movie prequels, Revenge of the Sith, before flying to Los Angeles, just to relive that opening clash between Count Dooku’s fleet and the Republic armada over Coruscant. This battle features in Battlefront 2, and is exactly the sort of thing you’d want to see in a Star Wars game - cruisers sliding by one another like lances at a jousting tourney in slow motion. There are plenty of spectacular battles in the classic era, of course, and no, I’m not agitating for the return of Jar Jar Binks. But given the resources at DICE’s disposal, and the Celebration’s riot of Expanded Universe delights, was it really so necessary to hack everything back?