Battlefront 2, the new video game where you can play as Bossk before you spend a dozen hours unlocking Luke Skywalker, has a slavish dedication to fancy graphics and Star Wars action. Unlike its predecessor, it has a whole new Star Wars story to tell. But while it starts promisingly, it ends up being a far too recognisable tale.
All Images: EA/DICE
Battlefront 2 puts you in the boots of Commander Iden Versio (an excellent performance from True Blood's Janina Gavankar), the battle-hardened leader of Inferno Squad, a small spec ops unit of crack Imperial pilots and soldiers that includes Agents Del Meeko (T.J. Ramini) and Gideon Hask (Arrow's Paul Blackthorne) alongside her. Starting just hours before the Rebel Fleet's assault of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi - and letting the game's "heroes" witness its crushing destruction early on - it's a story with a fascinating premise. How do the Empire's most committed loyalists respond to the downfall of their order? What's it like being the overwhelming force after you've lost to the upstart heroes? And how do the people left standing after Endor move on as the Galactic civil war enters its inevitable final months?
The seeds sown in the story mode's second mission - which follows Inferno as they attempt to restore the Death Star's planetside shield generator on Endor, only to witness the battle station explode in the upper atmosphere - hint at the ideological divisions between members of the Empire that would eventually lead to the rise of the crueller First Order in The Force Awakens. Each member of Inferno Squad is devastated by what they witness (especially Iden, the only one of them to experience a similar terror with the first Death Star) when confronted with the realisation that the Empire is literally crashing down all around them. Del is too stunned to see what could come next. Iden, ever the tactician, can't help wonder who in the top brass managed to mess up what should have been the simplest of traps. Hask, meanwhile, instantly chides Iden for treasonous slander, unwilling to accept the possibility of Imperial failure despite the evidence blowing up right in front of him.
Those ideological divergences among Imperials are ones that have rarely been explored in Disney's iteration of Star Wars storytelling. They add fascinating texture to the faceless villainy of the Empire in a way that makes these characters feel believable, while avoiding the pitfall of undercutting the fact that Inferno Squad are still very obviously people who've done bad things to try and stamp out the Rebellion. In fact, they're very much shown to be questionable from the get-go, as the game quickly moves from Endor to the Empire's next step: Enacting cruel, spiteful revenge in the form of Operation Cinder, a plan actually introduced in 2015's The Force Awakens prequel comic Shattered Empire. A giant, posthumous failsafe/screw you from the Emperor, Operation Cinder is a plan to install weather-altering satellites above key worlds across the galaxy that essentially begin creating massive storms that cause untold destruction and render worlds uninhabitable. It's a decisive statement that despite the Emperor's death, his Empire still has a fearful grip over the fate of the galaxy.
Inferno Squad is more than happy to go along with the plan, as they're still emotionally caught up in what they saw on Endor. And when they discover Cinder is set to be implemented on Iden's homeworld, the staunchly Imperial Vardos, the stage is set for some really interesting character work. Can the Emperor's most loyal foot soldiers put aside their personal feelings to ensure his absolute will? Do they believe that inflicting a horror on the level of the one inflicted on them is justifiable? How dark a path are they willing to travel in the name of vengeance?
But Battlefront 2 chooses to take the easy way out instead of confronting these questions. Upon learning that the citizens - loyal Imperials - of Vardos will not be evacuated before Cinder ravages the planet, Iden and Del instantly decide enough is enough: They abandon Hask, gather as many civilians as they can, and defect to the Alliance. There's a perfunctory line in the trio's last exchange as brothers and sisters in arms about this being the face of a "new" Empire that Iden and Del can't get behind, but there isn't any real indication that they previously harboured the sentiment, especially given how shocked and angry they were after the second Death Star exploded.
This should be a huge, dramatic breaking point for them to choose to join the hated Rebels, but it just... happens. And from then on, Battlefront 2 chucks its premise - and the challenge of having to explore and explain why these people could keep doing such cruel things in the wake of Endor, and why that matters - out the escape pod chute to tell the standard story of the New Republic, née Rebel Alliance, fighting the Empire.
Aggravatingly, after they do defect, Battlefront 2 proceeds to rapidly and merrily brush aside Iden and Del's integration into the Republic to tell its overly familiar story of good guys vs. bad guys. There's some token dialogue early in one mission to show that their new "friends" don't trust them just yet, but by the same mission's end, Iden and Del are palling around with Princess Leia, and acting like they have been flying X-Wings and blasting Stormtroopers their whole lives. There are a few clunky time-skips that try to provide an excuse for brushing past all this, but that's it. One minute Iden's eagerly blasting Rebel scum, the next she's eagerly doing the same to Stormtroopers, and Battlefront 2 doesn't explore how conflicted she and Del (should) feel about that.
Even worse, Iden becomes less and less the main character of her own story, as bringing her into the Republic's fold means putting her in the periphery of the characters that we know and love... characters that, for a good chunk of the story's final hours, take centre stage. For several missions in a row you go from Naboo to Sullust to Takodana, and instead see the Republic's rebirth from the perspectives of Leia, Lando and Han, pushing Iden aside to serve as at best a secondary participant to these adventures, at worse as a faceless voice over comms. These stories aren't necessarily bad, because it's always fun to follow up with these characters we know and love, and see what they were doing after Return of the Jedi. Leia gets to defend her mother's homeworld! Lando, hilariously charming as ever, is out on the frontlines being a general! Han... has a beard!
It's Thrackan Sal-Solo, as I live and breathe!
But we love these characters already, and we've seen them playing the hero and saving the day in so many other Star Wars stories. Battlefront 2's storyline injures itself by choosing to toss out its challenging yet fresh drama for the same ol' Rebel heroes being heroes, and delivers the final blow by downplaying its unique protagonist, just so it can crack open the toybox and play with the nostalgia of older playthings. By the time the story is done playing and returns to Iden's perspective, the game is basically over. At least that final mission is seen from her perspective, as she takes part in the final battle of the war over Jakku, and even gets to confront Hask one last time.
This is something that's quickly become a problem with Disney's ownership of Star Wars, which keeps telling the same kinds of stories with the same characters in the same period over and over again, instead of focusing on stories that really do something new in the galaxy far, far away. It's almost even more disappointing that Battlefront 2 opens with - and was sold on - an intriguing, challenging premise and discards it than if the game had been honest about its intentions to deliver the same old Star Wars experience.
But this disappointment aside, there's at least a (new) hope after Battlefront 2's final mission. Played from the perspective of Kylo Ren and set decades after the Battle of Jakku, this epilogue serves as a lead-in to The Force Awakens on a grander scale, but its real intrigue lies in the personal drama it sets up. It reveals that not only did Iden and Del hook up and have a daughter in the years since the battle of Jakku, but their old Inferno Squad ally Hask survived his seeming death at Iden's hands, and is now a fervent acolyte of the First Order. Del is captured by the First Order, and Kylo tortures him for information on where Luke could be hiding. Afterwards, Hask kills him for betraying him and the Empire all those years ago, promising to do the same to Iden.
It draws things back to the relationship between Hask, Del and Iden, and it sets the stage for a conflict that takes place during a Star Wars period we still haven't explored much yet - seen through new characters, rather than ones we've been following for decades. In fact, EA seemingly plans to tell that story with a new mission due alongside free content tying into The Last Jedi's release this December, and hopefully more after that.
Battlefront 2's story definitely has its qualities. It steps away from the periphery of the movies, weaving a tale through and around the newly-established canon from recent books, comics and other games. That's commendable - especially considering it could've easily taken the overworn path of re-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-ing the original Skywalker saga.
But it sacrifices so much potential, along with the chance to be something truly new among what we've seen from the Disney era. I can settle for it being good Star Wars fun, but it's such a shame it took a great premise and cast it aside for something we've seen so many times before.