Star Wars fans got quite a treat earlier this week with a double dose of Star Wars media hitting store shelves. Along with the Episode III DVD, LucasArts also shipped Star Wars Battlefront II, the sequel to last year's Battlefront. Battlefront II, the sequel to the first team-based shooter set in a Star Wars universe, adds a few notable improvements, but doesn't stray too far from the formula that made the original game a big commercial success. You'll still take control of various infantry classes and vehicles as you fight for control of capture points on conquest-style maps. New space combat maps and playable Jedi represent some incremental improvements, but for the most part, Battlefront II treads familiar ground, which is great for Star Wars fanatics and fans of team-based online shooters.
Space combat is arguably the best new feature in Battlefront II.
The biggest improvement made to the standard vehicle-infantry combat combination is the addition of the new space combat maps in Battlefront II. Playable in both single- and multiplayer modes, the space combat maps enable you to jump into small starfighters, fly out of the fighter bay of capital ships, and dogfight in outer space as naval combat rages between massive star destroyers, frigates, and the gnatlike fighters that buzz around them. The sense of scale between the ships is great, as is the rush you get from trying to shoot down other fighters. The best part of the space combat is trying to bring down the huge capital ships. You can attack their vulnerable parts from the outside using larger fighters like TIE bombers or Y-Wings, or you can attempt to land inside their fighter bay and blow the ship up from the inside out with a marine landing. If you're crafty enough to land a troop transport inside an enemy fighter bay, you'll be awarded with a spawn point there for as long as that ship survives. The array of infantry types on space maps is limited to just pilots and marines (with pilots being able to repair their ships in flight, and marines having a rifle for better hand-to-hand combat), but fighting inside of an enemy ship is pretty cool, as is stealing their own fighters. If there's a downside to the space maps it's that they feel pretty similar, as far as setup goes, to multiplayer matches. There are basically two major capital ships, a bunch of fighters buzzing around them, maybe a couple of smaller frigates, and that's it. The only thing that changes is which planet you're orbiting or what game type you're playing, whether it's assault or some form of capture the flag.
Hero characters are also playable in the game, but they aren't quite as fun as you think they'd be.
The other major addition to Star Wars Battlefront II is the ability to play hero characters like Jedi. When you earn a certain number of points in a match, the hero character is unlocked, and you're given the option to respawn as the hero. Only one hero character per side, per match can exist at any given time, so don't expect to see 12 Yodas running around against 12 Darth Vaders, unless you're playing a modded game type. In general, only the top player on each side is given the option to use the hero character, who's generally very powerful and hard to kill. While this feature sounds fantastic on paper, in practice, the hero characters actually aren't all that interesting to use. Most of them are lightsaber-armed Jedi, so combat involves running up to people and mashing on the attack button quickly to swing your saber. Most Jedi can throw their sabers, and some have Force powers. Certain maps will also let you play special characters like Boba Fett or Han Solo, who have high-powered guns and other weapons. If members of the other team work together, concentrated fire can actually bring you down pretty quickly. But if you can take advantage of the confusion, a hero character can swing the tide of a battle. In general though, playing a hero doesn't feel quite as epic as you might expect it would.
There have been some other interesting tweaks to the formula. One new class has been added to each of the four factions in the game. The Republic get clone commanders, for example, armed with powerful chainguns and an aura that imparts defensive bonuses on nearby allies. The Rebels get a Bothan spy, who can cloak with a Predator-like shimmer and then unleash a powerful short-range flamethrower. These classes, as well as the special classes from the first game, like droideka and dark troopers, are not available to you when you first begin a match or mission. Like with the hero characters, you need to earn a few points before these are unlocked, and only a few can be on the map at once. You still have access to regular classes like normal rifle troopers and snipers. You'll also see familiar vehicles on the appropriate maps, like snow speeders on Hoth, AT-STs on Endor, and more. But in general, it feels as though Battlefront II is more of an infantry-focused game than its predecessor, which can be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. A good number of the maps don't have vehicles at all.
The game ships with a couple of single-player modes. One of these, Rise of the Republic, is a linear campaign of assault-style missions that follows the story of the 501st, a unit of clone troopers who eventually evolved into elite stormtroopers under Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader. You'll embark on a series of missions that will take you from the Clone Wars era to the Rebellion era, and you'll undergo the transformation from playing for the "good guys" to the "bad guys." The other single-player mode is called galactic conquest, which combines a turn-based mode, where you move fleets around a static planetary map, with basic conquest missions. Whenever you move your fleet over an enemy-controlled planet, you engage in a land battle. When two fleets meet, a space battle ensues. The planets you own give you production and combat bonuses, and the goal is to eventually take over all the planets in the galaxy. Four different galactic conquest galaxies are available, but they all play out pretty similarly. These modes are fun to play for a little while, but eventually they grow tiresome, partly because the missions end up being pretty redundant, and partly because the artificial intelligence isn't very good when you're playing a single-player mission. You'll see troops get stuck in walls and hallways, and it can sometimes be frustrating to try to mount concentrated attacks because your AI teammates don't always have the same idea that you do when it comes to deciding on an attack vector.