If the modern AAA videogame has been dominated by adolescent male power fantasies, Star Wars Battlefront is something else entirely: some kind of depressing fetish for impotence.
There’s been no shortage of games digging into the Star Wars mythos over the years, letting you play as Jedi, Sith, bounty hunters, fighter pilots, and more. Exciting, visceral experiences granting you impossible powers, incredible technology and a crucial role to play in the galactic conflict spilling out across the stars.
In Star Wars Battlefront on the other hand, you play as an insignificant Stormtrooper who probably got killed off-screen during the Battle of Hoth.
The sprawling shooter sees you step into the shoes of an anonymous soldier fighting for either the Rebel Alliance or the Empire, taking part in conflicts across Hoth, Endor and other familiar locales from the original trilogy, along with a few original settings. For the most part, it’s pretty standard shooter fare in Star Wars trappings: you have a customisable loadout of grenades and buffs, you can pick between rifle-y guns and shotgun-y guns, you spawn en masse, run over the map, shoot a bit, die a lot, and start all over again.
You’re a grunt. Forgettable, replaceable, one of many swarming across the sprawling maps, fighting someone else’s war. You’re the cannon fodder, born to die, there to make sure every battle looks sufficiently grandiose. You’re the Stormtrooper who hits his head walking through a door in Episode IV, doomed to an eternal recurrence of incompetence.
“But!” I hear/imagine you protest, “Don’t you get to be Darth Vader too? Can’t you fly an X-Wing, ride a speeder bike and blast rebel scum from the cockpit of an AT-AT?”
Well, yes. Sometimes. Rarely, if we’re being totally honest. It’s the law of averages: the game only allows so many Heroes and Villains at once, only so many fighter pilots, only so many AT-AT gunners. Most of the time, they won’t be you. You’ll be the guy that all of those guys are gunning down, probably cackling wildly as they do.
In my hours playing Battlefront’s main modes, I flew an X-Wing a handful of times, called down orbital bombardments from an AT-AT twice, and never once played as a hero. Not once. The rest of the time, I mainly died a series of miserable, inconsequential deaths.
There are other modes that offer more of a power-trip, but these rarely feel like the true Battlefront experience. ‘Fighter Squadron’ is a simple extended dogfight in space, while ‘Heroes Vs. Villains’ is exactly as it sounds. These form a fun diversion, but feel like a side game, a concession to players frustrated that they don’t get to be a rampaging, lightsaber-wielding übermensch at all times.
For me, Battlefront wasn’t an exercise in living out my Star Wars power fantasies, an opportunity to practice my force choke, or even a chance to draw on my years of experience playfighting with wrapping paper rolls while making those whirring lightsaber noises. Battlefront didn’t make me feel powerful, vital or important. It made me feel puny.
Very early in my time with it, Battlefront delivered an experience that would define the game for me: Fighting for the noble Rebel Alliance, I was busy defending a desert base from oncoming AT-ATs, calling down Y-Wing bombers to strike their towering walkers. The Imperials had breached our defences and were storming the base, armed and armored troopers flooding every corridor. Blaster rifle in hand, I was helping to hold them off, picking off targets and quietly making terrible jokes to myself about Stormtroopers’ aim.
Then Darth Vader came round the corner.
Then I was dead.
I had just enough time to process the towering figure, the flowing cape, the glowing red saber. Then he killed me. I still don’t know exactly how. It happened too fast, I never even stood a chance. He existed on another level, a deity marching down that corridor to remind me of my galactic insignificance.
I’d cross paths with heroes and villains again, of course. The Millennium Falcon blasting my TIE Fighter out of the sky perhaps, or Luke Skywalker leaping at me, lightsaber aglow. All of these encounters led to my death. The second time I ran into Lord Vader was under more ideal circumstances: he was weak, his health was low, and he was standing with his back to me. This was my chance.
I fired a pot-shot or two, threw a grenade. He swiveled and threw his lightsaber at me. Dead. I respawned, went back, aimed for his head. He slashed me down. Once again I returned to the same spot, now desperately determined to prove he wasn’t anything special. Suddenly I found myself floating in the air, being dragged towards him, Force clamping down around my neck. I died, of course, but in this case so did he. It turns out that someone else took the kill while Vader was distracted by crushing my throat.
Anyone who read my Downwell review will know that I’m not good at games. Shooters are no exception, and I can’t pretend Star Wars Battlefront is any different. I’m bad at it, I die, and I feel powerless. What fascinates me in this case is the sense that the game was built with the overt intention to crush my will, engineered to pit me against impossible odds and unstoppable enemies. But the most peculiar aspect of this feeling of impotence and futility is that the game somehow, unbelievably, makes me enjoy it.
Perhaps I’m just uncovering latent masochistic tendencies, but it’s hard to remember a gaming moment more thrilling than that first death at the hands of Vader, more awash with adrenaline, no matter how short-lived. We die so often in videogames that it’s easy to ignore death, to respawn, forgetting each demise by the time the next rolls around. But this death meant something. It communicated information about the game, about the narrative, about the world. In a matter of seconds, a power differential was established, a pecking order put in place. I understood Battlefront, even if that meant understanding that I was at the bottom of the heap.
Mainstream, AAA videogames tend to be terrified of letting the player feel weak, handing us bigger and more explosive guns, along with weaker and more plentiful enemies to shoot them at, in a never ending effort to provide the ultimate power trip. Against that backdrop, there’s a surprising power to Battlefront’s acceptance of weakness, its admissal that most of us don’t get to be the hero. I’m not good at Battlefront, but somehow it makes me feel OK about that.
Having said all of this, I still want my turn to be Darth fucking Vader.