After the huge success of last year's Star Wars: Battlefront, the chance of there never being another game in the series was very slim. Thankfully, for fans of the game, the wait has been incredibly short. Battlefront II, once again from Pandemic Studios and Activision, throws in a couple of new ideas, but for the most part remains pretty similar to the original game. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on just how much you loved the first game.
The big inclusion this time around is space combat. During space combat maps there are massive star destroyers battling, and you can hop into small starfighters and attempt to take down the enemy's star destroyer and their starfighters. As you'd expect, doing so is a lot of fun. The best part is that while you're flying around in space, team-mates can be fighting onboard the gigantic ships, and you can seamlessly go from on-foot to space combat by simply entering a starfighter and leaving the hangar. The only problem with this new introduction is that it does become a little samey. There's only so many ways a section of space with hulking great star destroyers can look. A different planet in the distance does not a new map make.
The other feature Activision was keen to point out leading up the game's release is Hero characters. These are the most famous characters from the Star Wars series and each of them is more powerful than the standard infantry you'll take control of. Only one Hero character can be used per team, and you're only given the option to do so once you've reached a certain number of points in the match. It's also usually only the best player on the team that gets the option to spawn as a hero, and while having more power sounds great, it's really not as good as it should be. For the most part the hero wields a lightsaber, and while this is cool, it's not ideal for combat in most situations. You can take more damage as a hero, so you can afford to get up close and personal with the enemy, but maps that let you play as gun touting heroes give the hero a much bigger advantage.
'... the game plays remarkably similarly to its predecessor.'
Other than the big two changes, elsewhere the game plays remarkably similarly to its predecessor. Each of the four factions in the game have received a new class, but these and the special classes from the first game aren't accessible right away. You'll need to earn a set number of points in a match before they can be chosen, and the number of these classes is limited in each match. Vehicles also make an appearance, but some maps don't feature them at all, and they're really not as prominent as in the first game. If you really loved the vehicles in last year's game, then you might be a little disappointed, but at least you have starfighters to pilot in the space combat maps.
Online play is the focus of the game, and every version performs well in this area. If you really must play with more than 32 players, then the PC version is your only option with its support for up to 64 players, but the console versions both do a good job, with up to 32 players on Xbox and 24 on PlayStation 2. In order to reach these numbers online you're going to have to play on one of the dedicated servers, but player hosting is supported and will support four human players, with the remainder of slots being filled by bots. As with all online games, lag will depend on the people you're playing with, but on the whole, even in matches that had relatively high pings, the game remained playable.
The Battlefront series wasn't designed to be played offline and by yourself, but some effort has been made to cater for that audience. Rise of the Republic presents a series of missions that take you from the Clone Wars era through to the Rebellion era, and Galactic Conquest mixes turn-based gameplay with the conquest game mode that is featured in the main game. Both these modes offer some entertainment, but aren't a match for the campaigns you'll find in games dedicated to delivering a single-player experience. The biggest problem is the AI of team-mates, who often don't do what you want them to.
Star Wars: Battlefront was a nice looking game, and Battlefront II looks pretty similar. The space combat maps look very impressive, but on the whole there's really little to differentiate this from the previous game. Each version looks good in its own right, but the PC version has the edge in terms of texture detail and frame rate - assuming you have the required hardware. On the consoles, the Xbox version definitely edges out the PlayStation 2 version in detail, but both suffer from slowdown from time to time. There are no surprises with the audio - it's a Star Wars game after all - but it's still impressive, with the expected blaster sounds, lightsaber swooshes and the John Williams score.
Activision clearly didn't want to push the boat out with Battlefront II, simply choosing to tentatively build on a successful formula. Newcomers will find plenty to enjoy, with the space combat being a particular highlight, but existing fans may well have been expecting a little more. If all you wanted was more of the same, your dreams have been answered, but hopefully Pandemic and Activision have a few more ideas up their sleeves for the inevitable third game.