I used to love playing soldiers, either with plastic army men, or with friends. Hell, I sometimes even played on my own, pretending everybody else was my enemy, and secretly (and silently) gunning them down. Imagination when you are young is a wonderful thing. Of course, back in my youth that was the only way to live out my one-man army fantasy. These days you can go for the paintball experience, and actually play for real, but with the added bonus of potentially getting hurt, too. Hurrah for modern recreational entertainment. Not liking pain, however, has meant that until a couple of years ago I didn't have the opportunity to play war; not until the company everybody loves to hate (that's EA for those not in the know) published Battlefield 1942. It was a game that allowed you to play war; allowing you to see if one man could make a difference. And you got to control tanks and planes, too, in either offline or online modes, playing with other real people without any fear of pain. Hats off to EA!

Still, the Battlefield series was restricted to PC only, and so console gamers were left out. Plus, the World War 2 setting was already getting stale. It was a very good game nonetheless, and opened the way for other publishers. Fast-forward to last year, then, and up popped Lucasarts with Star Wars: Battlefront for the PC, PS2 and Xbox. In an industry that really lives up to the old adage that copying is the highest form of flattery, Battlefront was Battlefield 1942 but in the Star Wars universe. Even the names weren't that different. That didn't stop it from being a good game in its own right, however, and the fact that it contained troop-types you'd seen on the silver screen, plus allowed combat in various traditional and new Star Wars craft meant that Joe Public and his wife lapped it up.

Snap forward once more then, to E3, where Lucasarts were proudly displaying the inevitable sequel - again featuring online play for PC, PS2 and Xbox - and we were fortunate enough to spend a little time with it. Now first things first: anybody who spent some time on the first game may have been a little disappointed by the ship vs. ship combat. Much like the problems that hampered enjoyment on the initial Battlefield title, controlling ships in the limited maps took skill and lots of practice. Even then, running out of space was too-common a problem. In order to rectify this, Lucasarts have been kind enough to include maps that are more focussed on ship vs ship combat. Anybody who has seen trailers for the game may well have seen one of these maps; one which sees capital ships kicking-ass, and players buzzing around in Tie-fighters, X-Wings and other classic ships. Having played that level, I can safely say that space combat feels better this time around, although, this admittedly is only based on one map. Hopefully this will be addressed on other maps too.

Also in evidence in this epic battle was the freedom to either head-out into the crazy crossfire of space, or to stay and defend your ship from enemy invasion. Or you can do a bit of both. Starting out on the side of the Republic, I got into my Tie-fighter and headed out of the hanger to be greeted by a fairly impressive vista; Star Destroyers were blasting away at the capital ships of the Rebel scum, and a plethora of fighters were blasting away, attempting to turn the tide of battle in their master's favour. Undeterred by the laser fire coming from capital ships, I went off in search of Rebel fighters to blast. Having done a little of that, I decided I wanted to make the fighting a bit more up-close and personal. Negotiating the fire coming at me from all angles, I caught sight of a hanger bay belonging to a cruiser. I homed-in on it, evading the pesky X-Wing on my tail, got close to the hanger, and promptly crashed into the wall. Oh well. Undeterred, I respawned and once more headed for an enemy hanger bay, this time safely landing. After killing the custodians of the bay, I decided that it would be nice to go undercover, and so I stole a Y-Wing and proceeded to shoot seven-bells out of the remaining Rebel forces, using their own weapons against them. Hurrah!

Ship combat has been much improved

Map won, it was time to see a more traditional level-type, that being a fight on land. Here, things remain much as they did in the original game, which is no bad thing, with various troop types to choose from, command points to hold and conquer and vehicles to commandeer. That said, there is a new feature that should spice things up. Stalwarts of the original title will recall levels in the main campaign mode allowing the use of various characters from the films to fight with you - Luke and Vader both made appearances. Unfortunately, these were not playable characters. This time, however, they are. That's right; providing you meet the criteria of the map (which could be to hold certain command points for a period of time), you are able to respawn as one of the main characters from the films. And you don't have to die to change troop class now, either, as you can go up to a friendly command post and alter it at any time. It seems like a simple thing, true, but valuable nonetheless. An example of both these features took place on the next map played. After holding two specific command points for a certain period of time, we were informed that Obi-Wan was now available for selection, and it was then possible to select him without having to take one for the team first. Unfortunately, the limited playtime didn't allow the opportunity to get to grips with the nuances of playing as Obi-Wan, but rest assured they have a number of tricks that make acquiring them worthwhile. And yes, Vader is playable too.

From what was seen and played, Battlefront is looking to be shaping up nicely, although one concern at this stage was the level of intelligence (or lack thereof) displayed by the bots populating the map. It could be that they were on an easier difficulty setting, or that the build played wasn't sufficiently tailored to show-off the AI of the bots, but they seemed reluctant to put up much of a struggle, and it felt a little too easy. Looking at the positives though, the scope of the game has been expanded with a more focussed single-player experience, and the Galactic conquest mode has received some TLC, too. Provided that the new maps show some imagination, and Lucasarts can cram in some additional features that differentiate it from the upcoming Battlefield 2 from EA (aside from having the Star Wars license), then we can look forward to more Republic/Rebel-bashing fun. Now if you excuse me, I'm off to the park with my toy rifle - having imagination still rocks.