"Echo Station 3TA. We've spotted Imperial Walkers." If you've ever seen The Empire Strikes Back on that big, silver screen, you'll recall the visceral thrill as those grey, lumbering behemoths tromp out of the mists of Hoth to menace Echo Base. It's moments like this, from all the Star Wars films to date, that Battlefront tries to recreate, and on the whole, it succeeds - big style.
Battlefront is essentially a Star Wars clone of EA's Battlefield 1942, pitching two opposing forces together in combat, each side vying for the control of several Command Points dotted around the maps. Control of these Command Points determines the number of reinforcements each side can bring into battle: the more Command Points you have, the greater the numbers of troops at your disposal. Once one team controls all the Command Points, or when one side runs out of reinforcements, it's Game Over. It's all fairly standard Massively Multiplayer Online Shootery.
The hook, of course, is that it's Star Wars. Here, you get to recreate the Battle Of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back, the Battle Of Endor from Return Of The Jedi and the Battle of Geonosis from Attack Of The Clones. If you're not interested in Star Wars, you're not likely to find much fun here. If you're a Star Wars fanatic, on the other hand, it's quite likely that you'll think Battlefront is the next best thing to waking up in bed next to Natalie Portman. If there's one thing that Battlefront does well, it's capturing the mood and feel of the movies. The use of locations from the films, and more importantly, the sound effects from the films, makes Battlefront ooze that unique Lucas space opera feeling. You really do feel part of the films as you're flying by the mesas of Geonosis in a Clone Dropship, or as you're being rushed by half a dozen war whooping Ewoks in the forests of Endor. You'll cheer as teammates drag down an AT-AT with tow cables on the ice fields of Hoth. You'll giggle as you blow up a group of Stormtroopers with a thermal detonator. You'll panic when you see a group of Droidekas roll into a flanking position and rain down a withering barrage of blaster fire on your men. Some online shooters could be accused of being generic and soulless - "I can't believe it's not another WW2 game!" - Not Battlefront, however - it's got real character.
If the playing experience is spectacular, regrettably, so are the game's flaws. It's evident from the first time you spawn that Battlefront is a multiplatform game. The PC optimisation for the title is somewhat limited, so its not nearly as pretty it could be (thanks to the core game being held back by the PS2's ancient architecture), but at least that means that the control set is kept nice and simple, and that you'll get a decent frame rate and online experience with a moderately powerful PC, though I wouldn't recommend visiting a 64 player server with anything less than 2.5GHz and plenty of RAM. With the game's release timed neatly to coincide with the DVD release of the Star Wars trilogy, there's a definite feeling that the game isn't quite finished. This doesn't manifest itself in the form of show-stopping bugs, but with a few distinctly rough edges.
Firstly, there are only 16 maps, which don't give the game much longevity. You can learn all the maps from back to front within a week, and the single player campaign is a bit of a walkover, meaning that you'll need to be a dedicated online player to get much life out of it. The Galactic Domination and offline Skirmish modes are good short-term fun, but after playing with AI that's as dumb as a bag of hammers for a week, you'll be desperate to play online against more capable foes. The second big problem is that Battlefront has some rather horrible balancing issues. The standard Trooper class with the Blaster Rifle is by far the most versatile class, and there's little incentive to try out the other classes, unless you have a jetpack fetish or you're a habitual camper. The one exception to this is the Droideka that's available on the Clone Wars servers - it offers the relative invulnerability of a rechargeable shield and massive firepower at the cost of woeful manoeuvrability - the most delicate trade-off in the game by far, and they're great fun to play. The imbalances don't stop there, however. Battlefront implements a wide range of vehicles - from X-Wings to AT-ATs and just about everything in-between. Unfortunately, some of the maps (notably Hoth and the Kashyyyk Harbour map) give massively powerful vehicles to one side but not the other. This often results in battles being complete routs, particularly if some evil-minded player decides that they want to spawn camp the Echo Base hangar in an AT-AT. (Yes, that was me.)
It doesn't make rounds unwinnable for the side without the vehicles, however - Battlefront rewards teamwork and co-ordination, and concerted missile fire onto a particularly troublesome vehicle can often dig teams out of very big holes. It's possible that this lack of balancing is intentional; the Rebels were vastly outmanned and outgunned at Hoth, for example - perhaps it's *meant* to be a walkover for the Imperials, though a Rebel team that can pair up properly with the Snow Speeders can achieve a victory even Luke Skywalker couldn't. This is probably all just rationalization by your humble correspondent, however - less forgiving players will find it maddening, particularly if they keep getting stuck on the side without the heavy firepower. Perhaps more so than any other online shooter I've played, Battlefront depends upon the people you play with. Find a decent server with clan players or people willing to work together, and you can have some wonderfully close-fought contests; the most memorable I've had being an Imperial victory on Hoth by just two reinforcement points. Play on a server where everyone looks out for themselves, however, and it can get pretty frustrating.
The problems don't stop there, either. Whilst you're given (it's claimed) over 30 vehicles to pilot, the maps aren't quite large enough to fully exploit them. The flying speeds of the starfighters and the speeders are just too high - a couple of seconds and you're careering off the end of the map. Given that the game has a very militant attitude to those who "leave the battlefield" (i.e. the game kills you and makes you respawn), those wishing to realize their dream of flying an X-Wing will find it's best left to the masochists. The walkers, on the other hand, are implemented well, and are great fun to drive, particularly if you team up with a gunner. Unlike Joint Operations, the maps aren't so vast that it renders your bog standard infantryman useless, either. You're rarely more than a minute's trek from the action. Indeed, a couple of the maps are biased heavily towards pedestrian combatants. The Kamino and Cloud City Streets levels are totally devoid of vehicles entirely, and the Endor forest map plays much better on foot than on a speeder bike or AT-ST.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's far easier to find well populated online servers featuring the classic Star Wars Galactic Civil War maps than it is to find Clone Wars servers. This is a bit of a shame, given that playing as a Droideka is completely unlike anything you'll have experienced in an online shooter before. You'll also learn to avoid online servers with AI "Heroes" enabled. The "Heroes" are simply AI Bots of Jedi characters like Mace Windu or Darth Vader, who simply charge around hacking at enemies. They add absolutely nothing (except exasperation) to online play, as they're completely and utterly invulnerable - which makes things practically impossible if they've decided to camp a choke point (which they invariably do).
None of these flaws quite manage to ruin the game, however. Despite the lack of maps, the terrible level balancing, some patchy level design and a few dodgy vehicles, Battlefront rarely ceases to be enjoyable, and in most cases, battles are little short of spectacular and you'll always find one particularly memorable moment from a game. You can nitpick until the cows come home about how the weapons don't seem to have any weight, inertia or recoil, or how all the maps are too poky to use the starfighters - the inescapable fact remains that Battlefront lives, breathes and oozes Star Wars from every pore of its source code. Whether you see that as a good thing or not will be entirely determined by your predisposition towards Star Wars. Regardless, Battlefront fills a definite niche in the online shooter market, and does it well. The sights and sounds of the Star Wars universe will sweep you enthusiastically into battle, and you'll revel at the chance to quote yourself happy, taunting the opposition - "You Rebel Scum!"
It's clear from the outset that the deeper you're immersed into Star Wars lore, the more you'll get out of Battlefront, but it's not a game entirely devoid of merit for non-fans. The game's multi-format roots make the game very accessible, as does the setting, so Battlefront could very easily be "My First Online Shooter" for quite a lot of people - and it will definitely ease people into the genre gently enough. Battlefront isn't going to win any Game Of The Year awards, let's not kid ourselves, and certainly doesn't do anything revolutionary with the genre - but it is an enjoyable, well put together title, with the odd flash of brilliance. Let's be frank - if you're not a Star Wars fan, you probably won't be buying this game. This one's unashamedly for the fanboys.