The trouble with Star Wars is that it is no longer a long time ago, nor is it ever far, far away. We’ve had a film every year, be it a main entry or a spin-off, since 2015, and another one looms, ready to land a month from now. This has the dispiriting effect of chipping away at the series’ mystique, which now feels as brittle as the white plastic plating that encases the Imperial Stormtroopers. The games, on the other hand, are less frequent. Since acquiring the licence from Disney, in 2013, EA has published only two: Star Wars Battlefront and Star Wars Battlefront II. Sadly, this relative scarceness is not a guarantee of quality; indeed, the title of EA’s third, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, sounds as much an acknowledgement of the state of Star Wars games as much as it does to its monkish heroes.
Ready to redress the balance is Cal Kestis, a former Jedi Padawan who has suppressed his connection to the Force, as one might activate call forwarding. He is living in hiding, toiling on the ship-breaking yards of Bracca, a planet-sized junk heap. After the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, in which a galaxy-wide purge of the Jedi is initiated, Cal and his scattered ilk are hunted by the hounds of the Empire. Namely, the Order of Inquisitors, a prowling faction of zealots, swathed in trendy black, who wield lightsabers with spinning hilts, like scarlet buzz saws. When Cal uses the Force to save his friend Prauf from an accident at work, the ears of an Imperial Probe Droid are pricked. He senses his cover is blown, Prauf urges him to flee, and their fellow workers are fidgety with fret. In short, everybody expects the Inquisition.
In the nick of time, he is plucked from the rusty wastes and whisked into space aboard the Mantis, a ship with a humble crew of two: Cere Junda, an ex-Jedi with a pain-filled past, and Greez Dritus, a jumpsuited pilot, a hexapod, and the proud owner of a pair of grey muttonchops. Following the interstellar trail of Eno Cordova, which sounds like a plant-derived laxative but is in fact Cere’s old mentor, they embark on a quest to find a Jedi Holocron—a sort of cosmic memory stick containing the names and locations of the galaxy’s Force-sensitive children. It’s a handy piece of plotting that allows the game’s developer, Respawn Entertainment, to send us hopping along a vibrant string of planets. Crucially, it also allows for leisure time.
Fallen Order marks Respawn’s first third-person action-adventure game, and its influences are both wisely chosen and easily spotted: there are fragments of FromSoftware’s games, and strips of platforming pulled from Uncharted, but the most important is a healthy measure of Metroid. Nintendo understood, back in 1987, that space, as far as video games go, is far more fun when treated not as a boundless vacuum but as an interstellar back garden—a replayable patch of pathways and secrets that yields the thrill of alien worlds and warms them through with familiarity. Moreover, in encouraging exploration, we have two touches borrowed from Metroid Prime: the 3D holographic map, which casts each world as a crackling blue spectre of itself, and second, a scanning mechanic, whereby the mythology is mined and catalogued.
The scanning comes courtesy of BD-1, a bug-eyed droid who accompanies Cal, clinging to his back and beeping him on through tough times. After the irritations of K-2SO, in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and L3-37, from Solo: A Star Wars Story, I’ve developed a hardened crust, resistant to the drab efforts of droids predictably programmed to steal the show. It’s to Respawn’s credit, then, that BD-1 is unobtrusive, chipper, and useful—firing health stims at you at the touch of a button, springing up onto ziplines and spiriting you to and fro, and even brainwashing enemy droids to bring them on side. This coup shouldn’t come as a surprise, given Respawn’s track record with robots; it was BT-7274, after all, not Jack Cooper, that made Titanfall 2 as emotionally crisp as it was.
Fallen Order’s early hours are its strongest, those in which the branches of your exploration are rooted in Cal’s powers. As he reestablishes his link with the Force, as though slowly rousing from hibernation, he regains his forgotten powers (shades of Samus Aran, who began each Metroid adventure stripped of her souped-up armour, only to set about scraping it all together again). These include the classics: the power to push and pull your foes, along with objects in the environment; a Jedi jump, which adds a heightening flip to your leaps; the ability to slow objects and enemies in time, as if dipping them in syrup; and even a princely wall run. Gone is the turbo-powered trip of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, in which you made hairy footballs of Wookies and, in one daft moment, fashioned a Force lasso to tug a Star Destroyer from the sky.
To bolster this sense of restrained power, Respawn has stropped the edges of combat, looking to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Clashes require you to weigh up your options, picking your openings and parrying your opponents’ strikes so as to dent their block meter; once this is depleted, they are opened to a killing blow. (Most of the time, anyway; my main complaint is that some adversaries take multiple hits before dying, which looks incongruous—why not beef up the block meter and copy Sekiro all the way?) The lightsaber—which, in a bid to reduce fans to euphoric heaps, is customisable, offering an array of hilts and hues—feels potent, but only when wielded properly. You can easily fall to large groups, if you’re not on your guard. In between bouts are meditation spots, which refill your health stims, spawn fresh enemies, allow you to tinker with the skill tree, and, should you die, spit you back into the world.
“Failure’s a part of the journey,” Cere says to Cal, but, while it’s a comforting sentiment, I’d like to see her keep such stoic composure in the face of some of Fallen Order’s bugs. These are not the creepy kind that you find on Kashyyyk, waiting to cocoon you in webbing; rather, they are the sort that freeze the world, plant your enemies in place like mannequins, or send you plummeting through the map. Couple these with the long loading times, and you feel your patience tested the way it would be if you had to endure one of those wuthering Jedi Council meetings. It’s a shame that Respawn—working in Unreal Engine 4, rather than Frostbite, which EA seems fanatically devoted to—couldn’t have pushed back the game’s release for the sake of a patch or two.
Elsewhere, your patience is tested in other ways. Somewhat bafflingly, the meditation spots don’t allow fast travel, turning backtracking into a trudge. One of the game’s more refreshing notes, however, is its ratio of combat to quiet downtime. I relished the airy tombs, which have you clambering above yawning chasms and pondering some of the Force-powered puzzles. Likewise, zooming back to old planets, to unearth secrets (collectible clothes, paint jobs for BD-1 etc.) or plot-driven pathways, helps ground Cal and his crew in the world, which glitters with Lucasian detail. The spectacle of a Republic Gunship, ensnared in green vines, or the frost-bitten villages on Zeffo, with its flags fluttering in the gusts: the dream of doing a Star Wars game is one that must have lured its share of visual artists into the industry, and you can sense the skill of Respawn’s team let loose to flourish.
It’s no surprise that the story is outshone by the sights; indeed, that’s what Star Wars, with its potted plots, has always relied on. Fortunately, the characters have a spark of their own, the best of which is the villain, an Inquisitor called Second Sister. She is portrayed by Elizabeth Grullon, and the scenes in which she appears are charged by the voltage of her viciousness—especially later on, when she removes her ant-like helmet and swaps the seething for an open snarl. Cal is played by Cameron Monaghan, who has a pale complexion and a coppery sweep of hair. His signature move is to jut his jaw, bearing his bottom teeth: the look of the intergalactically downtrodden. Viewers of the television show Gotham, in which Monaghan played the Joker, might hope for a cackling volte-face, with Cal clowning for the Dark Side. No such luck. But the good news is that he lacks the strait-laced striving of the Skywalkers, and there is the suggestion, in his lolloping gait, of unrefined potential. The feeling is in the air—bring on the sequel!
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC
Release Date: November 15, 2019
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