Star Wars Battlefront on the PC: Impressions and performance

For the past few days, EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront has been in open beta. We spent some time in the game in all three modes — both the Battle of Sullust, Walker Assault on Hoth, and the single-player missions that pitch you against waves of stormtroopers and other attack vehicles in a survival mode. Unlike the console players, who are stuck dealing with either 900p on the PS4 or 720p on the Xbox One, PC gamers get the full monty — as much resolution as your monitor can handle, and quality settings that truly bring Star Wars to life around you.

It’s difficult to know what to write about Star Wars: Battlefront, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that this was a beta with just three game modes. The overwhelming and immediate thought when you first fire up the game is “I’m playing Star Wars!” On that front, Dice has succeeded beautifully. This game feels like a love letter to every kid who ever raced through the house clutching Han Solo’s DL-44 and making blaster noises. As you race to recover escape pods on Sullust, the capital ships overhead fire on each other (and occasionally on the planet).

Battlefront

I’m even willing to forgive the fact that Dice shows Imperial Star Destroyers as in-atmosphere craft over both Sullust and Hoth when they ought to have used Victory or Venator-class Star Destroyers instead.

This nostalgia is particularly strong on Hoth, whether you play as Imperial stormtroopers or the Rebel Alliance. The map is asymmetrical, meaning the two sides have vastly different goals and strategies for winning. The Rebels must activate satellite uplinks that enable Y-wing bombers to make attack runs on the advancing Walkers. The Imperials must defend the walkers against these attacks, which means keeping the satellite uplinks out of commission. As the battle progresses, you’ll fight past the iconic Kuat ion cannon and into Echo Base itself.

RebelScum

I know that there’ve been previous Battlefront games, but the last version came out in 2005 — long before the advent of DirectX 11, 12, or modern hardware. While that 2005 game holds up reasonably well, considering its age, it’s got nothing on the models and levels of detail Dice has brought to the table. As a nostalgia play and crazy-fun dip into first person Star Wars combat, Battlefront is a true achievement.

Simplistic design

Where Battlefront falls a bit flat is its mechanics and map design. True, we haven’t seen the entire game yet, but I played in the Battlefield 3 and BF4 betas, too. In both cases, the maps and scenarios offered to early testers were much larger and more complex than what we’ve seen this past few days. The Battle of Sullust is fun, but it’s ultimately a relatively small map with only limited use of terrain. The Battlefield series prides itself on urban environments that can be aggressively “remodeled” based on player action.

There’s none of that in any of the beta designs that were shown — even in Echo base, hurling thermal detonators or implosion devices doesn’t damage the X-Wing sitting in the hangar below. You can similarly throw thermal detonators into the ice walls carved out of Hoth, but you won’t see any terrain deformation when you do. For a company that’s built its reputation on deformable terrain and evolving combat conditions, such ommissions are surprising.

EchoBase1

The simplicity carries over into the combat and loadout options that we saw teased so far. While there are options like a smart rocket and sniper rifle, these are unlocked with in-game credits and cannot be fired repeatedly. You get one sniper shot every ten seconds, period — while the weapon is on cooldown, you can’t even equip it. The vehicles of the BF series are gone, replaced by power-ups that you pick up and use at will. This allows for some additional flexibility, since you can trigger a TIE fighter or Airspeeder launch at will, but feels less cohesive. Without squads or classes, every trooper you face is likely to be carrying the same handful of weapons or power-ups, and the various blasters are all extremely similar. The lack of recoil may be thematically accurate, but it makes the weapons feel more similar.

Also, every single air vehicle feels like someone mounted an ion engine on a sofa. This might make sense for TIE fighters, which aren’t supposed to operate in atmospheres and have enormous square wings, but the problem extends to every single craft. Airspeeders have the turning radius of a manatee with multiple sclerosis. Even the A-Wing, a Rebel fighter specifically designed for speed and agility, feels sluggish. None of the Battlefield games are known for great flying mechanics, but flying starfighters in land-based Battlefront missions isn’t much fun.

Other game decisions are equally odd. You can buy a personal shield, but have to pay to charge it with in-game currency, unless you pick up in-game power charges. You can play as Luke Skywalker (in RoTJ costume) or Darth Vader in the Hoth mission, but both characters feel more like afterthoughts, nods to the hero units of earlier Battlefronts, than fleshed out concepts. I really enjoyed my time in-game, but I’m not convinced that this title has the staying power that EA seems to think it does. It’s missing most of the tactical underpinnings that made Battlefield interesting, and the sheer joy of playing in the Star Wars universe may not be an adequate substitute.

Performance

Guru3D has done an extensive performance workup on Battlefront under D3D11 (DirectX 12 support is planned, but not currently implemented. We attempted to sneakily activate it anyway, but when Dice says the feature isn’t ready for prime time in this version of the game, they weren’t kidding). Guru3D has quite a bit of data on the game’s current performance at various detail levels, but here’s the 10,000 foot overview:

Battlefront performance

There’s a lot of great news buried in this graph. First, the game runs beautifully on older / slower card. The Radeon R9 370 can hit 44 FPS in 1080p mode, as can the GTX 950. The R9 370, aka the Radeon 7850, was a midrange card when it was introduced in Q1 2012, but it can handle Ultra detail levels at 1080p just fine. Stepping up the stack, we see the R9 290 outperforming the GTX 970 (Nvidia can’t be thrilled about that) the R9 390X edging out the GTX 980, and the Fury X and GTX 980 Ti duking it out at the top of the stack. The Fury X has an edge at 4K, but isn’t quite as fast in 1080p.

If you own a GPU built in the last three years, chances are you can play this game at high detail levels and at least 1080p. Performance is good enough that it wouldn’t surprise us if APUs and even Intel GPUs can get in on some of this action, albeit at lower resolutions and detail levels.

Pricing, preliminary verdict

The one downside to all of this is EA’s decision to announce a $50 season pass alongside a $60 retail price. It’s a tone-deaf move for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s a bad idea because the last game Dice launched, Battlefield 4, was an utter disaster. While the game ran reasonably well in beta, with relatively light server loading, things collapsed in the final iteration in ways that took Dice nine months to fix. You can blame EA for this if you like, since the publisher is ultimately responsible for kicking the game out the door, but there’s precious little reason to bet on Battlefront nailing everything by ponying up for a season pass.

I’ve written in defense of DLC before, and I stand by that, but as of now, EA is asking players to pony up $60 for a base title and $50 for four DLC packs along with “Pay to Win” freebies like the DL-44 blaster, ion grenade, ion torpedo, and two-week early access to each DLC if you pay for the season pass up front. After the mediocre Battlefield Hardline and the awful launch of Battlefield 4, neither Dice nor EA deserve that kind of pre-order cash. I strongly recommend waiting to see how you like the base game and whether it launches in playable condition before buying into any additional packages.

Tatooine is used in single-player missions.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d say that Battlefront absolutely nails the nostalgia and evocative aspects of the game. The lack of a single-player campaign to tie things together is a huge loss — it’s been more than a decade since we got a Star Wars single-player FPS and ten years since the last Battlefront. If you want to run around playing Star Wars, Battlefront delivers. If you’re looking for a deeper, more tactical FPS, I’m not sure this is it. And I’d wait and see how the final game reviews before ponying up for any DLC package, regardless of what enticements EA tries to offer. A game you can’t play isn’t enjoyable.

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