Battlefront II single-player hands-on

While the astronomical production values certainly deliver, all signs point to a pretty conventional story.

When DICE’s reboot of Star Wars Battlefront dropped in 2015, millions of voices cried out in disappointment. Scopes glinted and lasers pew-pew’d in beautiful multiplayer battles, but there was little else to enjoy. Despite being set in a universe defined by its space-fantasy narrative, the game lacked story entirely.

Two years later, EA is set to launch its apology -- err, sequel: Star Wars Battlefront II. The title boasts a single-player campaign mode complete with new characters, planets and more. And by following Iden Versio of Inferno Squad, an elite Imperial special forces unit, the game sets out to achieve its biggest first for the series in humanizing the faceless evil of the Galactic Empire.

Last week, I visited EA’s Redwood City campus and sat down with the game’s first three chapters. Based on what I played and heard from the developers, I’m sold on their concept, but skeptical it’ll be executed as pitched.

Though (like most first-person shooters) the campaign largely repurposes mechanics built for multiplayer, the prologue kicks things off with the notable addition of stealth. After Iden and her droid skulk through and steal from a Rebel ship, the player is thrown into simple corridor combat to introduce the game’s point-and-shoot basics. Also introduced is the fear that Commander Versio inspires in her enemies. I’m not talking about classic “blast the Stormtrooper!”-type barks; these people scream in terror to point of it being unsettling. Following an impressive escape I’d hate to spoil, Iden’s proud after-action report proves her a stone-cold killer who’d do anything for the Empire. Next, Versio and her Inferno commandos find themselves on the fringe of Return of the Jedi’s Endor battle... when tragedy strikes.

I never thought I’d be sad at the sight of a Death Star’s destruction. But here I am, absorbing the heartbreak on Iden’s face as she stares at the sky. While developer EA Motive’s cutscene-to-gameplay transitions don’t quite match the fluidity of, say, Naughty Dog’s, the motion capture fidelity is a close second. Thanks to a likely astronomical budget, this game is among those modern few whose writing has the luxury of playing to the strengths of its cast’s expressive faces. In these early moments, Motive nails the tightrope walk of establishing a lead character that’s both sympathetic and brutal.

The resulting mission expands on the basics learned in the prologue. Use stealth before engaging groups of enemies, this time with an expanding choice of weapons and powers, all within a wider (yet still linear) environment. New tools like rocket launchers, grenades that split apart, and a device that disables enemy weapons add welcomed variety, but this is still a game about loudly blasting Rebels. After taking down a stolen AT-ST walker, Iden and company take to the sky with a trio of reclaimed TIE fighters.

Flying through post-battle debris over Endor drives another thing home: this game, like its predecessor, is damn beautiful. The player is given several minutes of maneuvering through wreckage to soak in both the graphics and controls before being thrown into their first space battle. If you played Battlefront II’s beta, you know what to expect here. Follow multiplayer-identical objectives (shoot this big ship, dogfight X-wings, etc) until a jarring scene transition in which Iden flies into an enemy hangar, blowing scrambling Rebels away with her TIE guns. Again, I couldn’t help but notice the exaggerated screams of Iden’s fleeing prey, especially after she exits her fighter.

Upon completing her mission, Iden learns of an apparently too inhumane directive put forth by the recently killed Emperor, and makes her dissent known. Pair this with a moment on Endor of her questioning Imperial leadership, and we’ve suddenly got what feels like the predictable setup for Iden turning on her beloved Empire. I can't be sure, though; to be clear, I played maybe a quarter of the five-to-seven hour campaign. I don’t know what decision Versio makes after the demo’s final cinematic. But what I saw suggests that instead of committing to humanizing a monolithic evil, the game is setting up a redemption arc for its Imperial hero.

"[Iden]’s always had a problem with authority,” Game Director Mark Thompson admits. “If the Empire, after Palpatine, starts to head in a direction that she doesn't agree with, she will challenge authority."

That’s the safe bet anyway, right? This is Star Wars after all, a franchise so defined by its good vs. evil struggle that you can tell the moral allegiance of characters by the color of their weapon. EA Motive has the chance to make their mark on Star Wars canon not only with new characters and locations, but with a new type of story, and I’m skeptical they’ll take it. Thompson also made clear Battlefront II rests on three main pillars of the Star Wars fantasy: being a trooper, being a pilot, and being a hero. "There will be chapters in the campaign where you play as an iconic Star Wars character like Luke Skywalker," he continues, thus increasing the odds of our protagonist simply turning her coat.

There’s still room for EA Motive to surprise us, even if that’s the case. Subtlety appears to be among the game’s storytelling strengths, and co-writer Walt Williams did pen 2012’s convention-defying shooter, Spec Ops: The Line. It’s just hard to imagine Lucasfilm approving a similar emotional exploration of soldiers who commit war crimes.

With Disney as the developer’s co-pilot, maybe it’s unreasonable to hope Battlefront II can tell more than just another good vs. evil Star Wars story. Hell, considering what 2015’s Battlefront lacked, maybe we should be grateful its sequel wants to tell a Star Wars story at all.

Star Wars: Battlefront II arrives this November 17th for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.