The modern reviews process has become a tortured spectacle. Warped by the escalating importance of multiplayer modes, haunted by the spectre of post-release bugs and patches, the critics are no longer certain whether their value lies in being the first or last word on any given release. Fire too soon and one might encourage gamers to purchase an unfinished game. Hold off too long and what use is a game review anyway.
Star Wars Battlefront, easily one of the most anticipated games of the year, presented a new wrinkle, one that prompted Polygon to post an earnest description of its solution to the problem. The full version of Battlefront, it seems, was made available to EA Access subscribers for a total of ten gameplay hours, five days ahead of release. Any critic who attended the Battlefront review event at the start of last week, however, had to consent to an embargo that prohibited scored review coverage until launch day.
"The noise, the look, the feel - this is the most wonderfully accurate, brilliantly recreated Star Wars experience ever"GamesRadar
Polygon declined to attend the review event, just as it did when similar restrictions were applied to reviews of Need For Speed, but the root of its discontent isn't entirely obvious. Is it that restrictions on reviews are applied at all? Or that members of the public were given equivalent access to supposed experts? Isn't giving the public an opportunity to try a game before they make a decision to spend their $60 the point of a service like EA Access, and a generally admirable one at that? One suspects that EA might indeed be displaying a measure of disdain for those creaking systems of scores and stars, just as it's difficult to avoid the sense that Polygon is protesting a little too much.
That is, of course, until Battlefront's reviews started to hit. With AAA console games, there is generally a strong correlation between quality and popularity. The best-selling games of any given year are almost always among the best reviewed, so I can state with no fear of reprisals that Metacritic averages of 73 (Xbox One) and 78 (PS4) are as much as 15 per cent lower than one might reasonably expect after so much hype. Star Wars is a special case, though, an IP with the power to transcend any shortfall in critical adulation in terms of its public appeal.
And EA knows that very well. Among the reviews now available, the most consistent point of praise is Battlefront's vivid evocation of the Star Wars universe, from the grand vistas to the the ambient sound effects. "The noise, the look, the feel - this is the most wonderfully accurate, brilliantly recreated Star Wars experience ever," GamesRadar enthused in its four-star review. "I'm on the goddam-forest-motherf***ing-moon of Endor.
"That's Battlefront's finest feature. As a Star Wars game this is unparalleled: a slavish recreation of the original trilogy (there's no sign of any prequel stuff here, at all), polished to an authentically late '70s - early '80s sheen. Every vehicle, character, blaster, and planet is just-so, smartly created to not only withstand thorough scrutiny from any dedicated Star Wars enthusiast, but also to work coherently within a well-balanced, AAA shooter."
However, while everyone agrees that DICE has delivered on the atmosphere of Star Wars, there is less certainty over the sacrifices made in the name of that objective. Battlefront is both accessible and casual, and perhaps to a degree that will leave fans of games like Destiny and Call of Duty feeling underwhelmed. According to GamesRadar, it is "more a Star Wars simulator than a traditional first-person shooter."
For Videogamer, which gave Battlefront 7 out of 10, the number of people who have already played the game is a genuine problem. EA has talked loudly and often about the millions of people who played the game's beta, all of whom will have already experienced the rush provided by the sheer spectacle of those first few hours.
"An intense weekend of play was enough to unlock almost all of the weapons, items, and customization options"USGamer
"In a way, the Battlefront beta has worked against the full release. While on its own a superb demonstration of just how well DICE has reworked many elements of the Star Wars universe into video game form, taken now it seems a bit like watching all the many TV spots, trailers, adverts, promos, etc for an upcoming blockbuster, then getting into the theatre and realising you've seen it all. The best mode (Walker Assault) and the second best map (Hoth) have already been extensively showcased. Sadly, almost everything else on offer doesn't hit these heights."
It's worth considering that, if Battlefront's most rewarding experiences are indeed in the early going, then both the content-capped beta and the time-capped EA Access release will fulfill their purpose of stimulating sales. Whether players will continue to be stimulated by the game, however, is the most prevalent point of criticism among its reviewers. USGamer, which praises Battlefront's polish and presentation as much as anyone else, even suggests that EA has consciously released a stripped down product to better monetise its audience with post-launch content.
"The bulk of Battlefront's content - modes, maps, and heroes - is to come in additional expansions, the first of which is the Battle of Jakku next month," it said in a 3.5 star review. "It's an extremely cynical move by Electronic Arts, one no doubt calculated to turn Battlefront into a 'platform' so that it can pay the price of obtaining the Star Wars license.
"As of right now, $59.99 will net you roughly 12 maps spread across four planets, nine modes, and a handful of limited tutorial and single-player challenges. It hasn't taken long for its limitations to become clear - an intense weekend of play was enough to unlock almost all of the weapons, items, and customization options. And as much fun as I've been having, I can't shake the feeling that it's becoming repetitive rather quickly."
Giant Bomb scored Battlefront even lower: three stars, largely due to an apparent lack of consideration for why the player would persist when the sugar-high of all that Star Wars-ness had run its course. "Battlefront resembles Star Wars in almost every regard but longevity," Giant Bomb said, referring to the series' enduring appeal almost 40 years after the first film's initial release.
"The lasting appeal of any multiplayer-focused game is heavily determined by its progression system, and Battlefront's feels limited and unrewarding. Not every shooter can feature the insanely intricate level of loadout customization as modern Call of Duty games, but Battlefront's is bare-bones by any standard.
"Battlefront lacks some of those back-of-the-box bullet points that most modern AAA shooters wouldn't be caught dead without"Polygon
"Multiplayer's progression shortcomings aren't remedied by Battlefront's single-player offerings. Included are five training missions, a tutorial, an AI battle on each of the four planets (with an option to play as hero characters), and a standard wave-based survival mode. The latter might be good for a couple of rounds with a friend, as cooperative play is available online and in split screen. Outside of that, the only thing these missions did for me was make me wish for a full campaign that utilized the great controls and production values that this game is capable of."
What does this tepid critical response mean for Battlefront as a commercial entity? The smart money is on 'not much, if that.' EA expects to sell 13 million units of the game before the end of March 2016, and while it may or may not hit that lofty target, Battlefront will almost certainly be one of the biggest hits of the generation so far. Even it doesn't achieve legitimate excellence beyond its awe-inspiring surface, that surface still looks like Star Wars. That has real power. Just ask Polygon.
"[Battlefront's] old school simplicity doesn't always mesh with its attempts to bring those ideas into 2015, and it lacks some of those back-of-the-box bullet points that most modern AAA shooters wouldn't be caught dead without," Polygon said in its eventual review - an 8 out of 10.
"That said: This in a game where you crest a frozen ridge on the surface of Hoth and see a thousand lasers turn the sky into a disco and an AT-AT into scrap metal. If a little of the fat has to be trimmed for more people to have that experience, then blaster holes for bullet points seems like a fair trade."