I’ve been playing a bit of Star Wars Battlefront on the EA Access trial on Xbox One. My favourite thing so far? The death animations. When you get a kill, the enemy soldier falls over in a shower of sparks with a melodramatic “aaargh!” – just like an overenthusiastic extra taking a tumble in the movies, making the most of their three seconds of fame.
It’s another very authentic touch in a game that is, overall, an adoring tribute to the original trilogy of films and their battered late-70s, early-80s look. (It even uses the famous Wilhelm scream.) But it’s significant in another way, too. It just doesn’t feel very violent. There’s no popped head, no splash of blood, of course – but there isn’t even as much as an impact animation to send them reeling, or a blown-off piece of armour. The blaster fire sort of splashes off them and they crumple to the floor.
DICE’s animators exercised some self-control here. It would have been easy for them to add elements the practical stunts and painted SFX of the films couldn’t achieve, in order to make the combat more visceral, more physically convincing – even staying within the bounds of what would be acceptable to the licensor, Disney, and its audience of kids.
They also took a risk. Fast-paced action games like Battlefront, even those that aren’t explicit in their violence, can live or die on delivering that sense of impact with each blow – the bullet, arrow, sword, bolt or whatever hitting home and giving the player that jolt of Pavlovian satisfaction. Even a game as family-friendly as Nintendo’s Splatoon has your opponents explode with a gratifying splat.
Battlefront’s total aesthetic dedication to the movies – including their imperfections – steers it away from that. But it takes it somewhere else. The game’s lavish marketing campaign rests on the idea that it’s transporting you inside the Star Wars universe, but perhaps it would be just as accurate – and in a way, just as exciting – to say that it’s transporting you onto the set of the film. Or, even better, it’s taking you inside the head of a kid: running around the woods pretending they’re Endor, holding a twig shaped like a blaster, playing the ultimate Star Wars war game in their mind’s eye, taking a tumble with a melodramatic “aaargh” when they go down. For the likes of me, it’s nostalgic; for the kids of today, it’s a dream come true.
It’s a far cry from the gritty brutality presented by most other multiplayer war games, including DICE’s own Battlefield. So let’s hear it for those death animations. They remember one of the most important yet most readily forgotten elements of the Star Wars experience: innocence.