EA's Star Wars legacy.
Disney have resurrected Lucasfilm Games. This new organisation will oversee development of games that take place within the various universes that it historically controlled - most notably, those of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. All around the world, video game players who have made hatred of EA a central part of their online persona rejoiced at the news, as the exclusivity arrangement that's been in place for the last decade appears to be coming to an end. That decade has felt like an especially long one for fans of Star Wars games - with a lot of people arguing that EA have wasted the licence in two ways. Four console games in ten years isn't enough, some of them cry - while others complain bitterly about the monetisation models that plagued some of those games on launch. The general hatred of EA and their corporate approach to making money probably hasn't added anything positive to the conversation.
But, are those games really as bad as the internet has liked to make out? While several of them were undeniably flawed at launch, the best games live long beyond their launches, yet that's the snapshot of them that gaming history often remembers the best - the point in their life at which they're submitted to more scrutiny than any other. The online gaming discourse is one of hyperbole. Games have a tendency to be discussed at the extremes of the quality spectrum, as though every release is either the best thing or worst thing ever to grace a console. Games that fit in the middle are often swept away in the conversation.
Star Wars Battlefront was the first one to land after the exclusivity deal was signed in 2013, landing in mid-2015. Reviews of it were mixed at the time, with the lack of a single player campaign earning it some criticism, along with the fact that some game modes were almost impossible to win for one side. It certainly looked and sounded the part though, and it almost reached its sales expectations. However, it was the arrival of its sequel that tarnished the perception of the relationship the most.
Star Wars Battlefront 2 expanded on the first game in almost every way. It featured a single player campaign, more multiplayer game modes, maps, weapons, and character models. More time periods from the Star Wars saga were represented here, with content from the Clone Wars era present, and locations from the sequel trilogy also being added in. It was also filled with microtransactions and loot boxes, some of which offered players with the ability to commit the cardinal sin of multiplayer console gaming - the dreaded 'pay to win'. The backlash was swift and furious, as it often is in this age of trial by social media. The game was review bombed to within an inch of its life, with the PS4 version of the game reaching its lowest rating of 0.8/10 shortly after release. EA's reputation as "the worst company in the world" was firmly intact - in spite of their only crime being an attempt to monetise a Star Wars game in the same way that they monetise FIFA year in, year out.
The tale of Battlefront 2 doesn't end there though. In response to the tidal wave of criticism, EA suspended all of the microtransactions in the game and instead adopted a system of seasonal content and free DLC. In the four years since it launched, it's seen a steady stream of content and regular updates that came to an end in April 2020, three years after the initial release. A quick delve into the game online reveals a small but positive community surrounding it, who seem to genuinely appreciate the efforts of the developers and publishers to improve the situation - even if that effort has been undertaken after the eyes of the gaming world had largely moved on to the next source of outrage.
The last couple of years have seen the launch of two games that are likely to be remembered very positively. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, developed by Titanfall developer Respawn demonstrated a massive departure from EA's normal modus operandi. The game was a single-player, campaign driven game with no microtransactions and no DLC. It was even able to eschew the use of EA's Frostbite engine, instead built in Unreal 4. While there has been some debate about the how and why the game ended up occupying the space it did, it's hard not to see the game as a direct response to the problems that came before and a concerted effort to rescue EA's reputation as a 'safe pair of hands' for the Star Wars franchise. It's a game I personally really enjoyed, as it ended up working a lot better than it probably should have.
Star Wars Squadrons followed late last year - and was another strong departure from the money-grabbing days of the Battlefront 2 era. This game focused entirely on the space combat side of the franchise, and included a short campaign and tight multiplayer. Personalisation of craft and character across the rebel and Imperial factions was available - all of the purchases being made in exchange for in-game currency. An early statement from EA Motive confirmed that the game would be entirely free of microtransactions and of DLC, in spite of the fact that quite a few players (including myself) were vocal about their desire for some of the latter, and willing to pay for it. I wrote about Star Wars Squadrons right here on this very site, and called it "the flight sim I've waited a generation for."
If the earlier games of the generation were defined by their business models, it's fair to say that the later ones have really been defined by their quality. While the uproar around EA's handling of Star Wars has been heated in the moment (and while that uproar has to some extent been deserved) I think we'll look back on this era of Star Wars games as one of the strongest in the years to come. While it's too early to say that "EA learned their lesson" from trying to milk players for everything they were worth, on current form it does look as though they've changed course following the onslaught of negative PR that came their way in the aftermath of Battlefront 2. If there's still a concern to be had though, it's that the cynical monetisation that was roundly rejected in their Star Wars games continues to be present in plenty of their others - and doesn't receive half the negativity from players of those games as it did from the Star Wars fanbase... and that's still sending a tacit message to them that the business model that failed here is viable.
I've said it before and I'll say it again - if people really want EA to change, they need to stop buying FIFA every year. Looking forward though, Star Wars is going to be spread around the industry a little bit more - meaning that we'll get a bigger variety of experiences from a wider variety of studios, and that's probably a good thing. The last two games produced on EA's watch though, will rightly be remembered as classics.