Star Wars: Battlefront Beta Review

The Star Wars: Battlefront beta is over, and I want to talk about it. I was sick the weekend it came out, so rather than escaping into the fresh air and golden sunshine, I cowered in blankets with soup and juice and played the game more or less non-stop. I’ll break up the different areas of the game that I think are relevant below, and give a recommendation at the end, so if you just want to know what a stranger thinks you should or shouldn’t spend your money on:

tl;dr – It’s pretty good.

Okay, great. Here we go!

Battles

This is the fun part, right? Where it really matters whether the game delivers. Cool weapons and abilities are good, but if the battles don’t feel right – don’t feel like Star Wars – there’s no point in buying this game. Thankfully, they do a pretty good job.

The smaller battle introduces the player to how the game works. The players fight to an objective, trigger it, and then defend it until a timer runs out. The other side fights back to recover the objective. Neither side has an inherent advantage. It’s basically Battlefield, with a nice coat of Star Wars, but a few differences:

Weapons

The player only gets one weapon. Rebels and Imperials start off with slightly different blasters, but can buy the other side’s and more. The weapons cost points and can only be bought in the pre-game lobby. I preferred the heavy blaster rifle: it has less damage and range than the basic rifles, but its fast rate of fire suits my scattershot aim. I’ve also seen snipers use this gun to pick people (me) off from halfway across the map, so “Range” is more like a polite suggestion than an accurate estimation of its abilities. I even managed the longshot sometimes.

Some more disparity between the weapons would be nice, but overall I don’t have anything to complain about (except that jerk sniping me with a frakkin pistol).

The level also feels organic. A space battle rages overhead, as a Stormtrooper stations himself on a nearby hill to pick off the approaching rebels, but the Rebel infantry uses a jetpack to jump across his field of vision and deliver a thermal detonator to the face. It provides a grander backdrop for the struggle for resources. The players who claim the objectives also get powerups, which make taking the next objective easier.

The powerups

There are two types: star cards and field powerups

Field powerups are more interesting and powerful than star cards (except for the jetpack; that thing is amazing) but also only one use. Some even include a timer, such as the vehicle drops on Hoth. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Scattered in amongst them, at random, are the Hero drops that let you play as Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker.

The player buys star cards like weapons, and equips them before the battle. Cards include thermal detonators, personal shields, jetpacks, and triggered abilities. The grenades and jetpacks are multi-use, and require a cooldown before being used again. The triggered ability (in the beta, just the “Ion Shot”) alter the player’s abilities. The Ion Shot allows your blaster to fire ion instead of laser, which is more effective against vehicles – a key ability on Hoth. Speaking of…

The big battle (20 vs. 20) is Hoth, Echo Base, or “Walker Assault.” If you’re not familiar, follow this link and check out the opening battle of The Empire Strikes Back.

Yeah. Did you feel like the Rebels might be a little desperate in that fight? Well, it translates to the game as well. The game is so slated in favor of the Imperials I thought the Rebels must have to play perfectly in order to win. And they do have to play well, but in my fever dream state I think I won as many games as Rebels as I lost. I certainly lost enough as Imperials.

The difference between this level and the smaller battle is immediately obviously. As the Imperials, you start in the mountains, close to an AT-AT “Walker”, while the other lumbers forward in the valley below. The snow stretches out in front of you, marred by the corpse of a fallen AT-AT. For a few moments everything is quiet as you and the other troopers hustle toward the objective. Then the first laser blasts hit: the Rebels are at the trenches first, and they’re using a turret to mow you down. You duck behind a pathetic ice-rock shelf and spot it: a glowing blue powerup, but this one looks like the Imperial AT-ST. You take it, call it in, and then you’re in the cockpit. Secure in your new power, you march forward, firing lasers and missiles into the Rebel trenches, clearing the way for the troopers to deactivate the Rebel uplink.

Sorry. That was my nerd moment. I’ll try to be objective going forward.

The objectives are deceptively simple: Rebels turn on uplinks to order bomber strikes and destroy the Walkers; Imperials stop the uplinks and protect the Walkers. When the bombers hit, the Rebels have a short window to damage the massive AT-ATs. If they fail to destroy both, Imperials destroy the shield generator and win. If they down both (quite a feat) the Rebels win. The work that goes into taking and holding the uplinks, and then damaging the AT-Ats, however, requires coordination and timing. Miss the chance to damage a Walker and Wisconsin is doomed (bam, topical!). Stop paying attention as an Imperial, and you’ll be picking up the shattered pieces of your metal monstrosity and trying to explain to the galaxy’s worst vice-principal what went wrong.

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He’s very disappointed in your life choices

While the battle feels very Imperial sided, a well-organized Rebel force (or a poorly-run Imperial side) can turn the battle around and make it feel like the Rebels just handed the Empire a whooping. Particularly crucial are the vehicles:

Vehicles

There are two kinds of vehicles: those I can use and those that explode immediately. I’m decent with the ground vehicles. The AT-ST can change a losing fight around quick, and while the AT-AT is sluggish and barely functional, it’s a lot of fun to be in the big beast, raining fire on the scum below.

The air vehicles, however… I tried and failed to learn. I think this highlights the biggest problem with the game. It needs a tutorial or practice mode so I don’t have to learn how to fly a TIE fighter in the middle of a pitched battle. This is true for heroes as well. While I am bad at it, however, some folks can fly like they were born to it, and some of the coolest videos online feature the air vehicles.

That’s a video of the Rebels pulling a last-second win by slamming an A-Wing into the near-crippled AT-AT. There are a ton more like that, and Reddit is full of stories of amazing wins and aerial acrobatics. Using the vehicles and other powerups correctly is the way to win on Walker Assault, and the Rebels have a bit of an advantage there in controlling the skies.

As the battle progresses the Imperials push the Rebels back from their (relatively secure) bunker to an open field that instantly becomes a brutal no-man’s-land. If you buy this game and play Walker Assault, listen: STAY IN THE TRENCHES. A direct assault across the blinding white snowfields will equal a quick trip to the respawn point. And while you sprint-and-die, someone else finds the Vader token, cashes it in, and mows people down with the red lightsaber as the few remaining aircraft crash and burn in the final moments.

Heroes

In the learning curve, heroes are somewhere between ground and air vehicles. I got to use both Luke and Vader, but I found the tokens completely by accident. When I used them, I didn’t really know what to do, and I never found them again. This is part of the mystique of these characters – powerful plays that can completely turn the tide – but if some doofus (me) gets Vader and has to spend a few minutes jogging awkwardly back to the battle, he (whoever he may be) feels less like the Dark Lord of the Sith and more like an unfortunate postman. It’s another reason to allow for practice. Even a bot mode that allows you to learn the layout of the battle as well as hardcore players, would make a big difference.

As it is, too many players spend their time searching for the powerups instead of fighting, or deploying otherwise useful abilities too soon or ineffectively to make room for Vader or Luke. Bot-mode or practice could take the edge off of this craving I’ve got to choke fools with my mind (I didn’t even get to choke anyone as Vader. How’s that for fair?).

Despite these problems, I really like the game. It felt like Star Wars, like an epic science-fiction battle. When a snowspeeder tries to wrap a tow cable around a vulnerable AT-AT and gets shot down, the flaming wreckage can kill you (mostly) –

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– and then stays where it landed for the rest of the battle. By the end, the pristine snow is scorched and littered with burned-out wrecks. That feeling, more than the battles themselves, makes the game great. It feels like I was briefly a part of this universe.

And if you do play the game and happen to see him, KILL Luke Skywalker. He’s killed more good Imperial troops than ten Wookies combined.

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Harry Potter 101: Wizards Don’t Learn Math

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Abra Cadabra, Lord Voldemort.

What is Harry Potter?

Harry Potter’s a wizard.

No, I mean, like, the series.

Oh! Harry Potter is a book series, written by J.K. Rowling, about a secret world of wizards.

Harry Potter is an ordinary eleven-year-old who lives with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, the Dursleys, until he finds out he is a wizard, and goes to a wizard school called Hogwarts.

Why’s he live with his aunt and uncle?

His parents are dead. Lord Voldemort, the most powerful, evil wizard ever known, killed them, when Harry was just one year old.

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Which is not to say he doesn’t have fun with it.

Wow.

Yeah, that’s kinda Harry’s reaction to all that, too.

Why did he kill Harry’s parents?

He killed a lot of people, to be fair. Harry’s parents were just the last before he disappeared. And he killed them because he wanted to kill Harry.

Why’d he want to kill a baby?

Magic.

C’mon…

No, really. And I can’t say much more, without spoiling a few plot twists. But the basic answer is: magic.

Okay, smart guy, how does a baby beat the biggest, baddest wizard around?

That’s complicated, but the simple answer is: the spell Voldemort used rebounded from Harry and hit Voldemort instead. Harry walks… well, crawls away with just a scar in the shape of a lightning bolt.

That’s pretty metal.

Hellz yeh.

Does it give him any special powers? Aside from wizardry, I mean?

He can talk to snakes, which is weird, and never very useful. It does some other cool stuff that becomes important in later books.

How long is this series, anyway?

Seven books. They start out standard sized, about 300 pages, until the fourth book. From there, they grow until the last, which I think is an 800 page whopper. The first two are basically kid’s books – I’d have no problem letting a 7 or 8 year old read em. The third and fourth are more young adult. By the fifth and sixth, though, the books get pretty dark, so if your kid wants to read them, check them out yourself, first.

That’s a lot of reading. Can’t I just watch the movies?

You can, and some of the movies are actually good. As the kid actors grow up, they get even better. But Harry Potter is all about the weird, fun little details, and most of those get dropped from the movies.

What kind of details?

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House Elves like Dobby, simultaneously the best and worst doll you could give a child.

Like goblins and house elves and centaurs, and how wands work, and the Ministry of Magic working with Muggles and… a lot of nerd stuff that’s probably boring you. But trust me, it’s awesome

Wands? Really, like goofy sideshows, “Hocus Pocus!”? And what’s an effing muggle?

A muggle, sir or madam, is a non-wizard. There’s also Squibs (wizards who can’t use magic), muggle-borns (wizards born to muggles), and pure-bloods (wizards born from wizards).

Ugh…

And a wand’s important. It’s like the wizard’s lightsaber, except it uses Phoenix feathers and Dragon heartstrings instead of jewelry. It’s pretty metal, too. Unless you’re saying Dragonforce isn’t metal…

I would never say that.

Good.

And I think there was something about the government in there…

Yeah, the Ministry of Magic. The series takes place in England, and the Ministry governs the wizards and tries to keep them out of sight of the muggles.

How can that work? Wouldn’t somebody just take a picture of some kid levitating and post it to Instagram?

Probably, and I want to see that sequel, but not in the series. The series begins (in-universe) in 1991, and ends in 1998, the year the first book was published. So, give it like a decade, and muggles will probably be all up in the wizard’s business (if you’re reading, Ms. Rowling…)

All right, all right. Now I’m rereading this… I mean, reviewing our conversation, and you said Harry goes to wizard school? So this is what, Magic Times at Wizard High?

Harry goes to school with about a thousand other wizard kids from age eleven on, at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. A big part of the books are about classes and sports and friends, wrapped around the plot.

Isn’t a school full of adolescent wizards, uh, dangerous?

For Harry, it’s practically a deathtrap. For everyone else, it’s just mostly dangerous. But Harry would be dead a lot if not for his best friends Ron and Hermione.

How in the world do you pronounce that name?

Ron. RAH-AHN…

No! The other one!

Oh, yeah. Hmmm… HER-MY-OH-KNEE. I think. Or HER-MY-KNEE, for short.

There is no way that name is worth struggling over. 

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Don’t sass Hermione. Ron is Harry’s best friend, and he’s got some great snarky and bright moments, but Hermione holds them together. She’s the brains and badass wand-slinger of the series. There’s an article over here, all about her (NSFW and spoilers).

I still don’t know. I mean, I haven’t read them, and they’re really old now. Is there any point to going through them at this late date?

I think so. I still read through them occasionally, and I usually find something new to enjoy. But I’ll put it this way: If the idea of rebellious wizard-Jedi, led by Gandalf, in a war against Magic Hitler doesn’t sound appealing, I don’t know what to tell you. Except that Hermione’s in it, and she is totally awesome.

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At some point, they really should have renamed the series after her.

The Truman Journey

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Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is the star of the Truman Show. When Truman is a baby, Christof (Ed Harris) somehow buys him. He is placed in a fictional town, Seahaven, and surrounded with actors. Christof broadcasts every minute of Truman’s life. And Truman has no idea his friends and family are paid actors. So that’s terrifying.

Truman only begins to discover the truth when a lamp, labeled with the name of a star, falls from the artificial sky one day. After that he notices things, like everyone knows his name, he has never left Seahaven, and his wife will act like she’s in an infomercial and try to shill products. When the entire town turns against him, refusing to let him leave, Truman escapes the only way he can: by sailing across Seahaven’s body of water to the edge of the world. There he bumps into the horizon, finds an EXIT door, and escapes into the real world. It’s like Under the Dome, if Stephen King wasn’t a horror writer.

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Life celebrated a baby sold by its parent to television executives.

A couple things about this movie jump out at me.The audience has to be most of the planet, because the show’s overhead must be huge; Christof enclosed the entire town in an arcology dome, and has a weather control device (something most supervillains have to put on lay-a-way). The governments of the world must not exist, or are so corrupt that “money over everything” is official policy. And the cast, crew, and audience must absolutely believe that Truman has a good life, because it only takes one defector to ruin the show.

At the end of the movie, Christof tries to drown Truman, preferring a magnificent death to Truman’s escape. When Truman survives, Christof claims Truman brings people hope and inspiration. He even asks Truman to stay. Something Truman does provides the world with enough satisfaction to justify all this.

My first thought was nuclear apocalypse, because the world must be some twisted ruin for people to think Truman’s life is acceptable. It would also explain the dome; perhaps Christof has fenced off a healthy area of the planet and is selling dreams of what life used to be to a devastated population.

The audience doesn’t really fit the Mad Max marauder type, though. There are old people, fat security guards, and a nice bar. The world looks okay. But these people still watch Truman, each day, as he toils through life, despite the fact that they apparently have normal lives themselves. Reality television is a form of escapism too; most rely on a gimmick (The Biggest Loser) or the antics of people filmed in just the right way to make them seem terrible (literally any contest-style reality show). All Truman does is live a normal life.

Philip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which became Blade Runner, which became the reason Ridley Scott still has a career. In the story, humans live on a ruined earth. Most of the animals are dead, so people try to raise personal livestock, or if they can’t afford it, “electric” simulacra. The protagonist, Deckard, has an electric sheep, and fears people will find out (it’s a social no-no). He takes a job to hunt down androids capable of nearly perfectly simulating human beings. They lack empathy, however, and a complicated test can reveal them.

It’s left out of the movie, but the book also shows that people are capable of “dialing” their emotions. Deckard avoids a fight with his wife by choosing a more pleasant mood. He also regularly logs into a simulation of a tormented figure rolling a stone eternally up a hill. Living with near-human androids has degraded human perception of reality, so they have to engage in something “real” to maintain their empathy and humanity. But, they are still living a lie, in denial of what humanity actually means.

The Truman Show serves the same purpose. Truman is the suffering saint; his lack of reality, and the life he suffers, makes the pale lives of the audience seem bright and real in comparison. No matter what their day was like, the audience can dial into Truman and adjust their emotions according to his life.

Truman’s world might be very close to ours, but it’s suffered something that makes engaging in life through Truman more acceptable than really living – he’s both sheep and shepherd, cared for by the audience and leading them through what life ought to be. And at the same time, he’s contemptible, because they can watch him poop and he doesn’t know.

I see two arguments about what happens after the ending. Truman abandons Seahaven, sails to freedom after nearly drowning in Christof’s artificial storm, and finds his world is truly false when he bumps into the “sky.” He leaves with his usual greeting: “In case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.”

Truman doesn’t curse or even seem to hate Christof. And the audience loves it. The ending is a montage of cheers and people flipping out. He’s provided their comfort for thirty years, and now Truman’s victory is the audience’s victory. As the chosen one, he led them through the hero’s journey to a heroic “ending.”

Truman is an artificially selected chosen one, however, not picked by fate. Christof had to know Truman would grow into a perfectly average (Jim Carrey-ish) adult, with no mental or physical problems, because anything else would have ruined his show. Truman’s revelations about his life, and by extension the audience’s lives, don’t have the same impact as a “real” chosen one. The audience watches him discover them, and they cheer like they’re watching football game.

The chosen one is an excuse for why “ONE MAN” can make a difference. Truman might not even be able to integrate into society, since he’s never actually lived in it, just in the television version. His life has as much to do with reality as Leave it to Beaver has to do with the actual 1950s.

We all wish (as the audience that watches Truman does) that we could be that one special person, chosen by destiny (or Ed Harris — close enough) to… do something. Other than be born, live as our birth and means dictate, then die. We need the chosen one myth, it keeps us from losing our minds in the vast, uncaring cosmos.

Truman shows that a chosen one is the avatar for the pointlessness of the audience’s lives, not a bringer of light and reason. Once he is gone, taking the inspiration and hope the audience relies on, we really only have two options: abandon the myth and try to find or make meaning in life, or, as the security guards say, “See what else is on.”

Blogging A to Z Day 4: The Doctor and Doctor Donna

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This lady

I am a fan of Donna “the temp from Chiswick” Noble. Donna “Oi, watch it spaceman” Noble. Donna “The Doctor” Noble. Those are the three best nicknames I can think of to sum up her character: she’s ordinary, she’s tough, and she’s amazing. Donna’s Companionship best demonstrates the hope and heartbreak that Doctor Who is all about.

Rose and Martha were just a little too lovesick to stand up to the Doctor, and a little too good for their own well-being. Amy and Rory were the Doctor’s sidekicks while he played super-hero. Clara exists.

Donna is the only Companion to beat the Doctor at being a savior. I don’t mean this to lessen the Doctor’s accomplishments, but let’s look at the scoreboard while they traveled together:

Pyramid of AwesomeSavior of the universe

Unlike the Doctor, Donna accomplishes most of her feats by saving someone, or by sacrificing herself, as in Turn Left. That version of Donna – the one who had never met the Doctor – died. This resurrected the other Donna. I left out episodes where they both helped save the day, like the Adipose and Sontarans. I also didn’t account for what they are, since it seemed unfair: a Time Lord and the woman handpicked by all of time and space (also known as the Tardis) to save the universe.

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One kicks ass, the other takes names

Not to mention Donna has the best granddad in the universe.

Donna is all about hope: after she declines traveling with the Doctor she travels the world. It doesn’t quite measure up to the Tardis, so when she returns home she begins investigating the Adipose situation. And she watches the sky with Wilf, hoping to see the Doctor again. When the situation seems impossible, like Fires of Pompeii, Donna sees a little bit of hope by rescuing at least one family. The Doctor is godlike, and when he can’t save everyone he despairs. Donna is human, and when she can save someone she rejoices.

Donna also breaks our hearts. When she is at the top of her game after saving the universe, she loses everything, including her sense of self. Because she absorbed the knowledge of a Time Lord, but her biology can’t cope with it, the Doctor has to erase her memories of him and their travels to save her life. Everything Donna did still mattered, but she’ll never know, and her dream of traveling with the Doctor forever comes to nothing.

That’s the heart of Doctor Who: triumph tempered by loss, saving the day while still knowing there’s so much to do, and hope weighed against heartbreak. Doctor Who is a romantic show. But don’t let me just tell you, listen to Craig Ferguson sing it:

I’m hardly the first or last to note Donna’s awesomeness as Companion. They had their own takes on Donna Noble, if you’d like some additional reading:

The Temp from Chiswick: Why I love Donna Noble

Best Female Companion

Why I love Donna Noble