The PlayStation EU team puts their piloting skills to the test in the first hands-on with Criterion’s multi-objective and ship-exclusive game mode.
Starfighter Assault is Criterion’s contribution to this November’s Star Wars Battlefront II, the multi-studio collaboration that is EA’s return to a galaxy far, far away.
The Guilford-based studio’s heritage is rich in racing franchises (Burnout, Need for Speed), and it is applying that discipline – a fine splice of arcade thrills, missile-like speed and perfect handling – to the saga in the form of starfighter-exclusive clashes.
Battlefront’s been here before obviously: the original’s Fighter Squadron stuck players to the skies above (and in the case of Cloud City, around) iconic locations. But Criterion’s looking beyond the clouds to the stars for its settings and Battlefront’s Walker Assault for its structure. 24 players, split into two teams, battling for victory across three evolving objectives and a host of side missions in one action-packed match.
Where and when Starfighter Assault is set
The mode’s debut trailer, released last weekend, teases settings and familiar craft, and reinforces that the game’s multiplayer covers the entirety of the cinematic saga to date.
While the recent Assault on Theed reveal took inspiration from the prequels, the first taste of the Starfighter Assault mode is full fat original trilogy: Rebellion vs. Empire.
That’s not to say it’s all entirely familiar. The setting is an Imperial shipyard that circles Fondor, a planet located in the Colonies region. Somewhere that, until now, was only mentioned in tie-in novels.
The shipyard doubles as the backdrop to an important story beat in Battlefront II’s single player campaign; in Starfighter Assault, we enter the fray just as the Rebellion jump in to take down a docked Star Destroyer.
Where the mission sits in the saga’s canon is unknown. Could it be that, with the story-driven single player being set just after the Battle of Endor, that much like like Battlefont’s Battle of Jakku, it’s part of one of the last conflicts of the Galactic Civil War (which reached a climax, but seemingly not a conclusion, in Return of the Jedi)?
Either way, this plays out like any of the classic battles you’ve seen on the big screen. The Rebellion comes out of hyperspace on the edges of the station, and the Empire scramble to intercept, two large-scale Imperial Light Cruisers emerging from the station’s shadow, flanked by player-piloted TIE battalions. And in a storm of laser fire, ion cannons and blazing thrusters, the two sides clash.
The mode’s mission structure
Rebels have three objectives that need to be completed in order. First, destroy the cruisers and the Imperial defences to gain entry into the heart of the base. Second, knock out the base’s shield generators so you can start your approach on the docked Star Destroyer. Lastly, take out the power couplings holding the starship in place to short out its shields, giving you a 30 second window to unload on its underside reactor core.
Playing as Imperials? Well, orders are simple: destroy the rebel scum.
Okay, there’s more to it than that. As X-wings, A-wings and Y-wings split and divide to objectives – more quickly completed if done as a part of a squadron (or Flight, as it’s known) consisting of fellow players and AI and pre-selected when entering the match – the Empire has options for retaliation. Down enough Rebel reinforcements to zero, visualised as on-screen percentage bar, and you can stop the assault cold, regardless of which Phase you’re in.
TIE fighters, Interceptors and Bombers can target incoming (AI-controlled) Y-Wing bombing squadrons or aim for two Rebel Corvettes that soon jump in. These give the defenders – including me for a time – a home field advantage, letting me play Imperial bullseye on ship-shaped dartboards the size of asteroids.
Flying like the best pilot in the galaxy
Criterion made me feel in total control of my chosen ride in Burnout irrespective to the fact that I was breaking the sound barrier. Here too I don’t need to be a Jedi to perform manoeuvres that’d make Poe Dameron jealous.
The map’s crawling with tiny spaces that can be used to dodge laser fire and feel like a piloting badass. The base’s shield generators are placed in a narrow tunnel, but along which there are multiple exhausts that look out into space. If you’ve got the skills (I eventually have) you can weave in and out of them (I do). It’s awesome.
In one of the last matches in my hour’s play session, I run a pursuing TIE Fighter a spirited chase for several minutes out of and into these tiny ports and under docking clamps while piloting the Millennium Falcon. Han would have been proud. It’s thrilling stuff, and all the more awesome because I’m the one creating the set piece. My only regret is not capturing the pursuit; it’s my most dazzling display of piloting since I started playing Battlefront. But you believe me, right?
Weapons of choice
Every ship’s got three abilities in addition to its primary weapon. One on L1, another on R1, and the third activated by tapping both. Examples include astromech repairs and proton torpedoes.
Yet in a ten-strong ship line-up, including Hero ships such as Darth Maul’s Scimitar and Poe Dameron’s Black One (continuity be damned), it’s – surprisingly – the humble TIE Fighter’s Laser Barrage that thrills the most. A joint button press, a brief sound of mechanical parts reconfiguring and then the sweet burst of ultra-fast, ultra-powerful twin lasers unloading.
A big part of why I end up grinning from ear to ear every time I do this? Audio. That angry staccato of Imperial might in the ears is authentically Star Wars. And that’s indicative of the mode as a whole: Criterion has applied its technical prowess to an experience that’s as authentic as blue milk, lightsabers and farmboys dreaming of starfighters. Phase 2’s trench run on the docking base is is reminiscent of Jedi’s climactic Death Star assault and Rogue One’s Rebel fleet rescue. Light Cruiser takedowns are a nod to Sith’s opening space battle. It’s a ‘best of’ some of the saga’s most memorable moments. And this is only one map.
Criterion’s taken the wheels off its arcade racing heritage but kept the high-octane thrill for 360 degree space combat. Its work on Battlefront’s Rogue One: X-Wing VR Mission already suggested the studio understood what made the furthest-flung galaxy in science fiction so iconic. Starfighter Assault only cements the fact the studio is on equal standing in Battlefront II’s creation alongside EA DICE and Motive Studios.
To steal a line from another cinematic classic: where Criterion’s taking us, we don’t need roads.