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The first look at 'Star Wars Battlefront,' a familiar multiplayer feast

Xav de Matos, @xav

With a new film on the horizon, there's a wave of excitement attached to the Star Wars franchise that hasn't been felt since the months leading up to the release of Episode I. Part of Disney's new plan for the $4 billion series includes a slate of new video game experiences over the course of a 10-year partnership with Electronic Arts.

At Star Wars Celebration, the 10th official convention focused on the iconic property, EA's DICE studio showcased the first game in its decade-long plan: Star Wars: Battlefront, set to launch on November 17th, 2015, for PC, Xbox One and PS4.

Powered by EA's Frostbite engine, Star Wars: Battlefront brings large-scale, multiplayer-focused battles back to gamers for the first time since the series disappeared after Star Wars: Battlefront 2 launched in 2005.

The Star Wars Celebration-exclusive sneak peek of in-game Battlefront action begins on familiar land. The war-torn forests of Endor appear peaceful before a trio of speeders rips through the landscape. More stormtroopers emerge and the Rebel soldier we're following begins to fire. A ripple of familiarity shoots through my spine: The combination of the game's look and sound, even in its pre-alpha state with footage captured from a gameplay session on PlayStation 4, is authentically Star Wars.

To create a consistent look, Star Wars: Battlefront models have been developed with the use of a technique called Photogrammetry, recreating the actual models from the film franchise. With unprecedented access to the Lucasfilm archive, DICE was able to assemble digital facsimiles of original props for in-game models, rather than render replicas.

"When you pick up a lightsaber, or hop into a vehicle, you are picking up the lightsaber. It's the actual X-Wing you're [flying]," Battlefront Design Director Niklas Fegraeus says.

"We've seen attempts at this before, but they have never felt really like the movies," DICE Stockholm GM, Patrick Bach, tells Engadget. "That's the challenge we had and the relationship with Lucasfilm on actually re-creating the events that you saw in the movies -- scanning the elements of the movie and getting that into your virtual world."

"Who doesn't want to get onto Hoth and experience that fight?" Bach asks.

The soldiers on Endor continue their defense, thinning the lines of Imperial troopers, but an All Terrain Scout Transport (AT-ST) appears through the trees and cuts celebrations short. The AT-ST tears up the Rebel Alliance until a soldier boosts into the air with a jetpack and fires a missile at its head, destroying it.

Though authenticity is key for DICE, as both developers and fans of the film franchise, the team says there's one crucial ingredient required: fun.

"[Fun] is the very essence of Star Wars," Fegraeus says; a world of epic battles, good versus evil, heroes and imagination. Fun also means lighthearted, which Bach says helps drive the direction of a battle's effect on the environment. While DICE games are better known for colossal destruction, Star Wars requires a softer touch.

"Star Wars, as an [intellectual property], is shaping what we're doing. So we won't do excessive destruction just because we can. It's more about 'what do you need and what you want' in a Battlefield game versus a Battlefront game," Bach says, adding that environmental anarchy in Battlefront wouldn't be authentic to the franchise's sensibility.

There still exists a sense of dread in Battlefront, however. The crunching sound of an All Terrain Armored Transport (AT-AT) Walker approaching sends our Rebel soldier and allies rushing toward cover. The thunderous sound of its four powerful, metal legs entering combat is immediately recognizable. There's a reason for that, Fegraeus admits, the sounds featured in Battlefront come directly from the archives at Lucasfilm. There's a sense of strategy with all that you hear. Closing my eyes, I can identify the weapons and enemies that litter the battlefield. That immediate familiarity with what is on the horizon is unique to a series like Star Wars. A blaster is unique from a saber; an AT-ST and AT-AT sound different; a speeder in the distance is immediately identified thanks to its audible signature.

DICE takes things further with Battlefront being the first game to feature Dolby ATMOS support, technology that simulates audio within a 3D space for a more detailed aural experience. (ATMOS support was only announced for PC.)

Making the experience unique is important, Fegraeus says, and players will be able to customize gear, weapons and abilities. They can customize their gameplay style, playing in franchise-classic third-person mode or in first-person and switching on the fly. In addition to a progression system DICE isn't revealing yet, players can uncover special power-ups by exploring the world, giving teams access to special vehicles, such as X-Wings and Walkers; or abilities, like shields or massive explosives and more.

While DICE says Star Wars: Battlefront is a multiplayer experience "first and foremost," the game will feature content for offline fans. Star Wars: Battlefront Missions is a series of crafted challenges inspired by the films and available for solo play, or in local and online co-op.

DICE wants players to focus on creating an experience that is fun to share with friends. Battlefront's Partner feature is core to this idea: Once a friend is invited to be a partner, you become a tag team that plays together, spawns together and can even share unlocks with each other. Have a friend lagging behind in progression? This feature helps bring you closer.

Back on Endor, our Rebel escapes into an underground bunker with a friend. The halls are quiet as the pair explores the structure until our Rebel's ally is captured within the clutches of a Force Choke and thrown against a wall. Our Rebel Soldier swings his blaster around the corner and opens fire. The menacing Darth Vader swipes away blaster fire with ease, his imposing figure inching toward the Rebel before taking a fierce swipe of his saber at our tour guide, ending the demo.

Iconic franchise characters like Vader will make an appearance throughout battle, available for players to uncover as special power-ups. While Bach wasn't prepared to disclose exactly how character power-ups work, he was willing to share what DICE wants to avoid.

"The goal is, of course, to avoid exactly those situations where you race to a point and do bad things because you're greedy," Bach says, referring to the rush often seen in games of Battlefield as every soldier races toward vehicles or waits for them to spawn within the world. "We're trying to design around behavior like that."

Disney's investment may well be tested prior to the film's December 18th, 2015, release, with Star Wars: Battlefront launching for PC, Xbox One and PS4 on November 17th. Linking the upcoming game to what could arguably be the most anticipated movie of the year is free downloadable content. The Battle of Jakku, a key location from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, will premiere in Star Wars: Battlefront on December 8th. Pre-ordering the game will give players early access to the content, on December 1.

EA's partnership with Lucasfilm is "not a normal licensing relationship," Lucasfilm VP of Digital Business Ada Duan promises. The hope, according to Fegraeus, is it will lead to "the best Star Wars games ever." At the very least, it's another element to one of the most exciting years in recent franchise history.

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