The Battle for Battlefront

It’s a watershed moment in the history of gaming. The night before a hotly anticipated launch, Andrew Wilson, CEO of Electronic Arts, takes a call from Bob Iger, head of Disney. The exact interchange is unclear but one can assume it was along the lines of this:

“Drew, what the fuck are you doing with my brand?”

The brand is the multi-billion dollar Star Wars universe and the fuck-up is Star Wars Battlefront II. The game is gorgeous, fun to play and a love letter to the most beloved cinematic universe in history. The problem? Star Wars Battlefront II isn’t fair.

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The game is structured so the more money you spend on in-app purchases, the easier it is to dominate other players in the brutally competitive multiplayer slaughter-fests that make up the core of the game.

Until that call from Bob Iger.

The Battlefront II launch is like being stuck on a Spirit airlines flight while adults in diapers scream about continuity errors in The Land Before Time series.

News of rampant Reddit rage had reached the head desk of the House of Mouse and Iger told Wilson to fix it. So hours before the launch, the in-app purchases were removed from the game indefinitely.

The battle over Battlefront is noisy clash of two toxic elements of our culture. Angry nerds and capitalist pigs. The Battlefront II launch is like being stuck on a Spirit airlines flight while adults in diapers scream about continuity errors in The Land Before Time series. It’s is ruining something that is supposed to be fun.

Andrew Wilson has learned his lesson. I only hope that Bob Iger learned his. This is what happens when you farm out your most important property to a company like EA.

It’s clear what a short-sighted blunder it was for Iger to shut down Disney’s in-house game development arm last year. It makes me pine for the days of LucasArts, who put out not only some of the best Star Wars games but some of the best games period.

Unsurprisingly Disney shut them down too.

The game’s gender diverse portrayal of the Star Wars universe means much of the game depicts our heroine slaughtering droves of fellow women.

Star Wars Battlefront II is in many ways the most reactionary game ever made. Most of the changes between I and II are reactions to fan outrage rather than creative ways to improve on the formula. Fans demanded a story campaign so EA crafted a single-player experience that throws every Star Wars cliché into Aunt Beru’s blender. The game’s gender diverse portrayal of the Star Wars universe means much of the game depicts our heroine slaughtering droves of fellow women. The whole experience unwittingly serves as a bizarre metaphor for the toxic masculinity of the crusty outer edges of nerdom.

As Leia leads her soldiers into battle, smoke and debris cast a cloud over the broad promenade that once served as the path of her mother’s funeral procession.

Ultimately a game should be fair and fun. Star Wars Battlefront II is fairly fun. The game requires you to charge boldly into battle, in more ways than one. I’m therefore surprised that my instinct while playing the game has been to hang back and just look around while my fellow players dash towards death. The portrayal of my favorite film universe is so accurate, so beautiful despite all of its brutality, that all I really want to do is wander and wonder in awe. I don’t really care about killing people, I just want to be in Star Wars for a little while.

So far my favorite part of the game is playing as Princess Leia on the planet of Naboo. Leia doesn’t mention it, but Naboo is the homeworld of her mother, a woman she never knew but whose legacy lives on in Leia’s own bravery. As Leia leads her soldiers into battle, smoke and debris cast a cloud over the broad promenade that once served as the path of her mother’s funeral procession. She gives the orders to fall back and I dash into Theed Palace as blaster fire echos through the halls that her mother once walked as the young queen of this world. As I wander through the halls, I find myself absorbed in this world that never was. I stop at a painting on the wall. It’s a painting of Leia’s mother. I stand and stare for a moment until an explosion jolts me from my reverie. I fire blindly into the fog of war and fight for my life. Despite all of the game’s flaw and the frustrations over the launch, everything suddenly seems worth the price of admission. I’m there, I’m in Star Wars. I only hope that next time I’m there, everyone is having as much fun as me.

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Star Wars Battlefront: Bantha Poodoo in a Galaxy Far Far Away…

The Star Wars Universe is a dangerous place. Whether you’re a moisture farmer on Tatooine, a Rebel Soldier defending Echo Base or a Stormtrooper landing on a hostile world, you can die quickly and brutally and no one will care. When people fantasise about living in a galaxy far far away, most imagine themselves as Jedi Knights or Sith Lords, gunslinging smugglers or badass warrior princesses. But let’s face it, if any of us were dropped off in the middle of pop culture’s favorite intergalactic civil war, we’d be piece of shit grunt cannon fire at best and clueless collateral damage at worst. The newest version of Star Wars Battlefront, one of the franchise’s best video game series, reminds you of that reality almost immediately.

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The first time you join one of the game’s massive multiplayer battles, you’ll be taken aback by how photo-realistic it all looks and sounds. From the crunch of snow under your boots on Hoth to the dense foliage of the Forest Moon of Endor, Battlefront truly transports you to a galaxy far far away. It’s the first time we’ve seen a fully realized interactive version of the Star Wars Universe on the high-powered current generation of consoles and it’s truly breathtaking in the way it represents both the beauty and terror of living in the war-torn landscape of an epic space opera. But don’t stand around gawking too long or you’ll be bantha poodoo within seconds. Remember all those dudes eating shit in the background of the iconic Star Wars battles? Well that’s going to be you. Over and over again. I’ve been playing multiplayer first person shooters since Doom and it even took me a couple of deaths before I started racking up kills. If you haven’t played an FPS for a while or at all, it’s going to be a steep learning curve and you’ll have to log some serious time to be halfway decent. There are modes where you get to play as popular “hero” characters like Luke Skwyalker or Darth Vader but that’s not the main attraction here.

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The gameplay is pretty standard fare if you’re familiar with Call of Duty or Battlefield but that’s precisely the point. Battlefront has always been more or a less your standard military shooter with a Star Wars skin on it and honestly that’s what people want. If they had ever tried to do something original with the core mechanic of Battlefront  it wouldn’t had been as successful. People just wanted to play Battlefield 1942 with Star Wars shit. This time Electronic Arts went to the source and had Battlefield’s developer create Battlefront. Why not? That’s exactly what fans have asked for and in a sense Star Wars Battlefront represents the ultimate fan service. Of course, diehards will still find a reason to complain because this is Star Wars fandom, where opinions are like assholes — everyone has one and they’re all full of shit.

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A major complaint is the lack of a single player campaign. Sure, you can play single player against the AI in a variety of modes but there isn’t an overarching story that people can play on their own. This confounds me, because no one ever gave a shit about the single player campaign when the series had one. In fact it was kind of a joke. Of course, now that there’s no single player people are pissed that it’s gone. In fact, some people seem so desperate for any sort of story that they’re trying to shoehorn them into the gameplay. As this reviewer from the LA Times stated:

“In Star Wars Battlefront players can rewrite Star Wars history. The arcade-like action allows for the narratives of battle to change at a moment’s notice.”

Um no. First of all the action isn’t “arcade-like” in fact it’s entirely the opposite. Disney Infinity Star Wars  has arcade-like action, Battlefront is a brutal and difficult game for advanced players. Secondly, Luke Skywalker dying in a video game isn’t “rewriting Star Wars history” or “changing the narrative.” It’s just shit that happens in a video game because it’s fun. No one screams that there’s been a rift in the space time continuum of the Marioverse every time Waluigi loses a round of Wii bowling.

Then this reviewer talked about how easily he died even while playing as Luke, one of the most powerful characters in the game. Why the LA Times hired someone to review games who not only can’t play them but thinks they are the intergalactic interactive equivalent of Harry Turtledove novels  is beyond me. Next they’ll tell me that Kenneth Turan thinks movies are real life. At the end of the day Battlefront is a multiplayer shooter, if you want a story-based shooter in space, go play Halo or Mass Effect. If you want alternate history, go read Man in the High Castle.

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The second major complaint with Battlefront is that there aren’t enough planets to choose from and the only thing really worth playing is the Battle of Hoth. This is also kindof a joke because anyone who’s played a Battlefront game knows that Hoth is pretty much the only level people want to play. It’s a long-time tradition of Star Wars gamers. Shadows of the Empire was horrible but everyone loved that Hoth level at the beginning so the game was a big hit. So the fact that Battlefront is essentially the world’s best Hoth simulator probably won’t hurt it. That being said, I am quite disappointed that two of my favorite locations from the previous games, Bespin and Naboo are not represented here at all.

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The lack of planetary variety is inextricably linked to the third complaint, and the one that has the most validity: the price tag is too high for the amount of content offered. The base game is $60. Pretty standard. Then there is a “season” pass that unlocks additional content which will put you back another $50. That is unfortunately also the way of the world these days. So in order to really play the entire game, you’re already over a bill in the hole. The hidden cost of Downloadable Content (DLC) is a big complaint among gamers but it really feels like EA is taking advantage of people’s loyalty to Star Wars and Battlefront. The fact that Battlefront is essentially half a game is fine. The fact that it costs the same as two games is a major disappointment.

You’ll forget about all that shit once you get in the groove of this game. There is something truly invigorating about joining forty fellow Star Wars fans in an epic battle. At this point I’ve basically tithed my income to Disney and Lucasfilm for the foreseeable future. Between Disney Infinity collecting, opening  night tickets, this game and my new Poe Dameron action figure, I’m already a couple bills in the hole so fuck it. So should you buy it? If you’re a Star Wars fan with decent FPS skills or at least a willingness to get better at it, Star Wars Battlefront  is worth the money. If you’re a Star Wars fan who sucks ass at shooters or wants something with more variety or replay value pick up Disney Infinity 3.0 on black Friday or sign up for The Old Republic. At the end of the day, Battlefront delivers exactly what it promised, just be willing to feel the burn in your pocketbook and spend most of your time in snow shoes on Hoth.

 

Will the Blockbuster Bubble Pop?

Yesterday my sister and I were gushing over the new Spectre trailer and she innocuously asked me when the flick was being released. I told her we’d be able to see it in November and then launched into an unsolicited explanation that James Bond movies always come out in November because the last time they released a 007 entry in the summer was 1989 and it got clobbered at the box office by Batman, Indiana Jones and Lethal Weapon 2. Then I start babbling about how I was worried that since Star Wars 7 is also coming out in Q4 it might hurt Bond at the box office. THEN I continued to explain that usually Star Wars movies come out in May but that Disney probably pushed back the release date to the winter because they didn’t want to compete with their own Marvel film Age of Ultron and cannibalize their box office receipts. I topped off the conversation with a hope that Spectre would still “do good business.”

I then stopped in my tracks and realized I never once mentioned that I hoped the movie would be any good. All I was talking about was how I hoped it would make a lot of money so that we would be assured we’d see more good James Bond movies. But why the hell should I care? I don’t work for Sony Pictures or the British Intelligence. I’m not a financial analyst.

I don’t think this is my fault. It’s just how we talk about movies these days. Each month brings a new conversation around box office record-breaking. This is the first movie to make this much money on Memorial Day. This is the most money that a movie has made in a single day. This is the most money a movie has made in a single weekend. This is the most money a movie based on a romance novel has made on a leap year in which the planets were aligned with the northern star. This week the conversation is about the newest record Jurassic World has made, replete with lazy puns about “chomping through the competition” and “stomping through box office records.”

So let’s go ahead and say it. It’s official, Jurassic World has eclipsed Avengers to become the number three top-grossing film of all time. Number three? Who the eff cares? Well, since Avatar and Titanic are still a clean billion dollars’ worth of business ahead of anyone else due to James Cameron’s fondness for deep-throating Satan, for all intents and purposes number three is the spot to beat.

But what does that mean? It means that 3 of the top 10 movies of all time came out in a SINGLE YEAR. Forget Jurassic World’s billion and a half dollars, that’s the real record here. For years, the highest grossing movie of all time was Star Wars, which had eclipsed the record of Gone With the Wind. Star Wars was released in 1977, Gone with the Wind hit the silver screen in 1939. That’s almost a four decade difference, which is laughable in this day in age when half of the top grossing films of all time were released within 2 years of each other and seven out of the ten top grossing films of all time were released in the last ten years.

Adjusted for inflation, Gone with the Wind is still the moniestmaking film of all time.

So what does this mean? That in 2017 four of the top movies of all time will be from the same year? That in 2019 half of the top movies of all time will be from the same year? And that by 2029 every movie in the top ten will be from the same year? And that every year after that the entire list of top ten movies will be entirely supplanted? Okay, obviously any statistician worth her salt would shoot an Indominous Rex-sized hole through the pattern I’m suggesting here, but my point is: how sustainable is this? I’m reminded of the dotcom bubble of the 1990s and the housing bubble of the 2000s. They both seemed as unstoppable as Jurassic World and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But isn’t the box office economy a market like any other? Isn’t this a bubble like any other? Isn’t it inevitable for it to pop?

Let’s take a look at this from the perspective of supply and demand. What are audiences demanding from top-grossing films these days? Shit they’ve never seen before. Shit they’ve seen in comics and videogames that they want to see on the big screen. Shit they’ve been imagining and dreaming about for years that we finally have the technology to put up on the silver screen. And now that social media has empowered moviegoers to express these demands to studios, the supply is finally being met.

By this time next year, we’ll have seen it all. We’ve already seen Jurassic Park finally open it’s door this summer. Next summer we’ll finally know what happens when Superman fights Batman. We’ll finally see Spiderman join the Avengers and watch the entire Marvel Universe explode into a civil war. We’ll finally see what happens next in the Star Wars saga. We’ll finally see Captain Kirk and the Starship Enterprise begin their legendary 5 year journey. We’ll finally see Wonder Woman on the big screen. We’ll finally see James Bond battle Spectre in the modern era.

And I think the bubble will pop. What the hell could make more money a superhero civil war? What could possibly make more money than new Star Wars movies? There’s no way that year after year movies can just continue to make more money than ever before. I don’t know about you, but when I see Superman and Batman together on the big screen I know I’ll say “well shucks, now I’ve seen it all.”

Of course that’s a preposterous statement and I know it. Something new will always show up. People said they saw it all when Star Wars came out. Then The Matrix blew their minds. It’s bound to happen. It’s happened before. By the late 1960s, the Hollywood studio system was about to collapse under its own weight. People had seen it all. They’d seen Moses part the Red Sea. They’d seen what outer space would look like in the year 2001. They’d seen the Crucifixion in glorious Technicolor Cinemascope and the Blob swallow teenagers in 3D. They’d seen Frankenstein meet the Wolfman and Dracula. They’d seen nudity and heard the F word. They had television sets now and there was nothing movies could show them that they hadn’t already seen. The bubble popped. And that was a good thing. It paved the way for Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Bogdanavich, Scorsese, De Palma, Peckinpah, Polanski and Boorman. It opened the door to The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, Taxi Driver,The Last Picture Show, Chinatown, and Deliverance. The popping of the old Hollywood bubble showed audiences things they’d never seen because they didn’t know they existed.

Somewhere out there a little girl is making her first movie on an iPhone. Someday she will grow up and show us something we’ve never seen before. But first, the Blockbuster Bubble needs to pop. 30-something nerds like myself need to have seen it all, go into hibernation and let her take over. And you know what? I hope her movie makes a trillion dollars. Why? Because James Cameron seems like a douche and all his movies except Terminator are ridiculously overrated. Have a great summer folks. See you at the pictures.

Alternate 1982

It’s 1982.

Lloyd Bridges sits in the White House, enjoying a screening of Airplane II.

“That Ronald Reagan,” President Bridges laughs, “who ever thought he was funny?”

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Crowds throng around the Ziegfeld in New York.

Bruce Lee is in town for the 10-year anniversary of Game of Death.

He gleams like a god. He is invincible.

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It’s Magic Hour in Hollywood.

Tom Selleck reads the script for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Death.

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Star Trek: Phase II is renewed for another season. Fans rejoice.

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Jack Paar interviews Orson Welles on the Tonight Show.

It’s the 40th anniversary of his first film, War of the Worlds.

Welles, trim and handsome as ever, has the audience eating out of his hands.

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Half way across the world, principal photography begins on Octopussy and the Living Daylights, George Lazenby’s 7th James Bond film.

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Somewhere in Ohio, a young girl flips through a copy of Starlog Magazine at a second-hand store.

She reads the words but everything is wrong.

There are names she doesn’t recognize and some she does. Only out of place.

The girl shrugs. Must be a joke.

She moves to the next box. Toys.

She picks up a Han Solo doll.

The girl scoffs as she tosses it back into the box.

“Doesn’t look anything like Christopher Walken,” she mutters.

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“Real” Actors

Disneyland could have spelled death for theater in America if it hadn’t been for four little letters: C-A-M-P. When Walt Disney’s “Imagineers” unveiled the first “cast” of computer-controlled animatronic performers at Disneyland over fifty years ago, the human actor must have seemed an outmoded relic indeed. The terrifying sneer of pirates, the ghoulish gasps of ghosts, and the insipid dialogue of the Carousel of Progress filled the park’s first guests with wonder and excitement. Now the whole thing seems, well…campy. And Disney doesn’t want you laughing at its shit, unless it’s in the form of Pumba farts. So now there are as many real actors performing in the Magic Kingdom as electronic ones, and they coexist together in an awkward post-modern wasteland of ironic meta-awareness. I suppose the old Disney corporation realized it was even easier to control actors with health care plans and paid vacation than it was with robotics. But what is a robot? Something that is programmed to automatically perform an action or series of actions without further intervention from the programmer.


Yesterday, while watching one of Disneyland’s human performers—a robed and lightsaber-toting Jedi Master—teach the same fight choreography to kids over and over again “Strike left, strike right, duck! Strike, left, strike right, duck!” I began to notice a robotic sameness to his performance. Compare this to the various Johnny Depp robots that have been added to the Pirates of the Caribbean, which sparkle with the understated exuberance of Depp’s now-iconic character Cap’n Jack Sparrow. Even when he’s made out of latex, Johnny Depp can act any other performer off the stage! This is an age-old strategy for demoralizing your labor force: prove to your workers that they are completely unnecessary, and then hire them anyway.

And what a world for the actor who goes into debt getting his Masters at Juliard so he can wave a plastic sword at Darth Vader on Tomorrowland Terrace five days a week! Frighteningly, this gig is not too far from Broadway if you think about who’s producing those shows these days. Indeed the stars of Broadway’s biggest hits are on the same payroll as the poor schmuke narrating the Jungle Cruise day in and day out.

In the end, the fact that robotic and flesh/blood actors can coexist relatively peacefully in one Magic Kingdom is proof that technology will never really be the “actor killer.” The fear isn’t that actors will be replaced by technology, it’s that they will be used as indiscriminately as all the other non-human actors that Disney “employs.” Disney has no preference for what type of “actor” performs in their various productions—animated, computer animated, animatronic, vocal, puppeteered, or human—as long as they can control that actor’s performance. Disney’s audience is also similarly devoid of prejudice towards these various types of performers, as long as they provide entertainment that is up to Disney’s usual high standards. Furthermore, it seems that the more the line is blurred between these types of actors the better.

The proof is in the pudding. When human actors portraying various Disney Princesses, Monsters and Spirits came out to play during the nightly parade I overheard a small child ask her mother with wonder “Are those real people?”