Screenshot: Star Wars Battlefront II/EA

This week, the video game goliath Electronic Arts earned itself the dubious honor of creating the most downvoted comment in the history of Reddit. Currently at close to 700,000 dislikes, the comment was an attempt at justifying Star Wars Battlefront II’s onerous progression system, a subject about which you either A) already know everything you need to and have a very strong opinion, or B) do not need to know anything at all and will be fine in life without me explaining its minutiae. The short version is that EA wanted to force players to unlock iconic playable characters like Darth Vader, leading them to either spend dozens of hours grinding for credits or to spend a bunch of additional money on top of the purchase of the game in order to buy access to these characters. For a widely loathed company like EA, already notorious for filling their games with microtransactions aimed at getting you to cough up some extra bucks, this was an unthinkable sin. How they did not know not to fuck with Star Wars fans will be puzzled over in the annals of business history for decades.

The Battlefront games have always existed in a strange nether-region of memory and invention, letting fans toy with their nostalgia. When the series was revived in 2015, it was criticized as too thin, lacking much depth or competitive verve, but I found this straightforwardness enchanting. Its designers, the Swedish technical wunderkinds DICE, are the best in the medium at audio-visual polish; their games have a density of texture, quality of light, and stereophile sheen that constantly pushes the limits of gaming hardware. The Battlefront games have recreated the snow drifts of Hoth and the obsidian corridors of Starkiller Base with a photorealistic visual fidelity that matches the films themselves, and they’re set to an audio tapestry of perfectly recreated laser blasts, stock British actors chirping militaristic commands, and a generative soundtrack built from the raw materials of John Williams’ original score. Menus transition with those inimitable wipes. You can tweak film grain and audio spectrum settings in the menus. It all seems so real that when Kylo Ren shows up to kick some ass on Naboo you barely register that, hold on, his grandparents hadn’t even met when this battle happened!

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While DICE made its name with the Battlefield games, their take on Star Wars seemed geared not toward the shooter fans who delight in that series’ scope and complexity but, rather, Star Wars fans—people with some familiarity with shooters that wanted something to pick away at in their off-hours for a couple of weeks. Star Wars long ago transcended its cult, “nerd” culture roots, and it makes sense for its games to set up a large, welcoming tent. Leave the competitive shooting to the kids with unconscionable fast-twitch muscles and weeks of Christmas vacation; this was “mid-core” gaming, not quite catering to the hardcore or casual crowd but the vast swath in between. DICE specializes in massive battles featuring dozens of players at once—another unsurpassed technical feat—which gave their take on Star Wars the feel of a free-for-all, like all the kids in the neighborhood pooled their allowances to buy literally every Star Wars toy, then all got drunk on sugar and threw them at each other for one glorious afternoon.

Screenshot: Star Wars Battlefront II/EA

Battlefront II still feels that way. I’ve played it for days now, and I’m gobsmackingly bad at it—nothing I know from other shooters translates, for some reason—but I keep playing for the moments when I’m sprinting over hills on Tatooine alongside perfectly designed Sandtrooper heavies, or hiding behind a hill picking people off while an AT-AT stomps through the snow, or making a daring escape on the Death Star when one of those garbage-can droids waddles down the hallway. But DICE has messed with the formula. In an attempt to add the “depth” and progression missing from its predecessor, the studio tacked on a bunch of mechanical complications that make as much sense together as Bossk fighting Yoda on top of the Millennium Falcon (a thing I have seen with my own eyes).

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The steady tick of experience points is a central component of shooters like Destiny and Call Of Duty, but here it’s combined with a bunch of other systems: different classes that upgrade alongside cards that can also be upgraded, battle points you earn through individual matches, raw materials you can only sometimes use to craft and upgrade your abilities, fake in-game currency, another type of currency bought with real-world money, an endless string of automated challenges, as well as a whole marketplace built around “loot crates,” which are randomized grab-bags of points, cards, doo-dads, and progression. It’s dizzying stuff, meted out across a byzantine sequence of menus. After playing all day yesterday as an Assault trooper, I was stunned to find that I am now an advanced Specialist. Why? Cards, or something. Luck of the draw. I do not know, and I do not care.

By trying to add depth, they’ve managed to alienate both the hardcore, relentlessly downvoting segment of their audience and the people who just wanted to shoot shit on Chewie’s home planet. At the end of the day, this is something everyone playing the game has in common. The whole point of a game like this is its giddy, retro-futuristic beauty, a quality that has only become more important since Disney’s relaunch of the Star Wars series.

Screenshot: Star Wars Battlefront II/EA

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The first two films of the Disney era have been defined by their narrative conservatism—first essentially retelling A New Hope, then detailing a largely inconsequential side story—but also by their lustrous production design. The one thing these movies have gotten very right is the cough of dust from Rey’s speeder, the liquid cool of Kylo Ren’s voice, and the ancient grit of Jedha. At this point, the primary appeal of Star Wars is less the mythic scale of the Skywalker saga than it is the resonant frequency of its iconography—its ships and costumes and sounds, even its framing and edits—still the best in sci-fi history. The new films have built upon that legacy with intelligence and grace. Battlefront promises an all-you-can-eat buffet of these images and sounds, then holds out on the main course. That’s probably not worth the most down-voted comment in Reddit history, but it is some bullshit.

Since the Reddit incident, EA has lowered the requirements for unlocking characters, but they’ve still committed two unforgivable sins of modern game design. The first is locking core features of the game behind paywalls, and the second is letting players fork over money for competitive advantages, which is, again, either the type of thing you already know all about or, really, you’re fine. The outrage in response to these crimes is proof of both the endlessly aggrieved tone of video game discourse and also the insistence upon treating games purely as consumer objects rather than creative works. But it also points toward the power of these artists in the first place. Forty years later, people still want nothing more on this earth than to play with their Darth Vader toy, and nobody has ever designed one more beautiful than DICE.