New boss, same as the old boss. So gamers may come to regard Disney since its acquisition of the Lucasfilm family of companies, including video game developer LucasArts. Sitting on a rich catalog of intellectual properties including Star Wars and Indiana Jones, LucasArts should be at the forefront of the gaming community. At times, they have been. But recent years have left much to be desired.
The pairing of Disney’s acquisition with the looming transition to a new generation of gaming consoles presents an ideal opportunity to reinvigorate the brand. In a way, the lull in development from LucasArts in the past several years sets the stage for an all-the-more-impressive breakout. Here are 5 Star Wars games which need to get made already:
5) Remastered X-Wing Series
Steam led the way as a project pioneered by game developer Valve toward abandoning discs in favor of digital distribution. Now an established marketplace for titles from a variety of developers, Steam welcomes players with the latest new releases and a catalog of retro titles, many of which can no longer be played through conventional means.
As one example, Steam offers a large collection from LucasArts, including the Jedi Knight series, some classic Indiana Jones adventures, and the first and second Knights of the Old Republic role-playing epics. However, one franchise is conspicuously missing from the developer’s catalog, the X-Wing series of space combat simulators.
X-Wing, Tie Fighter, X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter, and X-Wing Alliance were once sold as a collection on CD-ROM. Each entry offered a compelling combat experience more akin to a flight simulator than an arcade game. Players had full control over the minutia of their spacecraft, able to direct energy between shields, weapons, and engines, all while targeting enemy subsystems and approaching missions creatively. The series was enormously popular, inspiring a major expansion to the Star Wars Galaxies online experience which offered similar gameplay.
For each passing day that the X-Wing series remains unavailable on Steam, a LucasArts executive should be fired. Releasing these games as digital downloads is an absolute no-brainer. Practically effortless aside from some paper pushing among lawyers, the move would provide LucasArts (and parent company Disney) with profit-bearing revenue on day one. That said, the opportunity exists to remaster these classic titles with updated graphics and modern network capabilities. There’s an entire generation of gamers who have never had the pleasure of experiencing X-Wing. Updated versions of these bar-setting titles would fly off the virtual shelf.
4) Resurrected Star Wars 1313
A causality of Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm, Star Wars 1313 stood on the verge of breaking LucasArts’ long stretch of mostly menial titles. As IGN executive editor Ryan McCaffrey writes, the once-great powerhouse of game development has impressed little in recent years:
This is a studio sitting on a treasure trove of beloved brands, and yet, when was their last Indiana Jones game that didn’t star a Lego figure? Or a Star Wars title in the marketplace’s most popular genre, first-person shooters? Only the big-budget MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic can be considered a bold effort. In fact, their triple-A (read: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and/or PC) output during this console generation can be generally summed up as: three Lego Star Wars games, Two Lego Indiana Jones titles, a pair of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed releases, The Old Republic, and Kinect Star Wars. And of those, only the original Force Unleashed (six-plus million copies sold) made any substantial impact at retailer cash registers. That potential franchise withered on the vine after Force Unleashed II fizzled with both critics and consumers.
The straw which broke McCaffrey’s back was the announcement following Disney’s acquisition that Star Wars 1313 has been placed “on hold,” ostensibly because it was not tied into the upcoming films. IGN’s frustration commands empathy. The decision to mothball what appeared to be an innovative new franchise geared toward a mature audience, simply because it may not directly promote the new films, heralds an out-of-touch corporate mindset which regards video games as supplementary merchandising rather than a legitimate medium with its own merits.
Not much is known of what Star Wars 1313 would have turned out to be aside from a couple of trailers and a vague synopsis. We can confirm only that the project aspired to offer something different than the fare typically seen in a Star Wars title, both in terms of gameplay and narrative content. This was to be an exploration of the seedy underbelly of the galactic capitol world, a crime story featuring a morally ambiguous protagonist. I struggle to imagine the gamer who would decide against seeing J.J. Abrams’ new Star Wars film on account of having played 1313.
3) Always in Motion Is the Future
Upon the debut of the Nintendo Wii and its unique Wiimote motion controller, the imagination of gamers leaped straight to the most obvious application – lightsabers. Strangely, the only exploitation of this no-brainer mechanic has been Star Wars The Clone Wars: Lightsaber Duels, a title based upon the late animated series which hardly qualifies as the experience any of us were looking for. Perhaps informed by the same tie-in mindset which resulted in the cancellation of Star Wars 1313, a game based on The Clone Wars serves only to promote that show rather than deliver on the promise inherent in motion gaming technology.
On the Xbox 360, a more ambitious if unfocused effort took shape as Kinect Star Wars. Taking advantage of Kinect’s no-controller technology, the title offered a broad range of mini-games played with nothing but body motions.
There’s a tendency, whenever a new media technology is introduced, to overuse it in exploitative ways. The advent of color television was heralded by the bright primary palettes of Star Trek and Batman. The advent of computer graphics ushered in an era where practical effects were unwisely abandoned. Likewise, the manifestation of motion controlled gaming in the current console generation has buried us in dance games and glorified tech demos.
LucasArts should turn to Lionhead Studios’ Fable: The Journey for inspiration. Perhaps the first full-fledged action game to integrate motion control intelligently, Fable: The Journey employs the tech to propel an otherwise traditional experience. The game uses motion controls, rather than exploiting them, which may inform why the word “Kinect” appears nowhere in the title.
A proper motion controlled Star Wars game should begin first and foremost as a compelling game concept. A fighting game makes sense, and is long overdue. Rather than limit the experience to a narrow time period, as Lightsaber Duels did, a truly epic Star Wars fighter could draw upon the expanded universe of comics, books, and games. Darth Malak, Count Dooku, and the Yuuzhan Vong in one game? Why not?
2) Marriage of Star Wars to Mass Effect
Mass Effect emerged as one of the most commercially successful and creatively ambitious intellectual properties of this generation. It seemed almost ludicrous at the outset, a trilogy of role-playing games where each of a myriad of moral choices affects the ultimate outcome. If anyone could do it, Bioware could. Developer of the award-winning and fan-pleasing Knights of the Old Republic franchise, Bioware had already proven itself capable of elevating industry expectations. While the final product, culminating in last year’s Mass Effect 3, fell a little short of the ideal first imagined, it was still an enormously satisfying adventure which invested the player into what felt like actual relationships.
Finishing Mass Effect 3 was not unlike watching the series finale of a great sci-fi television series like Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek: The Next Generation. While all good things must come to an end, it matters very much how they do. Depending upon the choices and reputation pursued throughout the series, how the story ends ultimately depends upon the player. This knowledge gives the choices a profound sense of meaning, and leaves the player feeling as though a unique impression has been left upon the world of the game.
No doubt because both franchises were developed by the same company, Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic have a synergistic relationship. Many of the game mechanics which originated in KOTOR were refined in Mass Effect. In turn, the refinements made in Mass Effect have translated seamlessly into the new KOTOR-themed massively multiplayer online game Star Wars: The Old Republic.
While SWTOR succeeds in its own right, there are limits to the immersion an online game can provide. With the next generation of consoles right around the corner, the time is right for Bioware to apply their experience with Mass Effect to the craft of a new trilogy of single player games set in the Knights of the Old Republic timeline. The frantic yet intelligent action which characterized Mass Effect combat would lend itself well to a KOTOR game. Bioware’s proven talent for engaging storytelling could be put to much worse use.
1) Next-Generation Battlefront
Up to that point a loyal PlayStation fan, I bought the original Xbox late in the console’s life-cycle in anticipation of one game, Star Wars Battlefront. Modeled after its near-namesake, the Battlefield franchise, Battlefront offered shooter and vehicle combat on huge maps with a lot of action. Sixteen player teams duked it out in scenes lifted straight from the movies, taking on the role of Republic clonetroopers, Separatist droids, Alliance rebels, or Imperial stormtroopers.
Many Star Wars games before Battlefront had enabled players to relive the wintery Battle of Hoth from the opening scenes of The Empire Strikes Back, flying hovering snowspeeders against lumbering AT-AT walkers, trying to trip up the metal beasts with harpoons and tow cables. However, Battlefront was the first game that offered players the chance to challenge each other on either side of that scenario. As it turns out, timing a turbolaser blast to destroy a harassing snowspeeder proves just as satisfying as downing an AT-AT.
Battlefront 2 came out shortly thereafter, adding space combat and the ability to play as iconic characters like Darth Vader, Han Solo, and Yoda. However, the implementation left much to be desired and the franchise never reached its full potential.
That was 2005, eight years ago, an eternity on the scale of game development. Battlefront 3 has been rumored throughout those years. A fascinating video of purported test footage leaked a while back. However, in light of Disney’s acquisition of LucasArts and their emerging strategy of abandoning all things established in favor of the upcoming film sequels, little hope remains that Battlefront 3 will see the light of day.
If it were to return, the possibilities for innovation upon the original concept excite the imagination. The ongoing rivalry between the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises has driven remarkable developments in how online first-person shooters work. Role-playing elements like class unlocks for new gear, weapons, and special abilities have become a no-brainer. The advent of downloadable content would allow the game to remain current as the new film sequels develop. Finally, the sheer scope made possible by next-generation technology enables sprawling battles which could span not just planetside arenas but orbital space skirmishes or even interplanetary multi-objective campaigns played in real-time across multiple servers.
The original Battlefront games contained an intriguing single-player mode called Galactic Conquest which introduced a simple but intriguing meta-game that made the outcomes of skirmishes matter in the context of an overall war. Imagine an online version of that mode where teams of players fought match after match in a strategic effort to conquer the entire galaxy.
Seriously, LucasArts, make this game!
The Star Wars property holds endless potential as a narrative basis for engaging games in very genre. Why LucasArts has sat on its richest brand is a mystery clouded by the Dark Side. While Disney’s desire to stir anticipation of their upcoming films makes sense, the notion that gamers well become somehow distracted by unrelated content does not. Star Wars has been the basis for some of the most innovative and enjoyable gaming experiences throughout the industry’s few decades. The brand can lead creatively and commercially once again with the least amount of ambition and leadership from its new master, Mickey Mouse.
Related late breaking news: Disney has shut down LucasArts as an independent publishing house, but may continue to license games to third-party developers like BioWare.
Related at PJ Tatler from Vodkapundit: Disney to Lucasarts: Drop Dead!