LOS ANGELES—How much is a solid single-player Star Wars adventure game from EA worth in 2019?
That answer might have been different six years ago, when EA's brand-new investment in the Star Wars universe had everyone wondering how epic its games would turn out. Since then, one huge project sputtered, then was outright canceled, while two Star Wars Battlefront reboots ranged from so-so to alarming.
Hence, at this point, you may breathe a sigh of relief to learn that this November's Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order not only exists but feels quite good, based on my hands-on gameplay session at last week's E3. Or you may yawn while wondering where the heck your Knights of the Old Republic–caliber Star Wars adventure is. After my tests, I think both of those responses are valid.
A chat with Respawn
The game's debut vertical slice premiered on YouTube two weeks ago, and it revealed what had already been teased by the development team at Respawn Entertainment: a third-person action-adventure game starring a lightsaber-wielding Jedi. New hero Cal Kestis has a core arsenal of a lightsaber and some force powers that can be applied to living beings and inanimate objects alike: shoving, pulling, and time-freezing. (Combine your saber with the force to throw it like a boomerang, in a pinch.)
In an E3 interview, Respawn staff members confirmed to Ars Technica that the game's pre-production process began in 2014, when God of War III game director Stig Asmussen joined Respawn as the project's sole member. In 2016, Respawn publicly confirmed that it was hiring Unreal Engine 4 designers for Asmussen's then-unnamed Star Wars project, which clarifies the game's production timeline a bit. (According to Respawn lead technical designer Brandon Kelch, Asmussen brought on other members of Sony Santa Monica's old God of War design team, as well. Maybe they should have called this game "God of Force"?) According to Respawn, that use of Unreal Engine 4—as opposed to Titanfall's modified Source Engine or Star Wars Battlefront's Frostbite Engine—was imperative for a quick development turnaround.
"The team was really lacking programmers at the start, so [Unreal Engine 4's built-in tools] really let us build something," technical director Jiesang Song explained. "Unreal is great for getting something running that's fun right away." Another factor, according to Kelch, was that Respawn hired an entirely new team, as opposed to pulling designers from its existing Titanfall and Apex Legends teams. Respawn's reps did not comment on how the engine compares to EA's reportedly unwieldy Frostbite Engine.
Star Wars of the Colossus?
This year's reveal video looked solid in action, and a few days later, I was handed a controller to play the same sequence—and to see that mission's opening beats, which revealed a little more about the plot in question. The full mission (an early one in the campaign) revolves around freeing captured Wookiees from an Imperial outpost, and it opens with your hero Cal and his small, agile droid BD-1 emerging from an ocean to swim toward a shore on Kashyyyk. Two AT-ATs are in your way, however, so you must swim up to the nearest one and scale its body Uncharted-style. (This AT-AT's climbable bits are covered in grass and moss, thus setting up some obvious "Star Wars of the Colossus" jokes.)
Once inside this AT-AT, Cal clears out its piloting Stormtroopers with extreme lightsaber prejudice, then pilots the AT-AT in an on-rails sequence that lets you aim its lasers and rockets at every Imperial vehicle and soldier in sight. In the midst of this, a familiar character leaps onto your AT-AT's windshield: Saw Gerrera, who we previously met in Rogue One and Star Wars Rebels (and thus confirms this game's timeline placement between Episodes III and IV). This younger version of Saw, as played once again by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker, confirms Cal's good-guy status and asks what this kid is doing in the middle of Saw's mission to disrupt the Empire's supply routes. Turns out Cal is looking for Wookiee chieftain Tarfful (a character that fans first met in Episode III) to discuss "Jedi business."
Cal's Jedi heritage is only briefly confirmed when Saw gestures to the kid's lightsaber and asks, "Get that off a corpse?" Cal simply replies, "My master gave it to me."
At this time, we meet Cal's accomplices: a former Jedi knight named Cere and a squat, furry pilot. The latter is pleasantly grumpy—"I fly my ship in the middle of a battlefield and now we're talking about risks?"—while the former is wary of Cal's interest in breaking off the team's existing plan to assist Saw with his assault. We see a hint of a dialogue wheel, but this appears to be largely superficial in terms of offering players optional flavor text before resuming their adventure.