At the tail end of last year, I asked you, dear reader: Where are all the good Marvel games? The response was rather interesting, in that people actually agreed with me for once. Many reminisced through rose-tinted Doctor Octopus goggles about their favourite Marvel games of yore. People clearly miss the days of Ultimate Alliance and Spider-Man 2, and they yearn to experience these flashy comic book tales not just on the big screen, but on their own little screens hooked up to PCs and consoles. This, and the most recent Star Wars Humble Bundle, got me thinking about my favourite cross-media franchise of all time, and how it has been similarly ignored by the videogame industry at large for some time now.
The short answer to the above question is: they’re on GOG.com, they’re on Steam, they’re in your local second hand games store. They’re out there in the ether for you to track down, oh lucky owners of working PlayStation 2s and cartridge based consoles. They’re bathing in the dust of your PC cupboard, quietly making lightsaber noises and wishing for better days. Great Star Wars games exist – have always existed – but they’re more or less a thing of the past, a remnant of a simpler time before DLC, season passes and… Starkiller. Rather like the Jedi Order itself, Star Wars games are the magnificent, forgotten legacy of another age – a shining example of some of the best and worst the now deceased Expanded Universe had to offer. With Disney at the helm, and EA looking to fill the Star Wars videogame void (I have a bad feeling etc.), the franchise finds itself at a fork in one particularly rocky road. This leads us to the question at hand: where are all the good Star Wars games? Or more specifically, where have they been since about 2008?
Outside of dreck like The Force Unleashed series, Angry Birds tie ins and Kinect abominations, Star Wars has rarely graced out beloved medium in the last seven years or so. I generally cite Star Wars: Empire at War (and its expansion Forces of Corruption) as the last legitimately great Star Wars game. It perfectly encapsulated what everyone loved so much about the original trilogy and its iconic battles, all within a simple but engaging Total War-esque RTS game. It’s something of an oddity too, since it was released at a time when very few Star Wars properties were allowed to deal with original trilogy matters or Expanded Universe stories outside of the prequel trilogy/the Clone Wars. Since Episodes I-III and The Clone Wars series’ were still the freshest thing in everyone’s minds when it came to Star Wars, that was what Lucasfilm/Lucasarts gave the green light to, and that was what made bank.
Here lies the biggest problem with creating new Star Wars games. A development studio can pour countless hours and dollars into a new game, but that can all be overridden and shut down by Disney (again) and Lucas as they see fit. If the Abrams movies go in a different direction, narratively or tonally, to a prospective new Star Wars game, the franchise’s parent company can’t have these virtual loose ends lying around just waiting to be tied up – better to nip them in the bud before anyone finds out. It’s likely that this is what happened with the cancelled Star Wars: 1313. It was allegedly going for a dark and gritty tone, but Disney is about as dark and gritty as Barbie and Ken’s laundry basket.
This, and the effective closure of Lucasarts, has left Star Wars games in a tough spot. How do they pitch ideas that don’t clash with future Star Wars movie canon, if very few people know what said canon will be? The Expanded Universe is in disrepair: Star Wars: The Old Republic, a flawed, MMO take on the much beloved Old Republic era of canon, is still stumbling along in Free-to-Play limbo, even though the powers that be have waved their magic non-canon wand at the game. What do new players gain from starting the game now then? Will BioWare ever be allowed to make another Star Wars game, despite being an in-house EA studio?
Everyone is looking to EA as the saviours of the franchise, and I needn’t tell you what an uncomfortable situation that is. We know that DICE is working on Battlefront 3, which is arguably the best way for that game to live up to years of hype and disappointment, and many are hoping that EA’s other big studios, Visceral and BioWare, will work their magic on a different Star Wars game in a different genre. This is the best way to go, purely because it presents us with the best chance to recapture what it was that made Star Wars games so good. Our virtual adventures in a galaxy far far away have always explored new ideas about the films, and through a variety of characters, themes and genres. The X Wing and Tie Fighter games helped us experience the high-octane dog-fights we loved in the movies. The Knights of the Old Republic games planted us in a typical BioWare-y story, but one that allowed us to explore the history of the saga and how it operated before The Phantom Menace. Even games like Bounty Hunter and the Jedi Knight series allowed us to see the series through different lenses and genre conventions; i.e how does the Star Wars universe appear through the eyes of a bounty hunter, a soldier, a Jedi, a Sith?
But where we’re at now, it’s a dark place, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. In the 2010s so far, three Star Wars games have been cancelled (four if you count KOTOR III), but we’ve been subjected to Kinect games, dozens of mobile games, pinball games and a slew of LEGO titles. These might vary in quality, but they all have one thing in common: they play it safe. These games are effectively interactive window displays of Star Wars iconography, each one a “jumped-up, firework display of a toy advert“. They exist to deliver well known images of classic Star Wars figures and scenes – fan service of a sort, but to which fans does this service appeal?
Ten years ago, Star Wars games (and books, and comics) were around to let us experience different stories and character arcs within a familiar, beloved universe. We could explore morality, death, cults, brainwashing, religion, hell even zombies, but we did it all alongside lightsabers and stormtroopers, and all of the other great “stuff” associated with Star Wars. Now though, the “stuff” has become the most important aspect of Star Wars games – a way for the industry to peddle its gross free-to-play microtransactions to anyone who longs to recapture that Star Wars magic. And it makes sense, because, as one astute commenter pointed out on my previous article, mobile games are extremely profitable for big franchises like Marvel and Star Wars, whereas big budget AAA games are something of a gamble. Why risk making a Star Wars 1313 or, say a new Kotor, when you can just sell new Angry Birds Star Wars content to poor, impressionable children.
Disney is clearly aiming its sights at children and the casual gaming market, a wholly understandable strategy given the current industry climate. The trouble is, in doing so they ignore another sizeable group of Star Wars fans who have begun pining for substantial Star Wars material. Does Disney think that 18-50 year old nostalgia-driven Star Wars nerds won’t spend millions of dollars on well thought out, quality Star Wars products? We do it time and time again, after dozens of disappointments. We did it for The Phantom Menace (although Attack of the Clones is a worse movie), and we did it for The Force Unleashed. We’ll do it for The Force Awakens, even if that sucks too. Because Star Wars fans are masochists. We bitch and complain about Star Wars not being as good as it used to be, but we’d all still fork out our hard earned money for a taste of the Star Wars that we used to know.
We’re sure to be updated on the state of Star Wars games by the year’s end. Battlefront is being released at Christmas to coincide with the new movie, and I’d be surprised if we didn’t hear more about Disney’s future plans at this year’s E3 (just try to stop them making Star Wars Disney Infinity figures). At the moment though, looking back on the magnificent games the franchise had to offer makes me sad. It reminds me that this decade has so far been a barren wasteland of dancing Han Solos and an overestimation of Yoda’s abilities to carry the saga. Now, more than ever, we need a new hope.