The State of Star Wars Videogames Under Disney: A D23 Expo Report

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Fans sensed a great disturbance when Disney took over the Star Wars games, but it seems that everything is under control.

Disney used its biannual fan expo, D23, to show just how it would fit the Star Wars franchise into its well-oiled machine. At the Anaheim, Calif. event last weekend it announced Star Wars Land theme park expansions for both Disneyland and Disney World, revealed new details on upcoming Star Wars films, and had film stars roaming the halls to promote it all. But some of the company’s biggest moves for the franchise were in the videogame space. Disney Interactive president James Pitaro told the nearly 8,000 fans that attended the group’s D23 announcement showcase that the company is “working overtime” to connect fans to the new possibilities and experiences that would have never been possible until now. He brought proof.

Battlefront at the forefront

Disney Interactive’s showpiece for what Star Wars games can be is Star Wars Battlefront, a title developed by Electronic Arts’ star in-house team, DICE. The shooter is a revisiting of LucasArts’ and Pandemic Studios’ original Battlefront titles, originally released a decade ago, now powered by modern consoles and PCs for a new gaming audience. The November release will be the first in a series, coming out of a multi-year partnership between Disney and EA for a “universe of Star Wars games.” They’re going all-out for this one.

Justin McCully, general manager of EA Star Wars says that development has centered around taking fans into their Star Wars fantasies, playing through their favorite moments from the films. “We want you to have the feeling you had playing with those amazing toys as kids,” he said during a D23 games presentation.

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The event had Disney showing off EA’s unprecedented level of access to LucasArts’ archives and materials. McCully says that this access is being used to create photorealistic, highly detailed recreations of popular scenes from the Star Wars films. He says that his job is to “take this amazing universe and translate it into games you can play.” Original props, costumes, conceptual work, technologies, and even talent have been accessed and researched for authenticity’s sake. The staff was even on site during the filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens for research purposes.

The result of that work certainly shows in the portions of the game that were revealed at the event. It really does look as if you’re moving through scenes from the original trilogy. The level of photorealism they’ve reached would not have been possible even a few years ago. If the action manages to be as faithful to our memories of Star Wars as the look and setting, Battlefront could end up being the definitive Star Wars gaming experience.

Luke, I am your console

Sony was in attendance to reveal a limited-edition Darth Vader-themed PlayStation 4, which will be available in two bundles this holiday season. The top of the console features an image of Vader, and a companion controller has been retooled to resemble his chest plate. Subtle Star Wars logos decorate the system and controller as well for a touch that had fans squirming. It’s a given that the system would be bundled with EA’s Star Wars Battlefront, but the addition of some classic games—Super Star Wars, Star Wars: Racer Revenge, Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter and Star Wars Bounty Hunter—left show attendees gasping when it was announced. A second bundle was also revealed; it features the same console and controller paired with Disney Infinity 3.0, Luke and Leia figures, and the same classic Star Wars digital downloads.

Taking Infinity to the stars

Of all of Disney Interactive’s gaming efforts, new developments for its toys-to-life mega-hit Disney Infinity are the most exciting examples of the possibilities available through this union. The company has put a lot of work into integrating Star Wars into the well-established platform, and new figures and experiences from the franchise are slated to launch later this year with Disney Infinity 3.0, the latest version of the game.

The possibilities really started to click in my first session with Disney Infinity 3.0, where I was using Star Wars character Darth Maul to race on a light cycle from the classic film Tron, up against Sully from Monsters University and Merida, the heroine from Brave. We raced around San Fransokyo, the setting from Disney film Big Hero 6. Later, I put a Sith Lord in a teacup just to say that I did, and then raced him around in one of the hover chairs from Pixar film WALL-E, forcing him to watch advertisements for ice cream all the while. The sandbox-style gameplay has always been fun, but 3.0 will open up new dimensions for Star Wars fans.

As strange as this mash-up sounds, I was surprised to find that it felt completely natural for these characters to be together in the Toy Box, Infinity’s name for the mode that lets players put characters in imaginary situations. Disney has somehow managed to seamlessly blend Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar and classic Disney into one experience, which is even more impressive when you consider that these brands were wholly separate only a few years ago.

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While Toy Box fully satisfies vivid imagination, Infinity 3.0’s new Playsets hold it down when it comes to dedicated Star Wars experiences that series fans can dig into. I was able to take down an AT-AT as Yoda by first slashing at its huge feet, and then scaling its legs to pummel at its internal D-sized battery. The developers told me that this play set is inspired by the Star Wars toys of the 1980s. Later, in a Clone Wars play set, I got to try out my Force Push and combo skills in a hack-and-slash boss battle powered by Ninja Theory, the developers behind top console titles such as Heavenly Sword and DMC. And finally, I put my piloting skills to the test by blowing up the Death Star in an experience that would make fans of the Nintendo classic game Star Fox feel right at home.

These are all highly polished standalone gaming experiences that provide hours of play and more than hold their own when compared to older games dedicated solely to Star Wars. And while they’re designed for younger players, they offer up plenty of complexity for older players to enjoy. While Infinity 3.0 provides access to the full Disney spectrum, including the worlds of upcoming films Zootopia and The Good Dinosaur, there’s so much Star Wars content that it makes Infinity 3.0 a must-have interactive experience for franchise fans.

And they have more planned: Disney wrapped up the event by bringing out John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, the stars of the upcoming film Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and debuting the figures for their characters, Finn and Rey, for an upcoming Play Set. And there’s a new round of Star Wars figures are coming later this year that feature lightsabers that emit light when placed on the Inifinity play base.

The Force is strong with Disney

Star Wars fans were initially worried in the transition time after Disney acquired Lucasfilm and shuttered its games division, LucasArts. But judging from the first results of Disney Interactive taking over development duties, Star Wars games seem to be in a good place. And knowing Disney, there’s much more in store for the franchise.

Dale North writes about videogames, food, travel and music. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two corgis.

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