In July 2012, I had the pleasure of ticking one of my all-time fantasies off the geek bucket list: visiting LucasArts. While I couldn’t put my finger on it back then, there was definitely something off about my time there, during a studio visit to hear “the latest” on Star Wars 1313. I was there on behalf of Official PlayStation magazine, and that’s really where the oddities began.
Expecting to see new content, the small tour group was, instead, greeted with the exact same gameplay demo that had been shown the month before at E3. Hopes that the placeholder bounty-hunter protagonist would be revealed as Boba Fett were replaced with a lot of tight-lipped talk, the likes of which I’ve never encountered before when previewing a game.
Even before the hands-off demo kicked off in the LucasArts private screening room (a movie theatre, for all intents and purposes), we were informed that LucasArts couldn’t confirm that Star Wars 1313 would be released for PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. Refreshingly, the only officially confirmed platform was the PC. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, given the fact that the tech showcased in the E3 demo (running at 30fps) was incredibly stunning. In fact, it was almost too stunning to have been running on current-gen PC consumer tech, let alone antiquated current-gen console hardware.
Despite this, LucasArts confirmed that the demo was running on a high-end consumer rig, pimped out with an undetermined number of NVIDIA GTX 680 cards. To prove the game was indeed running in real time, the demoer paused the gameplay and zoomed in on a frighteningly incredible level of detail on the character’s faces. All of this from Unreal Engine 3.
This struck me as odd, given the fact that Unreal Engine 4, which has been in development since 2003 (and in serious development since mid-2008), would surely afford an even higher level of visual fidelity for this next-gen-looking game. When I queried the use of UE3 over UE4 with creative director Dominic Robbiliard, he said that he wasn’t allowed to talk about why they chose the current Unreal Engine over the future and, more importantly, available engine. Why the secrecy over an engine choice?
Unless, of course, it’s because UE3 is compatible with current-generation consoles, and UE4 is not. The reality is that the more platforms you can get a game on, the greater chance you have of selling more copies; at least, that’s the logic of numbers talking. Designing the game on UE3 means that Star Wars 1313 can be released on PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and whatever next-gen consoles Sony and Microsoft throw at consumers. That being said, it’s cringe-worthy to think of how poorly the visual fidelity will fare when downscaling for the likes of the antiquated Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hardware.
What’s infinitely more exciting than the prospect of PC as lead platform on a Star Wars game, is the emphasis on storytelling. A lot of my time during the LucasArts visit was spent not with LucasArts employees, but with ILM staff, all of whom had worked on the Star Wars 1313 demo in some capacity. Some of these minds were responsible for the visual effects seen in blockbuster films such as The Avengers, and they were brought in to apply their filmmaking knowledge and experience to creating one hell of a tech demo.
The fact that LucasArts is willing to step away from the relative familiarity and safety of a Force-wielding protagonist shows a confidence unseen in recent years. Remember when LucasArts games involved X-Wings, TIE Fighters, Dash Rendar, the fate of Atlantis, and all manner of things that weren’t associated with a mystical energy field that controls everyone’s destiny? I sure do, and those games rocked.
As awesome as it was, The Force Unleashed broke the Force for Star Wars games. The problem was one of escalation. After ripping down a Star Destroyer with his unleashed Force abilities, the Secret Apprentice was left with very little wiggle room to extend his powers beyond his attainment of ‘unleashed’ status. The sequel that followed focused more on gameplay tweaks, shifting the focus of his powers sideways and, unfortunately, disappointed the newfound faith in the galaxy far, far away that had been rekindled with the original Force Unleashed game.
Now gamers and moviegoers have a new, new hope in the form of J. J. Abrams, and a chance for faith in Star Wars to be re-rekindled. The talented filmmaker has been handed the rebooting reins for the two most renowned sci-fi IPs of all time. He did it with Star Trek in 2009, appeasing Trekkies and those disinterested in Trek (myself included) with a film that offered plenty of fan service, a whole lot of accessibility and, most importantly, an emphasis on story and characters. To this day, I still choke up when I watch Chris Hemsworth’s depiction of George Kirk in the opening of the Star Trek reboot, and he’s only on screen for two minutes! Damn onions.