Well before The Force Awakens revived the franchise on screens, Star Wars had a robust presence in video games. The crown jewel was Star Wars: Battlefront. First released in 2004, with a followup game Star Wars: Battlefront II following in 2005, the series featured massive wars between the Rebellion and the Empire, and was hugely popular with fans and critics alike. A third entry was announced, eagerly anticipated, supposedly finished and made ready to ship out… and simply vanished. Now, a studio is releasing a version of the game for free, but why did it take so long, and is this really the lost Battlefront III?
How Battlefront III Was Lost
The promises made for Battlefront III were nothing short of thrilling. It would deliver enormous maps with gameplay that would be revolutionary in scope for the era. Among the claims: Players could travel from a Star Destroyer, fly down to the surface of a planet, jump out on foot and go to war, all with seamless movement between dogfights and third-person shooting. It was a bold promise and, in fact, remains so, even with a new generation of consoles and substantially faster PCs. EA’s recent reboot of the franchise offered plenty of combat, but lacked even a single-player campaign of any depth.
It remains unclear how, precisely, Star Wars: Battlefront III slipped through the cracks, with a number of disagreements and conflicting stories coming out in the decade since it was announced and quietly shuffled off the stage. One thing we know for certain is that Free Radical Design, best known for its Timesplitters games, was tasked with developing the game. Depending on who you ask and when, the game was either 99 percent complete or far enough along that it could reasonably have been finished and shipped. It was at least far enough along that it received a classification rating from the Australian government. Soon after, however, Free Radical announced it had lost the license to the franchise, and faced financial troubles that forced it to sell to Crytek.
The breakdown appears to have concerned who would ship the game and pay for the advertising. Various staffers at Free Radical have claimed that LucasArts simply had no interest in releasing the game or marketing it. Former LucasArts employees have countered that the game wasn’t ready and that Free Radical wasn’t up to the task.
At the beginning of the year, though, we finally got a chance to see the game itself. A playable version for heavily modified Xbox 360s leaked to Reddit in January, and only deepened the mystery. The game was undeniably rough, but it worked. And a team at Frontwire Studios has decided to revive it.
Can Galaxy In Turmoil Deliver?
Frontwire announced today that it had signed a distribution deal with Steam and that a relatively finished version of Battlefront III, called Galaxy In Turmoil, would be delivered as a free game. The main issue is that, as it stands, Galaxy In Turmoil uses an enormous number of Star Wars copyrights, from sounds to character models. Frontwire is planning to remove all of these assets and replace them, otherwise they’ll be in trouble for violating Disney’s copyrights. But the game code itself will be playable as intended, preserving the spirit of the game.
That will protect it from lawsuits on that front, but there are some questions the company will still need to address. This is, after all, based on code they didn’t write and that is likely technically owned by Disney. The fact that the game will be entirely free, and that Disney has retreated from developing video games, are certainly factors, but the Mouse is famously litigious even with properties it never intends to use. Similarly, EA may not take kindly to competition with their official line of Star Wars: Battlefront games, free or not. And if that weren’t enough, this doesn’t have a release date yet. But despite the obstacles, if Frontwire can deliver, it will be doing something important.
Preserving, And Restoring, Video Game History
Video games, as an art form, suffer a crippling form of amnesia. While the emulator and abandonware scenes are helping to preserve video games from the past, there remain enormous challenges. For example, until it was ported to modern consoles by Double Fine, playing the classic adventure game Grim Fandango required tricking your computer into thinking it was running Windows 95 and using an original CD-ROM of the game. Even this is potentially only a stay of execution, as consoles age into obsolescence and new software appears.
This is even worse with games that were never released. There is no alternate history of video games. When companies shut down or change focus, games they were developing functionally cease to exist, often deleted off hard drives or dumped in digital archives never to see the light of day. The process of restoring them can be impossible without professional tools that may, themselves, no longer exist. So any game being brought back from oblivion, no matter what the challenges, is important. In its own way, reviving Star Wars: Battlefront III is a battle to have the history of a medium defined by more than press releases and virtual consoles, but it may be one tough fight.