Catching up with relatively recent games, I’ve picked up the infamous Star Wars Battlefront 2 — mostly for the single player campaign. And while the story mode has been deemed severely lacking, I’m quite content with it, especially after accidentally making it way better.
Battlefront 2 is one of the titles that infuriate me with the amount of visual options. First person, third person, grain on/off, cinematic camera lens on/off etc. — for me, it’s always a tough choice. I like when what I get is a fully realized artistic vision, not a ‘pick your own style’ type of game. So I’ve been testing the way everything looks in different configurations. Then, without necessarily wanting to check this particular feature, but flipping whatever’s possible, I switched the HUD off.
And I left it this way. Because it made the game better.
It also made it less user-friendly, but generally – it was an improvement.
No HUD meant no mission markers, and this change pretty much transformed the experience. Suddenly a game that was not much more than an on-rails shooter became something far greater. A layer of immersion-breaking omniscence was gone. It just made so much more sense that, when trapped on an enemy starship, I wouldn’t immediately know where to go, what to press, what to use to advance, or which turn to take. It might sound obvious, but apparently isn’t since the developers have chosen to always keep me informed as to where and how far my goals are.
It used to be this way in the 90s and the early 2000s.
The game that perfected directing the player without slapping a „GO HERE” marker was Left 4 Dead. It implemented a simple rule: you should follow the lights. And it wasn’t even openly stated in any kind of tutorial. Somehow, when you saw a brightly lit area, it was obvious you should go there, and that dark places are optional. It just worked. Brilliant!
Unfortunately, the direction isn’t so smooth in Battlefront 2. Switching off the HUD makes it clear that this game, desping looking gorgeous, doesn’t drop many visual hints. The devs took the easy way out and relied entirely on mission markers. For example, early in the game, I was expected to press a certain button. The right room was easy enough to find. Flipping the button made the lighting change and the door to the room shut.
The door wasn’t opening, so I thought I was trapped and supposed to find another way out — possibly a vent, if I were to follow the general video game logic. But there was nothing there. After a long, long search I approached a gun rack, which was non-interactive before the door closed. This time, it was interactive, and after I ‘used’ it, my character grabbed a gun and opened the door without any problem, since it wasn’t locked. It was just the game not allowing me to proceed before using the item it wanted me to use.
“Oh, you gotta be kidding me,” I uttered.
There were so many possible solutions better than a blatant “GO HERE, DO THIS” icon. Since the lighting changed to alert status-red anyway, why not highlight the gun rack with a blinking blue light? This way I would’ve been organically attracted to the item the level designers wanted me to use. And it would make sense, in the context of the game world, to highlight the place where the ship’s crew could arm themselves in case of a red alert.
(Why wasn’t I able to pick the gun before anyway? What would it change? Would it be that bad if I chose to not pick it at all? Why not let me make this choice? — These questions are better left unasked.)
The lack of visual hints also became a problem in the outdoors, where nothing indicated the direction I should go. I often got a „return to mission area” warning because I crossed an invisible line. This, however, wasn’t that big of a problem, since the feeling of getting lost in a lush forest actually added to the experience.
What’s the most important is how much depth I found in the HUDless version of the game.
Suddenly, it became tactical. I didn’t know the exact location of my objective, and only heard on the radio what I’m expected to do. Whenever a mission took place on a larger battlefield, I had to assess the situation, study the enemy placement and think about the approach first. With mission markers on, I would’ve just picked the quickest route and not even considered other options.
This makes me wonder why they even bothered to provide alternatives and dead ends. Mission markers make the optimal path obvious from the get-go. With them on, there is literally no reason to explore. Battlefront 2’s HUD stands against the principles utilized in level design — and the levels themselves are a lot better than they seem. You just need to disable hand-holding to see it.
To sum it up: Battlefront 2 with no HUD made me THINK. And this was awesome.
At times I felt like I was playing a true follow up to Dark Forces. It’s a pity that the options to customize the game were so limited. Playing without the HUD meant playing without the crosshairs. I got used to it, but still would’ve preferred to have the option to disable only mission markers and the health bar.
Also, no HUD equaled no indicators during space flight missions, which prompted me to go to options and switch it on for their duration, as visually tracking tiny ships in space is simply impossible. In the case of spaceship levels, having no HUD was immersion-breaking, since aircrafts use it in real life.
Today, I’d wholeheartedly recommend Battlefront 2’s single player — provided that you play it this way, and on the highest difficulty level.
This is the closest you can get to a gaming experience in the vein of the best classic Star Wars games. It also made me want to try a similar approach in other titles. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work everywhere.
In most open world games (and they are the majority of AAA titles now) there is no player direction whatsoever outside the HUD. Back in the day, in Morrowind and the likes, you were expected to listen to dialogue, open the map and look for the place the NPC described. It was usually unique enough so you could find it without much hassle.
Nowadays, we get beautiful and extremely detailed worlds, but without any kind of visual guidance. For the developers, it’s easier to simply mark the goal on the map — even though the characters shouldn’t know its exact location, and even though it kind of takes away from the joy of exploration. (A game that took the best of both worlds was Dragon Age: Inquisition, which pointed the player to the general vicinity of the objective, and then you had to find it yourself. But that’s a rare exception.)
Battlefront 2 is linear enough so the lack of guidance isn’t a problem. However, good luck trying to orient yourself just using NPC’s hints and your surroundings in The Witcher 3 or any Far Cry past part 2.
If you don’t mind the HUD, that’s completely fine.
There is no wrong way to play a game. It’s all about having fun. However, I believe that games, as a visual medium, give their developers so many creative ways of communicating with the player. Why settle on a big white dot always present on the screen?
While it’s good to have an option to turn it off, it would’ve been even better if we had no reason to turn it on in the first place.