Respawn breaks their silence to let us play for a few hours, and the Force is strong with this one.
We live in an age in the games industry where every single major release is preceded by a trail of hype breadcrumbs. Trailers, interviews, demonstration videos, and tons of details build that marketing rollercoaster of emotions that leads to the moment when you finally insert the disc in your console (or download the file) and grab the controller.
But Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order didn't want to be like that. Just like a Jedi hiding all the tricks and secrets that made them what they are, Respawn Entertainment's new effort showed up earlier this year to confirm its existence, then teased a bit more at E3 2019, but since then opted for radio silence.
EA and Respawn have thus broken the "rule of hype" with this project, and that means we knew little before its release on November 15. That might raise a few doubts, but "fear is the path to the dark side", and being dragged by that feeling would've been the biggest mistake, as we've been allowed to play Fallen Order for a few hours in Los Angeles, finding out that what Titanfall creators have been building up is a box full of surprises.
So, we spent about four hours into the shoes of padawan Cal Kestis so that we could get to know him a bit more, also learning about the surrounding characters in this story. The events captured in Fallen Order are set between Episodes III and IV in the timeline, and to be even more precise, we can confirm this all happens before Rogue One, in a time when Palpatine's forces have deployed the elite units known as the Inquisition, meant to track down and eliminate any remaining Jedi scum.
Our protagonist just couldn't finish his training due to that shocking Order 66 which annihilated most of his kind, and that is something you notice right from the start of the game. He's young and still quite inexperienced, and as such has to keep learning how to master the Force step by step. He does this with the added stress and challenge of having to explore planets as he escapes, or facing the Inquisitors on the way. After a short tutorial, our first proper contact with Kestis happened en route to planet Zaffo, a world taking us from sheer, snow-covered exteriors to indoor ruins reminiscent of the best Tomb Raider games.
And that is even truer because 'exploration' and 'adventure' are the most fitting terms to define the overall gameplay experience during this first play session. Platforming sections, puzzle-solving, and checking the Holomap to check where to go next defined our first few hours with Jedi: Fallen Order. Cal runs, jumps, climbs, and uses his lightsaber to illuminate the way (a very intuitive mechanic, by the way), as well as checking with his buddy BD-1 if in need and of course using the Force to solve riddles or to feel "echoes" of what happened in the past at that specific place. So, as you see, he's got all the tools for this title to be much more than a string of lightsaber battles.
We chose Zaffo to begin with, but we could have actually chosen any other planet on offer. The freedom to pick where you want to go next was the first thing that surprised us. JFO is a single-player game, but that doesn't have to mean absolute linearity, right? In fact, Respawn allows for certain flexibility, even with dialogues, building up that sense of free will that, after all, feels necessary for a title that wants to be immersive above all else.
From what we've seen so far, it was able to capture our attention in that sense. The deeper we walked into Zaffo, the more bifurcations and forks we found. Side paths, areas you know you'll be able to enter as soon as you get an upgrade for Cal, and the constant thought that "we have to come back later" became common during our session, and the same happened to the variety of the surroundings, something quite amazing for a single planet.
As we moved forward, our Jedi Master wannabe learned to use the Force Push, and that allowed us not just to interact with more elements or to be more dangerous in combat, but also to break certain walls blocking the way. The progression of the character, as well as friendly accompanying droid BD-1, are linked to the possibilities of exploration, so backtracking is not just expected, but totally required.
We don't know yet how Respawn has dealt with this design and exploration element in the full game, but the range of different situations we went through for these few gameplay hours makes us believe they've tried to keep freshness at all times. We slid down ice toboggans, juggled with metal spheres, and fought while leaping among windstreams. We also changed the course of incoming rockets, and even wall-jumped to climb just like Prince of Persia. New elements are constantly introduced as a norm, and that prevents you from feeling any monotony.
This world structure and its scenarios go naturally hand in hand with a level design that, at least for now, has been a welcome surprise for how well it plays with the diversity. So, again, at least in Zaffo, everything feels interconnected in one way or another, and there are secrets aplenty to be found (granting rewards such as mods for your appearance, your lightsaber, or even the Mantis, your main spaceship).
When it comes to combat, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order in a league of its own. The team wanted to convey the feeling of controlling a young apprentice who's yet to become a Master, so his fighting style has little to do with Episode I-III acrobatics. He's agile, but also slightly rougher and dirtier if needs be.
Each battle requires focus and agility. The system is very visceral, and to some extent might resemble the ideas found in titles such as Sekiro. We fought the hostile fauna of Zaffo, we took on some violent guardians and, of course, we battled with hundreds of Imperial forces, each one wielding ranged or melee weapons and presenting different behaviour patterns.
Thanks to the diversity found with these encounters, and an impressive AT-AT boss fight, we learned that becoming a Jedi means assessing every approach, instead of going all-in delivering light slashes by smashing the buttons. Luke made that very clear in Episode VIII, and we've learned the lesson here.
And, believe us, they're tougher than Episode IV-VI enemies. Even a couple of regular Storm Troopers can get you in serious trouble if you don't ponder your actions. Naturally, just like every good Jedi, you can deflect their blaster shots to take them down, but to pull it off you have to time the blocking button press and then deliver a sort of parry movement to direct the projectile in the desired direction. And the same can be said about the close-quarters combat, as opponents are all but defenseless.
These enemies block, counter-attack, and wait for the perfect moment to catch you off guard. We don't think this is too tricky or painful (we actually were advised to tune the difficulty setting up as they were surprised by our lightsaber skills - we've been Yoda followers for some time now), but it does ask you to keep constant attention on everything, all the more so when you tackle large groups. A combination of ranged and close-quarters enemies can become a puzzle in itself.
But young Cal has his resources. He dodges, delivers light or strong attacks, and even uses the Force to slow enemies down for a short while (later on we were also able to send them off by using the Force Push). It's a significantly wide range of possibilities, making the fights more than just hitting buttons and enemies all the time. To be honest, that's the worst thing you can do here.
Melee combat emphasises that you have to master defence and parry, and thus feels surprisingly technical. Every attack we deliver makes the rival's defence go down (and vice-versa), to the point that they cannot block us anymore. That's the moment for devastating slashes or, if possible, to end the fight with a spectacular finisher.
Respawn has built a system that gives you good control over your actions, allowing you to fine-tune every move, and to blend the Force with the lightsaber and even with the environmental elements during combat. Keep in mind it'll also punish you if you don't time your actions perfectly, or if you lose focus; our first 'serious' taste of combat with a Purge Soldier made that clear.
At the same time, even though we couldn't explore it deeply, Cal's progression system looks like our hero will become more and more lethal as you play. He keeps leveling up and, with every battle, gets ability points that in turn can be used on a skill tree that might look a bit short at first sight, but that we expect to grow with time. Force Chokes, lightsaber throws, and even dash moves are some examples of the skills you unlock as you progress, and we know about a couple of really nice surprises they're keeping under wraps to make combat even deeper.
Another thing about those skill points is that they can only be used to learn new actions at meditation zones spread around the map. At those points, following the Soulsborne school, you can recover, recharge the healing units provided by BD-1, or save the game automatically. However, doing all this means enemies respawn (pun intended). So, yes, sometimes you'll have to choose between two risks: either resurrecting all the fallen enemies, or keeping on going with low health.
Besides, if you die - something that happened to us on more than one occasion - you also lose the accumulated experience and the Force level, and you can only get them back if you hit the enemy that killed you at least once. When falling off a cliff though, you need to revisit the area and go through the light marker. It's a revenge system that, again, can get you in trouble, as more than once we almost lost it all as we were rabidly going after our killer. Then we recalled this is about being a Jedi; being smart and accurate.
We left our session wondering why more of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order hasn't been shown. Judging by these four hours of gameplay, this is one of the top games to keep an eye on for the upcoming months - a single-player adventure combining the power and versatility of the Jedi with a precise and demanding combat system, together with an important sense of exploration. If Respawn keeps this level for the full experience, we might well be talking about one of the best Star Wars video games of all time.