What Even is Jedi: Fallen Order?
The bury-the-lead marketing of EA’s newest Star Wars title
If I look up “Jedi Fallen Order” on YouTube at the time of this writing, one of the top recommended videos, with over 3 million views, is a 10-minute gameplay commentary video titled “Jedi Fallen Order is not what you think it is - New Gameplay” by user jackfrags. And, if that isn’t a microcosm of publisher EA’s handling of the promotional material for their latest Star Wars game, I don’t know what is.
When Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order was announced, I was just as ravenous for a single-player-focused Star Wars game as the next nerd. By all accounts, Fallen Order was primed to give me exactly what I wanted: lightsaber-based fun-times in a galaxy far, far away. The cinematic launch trailer and the subsequent gameplay reveal a couple months later, however, left me oddly underwhelmed.
A mix of Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Soulsborne/Sekiro, and maybe a smidge of one of developer Respawn's previous endeavors, Titanfall, it looked like EA wanted the video game equivalent of Oscar bait.
Game of the Year bait, if you will.
A game so singularly focused on delivering the broadest triple-A experience it can, that any edges of uniqueness or outside-of-the-box design were sanded down to nice rounded tips so as not to prod those who might not like what the game is trying to do -- and to ensure the highest possible Metacritic score (something, admittedly, in Respawn’s best interest, lest they suffer the fate of so many developers axed off by Electronic Arts.)
So confident was I, the discerning gamer, in my hasty assumptions about the game, that I started to write off its further pre-release coverage. In fact, I thought it looked borderline uninspired and, in my defense, I wasn't the only one. Articles from places like the Escapist, Forbes, and PC World criticized the early gameplay and footage as either dull, dated, derivative, or all three.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with a game heavily borrowing elements from its predecessors and peers (hi, I'm Matt, and I love Darksiders). We have games like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Saint's Row, Marvel's Spider-Man, and the recent plethora of Soulslikes all demonstrating that building off existing gameplay styles can produce original and engaging experiences. Fallen Order, however, was already facing an uphill battle to prove its worth and has ended up being viewed with much more critical eyes.
After the launch of the non-game that was EA's Star Wars Battlefront and the loot-box controversy surrounding its admittedly much-improved sequel, fan confidence in the publisher's ability to produce quality content was at an all time low when Fallen Order was revealed.
Fallen Order, whether it wanted to be or not, was positioned as the potential savior of single-player, story-driven Star Wars games. Not something I ever thought would need saving, but here we are.
Given EA's lack of public goodwill, fans weren't exactly ready to give the new title the benefit of the doubt when they saw what first appeared to a shallow Uncharted-like, but this time with lightsabers and some Soulsy combat. Even before we saw official gameplay, the comments section on the game's reveal trailer on YouTube were quickly littered with people mocking EA and expressing their lack of trust in the publisher.
As the months went on, and more gameplay and trailers were released, I started to hear words like explorative and Metroidvania being thrown around. This seemed to be corroborated by the coverage from both GameInformer and VentureBeat released on October 17th, just a month out from the game's release. We, the collective of Star Wars nerds holding our breath in anticipation, started getting the hands-on impressions from press members who had the chance to play more recent and feature complete builds of the thing. And, we listened.
Hearing IGN’s Brian Altano describe not only the explorative level design, but the way players can travel to the various planets in any order and revisit them with newly unlocked abilities, actually began to make me properly board the hype train for a game I wish I had known more about a bit earlier in its marketing campaign. The IGN video in question, "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Preview: It's Deeper Than We Thought," is a seeming admission that even within the realms of professional games media, pundits were arguably confused about what Respawn's title was really going for.
Since the game's initial announcement, we've heard accounts from press members who have talked not only about the explorative and open structure of the game, but of the Zelda-esque dungeons, the deeper complexities of the combat, the customization options, and the branching skills that the player can have protagonist Cal Kestis invest in.
So, all I can really ask is: Why didn't they lead with any of that?
If I had to venture a guess, I imagine it was to appeal to an audience they were afraid of losing. Well, afraid of losing more than they already had lost. Nerds like me who grew up with the Jedi Knight games, who value video games as a single-player experience. The kind of nerds who, more importantly, helped God of War (2018) sell over five million copies within a month.
Electronic Arts no doubt recognizes the selling power of robust single-player games. Given that one of the harshest criticisms of EA's first Star Wars game was the lack of a story campaign, what I see in the promotional materials for Fallen Order is an over-correction of sorts. EA, desperate to win back the audience it worked so hard to lose, is standing on a rooftop with a megaphone and proclaiming to the heavens, "THIS ONE HAS A STORY." I'm not sure they expected everyone else to respond, "Ok, great. But, what else does it have?"
I still have my reservations about the game, but they've certainly lessened. General criticisms about the story direction and the somewhat generic-feeling protagonist are still keeping me from fully embracing the title pre-launch, but I'm glad that Jedi: Fallen Order seems to have more in store for us than we thought.