'Star Wars: First Assault' Devs Tell Us How The Shooter Was Scrapped By Disney
Words: Jack Yarwood
When EA announced Star Wars: Squadrons in June 2020 (check out our preview, here), it was hard not to look back at the long list of Star Wars games that had been cancelled across the series' long and troubled history. There's just something so enticing about the "what could have been" aspect of Star Wars video games - whether that manifests as regret over unfulfilled potential, or simply as the selfish desire to know more about what we never had.
Star Wars: First Assault isn't necessarily the first project people call to mind when they think of cancelled Star Wars games, as the multiplayer shooter was arguably overshadowed by its more ambitious sister project, Star Wars 1313. Whereas Star Wars 1313 was an ambitious single-player action-adventure game following the bounty hunter Boba Fett, and would act as precursor of sorts to Respawn's Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Star Wars: First Assault would be a much smaller multiplayer affair, focused exclusively on online play. Nonetheless, it's an exciting project, with a fascinating and complex history of its own.
Planned for Xbox Live Arcade, First Assault was being developed as a budget first-person shooter, focusing exclusively on ground combat, and was set to be the first game in a trilogy that would eventually culminate in the long-awaited Star Wars: Battlefront III, which had reportedly entered development in 2006. First Assault had begun development in 2009 and was planned for a beta release in the autumn of 2012, with the full release targeted for 2013. However, after Disney announced they were buying Lucasfilm in 2012, and in turn the game's developers LucasArts, the studio delayed it indefinitely. First Assault was eventually cancelled, along with a number of other projects under the new ownership.
"Our team had the freedom to say, 'No, you're on Mos Eisley, and that's it.'"
Over the last few weeks, I've reached out to those who were close to the project to find out more about it, and what I've uncovered is fascinating. Not only had the game been weeks away from its beta release before the news of Disney's acquisition broke, but development on the game had actually continued long after Lucasfilm was sold, with many of the First Assault team having already jumped to work on the second title in the trilogy, entitled Wingman. This second game aimed to introduce vehicle combat to the series, including speeders and AT-STs, while a skeleton crew prepared First Assault for release and carried out bug fixes.
Star Wars: First Assault had initially been born out of the reaction to British studio Free Radical Design's cancelled Battlefront III. Whereas Free Radical's vision of Battlefront III had been an ambitious project that planned to incorporate seamless transitions between near-orbit and ground combat from the very start, the First Assault team at LucasArts wanted to take a more staggered approach, building up the gameplay variety incrementally with each release. There was even the suggestion at one point that First Assault be a free to play game with microtransactions, though this would eventually be scrapped.
"We said, 'Let's keep the scope contracted and not try to do everything in Star Wars,' unlike the previous Battlefront III teams," Tony A. Rowe, weapons pod leader on First Assault, tells me. "They were probably told by LucasArts to include [everything] at once: Jedi, starfighters, the works. Our team had the freedom to say, 'No, you're on Mos Eisley, and that's it. You can't fly into space. Ground combat is all you have to worry about.' That's what allowed us to fine-tune a singular experience."
For the first six months, Craig Derrick and Adam Orth led development on both First Assault and Wingman, before Tim Longo Jr., the creative lead on 2005's Star Wars: Republic Commando, returned to LucasArts and took over the reins for both projects and doubled down on the multiplayer aspects and the variety of modes. The idea behind the project was to take a grittier stab at the Star Wars universe, focusing exclusively on stormtroopers and rebels as opposed to Force-sensitive characters such as the Jedi and the Sith.
LucasArts Singapore would also offer assistance on the two projects, providing concept art and contributions to the level design. Some of this concept art would eventually surface in the book Star Wars Art: Concept, with Richard Lim's illustrations in particular showcasing the more serious tone the First Assault team was striving for. Lim would go on to work on concept art for the Star Wars film Rogue One, which shared a very similar war-like approach to the source material.
"We squarely were going for a grittier feel," explains another source I spoke to, who preferred to remain anonymous. "We actually hosted a series of screenings of Generation Kill (a 2008 HBO mini-series based on the 2003 invasion of Iraq) at LucasFilm after hours - totally optional - but that series actually had a huge influence on us. It was relatively new at the time, I believe, and you know, it was that kind of modern take on squads and platoons and how they talk."
This idea of squads was baked into the design of First Assault, with players encouraged to stick together during a match in order to activate a buff that would allow them to expand their radar to see more of the map. Initially, the idea was to have this also come with an additional health benefit, but this concept was eventually thrown out, with the project lead Longo instead suggesting that every squad mate should have the ability to revive their downed teammate on the battlefield, a role usually reserved for healers only.
As for the weapons, they would mostly be based on real or historical firearms much like in the original Star Wars movie trilogy, with Rowe wanting to get away from the Star Wars prequels' unrealistic and toy-like designs. Weapons would be categorised as follows: blasters, assault weapons, sniper rifles, shotguns, bowcasters, and concussion rifles yielding significant knockback. There was also a Disruptor laser, which could perform one-hit kills and acted similar to the Spartan Laser in the Halo series.
The majority of these weapons would be customisable using a socket system - aspects such as the optics, the barrel, the ammunition, or an additional auxiliary spot could be tinkered with and upgraded. Players could also access deployables such as force fields and rocket turrets, as well as Star Wars-themed throwables including ion, microwave, and infection grenades; and use several nifty abilities like tactically revealing the enemy's position for a teammate, or activating a hologram.
"Halo's hologram was [one where] you just spit the hologram out, and it was just a decoy that sat there," says our unnamed source. "With our hologram, you had two options: you could spit it out and just let it sit there, or you could hold the button down and actually you would transition to controlling the hologram. So a lot of times what we'd do was hide behind a corner, deploy a controllable hologram, run in guns blazing at the team that was guarding the point, and have the rest of the team flank as you drew their attention. That was super unique."
Modes in the game would include a standard 8v8 deathmatch called Attrition; a capture-point mode where you'd have to claim the enemy's base; Sabotage, where one team had a bomb and had to transport it to the other team's base and blow it up; and a payload mode, similar to Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch. The studio had planned to include two planets for the beta launch, the gas giant Bespin (home to Cloud City) and the desert planet of Tatooine, with there being a number of maps for each including Mos Eisley and an Imperial base for the latter. There was also concept art for an additional planet, Kashyyyk, but the Wookiees' forest-covered home planet would eventually be pushed back to a later release.
"It was ready to be released on the store, and then they announced the Disney buyout and delayed the beta. And that's when we were like, 'Oh sh*t!'..."
Additionally, First Assault was set to feature a sophisticated and dynamic music system that would play different tracks recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, depending on various in-game factors. This would consist of reinterpretations of John Williams' classic themes and original tracks drawing inspiration from world music.
Wilbert Roget II, the music composer and supervisor on First Assault (who also worked on The Force Unleashed II and The Old Republic), elaborates: "We created a system which took data from the local player's actions, as well as info on their current surroundings, to determine when to play music and which music cues to play. The system updated itself throughout each match to make sure each player had a balance of music regardless of skill level, and worked in tandem with scripted music calls."
The team was three years into development when the first sign of disaster struck the project. As the game was ready to be released as a beta on the Xbox Live Store, Disney purchased Lucasfilm, throwing both the future of the game and LucasArts itself into doubt. The beta was subsequently delayed, with Lucasfilm at the time allegedly declining to pay (so I'm told) a small five-figure fee in localisation costs, and telling its employees not to speak about the project.
"It was ready to be released on the store," our unnamed source explains, "and then... like, the week it was supposed to go live, I think they announced the Disney buyout and just delayed the beta. And that's when we were like, 'Oh sh*t!' But we kept working on the game."
During this time, staff were being moved around LucasArts internally due to a hiring freeze, with members on the First Assault team going across to help with Wingman, while others went over to 1313 to patch that game up. Our sources' estimates vary for how much development time was left on First Assault, with some suggesting two to three months while others claim it was closer to four or five. Meanwhile, at the same time, the team on Wingman had put together some early multiplayer maps, including a large space battle as well as a very basic campaign prototype.
"Despite the announcement of the acquisition, we continued working at our fullest potential for months, rallying together to make the best game we possibly could," says Roget. "We were a much smaller and younger group than the 1313 crew, with everyone dedicating extra efforts and having a strong, personal commitment to the project right up until the very last day. On my end, I still consider First Assault to be one of my best game scores."
None of this would matter, though, as on April 3, 2013, Lucasfilm made the devastating announcement that LucasArts would no longer function as an internal development studio, with Disney moving to license out their intellectual properties instead. As a result, all of its internal projects were immediately cancelled and a number of employees at the studio were laid off. For the First Assault team, in particular, this was a significant blow.
"We were developing a couple of games that were a little more violent... these were Star Wars games for grown-ups."
Amongst the team, there's a ton of speculation now about why First Assault never saw a release despite being close to completion. The most obvious reasoning is that Disney were likely already speaking to EA about the license for Star Wars, and to release another game, developed internally, at the time would complicate those talks. Rowe, however, speculates that there was another reason.
"Part of it was because we were developing a couple of games that were a little more violent," he suggests. "Not a lot more violent - not gory, not embracing blood and gore and viscera and such - but these were Star Wars games for grown-ups. Or at least for teens, not kids."
To support this, Rowe points to an interview in January 2013 with the then Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger (as reported by Deadline), where he vowed to look into video game violence in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting of December 2012. Rowe believes that by not developing projects internally, Disney was attempting to create some distance between themselves and their more mature output at the time.
Whatever the reason, it's a shame that Star Wars: First Assault has never seen the light of day - outside of some leaked technical beta footage. Especially given how close to being completed the game actually was. Those who worked on the project still speak of it as being one of the most fulfilling experiences they've ever had in game development; but beyond the few leaked art assets, officially released concept art, and the aforementioned rudimentary footage of the Tatooine maps, we'll just have to speculate on what could have been for this Star Wars adventure that never was.
Featured Image Credit: Disney / Lucasfilm Ltd / Richard Lim