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The surround sound awakens: How Dolby Atmos makes Star Wars Battlefront a better game

Electronic Arts has finally delivered the promised Dolby Atmos surround upgrade to Star Wars Battlefront. Is this the future of PC gaming?

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Anthony Domanico/CNET

It seems that everything these days is coming up Star Wars, from new movies to breakfast cereal and even to birth control. With the imminent release of "The Force Awakens," fans just can't get enough of that galaxy far far away. While reviews of video game Star Wars Battlefront have so far been mixed, it's unquestionably the most immersive Star Wars gaming property yet. A big part of that attention to detail has to do with the game's immaculate sound design, with everything from the familiar laser blasts, light saber swings, TIE fighter screams and -- especially -- that rousing John Williams musical score all sounding pitch perfect. And now, with the addition of Dolby Atmos surround sound and its "height" dimension, the game has hit peak "Star Wars."

But in order to experience Star Wars Atmos there's several important caveats: it's only available on the PC at the moment (with no word on console compatibility), plus you'll need an Atmos-compatible AV receiver with dedicated height speakers -- old-school 5.1 and 7.1 configurations just won't cut it. Are you comfortable playing PC games in your living room and know what 5.2.4 surround means? Yes? Well, read on.

Use the Force, Luke

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Dolby Atmos is a surround standard that uses height channels to simulate overhead effects. The channels can be either dedicated ceiling speakers or upfiring speakers/add-on modules. The third digit after the period indicates how many height channels there are. For example, a 5.2.4 system would have 5 surround speakers, two subwoofers and four height speakers (two front and two rear). While it originated in the cinema, and is starting to appear on more Blu-ray disks, Star Wars Battlefront is the first game to feature Atmos.

While Battlefront didn't ship with Atmos, the latest PC patch (December 10, 2015) enables the surround standard, and turning it on is as simple as going to the Audio options menu and clicking the Atmos button. We hooked up an Asus GX700 gaming laptop--controlled with both a keyboard and mouse plus an Xbox One controller for flight modes-- via HDMI to a Pioneer SC-85 with a set of Andrew Jones high-end Atmos speakers. Total cost (minus the laptop) about $5K, but you could upgrade your existing system with height channels and a receiver for about a grand. A compatible receiver like the excellent Onkyo TX-NR646 costs upwards of $500 USD.

This is Red 5, I'm going in

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Star Wars Battlefront in Atmos sounded fantastic. Pity about the screen tearing, though.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For the uninitiated, Star Wars Battlefront is an online shooter set in the world of the original Star Wars trilogy. It's predominantly ground-based warfare with players either donning stormtrooper armor or Rebel khakis, but power-ups also bring the possibility of vehicles -- everything from AT-ST "scout walkers" to speeder bikes -- and "heroes," such as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

I played a variety of different modes including Supremacy, Walker Assault and Fighter Squadron. The most successful Atmos effects were felt when there were vehicles zipping overhead, which made the dogfighting Fighter Squadron mode the most popular demo among my fellow editors.

Playing either X-wing or TIE fighter, the sense of scale was immense with the combination of the subwoofer, surround speakers and height combining to really thrust you into the chaos of 20-on-20 starfighter combat. Booming explosions coming from the rear channels are particularly surprising if you're used to playing this game with headphones. Occasionally a fighter would be trackable overhead, and even better when it flew behind the top of your head, but the speakers were most successful at creating a 360 bubble of sound that didn't end four foot from the floor as with standard surround.

I gave the Xbox controller to lab tech Joseph Kaminski and he was skillfully dodging X-wing fire in a TIE Interceptor in moments. He seemed impressed with the immersion offered by Atmos, but the biggest stamp of approval came when I ratcheted the audio down to 5.1 surround, which cut out the height channels. Almost immediately he shouted, "Switch it back, please."

You don't really realize how "flat" a surround sound mix can be until you try Atmos first. While this surround technology adds nothing to the playability of the game it's the all-important sense of immersion that improves with Atmos.

Switching to Supremacy mode we played among the forests of Endor and while I had stormtroopers jetting over my head I couldn't track them using the speakers alone. The Atmos effects seemed to create more of a bubble of sound than an accurate map of where other players were -- even when they were sniping at me from the Ewok treetop villages above me. The rear surrounds themselves were more useful in this mode as they could notify me when there were enemies behind me.

Does Atmos affect lag times? It's hard to gauge without more testing, but we were playing online with a low latency against human opponents and it didn't seem to negatively affect how quickly I got killed. And I usually get killed a lot.

Now let's blow this thing and go home

Dice, the game's developer, has done a fantastic job of sound design with Star Wars Battlefront, and adding Atmos adds another literal, and exciting, dimension. Is it going to make you a better player? Not likely. Is it going to be more fun? Definitely.

Despite the added thrills, this isn't the future of gaming -- not just yet. The combination of PC-platform-only and the necessity of all-new AV equipment means that most people won't have a compatible setup to play it on. It does make a good use-case for "living room PCs" like the Alienware Alpha, though, which costs around the same as an Xbox One or PS4.

While the number of games it will beneficial for are probably limited to games with an aerial component Atmos is not the parlor trick that the short-lived 3D gaming fad was. It's useful and it's fun, and doesn't seem to affect response times, at least anecdotally. If consoles can join the party, gaming could well become the number one reason to trade up to an Atmos system in the home.

Just hope the rest of the household doesn't mind TIE fighter engines rattling their teeth.