There’s a wide variety of opinions in relation to the quality of Star Wars games across the many genres the franchise has been adapted to in the last forty years (!) but the one where it’s been universally accepted as being at its best has been in the area of space combat sims. During the 1990’s X-Wing and TIE Fighter firmly established themselves as being must have games thanks to their lengthy campaigns, excellent presentation and design that required players to become familiar with the working of the ships they flew.
Though it’s been twenty years since the last game in the series one thing I do appreciate in Squadrons is just how much it evokes a sense of familiarity in how it plays. From the moment you get into the cockpit of an X-Wing/TIE Fighter it not only gives you a great sense of being “like the movies” thanks to some great visuals but the arrangement and design of the cockpit also fits in with the past sims even if they have been substantially rearranged. It really does feel like the “HD version” of the old cockpits. Worth adding that I didn’t even notice the differences until revisiting the old games so I think they succeeded completely in updating it without losing anything. For players experiencing it in VR I bet it’s going to feel impressive but for those settling with 2D and a manual controller look it’s more than OK.
The campaign initially takes place after the destruction of Alderaan (from Episode IV) and places you in the boots of a TIE Fighter pilot whose squadron leader defects to the Rebellion. The cutscenes remind me a lot of Star Wars Battlefront II which I suppose should be expected seeing as developer Motive worked with DICE on that component of the game. It’s style of storytelling is quite different to X-Wing/TIE Fighter which borrowed heavily from flight sims of the era and portrayed you more as a cog in the machine rather than someone being a major part of the narrative. I don’t know if it’s necessarily better but having that further detachment from known characters and stories did allow players to fill in the gaps themselves.
In terms of what is in the package, the best way to describe it is “streamlined”. The game has a clear focus on delivering the kind of campaign fans had missed coupled with multiplayer modes (Dogfight and Fleet Battles) that make the most sense in terms of what easily works. Dogfight is basically team deathmatch with both teams vying to get the most kills. Fleet Battles seems almost Battlefield/front like and is the more complex of the two modes as each team tries to destroy the other’s capital ship. It’s a multi step battle that requires a team to defeat enough enemy fighters to then take on the support frigates which then finally gives them the chance to take down the capital ship. It’s a scenario that’s been played out often in past game’s missions and you can even choose to play it against AI if you’re not in the mood to go online. The AI of your enemies and wingmates is quite good and aren’t completely reliant on you doing all the heavy lifting in battles and missions which also adds to the feeling of being part of a team. It’s hard to see how it can be expanded further in terms of variety, though you could certainly increase the number of players and AI, with the only things I can think of adding being able to set up private multiplayer matches and adding co-op campaigns into the mix. I suppose co-op could take the form of something such as the Balance of Power expansion from X-Wing v TIE Fighter or maybe taking cues from Call of Duty‘s co-op playbook and offering bite-sized experiences that guide players through a few scenarios on existing maps that they can knock off together in an hour or two.
The controls and mechanics share many similarities too which makes picking it up to play easy for long time players. You can see that Motive really respect those games while adding their own spins to how it works in a modern game. Managing your power distribution across engines, guns and shields is still here but offer additional perks to add further strategy – for example, power to engines allows the ability to fire a booster and travel even faster. Power and shield distribution have been simplified which for those players who previously enjoyed tweaking how much power goes where or the levels of fore and aft shields will be disappointed. Some things I do miss though include having an option to match speed with your target, transferring power between shields and weapons and to change how your weapons are linked. Being able to fire your weapons all at once was handy in getting some quick damage on larger targets and some easy kills even if you sacrificed all your power or payload as a result of doing so.
During the course of online play, you get the opportunity to earn credits which allow you to buy modifications and cosmetic items for your ships in multiplayer. These items all have pros and cons as part of their makeup but encourage players to experiment with finding combinations of weapons, shields, etc that best fit their play style. There is also a “season” of sorts which encourages everyone to complete enough objectives from games to earn limited items to add to their collection. Though it’s not part of a paid pass it encourages players to get involved in the multiplayer modes so I’d imagine there will be room to make these items more elaborate to keep players invested in the game and the servers full.
One of the big plusses for Squadrons is its support for HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) controllers across platforms but also VR on PC and PlayStation. Though I’m not able to try VR (Xbox here) I do appreciate finding another game to support my T.Flight HOTAS One and I think I may be giving the controller a proper workout too judging from the pain on my fingers right now! The standard controller is fine but I’m not terribly comfortable with the default Battlefield/front style configuration that puts pitch/roll on the right stick instead of the left which Elite Dangerous does… just never felt “right” to me.
Tip: If you’re using the T.Flight HOTAS One on Xbox One like me and wanting to jump into multiplayer too I’d recommend investing in a small USB hub to allow both the stick and a controller to plug into the same port while you play. That way you can use your stick and the headset at the same time. Otherwise you’ll find yourself dealing with the controller switching off every 15 minutes which can be a little frustrating mid game!
If I have any major issues about the game right now is that the online experience isn’t as good as it could be. Maybe it’s because of my region (Australia) but the network quality during Fleet Battles could often be on the side of unplayable with enough lag to make handling your ship difficult and fighting enemies near impossible. The experience seemed a little better in the Dogfight and Fleet Battle v AI modes but it’s still been enough for me to simply walk away from the game and find something better to do. When it all works though it’s great fun to join up with a group of friends and test your mettle against both real and AI opponents.
For what it is, Star Wars Squadrons provides plenty to keep fans occupied and is a relative bargain for an EA licensed title considering it could have been sold for so much more. The campaign does well in immersing players into the universe with plenty of fan service thrown in while the multiplayer has potential, even if my own experience has been spotty. If you want to know what it’s like to fly for the Rebels or Empire there is nothing that comes close to it in presentation. It’d be nice to think this could be a stepping stone to a more elaborate sequel if the game succeeds and I hope it does happen because I’d hate to think we need to wait another twenty years for a Star Wars game in this genre.
Star Wars Squadrons is out now for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Supports VR. Reviewed on Xbox One X.