Ever since Luke Skywalker braved the trench run and fired proton torpedoes into the Death Star’s core in the final moments of A New Hope, Star Wars fans everywhere have imagined what it would be like to pilot an X-wing – or any of the film’s collection of starfighters, for that matter. While LucasArts fed that curiosity with a series of excellent flight simulators and space combat games, it’s taken Electronic Arts seven years to deliver a fresh take on the space pilot fantasy with Motive Studios’ Star Wars: Squadrons.
Let’s be honest, backed up by that epic John Williams score and featuring some of sci-fi’s most recognizable iconography, it’s hard for any Star Wars game to be an unmitigated failure. However, it just so happens that Star Wars: Squadrons also excels in its own right, providing fun and engaging dogfighting combat primed to satisfy both genre newcomers and any franchise veteran craving a true successor to 1997’s X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter. The narrative might be a little safe compared to some other Expanded Universe entries, sure, but when that PSVR helmet’s slipped on and you’re facing a massive Imperial fleet, you can’t help but feel like the Force is with this game.
The single-player campaign in Star Wars: Squadrons is a lean if predictable affair, taking place in the aftermath of the Galactic Empire’s defeat at Endor when the Rebellion has reorganized as the New Republic. Turns out, though, buying into a story as nuanced as this one is tricky when events take place almost entirely among the stars. Luckily, the story switches perspectives between both sides of the war, which helps keep you somewhat engaged, even if the personalities of the do-good Vanguard squadron are drastically more memorable than their Imperial equivalent on Titan Squadron.
Flying in Star Wars: Squadrons sits somewhere between a full-fledged flight simulator and an arcade-style air combat game, challenging you to manage and distribute power between your engines, lasers, and shield as necessary while trying to maintain a lock on enemy ships and completing mission objectives. Yes, there’s A LOT of multi-tasking involved. In fact, it’s a bit like learning how to simultaneously rub your belly and pat your head, only here not rubbing your belly the correct way could result in the destruction of a shipyard or the death of innocent people. I can’t speak for HOTAS controls, but multitasking these systems feels natural using a DualShock 4 controller. The campaign is also varied enough in the scenarios it presents that you’ll find yourself switching attack strategies quite often.
At first, the game’s first-person perspective is quite jarring, but being confined to a cockpit view feel like a good way to engross you in this universe as every screen and instrument in view believably acts as your HUD. It’s in the cockpit where you monitor your thrust level, keep a lock on out-of-view enemies, and check the status of any passive or projectile component you have equipped. All eight playable ships handle uniquely in terms of their acceleration, speed, and overall hull strength, though as the campaign progresses, you can tweak them to be more in line with your play style.
Release Date: Oct. 2, 2020
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PC
Developer: Motive Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Space Combat
When out of the action, the story advances in cutscenes, audio exposition in your cockpit, and some tedious sections on the game’s main capital ships. In these brief instances, you can move from the hangar to the briefing room and get to know your teammates a little better. Doing so simply involves clicking a button and having them speak at you. And even though you create two custom-created characters (one for each faction), Star Wars: Squadrons is by no means an RPG, meaning there’s never the ability to engage with your crew via dialogue options, meaning conversations just come over as stilted and awkward.
Less stilted is the game’s fast-paced multiplayer, which you quickly learn is what the solo portion has been training you for. I’ll be honest, what’s here isn’t incredibly unexpected or revolutionary compared to other flight combat games, but the two modes available at launch both provide a distinct experience and reward your mastery of Star Wars: Squadrons’ unique control setup. Dogfight is a relatively straightforward death match-style offering, tasking two teams of 5 to secure 30 kills before the timer runs out. And while ship handling is familiar, the actions of your foes suddenly aren’t, as real-life players pose far more of a challenge than the AI ever could. Getting a lock on an enemy ship is nowhere near as easy as in the single-player campaign.
Things get interesting, however, when you reach level 5 and unlock Fleet Battles. Extremely similar to the Galactic Battles mode featured in Star Wars Battlefront II, it serves as an intergalactic tug-of-war of sorts where you must take down the opposing team’s forces on a phase-by-phase basis. Your objective is to destroy their main ship, but you can only do so by slowly witling down their fleet. This results in matches that can last upwards of 30 minutes, as your ability to target specific sections of a cruiser and change to defense at a moment’s notice is tested.
Only having two multiplayer modes at launch might seem tame for a game attempting to cultivate a strong player base. However, seeded in is a lighter take on the Battle Pass concept – including a ranked and daily rewards system – which I can easily see incentivizing those who want the rarest cosmetic items possible for their pilots and ships.
EA has seemingly learned its lesson from the launch of Battlefront II as there are no micro-transactions to speak of here. Doing well in Dogfight and Fleet Battles earn you earn Glory and Requisition, the former going towards aesthetic enhancements while the latter lets you unlock components and tools you’ve previously used in the single-player.
Despite being priced as a budget title, Star Wars: Squadrons is very much the full package and a solid modern entry into the wider pantheon of Star Wars flight battle games. Its story might be a little rote, not taking full advantage of the period it’s set in, but EA Motive has absolutely nailed the feeling of what it means to be an X-wing and TIE fighter pilot – both on a standard display and VR. The foundation is also here for multiplayer to flourish, providing new seasonal events are introduced to further inspire players to take flight.