As I pull out of a tight turn that brushes the carved stone surface of an asteroid dockyard, I gun the engines of my TIE Interceptor, flipping through enemy radar signatures to find that one incessant X-Wing pilot who’s been on my tail since the battle began. I’ve taken a bit of a beating on my assault run on a New Republic frigate, and have just now narrowly shaken a homing missile. As I boost away from the asteroid and back toward the fray, a haunting thought arrives unbidden: But I thought you didn’t care about Star Wars anymore.
Clearly, this is nothing but the evil seduction of the Dark Side, because it obviously isn’t true – not now, in the midst of one of Star Wars: Squadrons‘ signature Fleet Battles, in which I’m cast as a starfighter pilot on the front lines of a zero-gravity skirmish between two massive battle cruisers. Red and green turbolaser blasts rake across the blackness of space as I bank around an outlying shipyard structure, finding my home star destroyer taking repeated barrages of enemy fire.
Star Wars: Squadrons is an unabashed throwback of a game, a passion project from developers at EA Motive who remember the Star Wars flight games of the ’90s with fondness. That love shows in the fastidiously detailed cockpits for the classic Star Wars fighters – it’s the familiar, charming grubbiness of the original film trilogy, all designed to hold up well in VR.
Like LucasArts’ old X-Wing and TIE Fighter games, Squadrons is a kind of fantasy flight simulator. It doesn’t have the immersive mundanities found in, say, Elite Dangerous, but it’s detailed enough to be rewardingly difficult to master. Becoming an ace starfighter pilot takes a lot of hard work, and while Squadrons doesn’t make you learn take-off and landing procedures, or how to dock with a space station, you do get a kind of Star Wars level of realism that’s focused on dropping you into intense dogfighting action on a team of five.
The team element is important, because Star Wars: Squadrons is first and foremost a PvP multiplayer game. There is a single-player campaign, but it’s relatively brief and serves primarily as a way to acclimate new players to the fundamentals of flying a zippy little starfighter around in zero gravity. With the constant deluge of Star Wars content that’s come out over the past ten years or so, I’ve lost the ability to judge whether any particular Star Wars story is ‘good’ – they all seem to blur into one self-referential goo – but with that in mind, this one seems fine. Like most modern Star Wars tales, it’s about an 80/20 mix of old and new ideas, with a few nice references to long-running side characters like Admiral Thrawn. The story kicks off shortly after the Battle of Endor, and is split half-and-half between Imperial and New Republic points of view.
You're not out here to haul bantha fodder around the galaxy, you're here to mix it up with enemy fighters
The 14 missions have a nice selection of settings and objectives, but things never stray too far from the formula. You’re not out here to haul bantha fodder around the galaxy, after all, you’re here to mix it up with enemy fighters. Both New Republic and Imperial fleets have four basic ships to pick from, and you’ll get to use them all over the course of the campaign – as well as some of the unlockable modules which, in multiplayer, must be earned.
Multiplayer is the star of the show here, and it comes in two flavours. There’s the straight-up Dogfight mode, which is two teams of five duking it out in a race to 30 kills. Then there’s the more involved Fleet Battles mode, which adds a tactical tug-of-war layer to affairs: here, you’ll be alternatively attacking the enemy team’s frigates and flagship or defending your own, with AI-controlled corvettes, raiders, and dummy fighters all on hand to make it feel like a major Star Wars battle. Fleet Battles is the best way to play Squadrons, and it doesn’t even force you to play PvP if you don’t want to – you can play Fleet Battles and earn rewards by playing it solo with AI bots.
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I had only a couple hours to experience Squadrons’ multiplayer prior to launch, so I can’t tell you what it’s like after 100. What I can say is that it’s a hell of a lot of fun once you have some familiarity with the starfighters you’ll be flying, which each have their own unique spins on a pretty straightforward core set of characteristics. Your support craft are slow and ungainly, but carry more armour to compensate. The fast assault TIE Interceptor and A-Wing are nimble and turn on a dime, but can’t afford to spend any time in the crosshairs.
While both the Empire and New Republic have the same rough set of four fighter archetypes (all-rounder, interceptor, bomber, and support), they’re not 1:1 replacements for each other. The X-Wing and basic TIE fighter have similar stats on paper, but can accept different equipment loadouts that significantly change the way they each behave in combat, and they both feel completely different to fly. Each fighter has unique handling characteristics, and I can already tell that I’m going to enjoy getting comfortable and proficient in my favourites.
There’s plenty to learn about each map, too. You’re rarely stuck out in open space: as often as not, you’ll be flying through tight passageways in dockyards and scrap fields, giving you plenty of opportunities to break missile lock-ons or line of sight. Squadrons’ maps are large, complex, and gorgeous, and they reward pilots who know them best – or who simply are best at pulling hairpin turns.
The push and pull of fleet battles can seem a bit arbitrary at first. At times it felt it was more that the game was playing referee and directing the action back and forth than reacting to what our teams were doing and accomplishing. I stress, however, that this impression is based on very little meaningful time with the mode, and its rhythms will likely become clearer with time and experience.
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To help encourage that time investment, Squadrons has a progression path that gives you currency to use on new gear modules and cosmetics, which include paint jobs, wing art, bobbleheads, and the Star Wars equivalent of fuzzy dice (sadly, no actual fuzzy dice – at least not yet). The unlockables have all the looks of the usual live service microtransaction shop, but that’s not the case in Squadrons – Motive says that once you’ve paid for the base game, “We don’t want any more of your money, that’s it.” There are no existing plans for additional content for the game, and there won’t be any season pass to consider buying. Instead, there are eight-week ‘Operations’ that each are chances to earn special cosmetic items by competing in multiplayer matches and racking up as many points as you can.
Star Wars: Squadrons is the revival of a genre that's been unacceptably dead for more than two decades
The whole point of Star Wars: Squadrons, when you get down to it, is the revival of the Star Wars-themed space combat simulator, a genre that’s been unacceptably dead for more than two decades. This means that while it’s a multiplayer game that’s set to launch (with full cross-play!) on every major console and thus supports the standard twin-stick layout gamepad, it’s decidedly a joystick game. Setting up my old Saitek X-55 required only the slightest amount of fussing (it initially thought the throttle was the stick and vice versa, and some default button assignments needed urgent remapping), which I don’t think has been the case with… literally any other game I’ve ever played. Even Elite Dangerous demanded an associate’s degree in Reddit before I could convince it to work well with the old Rhino, and Squadrons comes close to having it function straight out of the box.
Yanking the stick back hard while physically shoving the throttle forward to boost away from a missile lock in an X-wing feels fantastic. This is a game made by the folks behind Star Wars Battlefront II, so of course everything looks and sounds just the way a Star Wars thing ought to.
There’s room for a couple of demerits. The campaign, as mentioned above, is on the brief side and offers few reasons beyond some in-game achievements to replay it. There are only the two multiplayer modes, and while the lack of microtransactions is refreshing, that also means there are no current plans for any additional maps, modes, ships, or other game-altering content.
But if Star Wars: Squadrons had simply been ‘TIE Fighter with prettier skies to look at,’ it would’ve already been a winning proposition. What it is in fact is a great looking, technically demanding starfighter sim that provides a dynamic new spin on space dogfighting without any of the usual monetary cruft that accompanies live service games today. Time will tell if it truly has the depth and skill ceiling to give it staying power, but it’s made a damn fine first impression. If you’ve ever wanted to become an ace X-wing pilot, or fondly remember your time in a DOS-based fighter cockpit, Star Wars: Squadrons is a must-play.