Hot damn, do I love an A-Wing. Until Star Wars: Squadrons, the speed demon of the Rebellion was never my favorite ship. Years of my life spent playing Rogue Squadron made me an X-Wing diehard, and even when I first played Squadrons on a controller, I didn’t appreciate the joy of piloting what’s basically an aluminum foil cockpit attached to an oversized engine. But when I hooked up the HOTAS, the A-Wing made me forget how much Rise of Skywalker had drained my enthusiasm for all things Star Wars.
Need to know
What is it? Space dogfighting action.
Expect to pay £35/$40
Developer EA Motive
Reviewed on GTX 1080, Intel i7-7700K, 16GB RAM
Out October 1
Link Official site
Star Wars: Squadrons succeeds where it’s most important. It’s a thrill to pilot these ships a hair’s breadth above the surface of a Star Destroyer and through stunning nebulae and war wreckage more vivid than I could’ve possibly imagined playing TIE Fighter in the late 1990s. The campaign, which took me about 10 hours to complete on the default difficulty, never really surprises, but it does manage to accomplish something noteworthy: This feels like being in Star Wars in a way no game has in a long, long time.
The flying in Star Wars: Squadrons is exactly what I hoped for. It’s a flight model far simpler than an Elite Dangerous or Microsoft Flight Simulator, but there’s enough nuance to let skilled pilots excel. The driving mechanic for both factions’ four ships is power management, and over the course of the campaign I started to get a feel for exactly when to cut the throttle to make a tight turn, when to flick all my power to weapons to lay on the damage, and how to survive by focusing my shields to the rear to take a few more hits from an enemy on my tail.
The campaign teaches you most of these advanced moves slowly as a primer for multiplayer, which EA hopes you’ll keep coming back for. Because multiplayer was only available to reviewers for a total of four hours before launch on Wednesday, I’m going to focus on the campaign for now, and play more multiplayer before putting a score on Star Wars: Squadrons. I’m also going to play in VR, which I haven’t tested yet. But the campaign deserves the attention, because it’s more fun, and more interesting, than just being a tutorial for multiplayer.
One mission early in the campaign had me attacking a Star Destroyer as Vanguard Squadron—but instead of destroying it as I would in multiplayer, I was trying to capture it instead. I had to take down its defenses, puncture a hole in the hull near the bridge, and then defend it from other Imperial ships while a commando squad took control of the ship. In another, I escorted some weaker ships as bait to lure the Empire into a trap. Keeping your capital ships alive is forgiving on the standard difficulty, so escort missions are, miraculously, actually fun.
It helps tremendously that this game is so scenic and takes full advantage of scale to make you feel tiny in your cockpit. I kept trying to grab screenshots of enormous planetary backdrops, the dockyards and space stations and debris fields that anchor each map and keep you from getting lost in the void of space. Squadrons also runs flawlessly on my PC: at over 144 fps on ultra settings on an i7-7700K and a GTX 1080 (okay, occasionally it dipped into the 130s. I can live with that).
Even when the campaign missions aren’t especially complex, the setting makes up for it. The moments that felt the most thrillingly Star Wars weren’t scripted into the story, but of my own making—when I chose to fly through the husk of an old cruiser to shake a missile, then came back out behind an enemy TIE and shot it to pieces.
These missions don’t have many scripted “setpiece” moments, and I’m glad that Squadrons uses them sparingly and refrains from taking control away from you too often. It recognizes that the fun mostly lies in being at the controls, successfully tossing power to engines and making a corkscrew turn to get behind the ship that was just on your tail. But it does end up feeling all a bit routine, by the end. Objectives don’t really change mid-mission. You set out to X, you do X, and that’s a wrap. There are a few rare secondary objectives, but they don’t add different ways to accomplish a mission, or secrets to uncover.
Star Wars: Squadrons is a game with memorable moments rather than memorable missions. The story never guided me through something as thrilling and unforgettable as Titanfall 2’s Effect and Cause, for example, but I’ll remember piloting an X-Wing upside-down along a Star Destroyer’s hull more vividly than I do any individual shootout in that game.
The story, too, is missing the depth needed to be truly memorable. It alternates between the New Republic and Imperial perspectives, putting you in the boots of the new fifth pilot in the Republic’s Vanguard Squadron and the Empire’s Titan Squadron. Vanguard’s commander is an Imperial defector who once led Titan, before the destruction of Alderaan made him realize they were the baddies. The setup makes this story more personal than political, as Titan’s new leader, Terisa Kerrill, feels betrayed by her former mentor and wants to make him suffer. It turns out fascists really hold a grudge.
Star Wars: Squadrons never does much with its characters, though, and that’s a real shame, because I wanted to be friends with each alien on sight. Their designs are imaginative and detailed, putting Star Wars races we rarely see front and center. But Squadrons seems more concerned with adding your commanders and fellow pilots to the Star Wars canon than giving them any growth or resolution. And it has nothing new to say about the Empire vs. New Republic dichotomy, with every monologue about a pilot’s allegiance boiling down to “Freedom and hope!” or “Power is good, Rebels are scum!”
Between each mission, I’d spend five or 10 minutes talking to members of my squad—or rather, listen to them monologue, literally (and stiffly) delivering their backstory directly to the camera.
There’s so much potential here. Take Gunny, squad leader of Vanguard, who’s been a pilot so long she fought in the Clone Wars. She tells the story of being shot down and having to take off her own arm to escape the wreckage and capture. Or Shen, a very one-note, but very entertaining, TIE pilot who’s been wounded in so many battles he never takes off his helmet to unveil the horrible scarred face beneath. I enjoyed getting to know these characters at first, but grew bored of the conversations between missions when it was clear none of them would really change throughout the campaign.
There are zero dialogue options, decisions, or ways to express or shape your own pilot’s role in this story. Squadrons made me realize how meaningful even simple dialogue options are for bonding with your crew in games like Mass Effect. This is just a shallow reflection of that experience, and feels like a disappointing limitation of Squadron’s lower budget. If EA had devoted more money and time to this game, I think its campaign could’ve been truly great, giving you a character of your own to mould and real interactivity with your squadron.
At one point smuggler-turned-Rebel-pilot Frisk, a lizardy Trandoshan, mentions playing sabacc, the Star Wars version of poker. I spent the rest of the game imagining an alternate universe where Squadrons had a sabacc minigame and let me play cards like in Star Trek: TNG. If Squadrons is a success, I hope a sequel gets the budget and scope to do more between missions than listen to monologues.
In the cockpit, though, this is probably the best a Star Wars flight game has ever felt, and multiplayer demands far more skill than the campaign—which is especially exciting to me when I think about strategizing with a full 5-player squad instead of AI teammates. Multiplayer also offers a deep pool of ship parts to unlock, changing everything from laser cannons to hull to engines, that make them play quite differently. I have more flying to do (and a lot more experimentation with those ship parts) before I give Squadrons a score, but I’m eager to get back in the cockpit as soon as the servers come online.