Star Wars: Squadrons Review
Stay on target
Since it was announced in 2013 that Disney granted Electronic Arts exclusive rights to create Star Wars games for PC and home consoles, fans have been skeptical. EA already holds many similar rights, such as the NFL and a large chunk of FIFA, and those games have arguably not thrived due to the lack of true competition. Despite a few cancelled projects, the company did push ahead and released remakes of Star Wars Battlefront and its sequel, with modest results. Last year, they ventured into single player storytelling with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. But for 2020, they took a slightly different approach – with Star Wars: Squadrons, the company launched a focused experience that trimmed the excess and zeroed in on the gameplay with a lower price point. The result is a surprisingly enjoyable space combat experience, even for those who aren't fans of either the genre or the Star Wars universe.
Perhaps inspired by the Starfighter Assault mode in Star Wars Battlefront II, Squadrons is a multiplayer focused dogfighting game, only offering a first person perspective for fuller immersion. But before jumping into the fray, there is a relatively brief single player campaign on offer. The story first begins right after the destruction of planet Alderaan, as you observe Imperial forces try to hunt down the survivors. These orders do not sit well with Captain Lindon Javes, who defects and joins the Rebels. Four years later, the now-Commander is granted leadership of cruiser Temperance and its Vanguard Squadron. He has a new secret plan called Project Starhawk, and he enlists the squadron's help to ensure its completion.
On the Imperial side, former friend and wingwoman of Lindon Javes is Terisa Kerill, who has also been promoted to Captain over the years, is assigned to put an end to Project Starhawk. Still angry at Lindon's betrayal, she cheerfully accepts the assignment and enlists Titan Squadron to help with the task. The two sides engage in a variety of missions, combat scenarios, with attempts to trick each other, and so on.
Players create an avatar for both the Imperial and Rebel squadrons who are involved in the conflict. While this creates interesting opportunities for storytelling, the game does not take advantage of it, as it finds unimaginative plot reasons for the two squads to never actually meet in combat. Your avatars do not speak, so this is a case similar to Anthem where other characters just talk at you, and this doesn't really offer strong storytelling. The ending is also strange, with both sides claiming victory. The campaign is fairly limited in scope – you're only ever standing in a hanger, the briefing room, or in your pilot seat. You can look around, but there is no movement for your character. This is unorthodox, but it undoubtedly made the transition into VR much simpler for the developers Motive Studios. The VR capabilities of the game were not tested in the scope of this review.
So while it may not be thrilling, what the single player campaign does accomplish is get you familiar with the factions, their ships, and gameplay mechanics. Both factions have four ships to choose from, each also representing a class. Your selections are the T-65B X-Wing Fighter (Rebels) and TIE/LN Fighter (Imperials), BTL-A4 Y-Wing Bomber and TIE/SA Bomber, RZ-1 A-Wing Interceptor and TIE/IN Interceptor, U-Wing Gunship Support and TIE/RP Reaper Support. As such, both factions have a ship to fulfill a specific role in battle, and there are notable differences between them. Each ship has a few different stats, such as Hull strength (i.e. health), acceleration, top speed, maneuverability, and so on. The Fighters are all-round vessels, the bombers are meant to target enemy cruisers, the Interceptors are quick anti-pilot ships, and Supports focus on helping allies and disrupting the enemy over pure damage.
To add a lot of further depth and customize the ships to your gameplay style, each has a number of ability slots to consider. There are the basic lasers, the auxiliary weapons/systems such as rockets and extra shields, propulsion systems, and anti-missile defenses. Each ability slot offers a few different options with pros and cons – some lasers fire in burst but require more precision, aux systems feature missiles with varying damage/homing capabilities, some that target shields vs. targeting the hull, engines might be slower than others but are more maneuverable, and so on. There is quite a bit of customization that's possible, and each has a profound impact on your combat effectiveness.
The campaign does a good job of slowly opening up new ships and customizations for you to consider, so you can get familiar. When you're finally ready, you head out to battle. In gameplay, Squadrons is quite an enjoyable dogfighting experience. While it takes time to get comfortable, there is real potential here for some very entertaining battles as you zoom around space, dodging enemies and debris alike. The controls feel responsive and the ships are mostly quite agile. Players can also perform temporary speed boosts, and drift to get around or away. There is a period of adjustment, even if you've played other flight games before – after all, the game lets you simply stop and hover in space. The controls can be disorienting, and being locked into a first-person view may be jarring for some players. But if you do get comfortable, things begin to click and you can start pulling off daring maneuvers in no time to lose your pursuers or get a better position on the enemy. There's certainly a higher skill ceiling here than most other video game genres, but if you're able to clear it, it becomes quite rewarding.
But piloting is just one aspect of the game. This is also a combat game, so you'll have to figure out what sort of ship loadouts work for you. The game is best played with a controller or a flight stick, and your buttons for weapons and abilities are comfortably mapped to the face buttons. However, there is more depth to consider. For the Rebel forces, using the D-Pad you can redirect the ship's power to be either balanced, or focused on one of engines, weapons, or shields. Further to that, you can also adjust your shields to the front, rear, or the whole ship. These quick mid-flight adjustments are a key part of the strategy for success and make for constantly engaging dogfights.
For the Imperials, things are bit simpler, as all but one of their ships do not have shields to manage. You do still direct your ship's power in a similar way, but the options are reduced to balanced/weapons/engines. Instead of managing shields, you can sort of temporarily boost your ship's power again either towards engines or weapons. While all of these mechanics are not complex, they are highly important to the outcome of each skirmish, and make for a tightly designed approach to combat depth.
As mentioned, you'll be flying in first person, which means that the game only has a few UI elements. You're always presented with a functioning instrumentation panel, which contains all the key information about your ship and its systems, making for a highly immersive experience. You get to learn the look and feel of each vessel, and dedicated players can even turn off the UI elements (such as targeting and objective markers) to fly truly unassisted. The downside of being locked into this view is the acclimatization process mentioned earlier - some players may simply find it too difficult to pilot without getting nauseated or losing track of which way is up. Further to that, the authenticity means that your view is often highly restricted, depending on the ship, by its body design.
Over the course of the campaign, you will get familiar with the ships, the mechanics, and the maps as well. The objectives are usually fairly simple, like attacking or defending a target, or simply eliminating enemy forces. The maps feature some great looking space vistas, as you fly around a space station, a debris field of destroyed ships, a planet coming apart, or an asteroid belt. This provides ample opportunity to test your skills, even though on the basic level the gameplay doesn't change much depending on the map.
All of this flying practice prepares you for the multiplayer, where players will earn experience, as well as customization currency for visuals and gameplay. The gameplay customization tokens are used to unlock all the various weapons and systems that each ship has – the ones that are freely accessible in the campaign, but have to be unlocked in multiplayer. The tokens are earned fairly quickly though, and you can get your favorite loadout without any grind. On the visual customization side, you can apply paint patterns to your ships, as well as bobbleheads, and other trinkets; you can also customize your pilot, but you only really see them at the end of matches and in the lobby.
The main multiplayer mode is called Fleet Battles. In this objective based 5v5 mode (for which there is a tutorial), you and a team of others are deployed to fight against an enemy force consisting of two cruisers, and the main Capital Ship that sits in the back. The game is played in phases, meaning that you cannot simply fly over and attack the Flagship; players must first destroy two supporting Capital ships. To get your team into attack phase and make the enemy support ships vulnerable, you must defeat enough enemy pilots in open battle. The game then shifts into attack mode, and makes the large enemy vessels vulnerable. But sustain too many pilot losses, and the frontline switches, making you defend.
This back and forth design makes for lengthy battles that can run about 20 minutes, and as each team makes progress and destroys the two enemy support ships, the two Flagships actually get closer, thus not making you fly the full length of the map in the final stages. These final stages have you attacking those main Flagships, which are tough and while they can be taken out with sheer firepower, you can also choose to target four critical systems, reducing its functions such as shields and power systems. Regardless of the phase, it's important to have a good team composition, so that you can be effective at both taking out the enemy pilots in dogfights, and also dealing good damage to the main enemy ships. There are some AI pilots that fly around, but they seem to do nothing and are best ignored in favor of targeting human pilots and objectives.
While the Fleet Battles mode can be engaging, it plays out quite similarly each time. Unless you have a very well coordinated team, if you lose the first two attack phases, you've fallen behind to the point of no return. As the frontline will shift back and forth, your enemy will likely be the first to deal the killing blow to your Flagship; as such, it's important to win the initial encounters. And similarly, if you win the first two skirmishes, chances are good that you've won the match. The mode could use some balancing tweaks, such as giving the defenders an extra AI support vessel, to at least give them a chance late in the game. Some balancing could also be applied to the pilot squadrons; despite a seemingly more complex experience for the Republic pilots (having to balance shields and all), they still come out victorious more often due to the fact that they do have shields, with pilot skill being equal.
This is perhaps made more obvious in the game's second mode, simply called Dogfight. These 5v5 battles put your combat skills to the test with no objectives other than helping your team reach 30 kills first. The Dogfight is an unranked mode, which is a strange decision, given its pure focus on player skill. Instead, you can play Ranked Fleet Battles in order to earn a rating and have something to progress towards. If you'd rather relax for a while, there's the option to play Fleet Battles against the AI with co-op multiplayer or solo. While these two main modes offer hours of fun, there's undoubtedly room for more modes and variety, as things are starting to grow repetitive with consistent play during launch week.
Another area of improvement would be the game's performance. No, we aren’t talking about the gameplay, as the combat experience is very smooth and holds a steady framerate. Instead, the rest of the game has some issues to address – perhaps the biggest of all is the matchmaking. While you get placed into a lobby quickly, there are issues with some lobbies getting stuck and not filling, leaving them unable to start the game, or if it does start, a team will be short of players. If it happens to be a Ranked match, you get penalties for abandoning it, even though it’s not your fault the game wasn't able to matchmake properly. Other issues are less severe, such as menu shortcomings, only offering you two loadout slots for Fleet Battles and none at all for Dogfight mode, making you rummage through the ship menus before each mission.
As mentioned, this is a game that focuses on a specific experience, and thus has a narrow gameplay scope – but despite this, and its lower price, it still has some very good quality of presentation. The characters and cutscenes are on par with a full priced game, at least in terms of sheer technical quality. The settings are obviously quite limited, though as mentioned the deep space backdrops create for some visually impressive backgrounds. The audio design also gets high marks, adding to the immersion of hearing the space battles unfold with classic Star Wars sounds and good effects. The soundtrack features a variety of the remixes of the main theme for each faction, which is authentic, but not all that varied.
Few could have predicted that the first truly successful Star Wars game from EA would come in a form of a fairly niche and very focused space dogfighting experience. And yet that’s exactly what Star Wars: Squadrons achieves. Its streamlined, and yet satisfyingly engaging, flight and combat gameplay will keep aspiring pilots at the edge of their seat, while fans of Star Wars will appreciate the authenticity, down to the details of the cockpits and the immersive audio. There's a bit of a higher-than-typical player skill requirement to overcome, but for those who do, they will find an enjoyable space combat game. It's not without faults, and could use some more modes and content, but it makes for a thrilling way to revisit this universe and gameplay genre.