Charlie loves her video games as much as she loves dumb, charming JRPG protagonists: probably way too much. You can often catch her spending too much time being emotional over LGBT stories in games. She also thinks Yakuza 6 is the best one.
Xbox One, PS4, PC
October 2, 2020
Between the good (The Mandalorian), the okay (Jedi: Fallen Order) and the straight-up poor (Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker) all coming to us in the past year, Star Wars has quite the franchise fatigue going for it. So with Star Wars: Squadrons, a game following crews of starfighter pilots, I was sceptical of its potential. Can a new title in the franchise so soon really fix things? Still, I plundered on. A galaxy far far away awaits, after all.
Star Wars: Squadrons sets players on two sides of an intergalactic fight, alternating between playing as the heroic New Republic and the villainous Galactic Empire. The game starts off in a thrilling way: the planet Alderaan has been destroyed and Darth Vader tasks the Empire with picking off any remaining survivors that evaded the attack. When a member of the villainous task force betrays them, freeing the refugees and siding with the Rebels, the game’s events are set in motion.
Four years later, we follow a juxtaposed story of the two factions. The New Republic must work on and defend Project Starhawk, a powerful and mysterious spacecraft tool that’s promised to be in their favour. Their foes must work to destroy it and anyone that stands in their path. It’s up to two squadron teams of pilots, one from each faction, to complete their venture. This will see you leading assault bombing runs, infiltrating giant space stations cores and defending important military crafts in the campaign’s fight until you reach a quite satisfying conclusion. Admittedly, it’s a bit generic and more like a how-to for the game, but it works.
As stories go, the campaign offered here won’t differ too much from the Star Wars standard. Most of the narrative beats for the game are offered in-between missions, preparing you for the tutorial-esque gameplay ahead. Still, interesting characterisation is offered. You can chat to your squadmates in the hangar hubs between missions, learning tidbits of lore that the franchise nuts will lovingly absorb.
Whether it’s the noble Mirialan rebel Keo who uses they/them pronouns or the murderous queen that is Havina Vonreg, each has their own personal story and motivations. Their dialogue exchanges offer interesting commentary on the faction they work for too. Shen, an Empire soldier dressed head to toe in malfunctioning armour get up, is coughing and wheezing, near collapsing as he speaks to you. He can’t remove his helmet or he’ll die. Shen is literally living and breathing the Empire, even if they spare him little regards. I love that kind of exploration, and it helps to forgive a not so momentous narrative plot. It just goes to show the writing team at Motive really care for the Star Wars name, and want to do right by its universe.
First and foremost, Squadrons is a game about simulation. The shooter romp is played entirely in first person, from the perspective of a pilot in their cockpit. Depending on your craft of choice, a large amount of your screen’s real estate is taken up by the various in-craft monitors (be it engine speed, rocket count, ship integrity) you’ll need to keep an eye on mid-flight.
Different aircrafts also carry a different weight to them, with a fair bit of variance in play between each model. The Empire’s TIE interceptor, for example, has quite the mobility, being able to keep up the chase through small cracks between asteroids and the likes. Meanwhile, the chunkier Republic’s U-Wing gunship will be less effective in this regard, and instead purposed as a craft intended to hang back and heal teammates, picking off stragglers. Different weapons, armour types, stats and the likes can be tweaked to your liking too for games. I found the Ion Weapon, an electrical charge which stuns foes and leaves their craft drifting and vulnerable, a great way to create a layup kill for my peers.
Immersion can be taken one step further depending on your choice of controller. I couldn’t get my hands on a flight stick for the game and was instead using the PlayStation 4’s Dualshock. Your controller’s left stick controls your engines speed and thrust, while the right helps you control trajectory, aiding in maybe even pulling off some sweet barrel rolls and threading tight spots. Throw in, trigger pressings to target crafts and fire blasters, or even launch rockets and heal up your craft with your bumpers, and you’ve got quite the easy to pick up, difficult to master gameplay. Maybe one day I’ll get that dream flight stick controller set up. I yearn for the chaos that’ll bring.
“First and foremost, Squadrons is a game about simulation.”
For the daring, the entire game is also playable in VR. Let this be forewarned though, expect quite the motion sickness. Already you’ll be doing a lot of tumbling and turning in your space crafts, throw this giant headset purposed with immersing you in that, and it’ll make damn near anyone dizzy. Stick through and master the controls and sure, it’ll get easier. Regardless, when it works it really works. Plenty of thrilling chases and close calls were had when I was playing with my PSVR headset on.
Where the game shines the most is the stunning views of the Star Wars Universe you’re treated to in that cosy little cockpit. In Squadrons, you won’t really fly near or be any of the franchise’s planets of note. Still, EA has found a way to flash their big bucks once more by creating unique and gorgeous environments. Flying through the explosion of a TIE Fighter recently blasted to dust, or carefully traversing a Star Destroyer graveyard in space, all under a purple space sky with a storm looming are just some of the great scenery you’ll get in-game. Hell, sound designs wonderful too; those blaster noises sound as crisp and satisfying as ever. You’ll hear the familiar noise of your droid letting out a worried shriek when your craft is in trouble. It’ll feel like home to a long time fan of the franchise.
Like Battlefront II before it, the other big draw to Star Wars: Squadrons is its multiplayer. While barebones in the sense it only has two game modes right now, both are still a blast. Dogfight serves as your equivalent to a 5v5 team deathmatch where the Empire and the New Republic must race to eliminate enemy pilots x number of times before the other faction does. It’s the more simple mode obviously, but it also has the most replayability, allowing for me to better myself by learning the map’s designs and how to navigate them in creative new ways, all while avoiding heat on my six.
Opposing this, Fleet Battles pit the two factions against each other, fighting to destroy the other’s flagship spacecraft. To reach your foe’s flagship, players must fight their way forward, taking down defences in the form of the player-controlled squadron and also medium-sized crafts that pack quite a punch if you’re not careful. A horizontal meter is on your screen during all this, highlighting which faction has the most power. Tilt that power all the way to your favour, and your enemy’s flagship is left vulnerable. Raise hell. Fleet Battles is absolutely the tougher game mode, meant for the best of the best. That still doesn’t mean there isn’t some fun to have for players of all skill level. The quick turning of the tide when it comes to power control is a joy.
To keep players going and revisiting through Star Wars: Squadrons’ lesser amount of multiplayer game modes comes incentives. For once, EA has learnt their lesson and no microtransactions in the form of currencies or outfits for purchase with real money are in sight.
Instead, players can grind it out, working towards neat little skins for their pilot and spacecraft. Additional touches can be earned for in the cockpit too, such as an adorable Ewok bobblehead that can sit on their dash, or a dangling Millenium Falcon keychain.
Through its gameplay and concept alone, the game already was going to draw in some of the extreme, hardcore gamers. It leans into this, offering up levelling, solid stat tracking and even a tiered ranking system that players can climb the ladder through in ranked matches. All this affirms that if Star Wars: Squadrons is your niche, it’s going to be extremely your niche.
If there are any complaints gamers will have about Squadrons, most of them come down to expectations. Yes, multiplayer is a bit barebones. Absolutely are the campaign’s missions more just there to tutorialise you. Come in with the right mindset and you’ll find that fine. With these facts considered and the game also going for a slightly cheaper price point, it’s clear EA and Motive were always looking for this to be a more modest AAA title. I am going to need the team to fix some of those bugs though because wow, the collisions sure are off and see me stuck inside other crafts sometimes.
I entered Star Wars: Squadrons burnt out by the franchise and really not sure how to feel about once again entering the now over-familiar franchise. Shockingly, I left it really pleased with a revived optimism about the things the IP can achieve.
EA and Motive have done a really wonderful job crafting a not-so-traditional Star Wars work. With some small patching and future updates, Squadrons can be something thought about even more fondly for years to come.