Star Wars Squadrons Review: Double Aces
Star Wars: Squadrons may be the most immersive Star Wars game I've ever played. Not because it was built from the ground up to make expert use of virtual reality, but because it's interactive in a way that only a handful of other Star Wars games have been.
Harkening back to the classic space combat sims of the early- to mid-1990s, Squadrons takes what worked in those games and mixes it with Rogue Squadron and Battlefront 2's starfighter assault to make the best of both worlds.
What comes out on the other side is a smart and addictive combat simulator that rewards impulsivity and mastery in equal portions. On the one hand, Squadrons is much more arcadey than X-Wing or Tie Fighter, but on the other, it's undeniably more complex than starfighter assault, arguably the most compelling mode in 2017's BF2.
This is a game that can be difficult to learn, but one that rewards in spades for those willing to put in the time.
Star Wars Squadrons Review: Double Aces
The greatness of the campaign, though, lies in how it expands the universe fans love so dearly.
Squadrons is split into two parts: a roughly 10-hour linear campaign mode and a boundless competitive multiplayer mode, the latter of which is further divided into two modes: dogfight and fleet battles.
Most of Squadrons' campaign mode takes place after the Battle of Endor, pitting the now-fractured Empire against the coalescing factions of the New Republic. It tells a rather expected yarn of betrayal and revenge through alternating mission sets between Imperial and New Republic forces, and its relatively self-contained nature means it doesn't (yet) have a larger impact on the galaxy as a whole.
Despite that, the narrative is entertaining and one of the better tales in the microverse of Star Wars video games.
The greatness of the campaign, though, lies in how it expands the universe fans love so dearly. Intelligently, Squadrons doesn't pit players against the Death Star (or some other world-wrecking superweapon), nor does it take us back through the catalog of worlds we've already seen.
Instead, it takes the opportunity to create new and dazzling locations that are as indelible as the rolling clouds of Bespin or the spiraling vortex of the Kaliida Nebula. The closest the game comes to retreading ground is with the inclusion of Yavin Prime, but that location is so aesthetically different than the orbiting moon from A New Hope that it might as well be in a completely different solar system.
From the Zavian Abyss to the Nadiri Dockyards and Galitan, Squadrons' world-building is just as realized, if not better realized, than the post-Jedi galaxy in The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker. The design team at Motive should be proud of what they've pulled off here.
That feeling of a grander universe at your fingertips is helped along by a memorable cast of characters, New Republic and Imperial alike. Standouts include Gunny, the Mimbanese leader of Vanguard Squadron, and Shen, the battle-hardened pilot of Titan Squadron.
Interactions with your squadmates are point-and-click affairs, similar to X-Wing and Tie Fighter, and essentially insignificant to the game's larger story. Still, they're essential for Star Wars fans looking for clever Easter eggs and callbacks or more insight into the galaxy at large, specifically the rank and file soldier living the war day in and day out.
Admittedly, it's easy to classify these conversations as maladroit exposition dumps best left on the cutting room floor, but they are one of the best viewports into a Star Wars world unencumbered by The Force we've gotten in years.
Since Squadrons is a space-flight combat simulator, you spend a lot of time in hangars and briefing rooms, in both single-player or multiplayer. These beautifully-realized spaces hum with the activity of droids, mechanics, engineers, and other capital ship personnel such as New Republic soldiers and Imperial stormtroopers.
Of course, the ships are front and center, and each side has four starfighters: X-Wings, Y-Wings, A-Wings, and U-Wings for the New Republic, and Tie Fighters, Tie Bombers, Tie Interceptors, and Tie Reapers for the Empire.
While in the hangar, you can fully inspect each ship from multiple angles, including from inside the cockpit. The level of detail for each fighter is mind-boggling, both outside and in. Every curve, laser cannon, torpedo port, switch, button, instrument, and screen has been lovingly recreated down to the smallest facet.
The hangar is also where you outfit your ships with new weapons and modules before entering combat. An armory of laser cannons, missiles, and bombs is at your disposal, and you can install new hulls, engines, and, for some ships, shields to tailor ships to your playstyle.
There are only a few instances in the campaign where you can change ships or pick from the entire fleet, but multiplayer allows you to pick any ship from the get-go. Thankfully, every ship is available from the start, no unlocking required.
You will, however, spend time unlocking new weapons and modules, as well as the various vanity items available. These include new paint jobs, decals, and in-cockpit items such as hanging ornaments, bobbleheads, and awesome holograms.
And no, Star Wars: Squadrons does not have any microtransactions whatsoever. Everything can be unlocked with either Requisition or Glory, both in-game currencies earned through skill. Currency points come from participating in competitive dogfights, completing the campaign, performing well in Fleet Battles, and completing challenges.
The things you do to get Requisition and Glory aren't revolutionary and revolve around systems found in similar games, such as Battlefront 2. But it's heartening to see EA leave some of its more predatory mtx strategies out of its latest Star Wars effort, and it helps that even though challenges and tasks are superficially mundane (such as "destroy X enemies during Fleet Battles"), there are strong and engaging systems built around them.
Combat feels incredibly immersive; there's a heft to your movements combining VR and HOTAS that's as close to piloting a Star Wars starfighter as we'll ever get.
Combat, what we're really here for, is fast and exacting. Squadrons' 14 campaign missions put you in various on-brand scenarios, from reconnaissance missions to bombing runs and full-on frontal assaults. Regardless, each always devolves into some sort of dogfight, and while that can become a bit rote by the end of the story, there's a lot of action to keep you in your seat.
Multiplayer is split into dogfights and Fleet Battles. Dogfights are 5v5 sorties that act as the game's Team Deathmatch mode: five starfighters against five starfighters. Fleet Battles, though, expand things a bit. These are 5v5 affairs that also task players with taking down enemy capital ships and flagships. These conflicts feel more like the classic Star Wars space battles fans are used to, with AI-controlled fighters filling in the gaps.
It's possible to jump into the cockpit in all of these modes and find success without knowing exactly how everything works, but the meat of Star Wars Squadrons lies in mastering its relatively complex systems.
Veterans of X-Wing, Tie-Fighter, or any of the flight simulators of the 1990s likely won't classify Squadrons' gameplay in that fashion, and I surmise they will find it less complex than those games. But there is a lot going on, especially for those who aren't familiar with the genre.
Understanding a starship's individual speed, maneuverability, shields, and firepower ratings is essential to survival in the cold void of space. On top of that, there are the modules I mentioned earlier, which buff and debuff those systems.
Then there's power management.
Rerouting power at the right moments is perhaps the most involved meta of Star Wars Squadrons, more so than unlocking new weapons and subsystems. Knowing when to divert power from shields to engines or to a ship's weapons system is critical in keeping up with and ultimately destroying other fighters.
EA Motive smartly made the constituent elements of the system easy to understand with tutorials and the ability to battle AI before taking on real people, but the minutia of systems management straddles the fine line between arcade and simulation in ways that demand both practice and patience.
Star Wars Squadrons is a stunning game. Planets, starships, and characters are beautifully rendered and designed. On my PC, which consists of a GTX 1080ti (11GB), an i7-7700K, and 32GB of RAM, I was able to get a silky-smooth 60FPS at 4K on ultra. I noticed a bit of screen tearing in hangars and briefing rooms when turning my character, but that was eliminated when I locked the refresh rate to 60Hz.
But where Star Wars: Squadrons really takes off is in virtual reality.
To say piloting an X-Wing or Tie Fighter in VR is mind-blowing would understate the impact virtual reality has on this game, especially when you pair that capability with a flight stick or other HOTAS setup. Combat feels incredibly immersive; there's a heft to your movements combining VR and HOTAS that's as close to piloting a Star Wars starfighter as we'll ever get.
There's no way to accurately convey the power of being able to turn your head left or right to look out of the windows of an X-Wing or Y-Wing, and once you've been inside a Tie Reaper and leaned all the way across the empty co-pilot's chair to check a readout in real-time, there's just no going back.
That's made better because the entire game is playable in VR, campaign and multiplayer included.
In my time with it, I never noticed any frame drops or stuttering, even in Fleet Battles, which see the most ships on-screen at any given moment. Though the graphics take a hit on my rig (and those with beefier systems or better setups may not even notice) and campaign cutscenes play out in what amounts to virtual desktop mode, it remains an awe-inspiring experience from beginning to end.
Star Wars Squadrons Review — The Bottom Line
- Tremendous VR experience
- Tight, frenetic combat
- Faithfully recreates feel of classic space combat sims
- Memorable characters and locations
- Fun Easter eggs and clever callbacks
- HOTAS support on all platforms (even old ones, like 2001's Saitek X45)
- Short campaign and limited multiplayer options
- Relatively steep learning curve for new players
- Some unfair checkpoints in missions
- No B-Wing
Star Wars: Squadrons isn't perfect. Some of the checkpoints in the campaign set you too far back from the action, and objectives can be unclear at times. It also has a bad habit of letting allies follow you in the completely wrong direction instead of leading you to your destination. In missions with few landmarks, it can be a bit frustrating.
Other small missteps include a relatively short campaign (which feels uncomfortably imbalanced to one faction near the end) and limited multiplayer options. Larger multiplayer conflicts would be a welcome addition, and in some ways, starfighter assault feels grander. More modes would also mitigate the sense of fatigue that can set in after your 20th dogfight or 17th fleet battle.
There's also no B-Wing, which frankly, is just unacceptable.
But Squadrons does a lot of things right. And it's the closest thing to a new X-Wing or Tie Fighter we're going to get. Though it's a stand-alone game, it's also a fantastic complement to Battlefront 2's starfighter assault mode, giving aces new and old two very good options to choose from.
It's an utter shame that EA doesn't plan to support Squadrons after launch with DLC or content updates, as there's still so much of the galaxy to explore. Perhaps they'll have a change of heart. Outside of Jedi: Fallen Order, Star Wars Squadrons is the best Star Wars game they've ever made.
[Note: EA provided the copy of Star Wars: Squadrons used for this review.]