I have been waiting for a game like Star Wars: Squadrons for a long, long time. Since 2003, in fact, when Star Wars Rogue Squadron III released. As far as I can tell, that’s the last time a Star Wars game really let you sit in the cockpit of an X-wing. If you’re looking for a spiritual successor to the Rogue Squadron games, you won’t find it here. Instead, Squadrons owes more to the X-wing titles of old. This is a game with an enormous amount of depth and one that gives players a lot of freedom once they strap into the cockpit. If you’re familiar with X-wing series, a lot of Squadrons will probably feel familiar. If you’re not, you’ve got a bit of a learning curve ahead of you.
"It doesn’t hurt that this is a fairly engaging little Star Wars story."
Either way, the first place you should start is the campaign. The game starts shortly after the destruction of Alderaan. You step into the boots of a TIE pilot charged with hunting down rebel survivors. It’s supposed to be a fairly routine mission, but as seems to be a habit with Star Wars these days, things go wrong when you’re betrayed by one of your own. Fast forward four years, and you step into the boots of the newest member of Vanguard Squadron, a group of talented X-wing jockeys flying for the newly formed New Republic. You’re assigned to the secretive Project Starhawk, which the Republic hopes will help them win the war against what remains of then Empire. You’ll also spend some time as the Imperial pilot you played as in the opening mission, out for revenge against those that wronged you. The games alternating points of view make for some interesting storytelling moments and playing both sides of the conflict is a great way to introduce you to the ins and outs of the various starfighters.
It doesn’t hurt that this is a fairly engaging little Star Wars story. Between missions, you’ll spend time chatting with the other pilots in your squadron, watching mission briefings, and getting to know the commanders on each side. Unfortunately, as good as the story underlying the game’s campaign is, the way it’s told often undermines the narrative’s potential. Part of this is because the game is designed for VR. You don’t really move around between missions. Instead, you click to enter conversations and move around the environment. This isn’t a huge issue, but it would have been nice to be able to walk around these environments instead of bouncing around between specific areas.
"Your character doesn’t talk outside of the cockpit. You can customize how you look and sound, but none of it matters much for the purposes of the story."
The far bigger problem is that your character doesn’t talk outside of the cockpit. You can customize how you look and sound, but none of it matters much for the purposes of the story. When you enter a conversation, characters just kind of talk at you, delivering exposition and backstory before awkwardly commenting that you all have stuff to do and walking away. It doesn’t help that you’re the only member of your squadron referred to exclusively by your callsign – Vanguard 5 as a Republic pilot, or Titan 3 as an Imperial. This is especially noticeable in the Republic sections, as the other characters almost always call one another by their real names, even in combat.
I understand why EA Motive made this decision, but it never stops feeling weird. Much of the game’s writing suffers from this choice, especially when it comes to delivering exposition, which is something other characters just offer you, and you never get to respond to. It’s hard to ever feel apart of either squad because people talk at you, rather than to you. I don’t think Squadrons’ writing is bad – I was engaged in the narrative, liked most of the cast, and wanted to see what happened next – but it’s hard not to notice how much these design decisions impact the game’s story. I would have much rather had real characters than silent player avatars, but your mileage may vary.
One area Motive deserves credit for is the diversity of the game’s cast. A majority of the game’s major characters are women, and most of the rest are either aliens or people of color. EA has made statements about increasing the diversity of their games in the past, but I don’t think a studio has ever committed to it the way Motive has. It’s a nice change from the norm, and I applaud the studio for making a commitment to something they believed in and sticking with it.
"Flying in this game feels incredible, in large part because of how much control you have as a player. "
So some of the narrative decisions are a mixed bag, but the selling point of a game like Squadrons isn’t what you do between missions. It’s about what happens in the cockpit. And in that regard, Squadrons is an unqualified triumph. Flying in this game feels incredible, in large part because of how much control you have as a player. You’re locked into a first person view, and Motive has done a wonderful job of detailing the inside of cockpit in a way that makes it feel like you’re sitting in an X-wing or a TIE Fighter. Everything you need is here: your shield gauge, throttle, power gauges, weapons systems, the works. And that’s good, because you’ll need all of it.
The first step is picking your ship: each faction has 4, each of which serves a different function: interceptor, bomber, support, and fighter. The Republic’s got the A-wing, Y-wing, U-wing, and the X-wing. The Empire flies TIE Interceptors, TIE Bombers, TIE Reapers, and TIE Fighters. Every ship comes with standard equipment, but you can swap all of it out, from lasers to secondary weapons to engines or shields. The X-wing, for instance, comes with a repair droid, but you can swap it out with for proton torpedoes if you’re hunting capital ships. The TIE Fighter’s standard lasers will get the job done, sure, but I prefer the burst lasers, which offer more damage, even if they do require a bit better aim. By far the most interesting choices belong to the support ships, which can do things like shield other ships and resupply their allies. The crazy thing is, none of these options feel too strong. There’s a lot of ways to build a viable ship and with 60 modules to choose from, the only thing that matters is what you want your fighter to do.
Flying in Squadrons requires balancing a dozen systems at once: your speed, weapon cooldowns or ammo, various abilities, throttle, shield, and how much power you’re sending to your systems, and so on. What you should do depends on the situation. If you’re raining punishment down on another ship, you should probably divert power to your lasers. Need to get away? Pull power to your engines and throttle up so you can charge your boost, which lets you go faster and even drift. Got someone on your tail? Boost your shields, and direct them to the rear to ward off incoming fire. Need to dodge a missile? Launch countermeasures, or divert power to engines and make a sharp turn. Chasing someone making a sharp turn? Throttle down to half so you have more maneuverability.
"The campaign does a good job of introducing you to the basics, but things shift into a different gear when you get to the game’s multiplayer."
It’s hard to describe how involving flying in Squadrons is, and harder still to describe what it feels like when you’re doing it well. The best I can do is tell you a story: I was strafing a capital ship full throttle, all power to lasers. It was low health, but I was getting dangerously close. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to blow it up before I slammed into it. I was about to crash when the ship exploded, and my A-wing shot through the fire, a little cooked, but otherwise okay. I rolled, dodged some debris, and engaged the nearest TIE. You’re constantly making choices in Squadrons. I’m not going to lie to you, it is a complicated game. The campaign does a good job of introducing you to the basics, but things shift into a different gear when you get to the game’s multiplayer and the different between a decent pilot and a good one becomes very apparent very quickly.
As of this writing, Squadrons only has two multiplayer modes: Dogfight, which is your traditional 5 on 5 deathmatch and Fleet Battles. Dogfight is fine, but Fleet Battles is where things really shine. It starts as two teams of 5 meet in the middle of an engagement between fleets. Shooting down enemy ships builds morale. Gain enough, and you’ll start the next stage, where you take down enemy support ships. Do that, and you’ll have a chance at the enemy’s capital ship.
A good Fleet Battle goes back and forth, with teams trading leads in morale and moving constantly between phases. It’s a lot of fun, but you’ll definitely need to communicate – and have a diverse squadron of ships – to succeed. Playing the game’s multiplayer unlocks also points you can spend to acquire more modules so you can farther customize your ship. Don’t worry about microtransactions, because there aren’t any. Everything you could want is unlockable in-game.
" Every aspect of this game is beautiful, from the character models to the cockpits."
In addition to being a blast to play, Squadrons runs extremely well. Every aspect of this game is beautiful, from the character models to the cockpits. I ran the game on Ultra with an RTX 2060 Super and an i5 6600k at 1080p and am mostly locked 60 fps. The only issue I noticed was that the game would sometimes report high framerates – upwards of 100, even when I turned on v-sync – while simultaneously dealing with some serious stuttering. This only seemed to happen in the game’s multiplayer, and only after I’d been playing for a long time. Restarting the game seemed to fix the issue, but it would inevitably come back again. I don’t know what the cause is, but I’m hoping it’s something Motive will eventually patch.
After Battlefront II’s disastrous launch, it seemed that giving EA the Star Wars license was a bit of mistake. Since then, they’ve made Battlefront II a game worth playing, released the excellent Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and now they’ve knocked it out of the park once again with Star Wars: Squadrons. This is an exceptionally focused game, and it’s all the better for it. The story isn’t too long, mostly because it doesn’t waste your time, but between the replayability of the campaign and the excellent if challenging multiplayer, there’s a lot of game to enjoy here. The focused nature of things means that Squadrons won’t be for everyone, but what Motive has accomplished is impressive, especially since the game runs well on a mouse and keyboard, a controller, a joystick, and VR. It’s also proof that Jedi: Fallen Order wasn’t a fluke. EA is more than capable of handling the Star Wars license, and if they keep giving us games like Star Wars: Squadrons, the future of Star Wars games looks pretty bright. For now, it’s just good to be back in the cockpit of an X-wing again. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait so long next time.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Utterly gorgeous. Sounds great. Flying feels fantastic. Lots of depth and customization options. No microtransactions. Fleet Battles are really well done. Good campaign that does a nice job of teaching you to play.
Your characters don't talk. VR design limits non-mission gameplay. High learning curve. Only two multi-player modes.