Jumping into the cockpit of my TIE Interceptor, I felt transported back to my childhood. One of the games I would love to play as a kid was X-Wing vs TIE Fighter. It was a game my dad and I would play together for hours, taking turn as a pilot in the respective navy of our choice (I usually chose the Empire - mainly because I loved the sound the TIE Interceptor made). So when Motive announced a new starfighter dogfighting sim, Star Wars: Squadrons, I was instantly intrigued. With a single-player storyline to work through, as well as multiplayer modes to put my starfighting skills to the test, how does Star Wars: Squadrons stack up?
Joining the fight
Taking place about four years after the events of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Squadrons puts you in the shoes of a pilot in both the Empire as well as the new Galactic Republic. From the outset you have the ability to customize the look and sound of your pilot on both sides of the conflict, though those options do feel limited. There's no real character creator, per se, instead you'll be forced to choose from a variety of preselected character types. On one hand it does make some sense: Star Wars: Squadrons takes place entirely in first person, whether you're in a cockpit or mozeying about in your hangar, but it would still be nice to inject a little personality into your character from the outset to make them feel unique.
Once your character is created, Star Wars: Squadrons puts you right into the action at the onset of the story. The single-player campaign doesn't take too long to complete - it took me about 8 hours to get through its roster of missions, though your mileage might vary should you complete every secondary objective, as well as individual pilot skill. The story puts you in the shoes of a pilot both in the Empire's Titan Squadron and the Republic's Vanguard Squadron, pitted against each other for a struggle for dominance in a post-Emperor world.
Each squadron is full of characters you can interact with inbetween missions as you hang out in your...erm...hangar. Interacting with them will trigger a series of scripted dialogue giving you a closer understanding of the motivations of your fellow squadmates, such as Grace, a Republic pilot whose family makes TIEs for the Empire, or learning the mystery of Shen's disfigured pilot armor.
It's a shame that there isn't any real character building you can do with these teammates, or any of the other characters you meet along the way. I want to know more about Terisa Kerrill's relationship with Lindon Javes, two of the main characters you'll interact with throughout the campaign. Talking with your squadmates and more don't really do add much other than some background - there are no dialogue options or chances for your character to grow with your team. Instead it feels like you're a faceless hero just taking an active role in battle, but a passive one everywhere else.
The story itself, though, isn't much to call home about. It's not bad - it's defintiely entertaining and its missions have some pretty fun set pieces that feel straight out of a Star Wars feature, but it's definitely going to be hit or miss for some.
Where the campaign excels is teaching you the basics of combat. Since the meat and potatoes of Star Wars: Squadrons is the dogfighting, the moment to moment gameplay had to be solid. Some might complain that the starfighters - there are 8 total you can pilot during the various campaign missions and multiplayer modes - handle more like planes and less like you would expect a spacecraft to handle, this didn't bother me too much. Instead, I found myself enthralled by the flight mechanics, learning the finer points of turning on a dime, regulating throttle to get the drop on an enemy, and more.
It isn't as simple as point your fighter in the direction you want to move and firing when you have a lock on. It reminded me a bit of Elite Dangerous - you'll need to regulate the power going to your engines, weapons, and if you're in a Republic fighter your shields. Knowing when to send full power to your engines versus swapping to keep your shields intact could mean the difference between victory or defeat. However, Squadrons doesn't feel excessively punishing if you don't find that right balance, unlike Elite Dangerous can.
Learning more advanced techniques, such as knowing the right time to use your ships power converter to boost your weapons momentarily at the expense of engine power, or performing the perfect drift turn to take out an enemy tailing you can separate the best pilots from the rest of the field. Squadrons does a decent enough job teaching you those basics, but it's really a game that the more you play, the better you truly will become.
Star Wars: Squadrons has a full bevy of ways you can play as well, from a mouse and keyboard on the PC to full gamepad and HOTAS support on all platforms. Personally, if you have the chance to play this using a HOTAS (I used both the Saitek X55 Rhino and the Thrusmaster TFlight HOTAS One in my playthrough), it truly is a transformative experience as I never felt I lacked control. There was an intial issue where it didn't seem as though Squadrons was fully recognizing my Saiteks, but it turned out to be a faulty driver install - once that was fixed I couldn't go back to anything else.
In the fray
At the core of the experience in Star Wars: Squadrons is the multiplayer. As of right now there are only two modes: Dogfight and Fleet Battles. Dogfight is exactly as it sounds - a 5v5 battle between you and the enemy squad, first to 30 kills. Fleet battles pit two squards in a back and forth tug of war as each side tries to destroy the others captial ship.
Personally I didn't care much for the Fleet Battles, though that might have been down to the fact that I played mostly with random players on the internet. I feel this mode would excel with a coordinated squad working together - not a full squad of pilots only wanting to live out their Red 5 fantasies, giving no care to squad composition.
With 8 different ships to choose from, squad composition does matter in Squadrons. Having a full squad of X-Wings isn't going to be as effective against an Imperial squad touting TIE Fighters, Interceptors and support ships like the TIE/RP Reaper. Teamwork is just as important as composition. Pinging your enemies and focusing fire can help dismantle unorganized squads and combining ship incapacitating ION weapons is a good way to put troublesome Imperials out of the fight with a well coordinated attack. But I've found this type of coordination doesn't happen organically, which honestly isn't necessarily Squadrons specific - that's PUG Groups in any multiplayer game really.
Dogfighting is where I found the most enjoyment. There is something about testing my piloting skills against other players that had me queuing for match after match. Taking place in six maps from the campaign, you'll not just have to dodge other players, but the debris floating around you, or the massive space structures some of these fights take place near, such as a shipyard in one, or a rock-filled nebula in another. Yavin feels empty as it is, well, just an empty expanse of space above Yavin IV.
What does feel lacking, though is the variety. The maps, after a while, do tend to feel old, especially as Squadrons, in more than one session, played the same map a few matches in a row. Ranked matches also suffer mightily from playrers dropping form the session more often than not, ruining the ranking match for everyone.
Multiplayer is definitely fun, but it also feels like it could get a bit stale after a while. With only two modes and just a few maps to rotate between, I can see players getting burnt out once the rush of flying your A-Wing against a TIE-Bomber squadron wears off. With Motive stating that, as of now there aren't any plans for post-launch content, it seems like this is all players are going to get. Again, some might be perfectly fine with that, but after a week of playing Squadrons, I can't help but feel that there could be more.
Refreshingly, Star Wars: Squadrons does not make usre of microtransactions, though the game feels like it could very easily go that route should EA decide to down the road. You'll earn Commendations in your multiplayer matches to unlock upgrades and systems for your ships, such as alternate hulls, weapons and more. Once they are unlocked for one ship on a side, they are unlocked for every ship, which is nice. These upgrades aren't exactly upgrades either, but allow you to tailor your ship to your personal preference at the sacrifice of another feature. For me, I love flying the faster ships - the A-Wing and my aforementioned love of the TIE Interceptor. But I found I wanted more maneuverability, so I opted for the hulls that sacrifice some of that speed to give me tighter turns, keeping pesky Rebels in my crosshairs longer.
You can also tailor your ship to serve a specific purpose. Want to support your squadmates and provide easy targets by incapactitating enemy fighters? Come to the fight with ION weapons. Feel like dropping some turrets to help down enemies that get too close? Bust out the U-Wing on the Rebellion side of things. There is a style for everyone and a way to tailor your favorite ship to your preferences.
There are also cosmetics to unlock using Glory, a currency earned through battles and compelting challenges. This can unlock new cosmetics for your pilot to show off in an after battle victory screen, or to deck out your fighter with decals and cockpit tchotchkes, such as an awesome Darth Vader hologram to grace your cockpit, or a tiny, frozen Han Solo on its own unique pedastal. It's nice to have these in the game, and it's so refreshing that they aren't available via only microtransactions.
Star Wars: Squadrons, in my opinion, is best played if you have a VR headset. The dogfighter supports PC VR and PSVR systems, providing an incredibly immersive experience. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's the best gaming experience I've had all year. Being able to survey the battle field with a turn of my head felt like it gave me a distinct advantage over some of the other pilots in multiplayer. The cockpits themselves are beautifully detailed in VR and out - Squadrons looks fantastic all around thanks to the power of the Frostbite engine. Couple that with an outstanding soundscape and score that sounds like it could have been written by John Williams himself, Squadrons feels rather immersive outside of VR. But there is something about being able to look down and see yourself sitting in the cockpit, especially paired with a HOTAS that feels truly magical.
While some VR fans might be dissapointed that Squadrons doesn't have touch control support, I can't find a reason to be upset over that. The headtracking is enough as I'm sitting down at my desk, flying my Interceptor towards the Rebel fleet. The feeling of actually being there is strong with this one. If you can, VR is definitely the best way to play this game.
Star Wars: Squadrons is a fantastic starfighting sim, though not without its faults. It looks fantastic all around, from its beautifully detailed cockpits to the well-crafted environments you fly in, Squadrons definitely looks and feels like a Star Wars game. The story, while entertaining enough, does feel somewhat lackluster overall, especially with the lack of real character development throughout. Multiplayer is where this game truly excels, though that isn't without its fair share of faults either. Dogfighting can be exhilirating, though the map variety and overall mode variety might get stale after a while. It is outragously refreshing though - and hopefully a trend for other games - that there are no microtransactions in Squadrons, whatsoever.
Moreover for me, personally, it brough me back to my days playing X-Wing VS TIE Fighter. From the presentation - caring for your ship in your hangar to the iconic pre-flight briefings, Squadrons feels like a nostalgia trip harkening back to the Lucasarts starfighter sims of the 90s. And it does it well.
Star Wars: Squadrons is a great overall package, though. At just $39.99, it doesn't have to include all the features you'd expect from a full priced triple-A studio title. For the money, it delivers a lot for the money. It's definitely one that will stay in rotation on my PC for quite a long time. Especially for the VR immersion.