It’s the only time the mode has been playable in the Southern hemisphere, but in my brief playthrough of Star Wars: Battlefront’s Fighter Squadron mode it was evident that the air combat has a few deep-seated* problems that DICE will need to correct.
Battlefront is only a couple of weeks away, and the audience for the latest Star Wars shooter is pretty rusted on by now. The beta was a success from a technical and popularity standpoint, even though there has been a quotient of old-school Battlefront and Battlefield fans upset by the simplified, mass marketability of the mechanics and controls.
That was most felt in the controls for the aircraft, although in fairness the air combat in Battlefront was always more accessible than the Battlefield series. But if you’re the kind of person who wondered whether it was worthwhile having a joystick permanently plugged in to enjoy Battlefront, particularly with the Fighter Squadron mode, I’m sorry to disappoint.
Fighter Squadron is Battlefront’s answer for those who only want to roam the skies, and in our session we were treated to a battle over Sullust. It’s a nice technical coup for DICE to have the maps support such a wide range of modes, with Sullust previously hosting the 8v8 chaos of Drop Zone in the beta.
In some ways, however, Fighter Squadron is even more chaotic than that. It’s a 10v10 offering, although the game also populates the server with another 20 NPC pilots for players to target and shoot down (making for a total of 40 pilots in the game).
That’s not too bad; it certainly recreates the nightmare you’d imagine a TIE Fighter or X-Wing pilot would face in one of the series’ many iconic battles. But it also immediately highlights some of the problems with the way Battlefront prioritises style over substance.
As was the case in Walker Assault, jumping into an airship — or respawning, in this case — is always predicated by an animation of sorts, where the camera pans from the left wing of your craft to the default third-person camera. There’s then a second or two delay before you can actually start controlling the craft, presumably to allow you to survey the action and enjoy the spectacle.
That’s not so bad in something like Walker Assault, where much of the action is concentrated around the AT-AT’s, the AT-ST’s, and the ground forces waging war below. In Fighter Squadron, however, that’s not the case initially.
Matches start out like a disorganised take on Team Deathmatch, with pilots scouring for targets or pick-ups on the surface of the world below. The only pilot-able craft off the bat were X-Wing’s and TIE Fighters, although special hero craft like the Millenium Falcon could be found on the surface of the rocky planet.
Two transports also appear halfway through, forcing each team to run to their defence. The transports don’t appear at the same time, which neatly forces each team into a defined attack or defence mode. That didn’t happen during our play session, mind you — things had run around an hour overtime and by the time people sat down to play, most of the participants were in a state where their thoughts were more unorganised than the virtual dogfighting.
But what’s immediately apparent is that, without changes, the problems besetting aircraft in Walker Assault are exacerbated tenfold. There’s nothing to stop aircraft from flying around the corners of the map to camp spawning opponents; after all, there’s plenty of initial chaos to keep people occupied.
The auto-targeting isn’t much better, either. In some ways it can actually be worse; enemies can fly out of your crosshairs, only for the auto-aim to briefly lock onto a pilot scissoring across your original target. That issue only really presents itself when targeting human opponents, but since those are the ones that represent the greatest threat it becomes a guaranteed annoyance.
You’re best off not using the auto-aim at all and simply tracking like a standard flight sim, although mapping the PS4’s D-pad to dodges and rolls makes split-second manoeuvring a bit simpler than it is on a mouse and keyboard. (I found during my time in the beta that the double-tap was a tad inconsistent, although things often change over the course of the beta.)
Some of the power-ups are immensely useful too, such as faster cooldowns on your missiles and shields (particularly if you’re in the X-Wing, which has a shield as opposed to the TIE Fighter’s turbo).
But this doesn’t correct Fighter Squadron’s greatest problem, which lies in the controls. If you’re one of those people who couldn’t stand piloting the fighters in Walker Assault, then Fighter Squadron is hardly going to whet your appetite. The lack of diversity in aircraft doesn’t help either: Walker Assault featured Y-Wings, TIE Interceptors, A-Wings and speeders, but beyond the heroes all that was available here was the stock X-Wing and TIE Fighters.
Hopefully that changes for release. As it stands, though, Fighter Squadron isn’t a memory of the highs the Star Wars franchise has to offer. It’s a reminder of what DICE needs to fix — and hopefully that’s precisely what has happened come release.
Update: Fixed brain malfunction (thanks zambayoshi).