While plenty of games over the last few years have let lightsaber and blaster fans live out their dreams, it’s been a while since a big Star Wars game focused exclusively on starships and space combat. Thankfully for more dogfight-obsessed fans, the newly released Star Wars: Squadrons lets you become an ace pilot for both the Empire and the New Republic. But while the narrative, space combat, and Star Wars details are strong, some bugs and multiplayer issues add a little turbulence to an otherwise smooth flight.
Squadrons takes a different approach to storytelling than most recent Star Wars games, allowing you to create custom pilots for both the Empire and New Republic. This is great for folks who want to be themselves in a Star Wars story; it does drive my canon-obsessed brain mad, but that’s a dumb and trivial complaint. A more important criticism is that because your character is totally custom you rarely speak, and only get referred to by your callsign. This means the story of Squadrons is really about the other characters, on both sides of the conflict.
As the game begins, your character’s flying a mission to kill some Alderaanian refugees, who no longer have a planet after that famous scene from A New Hope. These are innocent people just looking for a home. It’s all too much for veteran Imperial pilot Lindon Javes, who defects mid-mission, attacking you and your squad and helping the rebels and refugees escape. One of his squadron mates, Terisa Kerrill, betrayed and hurt by his defection, vows to kill him.
Flash forward four years, after the Emperor is killed and the second Death Star destroyed, and Javes is now a commander in the New Republic, helping them defeat the Imperial remnants. Meanwhile Kerrill, still angry about his defection, has become a captain of her own Star Destroyer. When she learns Javes is involved in a secret project that could help the Republic completely destroy the Empire, she jumps at the chance to exact revenge by hunting down him and his squadron of aces. Javes may find you can’t escape your past forever.
I was disappointed that Squadrons’ setup involved yet another Imperial officer betraying the Empire and joining the rebels. This tired trope pops up frequently, most recently in EA’s previous Star Wars release, Battlefront II. But the rest of Squadrons’ eight-hour campaign story rises above its boring setup, with a cast of characters I grew to love and hate.
Squadrons’ missions have you bouncing back and forth between the Empire and New Republic. Sometimes this means you ambush one side, only to have to play as them later and deal with the consequences. It’s a neat setup that sadly doesn’t get used enough. In between these missions you get to interact with your squadmates. These short conversions are all one-sided — you only listen to them talk — but do a nice job of fleshing out who you’re flying with, which helped me feel more protective of them during combat. Some of them, at least.
Star Wars nerds like me will be happy to hear that some of the folks you meet and greet are rather famous, like a certain rebel pilot who flew with Luke and an Imperial admiral who’s been featured in many Star Wars novels over the last few years. While these characters and some of the other tiny references in Squadrons are fun, the game does a good job of making sure the essential parts of the story are easy to grasp, even if you don’t read Wookieepedia in your spare time.
Playing as an Imperial pilot is an interesting way to show the other side of the conflict, but Squadrons runs into the same problem prior Star Wars media has, namely that these are still Space Nazis. I shouldn’t be happy when they win and I really shouldn’t, and don’t, like them. This is a more complex topic than this review can do justice, but I think Squadrons’ writers tried really hard to walk a tightrope with its depiction of the Empire, and failed to pull it off.
For example, during one mission, the game “only” forces you and your evil squaddies to destroy a certain number of civilian escape ships, giving you the option to ignore the rest. But you still kill civilians either way. Other times your Imperial squadmates might voice concern over how terrible everyone’s acting during a mission, but they still stick around, and later on help blow up yet more civilian ships.
Sure, your Empire squaddies are diverse, with people of colour, a gay pilot, older people, and many women. But just adding diverse faces to the space fascists doesn’t change the fact they dress like WW2 Nazis, are racist toward non-humans, and are willing to hurt or kill innocent people at the drop of a hat. And — a minor spoiler follows, so skip to the next paragraph if you’d like to avoid it — Squadrons ends with two missions. The first one involves your personal team of Imperial pilots escaping after a minor victory, which feels like a weird way to end their story. The second mission, with the New Republic, feels like a proper ending to the game, and is more satisfying.
Star Wars: Squadrons
BACK OF THE BOX QUOTE
Now this is dog fighting!
TYPE OF GAME
Space combat and barrel roll simulator
The Star Wars parts, the ships, doing cool moves, space combat, the pew-pews
Bugs, some mediocre missions, playing as space Nazis, bad matchmaking
PlayStation 4 (played), Xbox One, PC
October 2, 2020
The entire campaign and about two hours of online multiplayer.
Regardless of which side you are on during the campaign, the gameplay is entirely focused on starships and space combat, with a variety of missions that often mix up what ships you get to fly and what you’re doing in these iconic vessels. Some missions are fairly straightforward, asking you to kill some fighters and protect a big ship doing big-ship stuff. Others are more interesting, like one in which the Empire’s sneakily stealing supplies from another Imperial space station during a New Republic assault. Another mission has you luring the Empire into a trap and having to escape a Star Destroyer in a deadly section of space filled with explosive rocks, lighting, and dangerous gases.
Sometimes between missions you get the opportunity to pick different ships and equip various shields, weapons, and gear. I would often go for more shields and more firepower. But if you want to be a quick and nimble predator, you can build ships that way too. It’s a very flexible and simple system that helps make the game feel more like a simulator than just an arcade space shooter.
If you found the spaceship combat in Battlefront II difficult, Squadrons might seem too hard or tricky at first. In fact, compared to most recent Star Wars games with space combat, Squadrons is much more challenging and simulation-like. For example, it makes you actively manage your ship’s energy. If you’re taking a lot of damage, throw all your energy into your shields. Or if you’re being chased, boost your engines to escape.
You also have to keep track of your ammo and supplies. Run out of missiles or chaff, which helps avoid enemy missiles, and you’ll have to call squadmates for a resupply…if they’re near, or have any. I died numerous times because I ran out of key supplies at a bad moment or forgot to manage my shields better. But once I got the hang of things, I felt like a badass pilot as I used controller shortcuts to quickly target enemies, manage energy, and issue commands.
If you just want to mindlessly blast spaceships and enjoy a fun story, you can also turn various such features off to make the game easier to control and play. I recommend tweaking the settings as you go, because you might enjoy a bit more challenge than the default, or might want to make it easier if you start feeling frustrated. I settled on a nice balance between hardcore sim and arcade sensibilities. Once you grow accustomed to your preferred balance you’ll be pulling off cool sequences like whipping around in a 180, slamming all energy into weapons, blasting a pursuing bomber, and flipping all energy back to your engines to boost away before the enemy capital ship can lock on and blow you away.
Some annoying bugs did pop up amid the fun space action. The most frequent one froze both enemy and ally ships in place, making it impossible to progress the mission. Restarting the mission would fix it, but it was annoying to sometimes lose progress after fighting through a tricky sequence. I also encountered sound issues, with audio getting quiet and not coming back until a restart. And during a tutorial for the game’s multiplayer mode, one objective wouldn’t clear even as I did exactly what the game asked me to do. Again, a restart fixed it, but over time these bugs made the game feel less stable and polished.
Squadrons does have multiplayer, which I’ve played a bit since the game went live for everyone. So far my experience has been less than stellar. While the combat and flying are still satisfying and fun, matchmaking leaves a lot to be desired. Every match I played ended in blowouts. Sometimes I was on the winning side, other times I was on the losing side. It wasn’t much fun either way. Maybe as more players spend more time with the game teams will become more balanced and matches more fun.
I hope so, because while the deathmatch mode is a drag, the main multiplayer mode, Fleets, is a blast with the right players. This 5v5 mode has players battling both each other and AI starships and capital ships in an all-out space battle. As each side destroys vessels, they grow stronger until one side can push forward and attack the other’s main flagship. It’s a fun mode and I hope matchmaking (or the playerbase) improves enough to make it more consistently enjoyable to play.
If you’re worried about loot crates or pay-to-win systems, it seems EA has learned its lesson and none of that stuff is in the game. The only way to unlock new ship parts and cosmetics is by levelling up to earn both unlock tokens and in-game cosmetic currency, or completing challenges to unlock just the currency. No need to call your senator this time.
I also tried out the game’s VR mode using my PSVR headset on a PS4 Pro. It was fine, but the PSVR screens aren’t great and you lose a lot of the smaller details in VR because everything just blurs out. But it does work, and I bet on a strong PC with a better VR headset it would be quite the experience.
Star Wars: Squadrons is good. For folks who have been wanting a Star Wars game all about X-wings and dogfighting, you’ll more than likely be happy with what’s on offer in Squadrons. Bugs and some multiplayer issues prevent it from being a totally smooth experience, but I’d still highly recommend Squadrons to anyone who thinks it sounds fun to moonlight as a hotshot Star Wars pilot.