Platform: PS4 Pro
Available on: PC, Xbox One, PSVR, Oculus VR, Steam VR
Genre: Flight Sim
Developer: Motive Studios
Released: October 2nd, 2020
Note: Unfortunately, I don’t have the necessary set-up for HOTAS or VR so my experience with this game is based solely on using a controller!
It has been a long time ago in a galaxy blah blah since we had anything resembling a space flight sim set in the Star Wars universe. Outside of some admittedly very cool looking (and feeling) arcade cabinets and the simplified dogfighting mode in Star Wars Battlefront 2 there hasn’t been a true to form flight sim akin to the X-Wing and Rogue Squadron games of yesteryear.
To this humble casual, the genre has been severely starved in the AAA space, with more niche titles like the forever in development Star Citizen and the much more in-depth Elite Dangerous the only games to really try scratch that itch in earnest. But for as much as those games stand out on their own merits, there is nothing quite like dog fighting in the cockpit of an X-Wing/TIE fighter, the ultimate sci-fi fantasy come true for quite a few of us I’d wager.
With Star Wars: Squadrons, developer Motive Studios has revived the Star Wars brand in this genre for a new generation and welcomed into its arms, the VR and HOTAS class of gamer that crave the opportunity to take full advantage of their set up and the more casual (hello there) variety too.
A Surprise to be sure…But a Welcome One
I think it’s fair to say that EA has earned the right to be greeted skeptically. Especially when it comes to its handling of the Star Wars brand. When Squadrons was first announced it was met with equal amounts of excitement and trepidation, a Star Wars brand flight sim finally, at a budget price that promised a single-player focused story mode, classic dog fighting multi-player matchmaking and NO microtransactions? Like not even a whiff? Hmmm…
But by golly, they have done it! I don’t think it’s unhealthy to have a skeptical mind when it comes to these AAA big money studios but I’m as impressed with EAs seeming 180 from not so long ago as much as I am the game itself.
Speaking of which, let’s break it down! Star Wars: Squadrons puts you in the flight suits of both the newly minted New Republic (Rebels) as Vanguard Squadron and the Imperial Titan Squadron (Empire) set just after the events of Return of the Jedi. During the relatively short campaign (roughly 7 to 8 hours for completion) the game jumps between these warring squadrons as both squads attempt to outwit the other. The experience of which, we're about to get right into.
Heroes on Both Sides
While I appreciated the idea of experiencing both sides of the coin, interacting with your fellow shipmates, and getting to know the people of Vanguard and Titan squadron, I could never truly invest. Even though you can customize your character with a small selection of preset options, the story as it is told, always felt like it was being told around me rather than allowing me to be an active participant. Kind of like an interactive movie, or the old Wing Commander FMV sequences of old - characters kind of acknowledge your presence but ultimately there is no feeling of involvement, things just happen around you.
And while this is ultimately a rollercoaster ride, after the surprisingly emotional story telling on display in last year’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, I am a bit disappointed. There is nothing wrong with what happens per se, the characterization of each squad is entertaining and classic Star Wars fare, I just maybe expected more on the story front. It was clear the campaign was more a vehicle to introduce the multiplayer concepts and getting you used to the controls than really trying to reach for anything.
However, as much as I personally wanted more from the campaign, the gameplay more than makes up for any shortcomings on display here.
Now THIS, is Pod Racing…Sorry
When it comes to Star Wars there is nothing more important than nailing the feeling of the universe. Just like the odds of navigating an asteroid field successfully being staggeringly unfavorable, it is equally as difficult to produce the right feeling of immersion. Go too far in one direction and you risk potentially slamming into the asteroid belts of fan backlash, poor analogy aside, you get the idea.
Luckily, Squadrons does not have this problem. Whether you are like me and experiencing the inside of your favorite star fighter from the comfort of your couch, controller in hand, or lucky enough to have the immersive set up of your VR headset and HOTAS of choice, this is Star Wars.
Motive have knocked it out of the park, from its art direction and level design that lets you fly around some beautiful and unique star-scapes - to the tight, nail biting action of the dog fighting itself. All of this to the tune of the classic John Williams soundtrack and the added original compositions that sound just enough like the real deal that it fits.
There are some smart design choices made here to help with the immersion. In fact I’d highly recommend turning off the HUD elements with the “instruments only” option that is offered upon starting up the game (you can adjust and switch this out in the accessibility options later if preferred). With this on, you must rely on the “physical” instruments of the cockpit to track ships systems and enemy targets. Perfect fodder for those looking to get fully absorbed in the world.
Great Shot Motive, One in a Million
The moment to moment gameplay is addictive. For those unfamiliar to the genre, this is definitely one of the more user-friendly flight sims out there, but it can feel a little overwhelming at first. The campaign does what it can to slowly introduce you to the concept of managing your speed, weapons, and shield gauges to maximize your performance in a fight but you may find some teething issues cropping up as you familiarize yourself with the various ships both Rebel and Empire alike.
On the topic of ships, the developers clearly scoured the vast resources provided by Disney when creating the different ships on offer here. While both sides have four classes to choose from that vaguely cover the ‘Assault, Recon, Heavy and Support’ roles that would be standard in say Battlefront for example, there is plenty of min/maxing and customization options for each class of ship that provide truly unique experiences. Not only do the Empire and Rebel counterparts feel like you always imagined in your mind, but you can also swap out components to tune your preferred class more to your liking.
For the campaign specifically, this provided some unprecedented choice in how you approach missions and could make the difference between success and failure. I never felt like the game was being unfair and when I did encounter a difficult situation, it was more often than not down to my chosen loadout or poor decision – as opposed to some arbitrary difficulty spike or fault of the game itself.
Did you ever hear…The Tragedy... of too many Joke Headings?
Not pictured: The Senate
I realize I’ve spoken at length on the look and feel of Squadrons without diving too much into what drives the games mechanics. For me, if you are going to call yourself a Star Wars game it’s all about the feeling. If you can nail that the rest usually follows, and this game is no exception. It nails it and the happy upside is the gameplay itself is a joy to play. Multiplayer matches, once you’re confident enough, are a blast and while the existence of only two modes, dog fight and fleet battles are the only offering, I find myself continually circling back for more.
The added depth provided by swapping out ship components to sacrifice maneuverability for more speed for example, or rapid-fire lasers over standard for the extra damage boost but sacrificing accuracy keep things fresh. Couple that with some requisite fighter and pilot customization in the form of cosmetics give plenty of reasons to come back for more.
Overall, the greater worry here is time. EA has firmly stated they have no intention of supporting this game with post launch content ala its live service cousin Battlefront 2. Which is a shame, for as much of a shambles as that games launch was, it blossomed and grew into a very engaging and content rich game. To deny Squadrons of the same potential (and me of my B-Wing damn it), with such solid foundations at its core seems like a big mistake but who knows at this stage! I will give credit where it is due, they’ve been straight up from the jump and while I hope that changes as a fan, I’m just glad this experience exists in the first place.
Play this game if…
You’ve got the VR and HOTAS set-up you’ve always dreamed of
You’re a Star Wars fan
You miss the X-Wing vs Tie Fighter and Rogue Squadron days
You’re looking for quick fast paced action in a pretty package
All images taken from press kit found here
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