I’m old. Like, really old. I’m so old that I can still tell you how to write an autoexec.bat and config.sys to get my drivers loaded high and configure my 16-bit Sound Blaster card — no Midi here! These early days of computer gaming gave us incredible games like Wing Commander, Privateer, Star Wars: TIE Fighter, Star Wars: X-Wing, and Star Wars: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter: Balance of Power. These games spelled the apex of space flight sims, with the latter letting us live out our fantasy of fighting for the Empire or Republic in a galactic battle that has ruled the universe since many of us were kids. But it’s been a long time since 1997 — could EA Motive recapture the magic with Star Wars: Squadrons?
Star Wars: Squadrons has a single-player mode that takes place in an inviting and unexplored part of Star Wars lore — the moment right after the Battle of Endor and the destruction of the second Death Star. Despite the celebratory (and far-too-tweaked) ending of Return of the Jedi, the war didn’t immediately end. In fact, the death of Emperor Palpatine set in motion a new assault called Operation: Cinder which aimed to destroy multiple key planets with climate change weaponry. In fact, battles continued for nearly 30 years between the battle of Yavin 4 and the rise of the First Order, including the liberation of the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk. The battle on Jakku that left the crashed skeleton of the Super Destroyer Ravager for Rei to explore years later, the Galactic Concordance, the battle for Scarriff, and many more expand this universe far beyond the end of Return of the Jedi. The movies sell you on the idea that peace ruled the galaxy as Ewoks danced around and banged on Stormtrooper helmets, but the novels tell a very different story.
Rather than choosing a side, the campaign alternates between the New Republic and the Empire, telling the story from both sides of the conflict. Below you’ll find the first mission for both sides told back to back, allowing you to see the continuation of the story but from a different perspective. The Empire is vastly diminished, and the death of The Emperor and Darth Vader leaves a leadership vacuum. The Republic goes through its own leadership regime change becoming the New Republic. The storyline for the campaign focuses on this power vacuum and the people who aren’t grand heroes who get movies deal with the aftermath. Don’t think this is an abbreviated tacked-on distraction, either — the full campaign will take you eight to ten hours to complete on a single difficulty level.
As you can see in these videos, Star Wars: Squadrons is absolutely gorgeous. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise as Battlefront II was beautiful as well, and also made by EA Motive. What is a surprise is just how optimized the whole thing is. Below you’ll see a 4K capture running on the GeForce RTX 3080 where the framerate hovers around a blistering 150fps! The mission is a heavily-populated practice area, so rest assured you won’t run afoul of any spoilers on this one.
The story provides you with the ship you need for the mission ahead, but when you get out into multiplayer you’ll see that the Republic and Empire get access to four ships each, falling into the expected classes of fighters, interceptors, bombers, and support. For the Empire, this means you’ll see TIE Fighters, TIE Bombers, and TIE Reapers, and the New Republic will have X-Wing, A-Wing, Y-Wing, and U-Wing fighters to combat them. Each ship has stats for firepower, speed, and overall toughness. These have obvious implications in battle, but they aren’t entirely static. During flight you can adjust your power, pushing additional juice to firepower, engines, or shields as your need dictates. The weapons that each of them carry, and how those weapons are configured dictates their combat role.
Each ship has roughly a half dozen components that you can adjust to fit your mission. For example, on the TIE Fighter there are five primary laser types and seven secondary components like repair systems, concussion missiles, and even shields. There are three countermeasure types, six hulls, and seven engine types to round things out, and that’s just one airframe!
Beyond the functional weapons and equipment for your craft, you can also customize them in a number of ways. Paint is a given, as are dozens of different decals for your wings, but similar to what we’ve seen in games like Mechwarrior Online, you can also drop all sorts of goodies onto your dashboard and hang them from the glass frame.
Both the weapons and the cosmetics would have been an easy target for microtransaction unlocks, but I’m happy to say that there are no microtransactions to be found at launch. (Fingers crossed for any post-launch shenanigans.) These are instead purchased with Glory and Requisition which are earned by performing well in multiplayer. There are also ongoing challenges like completing a certain number of matches or flying as a specific ship type. These cycle pretty frequently, but they all roll up to an overall challenge with a better reward. At launch I’m seeing “Complete three dogfight matches,” “Win one Fleet Battle vs. AI,” and “As an X-Wing or TIE Fighter, destroy 10 ships.” When I get 20 of these completed I’ll earn a swanky white helmet called “Symbol of Hope” with gold Rebel markings. I like to fly as Empire, so it’ll make a good kitty litter scoop. Beyond simply buying these things with accumulated Glory, you can also earn them by completing daily challenges. I’ve performed a full fleet inspection in this video below, showing off all of the weapons, equipment, and cosmetics you can earn.
The team at Motive wanted to make Star Wars: Squadrons highly accessible, as well as highly customizable. To that end, they’ve given us four difficulty levels ranging from Story Mode (less dangerous enemies, easy controls, lots of aim assist) all the way to Ace (all fighters are incredibly fragile, capital ships are death in motion). Inside of these difficulty levels, you can also change targeting behavior, how much visual data the HUD provides such as whether or not ships are bracketed with a targeting reticle or hints like what you need to do when your ship has been disabled with an ion weapon. That’s all cool, but let’s talk about the controls.
I’m very pleased to confirm that not only does Star Wars: Squadrons support HOTAS (hands-on throttle and stick), it does it so well that I cannot imagine playing without it. I use a Saitek X56 Rhino and games like this remind me why I bought it. The ships aren’t overly complicated to fly, but Motive has given us a bunch of ways to customize it to any preference. Flight control inversion is a given, but you also have the ability to change your throttle style from continuous to stepped, change the value of those steps, throttle friction (the throttle tends to stick to the optimized center), and eight sensitivity adjustments just to name a few. Sure, you can play the game on a keyboard and mouse, or take to the vacuum of space with a controller, but once you play with HOTAS there’s no going back. That leads me to one of the most exciting aspects of Star Wars: Squadrons — virtual reality.
Star Wars: Squadrons supports VR on both PC and PlayStation 4. Donning my HTC Vive I was immediately blown away by the sheer scale of the ships in this game. I could capture video all day and still not be able to adequately show what it’s like to trench run a massive Star Destroyer. The TIE-Fighter and X-Wing feel incredibly claustrophobic, as they looked in the movie. On the other hand, the TIE Reaper is downright roomy. Nothing the New Republic has to offer has any room to recline your seat, so prepare for that sardine in a tin can feeling. Still, being able to look around and see all the flashing lights, knobs, switches, and look around in all directions is everything I could have possibly hoped for it to be. Pulling a drift move, inverting with a roll, and gunning the throttle makes you feel like a hotshot pilot at the helm of an agile spacecraft. Unfortunately, if you are susceptible to motion sickness, that same maneuver will also make you sick pretty quickly. As a massive Star Wars fan, and an unfortunate VR nausea sufferer, this was a disappointing outcome, but I have good news. Turning off the motion blurring effect completely alleviated the problem! Instead of only being able to last 5-10 minutes before feeling like I was going to throw up and sweating profusely, I was able to play for as long as I wanted without a problem. Here’s a Fleet Battles vs. AI match played entirely in VR:
Beyond the story lies three multiplayer modes — Dogfight, Fleet Battles (ranked), and Fleet Battles vs. AI (unranked). There are two training modes to help you get the hang of those things before you jump online as well.
We’ve spent the last week post-launch playing with the multiplayer of Star Wars: Squadrons, and I have to admit I’m more than a little surprised at just how much there is to love. Within each of the six maps are a world of nuance. The Galitan map features a destroyed moon in the Ringali Nebula. Turbulence in the area has ripped the moon apart, leaving debris large and small littered throughout the battlefield. The first times I tackled this map I simply flew through the largest openings between the asteroids to take on the enemy. As my piloting skills grew I found myself exploring the more dangerous paths, zipping between moving asteroids and finding the odd cave to hurtle through at entirely too high of speeds. Sure, I occasionally smashed myself into them, exploding in the blink of an eye, but more often I was able to shake a pursuing fighter or missile so I could engage my next target. Similarly, it’s easy to look at the Nadiri Dockyards and just see a giant circular starship manufacturing station, but flying into some of the ports or simply flying underneath provides a more dangerous but unseen path that can allow you to sneak up on unsuspecting opponents or approach a cruiser without taking so much damage on the way in.
When it comes to the multiplayer modes, with only two of them, you’ll soon be wishing for crazy trench runs or other possibilities. The dogfight mode is a 5v5 fight until you hit 30 kills as a team, and the maps make all the difference here. The Yavin map feels like a complete waste as you often find yourself spinning in circles chasing other targets. Without any cover it’s like two rams just smashing their heads into one another over and over — it lacks nuance. The other five are great in their own ways — I just wish there were more of them.
Fleet battles (against AI or other players) are objective-based and downright difficult. The AI is ruthless, and you’ll be obliterated in mere moments if you approach an objective too early. Unfortunately this can lead to moments where the battle shifts and you aren’t given a chance to safely evacuate, leading to some frankly unfair deaths. Still, it encourages people to work together to take on a larger mission, so perhaps it’s a small price to pay.
Your first objective is to thin the herd a bit, taking out opposing craft until you’ve filled the meter at the top of the screen to a specific amount. Next, you’ll be tasked with destroying two mid-sized ships guarding your path to the larger objective. Taking on the two corvettes that flank the larger capital ship for your side means learning how to approach and target subsystems on each type of craft. Shield generators on the left and right side, targeting computers, etc. all stand in the way of your ultimate goal. It grants opportunity to balance out your team with bombers and support craft, or you can fly back to your capital ship and swap out to something more suited to the task. Finally taking them out, you’ll have a clear shot at the larger target. The other side is trying to do the same thing, leading to a tug of war between both teams.
The game supports cross-compatibility with Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC, and it’s hard to say who is using what platform, which is great. That said, there’s a massive advantage to any players who are able to use the far greater viewing angles of virtual reality. It’s awesome to finally have a game that makes use of virtual reality in this complete a fashion.
We do need to talk about the characters in the story for Star Wars: Squadrons. The cutscenes are beautiful and look like they could be part of any movie. The interactions outside of the cutscenes often fall down the uncanny valley with dead eyed characters who move somewhat unnaturally, if they move at all. These interactions are almost entirely optional, and I’d say you could skip them if they weren’t so interesting. Ignore the janky animations and get to know your crew — it’s worth it.
There’s a lot to be excited about with Star Wars: Squadrons. It not only meets all of my expectations, it wildly exceeds them. VR support for the entire game instead of just a single mission taste makes this the game we’ve always dreamed of so many years ago. It truly is the sequel to all of those great early PC games so many years ago, but with all of the modern bells and whistles. While I do wish for more modes and maps for multiplayer, the single player portion is absolutely perfect. Put simply, if you are a Star Wars fan, it doesn’t get better than this.
Star Wars: Squadrons
Star Wars: Squadrons delivers a fantastic single player story, excellent flight combat, and dogfighting that feels incredible. Gorgeous graphics translate perfectly to VR, and HOTAS support is the only way to play this game. There’s simply nothing like this -- now let’s see if EA can deliver more maps and modes to give us more reasons to climb in the cockpit over and over.