Star Wars: Squadrons is a marvelous result of what happens when EA listens.
In its early steps of handling a franchise from a galaxy far far away, developers stumbled as it tried to modernize Star Wars games. This was where the bold entry of Battlefront II became a tipping point for EA. By slowly mending their relationship with fans, the studio was finally worthy to touch another sacred gem that were the Rogue Squadron and X-Wing/Tie Fighter games. Squadrons accomplishes a feat of injecting the thrill of classic cockpit dogfights and pushes it further into a fairly enjoyable, modern experience. EA plays it too safe on content, but Star Wars: Squadrons stands as a game that does justice to the fabled classics while bringing the fun forward to new players.
Since the Star Wars: X-Wing games were introduced almost 30 years ago, it’s clear EA had a starting point for Squadrons. The series was also the first realized flight sim dedicated to the big space battles across the Original Trilogy. EA’s latest game clearly capitalizes on the cult Rogue Squadron series, which proved fans continued to love blowing up Imperial and Rebel Scum in a starfighter. Star Wars: Squadrons is even a much deeper standalone of what players saw in Battlefront II‘s Starfighter Assault mode. It teased the potential of a reboot for space dogfights, which is what Squadrons brings to the table.
“This is your captain speaking from 1990”
Star Wars: Squadrons‘ flight and combat are eerily similar to the X-Wing games, and that’s a great thing. It also sticks to the first-person perspective for old-school immersion and overall simulation. There’s a respectful amount of detail in all of its cockpits, from the intricate layouts of different ships to a familiar symphony of TIE screeches and X-Wing zaps coming out of it. A claustrophobic feeling of being in space still lingers from the older PC games, while it quickly dissolves with lasers flying across the screen. Of course, players in Star Wars: Squadrons will be fighting from their cockpits at all times.
EA managed to simplify the process of controlling an entire ship with its most accessible controls ever. It’s built off the snappy and satisfying flight controls from Star Wars Battlefront II, with a few additions. I spent almost all of my time playing with an Xbox Wireless Controller, which arguably felt more responsive and tactile compared to the overwhelming keyboard/mouse options. To move, players only ever need to steer, pitch and roll with their fighters. Surprisingly, these are done so naturally over dual analog sticks and it feels top-notch without remapping. The left stick handles acceleration and spinning the ship. Right thumbsticks control the camera and altitude. After a brief tutorial, it didn’t take too long before I made creative maneuvers with my TIE Fighter and turned my pursuers into prey. Though daunting for newbies to the genre, EA has made controlling every aspect of a ship fun and rewarding for Squadrons‘ entirety.
It’s nice to be stuck with controls that work as smoothly as combat does. Star Wars: Squadrons goes all-in on giving players an authentic starfighter experience and pulls it off with a good direction. Players will find themselves chasing and zapping enemies with tons of maneuverability. EA definitely delivers on good old-fashioned dogfights across its campaign and multiplayer, even if it becomes a repetitive noise later on. That feeling of spinning around to regain a target feels a bit cumbersome for new players, but is what made games such as X-Wing/Tie Fighter so engaging. There’s much to be said about knowing how to move quickly to outsmart opponents and turning the tables with laser fire. It’s an incredibly rewarding power struggle that shakes the gameplay up with every confrontation. The goal is to keep targets tracked, encouraging players to pick their enemies and stick to them before moving on.
The right calling for pilots
Almost all of the battles in Star Wars: Squadrons happen in space, creating an expansive playground for pilots to run around. I never found myself going out of bounds while maps were big enough for star destroyers and rebel cruisers to sit around while dozens of fighters flew around. For chasing enemy fighters, EA effectively gives players more than enough room to engage over a large battlefield at the edge of a planet. Other maps happen in the skies of new and classic Star Wars planets and feature obstacles for players to use when outmaneuvering opponents. Over multiplayer, it strikes a great balance from tighter self-contained dogfights and grander-scale space assaults inspired by the movies.
But Star Wars: Squadrons makes for addicting action by watching enemy pilots explode in a blaze of glory and endlessly honing one’s skills to be a space baron. Players will do so from their cockpits, which players can customize with a variety of weapons and other upgrades to suit their play style. Star Wars: Squadrons gives a good amount of freedom in how players can pick their loadouts for each ship. An easy-to-follow selection for weapons can give players different laser types (single, burst or gatling), and missiles for that iconic “I have you now!” moment. These are also well-balanced, featuring perks and deliberate drawbacks to keep the focus of skill. I never felt shortchanged when crafting my own dream loadout, which was heavy in shields and slower with acceleration to keep my enemy in front of me. The best perks, including self-repair are saved for single player while the rest have to be unlocked in multiplayer.
This is where Squadrons respects the ships they were based on and uses a very Star Wars-like power management system. Players use their arrows to “divert” all power for shields, guns or speed and it works strategically well. Its seemed complicated, until realizing they’re just modes for going offensively, defensively or moving incredibly fast. Think of Crysis‘ own mechanic for switching up its powers using a controller’s D-Pad, which is exactly what Squadrons decided to go with for simplicity. Luckily, it fits to make the Star Wars experience more like its sci-fi roots as I kept my TIE extra protected before switching power to my guns and laying waste to rebel scum. This adds a new layer in surviving Star Wars: Squadrons‘ intense space combat without taking away from the authenticity. Players will need to know how to switch their power accordingly as their hull integrity (health) starts to plummet from pursuers or enemy flagships sending volleys of lasers at them.
A stunning jump to Hyperspace
Squadrons has a really interesting choice for going the first-person route for a star fighting game. Some players might feel like there’s a lot to get used to when they first load into their cockpit and see the world through their windows. X-Wings give extra visibility at the top. Y-Wing Bombers offer a dome for wider peripheral vision. TIE Fighters concentrate on the front lines of sight and TIE Interceptors encourage narrow tracking. Each have their own ups-and downs and are shared by Star Wars‘ love for random flashing buttons on surfaces. But EA has cleverly put the game’s entire HUD into each cockpit, showing off the acceleration, tracking target, ship info, shields, ammo and power meters. These felt a bit obscuring at first, until I found my eyes darting from panels to the outside every second. Star Wars: Squadrons encouraged me to think like a star pilot would by closely keeping track of the ship’s state and condition. Its HUD features distinctive colours to separate each ship’s features, making it an authentic experience next to Microsoft Flight Simulator. A nice reference comes from the films and particularly The Last Jedi as holograms light up to deliver messages from characters mid-flight.
It’s still beautiful to see Star Wars: Squadrons from the inside of a cockpit. Thanks to EA’s signature photorealistic graphic engine from Battlefront and Jedi Fallen Order, it’s hard to separate Squadrons from the CGI-driven space sequences in modern Star Wars media. Giant planets loom over the horizon as massive star destroyers and supermassive cruisers look puny in scale. Scurrying like flies around them are the swarm of fighters buzzing and blasting with a bright exchange of green and red laser bolts. The scale of it all makes it feel like you’re a part of a big battle in every campaign, multiplayer and AI match.
Immersion without buying Death Sticks
Surprisingly, the best thing from Star Wars: Squadrons comes from a simple toggle in the settings. The game changes almost completely with VR. EA has happily added support for PC headsets to Star Wars: Squadrons, letting players go through it entirely in a new perspective. Inspired by Star Wars Battlefront‘s Rogue One VR level, EA has taken the platform seriously and scaled the galaxy in a massive way for users. It’s hard to explain how my jaw dropped as soon as I woke up in the seat of a full-scale TIE Fighter. Like a kid in a Star Wars dream, I got to look around at the galaxy and ride an X-Wing to my heart’s content. The ships feel massive as I looked at my ship’s wings I became cozy around my seat and controls. It’s actually an unfair advantage for VR players as they can actually see more with their head. Ships including X-Wings and other dome-based fighters have blind spots players can actually look at to identify pursuers and other details outside. VR pilots can even barrel-roll and look up to see other lines of sight in dogfights. In campaign, AI battles and multiplayer, this could become a problem with crossplay as VR players can look and plan out their maneuvers beforehand.
VR is arguably the best way to experience Star Wars: Squadrons from start to finish. But EA’s inexperience with the platform is what make the feature slightly disappointing. The 1:1 scale is perfect, until its lack of direct optimizations make the game look muddy in comparison to standard VR games. I noticed that characters lacked depth as they spoke to me in person, while in-game artifacts looked cheaper. Over PC, the stress of handling Squadrons and VR took a toll over my RTX 2060 8GB card. This lead to crashes at least once or twice per session, during the most important times in campaign and multiplayer. First-time pilots in VR might not have gained their so-called “VR Legs” and can catch spacesickness when rolling around in their fighters. This is when the game’s seamless options let me take a break and switch to the traditional on-screen experience. But despite its flaws, it was worth spending half of my Squadrons time in VR. It wasn’t a big problem for me in handling the game with an Xbox controller, but can imagine the absurd realism in using a HOTAs flight stick which is also supported.
Smaller game, even smaller content
The review’s emphasis for gameplay reflect’s Star Wars: Squadrons‘ lack of content as a lower-priced package. Yes, it does feature a hearty campaign which can be worth buying for replayability. But in EA fashion, its seven-to-eight hour story on Normal feels like a tutorial for the multiplayer path ahead. That’s not to say EA has made a lower-budget narrative. It still contains fully-acted out characters and CGI cutscenes which connect each space battle. Star Wars: Squadrons‘ story is told between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, just as the last remnants of the Empire are trying to prevent rebels from forming The New Republic. It’s smart to stick with the original trilogy’s settings and ships to capture the X-Wing series of games. The prologue also adds in a nice little cameo to send TIE Fighter fans screaming internally. More cameos from Hera Syndulla from Star Wars Rebels and Wedge Antilles are a nice treat for pilots, but that’s as far as it goes. Most of the new characters are forgettable at best, fitting the cookie-cutter archetypes of an uptight Empire and the scrappier Rebel Alliance. Players might also be stumped to find out the story is too grounded and self-contained while it adds no impact to the overall Star Wars lore. EA had a new chance to add an exciting canon as it did with Battlefront II, but ultimately plays it too safe after featuring just about everyone.
Shaking the campaign up are 14 repetitive missions where pilots navigate through asteroid fields before engaging enemy fleets. Of course, it’s what makes Star Wars: Squadrons fun. EA attempts to shake things up with some objectives like blasting important beacons or massive cruisers. Some sequences like stealthily cloaking your squad through an Imperial blockade were really cool, though it’s just one good sequence in a game that needs way more cinematic moments. Most of the narrative is reserved through radio chatter, table briefings and Need for Speed style dialogue which lead absolutely nowhere. I didn’t mind the extra filler, though it’s worth noting there is only one boss fight in its disappointing campaign. I would have loved to take on some of the Empire and Rebel’s best ace pilots in a one-on-one battle frequently, but EA pulls their punches in order to keep characters alive. The campaign also takes less of a risk in its Empire vs. Rebels gimmick. The chapters are divided between their respective Titan and Vanguard Squadrons. I found the Rebels more fun to play as (from blasting TIEs), whereas the Empire featured an even more compelling storyline built on betrayal and moving on after Endor. But EA’s restraint gave the promising conflict lower stakes this time around and I never saw both of my teams claw at each other’s throats. My custom character rarely show up in cutscenes, while their voices are reserved for commands which I rarely used.
Flying solo no more
There was surprisingly less amount of variety in Star Wars: Squadrons‘ multiplayer and AI modes. The core online portion is Dogfights, which pits teams of five against each other in open spaces. My first three matches gave me some of the most thrilling moments from Squadrons, and it became surprisingly easy to end the game with a respectable amount of kills. Even some of the most leveled-up pilots can be outsmarted by weaving through space debris and coming back around to hurl lasers at them. Thanks to a snappy lock-on system, it’s fun to chase real players over the playing fields while teammates swoop in to help. Unlilke Starfighter Assault from Battlefront II, EA has toned down the craziness of having over 60 ships in one map and created a real player-focused deathmatch that is addicting. Map variety could use a boost, as I found myself flying through the same handful of maps. At level 5, players unlock the ranked Fleet Battles. This cooperative PvE mode can be played with a team of five as they complete objectives and destroy enemy cruisers. It’s a nice separation for players looking to progress without others, while enemy teams can also be filled for an all out war. I had some fun jumping late into a match and laying waste to enemies. Objectives like destroying a crusier’s weak spots and other important nodes were a great change of pace, across phases.
All of Star Wars: Squadrons’ modes offer progression, giving players a typical grind to unlock weapons and ship cosmetics. Gone are the pay-to-win days and I’m especially proud of EA in providing challenges that aren’t too hard to complete. These larger tasks go towards unlocking rarer helmets and other goodies. XP grants players Requisition points to spend on ship parts. Glory points unlock cosmetics and gifts for your cockpit, including bobbleheads and dangling charms. In just several hours, players can easily reach level 5 and gain a decent amount of unlockables without the baggages of a paid live service model. The amount of of support for Squadrons would only improve this experience with new challenges and seasons which shake multiplayer up. One of their biggest changes includes a battle pass, called Operations which feature their own challenges. Finishing them means being put in a special Tier Progression which grants big bucks with every level up. Players could easily overlook its training mode, but actually lets players experiment with different ships and blast enemies to their heart’s content. This mode also lets players spawn different enemies and AI squadrons for unlimited dogfights.
EA has definitely come far from its first steps for creating modern Star Wars games. Their resurgence from Battlefront II Celebration Edition and Jedi Fallen Order continues with Star Wars: Squadrons, which brings the X-Wing/TIE Fighter games back to life. The flight controls and highly-engaging dogfights are some of the most definitive to date for Star Wars, even if it’s the only thing keeping its sub-par story and simple multiplayer together. This is a game that could only have been pulled off through years of finding a common ground with fans, who deserved Squadrons when the time was right.