Star Wars Squadrons is not a sequel to the classic Rogue Squadron games. Or even the more direct inspirations and more classic X-Wing or TIE Fighter. Instead, it’s a much more simple package. A chaotic, multiplayer focussed 5v5 dogfighting game that feels amazing, when it works.
Developed by Motive and published by EA, it’s the latest game under their Star Wars License.
In Star Wars Squadrons, from your fixed first person position in the cockpit of your ship, you’ll engage in space battles in teams of five. You’ll be trying to either just take down enemy players, or engage in pitched Fleet Battles featuring capital ships and cruisers as well as AI fighters.
Let’s start with the obvious. This is a Star Wars game being published by EA on the Frostbite Engine. As such, it’s filled with absurdly high fidelity models, beautiful stages and stunning skyboxes.
Fighting inside a Republic Shipyard or among the shattered remains of a volcanic moon is visually spellbinding and makes for an incredible experience.
Even the categorically worst map in the form of the empty gas cloud field of Yavin is at the very least, pretty.
Every cockpit is movie accurate, every character design looks straight out of the extended universe. The expectedness of all of this is not to diminish the work of the team at Motive. It’s truly impressive work.
At its core, this is a fast paced game designed around constant shield and power management in a densely packed 3D environment.
Gameplay is chaotic. Constantly flashing icons, cracks appearing on your screen as you take hull damage.
The best moments of the game come in desperate chases, slamming backwards on your thruster to swing your ship around an asteroid in pursuit of the enemy.
Or wildly throwing power between weapons and shields as you angle them backwards to catch laser blasts while trying to bait your opponents into overextending themselves.
You need to be processing two or three control sets at all time between movement, weapons and power management.
As such, the flight scheme seems designed for a controller. (Xbox Controller descriptions used)
There’s a lot going on.
Left stick controls thrust going forward and backwards, and roll going left and right. Right stick controls pitch. D pad is used to allocate your power supplies between boosting your engine speed, slowing down weapons overheat or overcharging your shield. (Imperial ships don’t have shields, but do get an instant overclock option on their weapons and speed to balance that out)
Beyond that, right trigger and bumpers for firing main weapons and support weapons, left trigger to select/targets, A button to cycle viable targets.
The Control scheme takes a little time to wrap your head around. It took me an age to get the hang of power management properly. At its best, you should be constantly switching to build up overshields or boost, while flicking to full weapons as soon as you start firing.
(I haven’t even properly gotten a grip on the Classic power management settings where everything is allocated manually)
In addition, I had to keep reminding myself I can pitch left as well as right, because my brain kept trying to think in two dimensions. It’s why the maps with debris or objects are easier to play in. You can orient yourself around the closest terrain.
Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the VR Support and I can’t comment on the HOTAS support. I have access to neither. For those more technical methods of play, go see a more technical source.
But beyond the core gameplay, let’s break it down further, into the Story mode and the Multiplayer mode.
Set chronologically between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, there’s an overall interesting wrinkle in the story for Star Wars Squadrons. You’ll be playing as both the Imperials and the New Republic at different points around the same narrative. It’s a fun way to get the player in both sets of ships.
Unfortunately the Mission design for the story is not equally intersting. The vast majority of missions takes place on the multiplayer maps. You’ll generally have to escort a shuttle, take down waves of fighters/bombers or challenge a cruiser. They repeat a fair bit.
There are exceptions though. An attack on an Imperial Listening station in a Y Wing does some excellent work with 3D spatial maneuvering, while the final Imperial mission is a very fun twist on the classic Death Star II missions from previous games.
It’s just frustrating not to see slightly more creativity throughout. I get that it’s limited in an understandable way. The Story is, after all, primarily here to get the player up to speed with the game concepts before starting the multiplayer. The single player is primarily an extended tutorial. It’s so important a splash screen launches when you start the game telling you that you SHOULD play the single player first.
A total of 16 missions, each at most twenty minutes or so to complete. Approximately 6-8 hours to complete the story total. More if you’re going back to get the Rogue Squadron style challenge medals that encourage you to replay missions. Beyond the bragging rights of the different difficulty settings, I love this. Give me optional objectives, time based challenges and single life playthroughs over a score system any day of the week.
As for the story itself, The writing for the single player missions could charitably be described as “genre fare”.
It’s arch, broad storytelling with two types of dialogue.
“Here’s mission details.”
“Here’s a reference to the expanded universe”
Most of the time you get both within a sentence of each other. The latter type is also nigh incomprehensible if you don’t already understand it, and the game doesn’t have the time or resources to point you in the right direction.
The general problem is you’re supposed to be a great heroic pilot for your faction, but everyone in your faction is explaining basic details all the time. It also doesn’t help that you’re broadly being talked at, rather than to, in what are effectively visual novel sequences without any choices. The characters themselves may also end up being a little too generic for some players.
For some examples of just how tropey they gets:
Republic: Keo. They’re a Mirialan (yellow skinned with facial markings alien) pilot who gets hunches based on their species'”natural connection” to the force. They’re a great pilot because of their long history as a racer too.
Empire: Vonreg. She’s a heavily scarred human survivor of the Battle of Endor,desperate to get revenge on the Empire’s enemies. And enjoy it while she does so. Classic sadist.
Subtle, these characters are not.
But, overall it’s all very in vein with the WW2 Fighter Pilot serials that Star Wars Dogfighting is specifically based on. Betrayals, last ditch efforts, plucky underdogs. The bluntness works. It’s also necessary as two sets of stories and casts means there’s limited time for development for either.
As for the player themselves, character creation is flexible, if a little small in scale. Pick one of two body types, pick from 8 human heads of various ethnicities, pick from one of 8 voices. Mix and match as you want to present yourself.
The more interesting stuff is in character customisation after that initial setup. Unlock the currency by playing multiplayer, get access to new flight suits, alien heads (for the new Republic anyway) as well as lots of paintjobs and dash ornaments for your cockpit.
(These can all be turned off on the player end too if you want a constant “canon” experience)
It’s fun, and allows just enough personalisation to feel meaningful. Even better, all points and upgrades are earned just by levelling up in game or completing generous daily challenges.
Moving past the Story and Characters then, the game has kind of an incredible training mode. At any time you’re free to just launch a scenario in the test map to test your abilities and loadout. Spawn in enemy fighters to practice your dogfighting. Spawn in a capital ship to learn the various weak points and to strategise. Start an obstacle course to practice your fancy flying.
This is important, as Star Wars Squadrons absolutely wants you to be ready before playing multiplayer.
You’re advised to complete the story before playing multiplayer. You have to reach Rank 5 (by playing dogfights) before playing Fleet Battle mode. You’re additionally advised to play the tutorial for that mode against AI before playing against humans again. (To learn how to play the objectives)
Dogfight is comparatively simple. Five players on each side, first team to 30 kills total wins. Resupply stations are placed in the centre of the map for both sides, it’s basically team deathmatch. Skill plus loadouts and basic teamwork. Simple.
Fleet Battles are the more prestigious mode of Star Wars Squadrons. Designed to be played in a ranked system that will keep things fair, this again is 5v5 players, but also featuring AI controlled Fighters, Cruisers and Capital Ships. It runs in tug of war style phases. Both teams will engage in the centre of the map. They’ll be trying to take out most of the opposite team, while not losing their own forces. Kills shift morale in a progress bar. Fill the progress bar enough, your team gets to go on the offensive. First stage is taking down two shielded support cruisers that provide resupply points for the opposing team, then when those are gone, attack the capital ship through its many weak spot subsystems.
At any point, the momentum can shift if the morale bar can be reversed in favour of the defending team.
As a concept, I really like this idea. Attack and Defend around fixed positions is a great idea for multiplayer gameplay. It also should show off the versatility of the ship types, as players switch depending on the phase.
It doesn’t quite work. The Back and forth ends up dragging the match out when a winner is near guaranteed. The AI just sort of causes chaos for the players, acting as either cheap fodder or a source of random damage. The players will generally end up focussing on the various cruisers for big points. The capital ships require serious concentrated effort and teamplay to take down efficiently. Ideally this means bombers and fighters. But switching ships without respawning means flying all the way across the map. With a coordinated (read: Prebuilt group of friends) team, it’s potentially great. Assigning roles to cover the fighter/bomber/support requirements is essential, and feeds the squadron fantasy. Everyone running interceptors to farm kills and not taking down the objective is less fun.
This may be one of the very few games where I just genuinely prefer team deathmatch to public objective modes. It ends up showing off the brilliant aspects of the gameplay more.
But how flexible is the actual gameplay variety in those modes otherwise?
Let’s Talk Ships
The Classics: Your balanced classes. X Wing and TIE Fighter. Workhorses of the Republic and Imperial fleets respectively. Flexibly able to cover attacking fighters, cruisers and capital ships depending on the loadout.
The Big Guns: TIE Bombers or Y Wings. Slow, chunky and maneuverable as a brick. While designed to take down capital ships and cruisers on fixed runs, they can also be filled with enough rockets and missiles to make them credible threats to fighters.
The Aces: The TIE Interceptor and (Best Ship) the A Wing. They kill ships dead. Nippy and able to change course like a hummingbird. Also has a hull as thick as a hummingbird. Easy to take down if they have fire focussed on them. Just have to catch them.
The Wildcard Supports: The TIE Reaper and U Wing. Large gunboats designed to support the rest of the team. Able to place turrets, lay mines, heal players, resupply players, throw shields, shoot stunning ION weapons and take a surprisingly serious amount of punishment. You’ll more likely than not be getting more assists than straight kills, but a good support ship can disrupt an enemy team all by itself.
It’s a limited variety, but the customisation and loadouts do allow for a lot of flexibility.
And while I’m sure a meta will develop, the vast majority of choices seemed to be down to personal preference or ship role. The balance seems good enough that nothing appears to be an instant pick every time.
There are a couple of multiplayer specific minor issues though.
There’s currently no way to just keep playing with the team from your last round unless it’s a prebuild of friends from the lobby.
ION weapons are a very simple concept, oddly executed. It’s effectively a stun status. If a ship is hit by several ION cannon blasts, or an ION missile, shields drop and the ship drifts. If a player gets hit, they have to mash a button rapidly to regain control. It’s more than a little frustrating, especially as it can keep being applied if you’re somehow not instantly killed.
Beyond that, the Radar is functionally useless. It allows you to point yourself in the general direction of the enemy in order to reorient if you get confused. Otherwise it’s just an indecipherable mass of red and green shapes.
Additionally, in both single player and multiplayer modes, the AI is less than impressive at lower difficulty, while being uncannily resilient and deadly at higher difficulty. There’s not really a sweet spot.
Finally though, this is where we come to the biggest core limitation of the game and probably the most important part of this review as a primer.
Star Wars Squadrons is absolutely not a big game. It’s also not a live service.
There are no plans for more than the 6 maps, or more than the 8 ships, or more story . It’s got a price tag to match, not having a full price game cost.
But knowing that going in is important.
If expectations are too high, it would be incredibly easy to be disappointed in this game. A short single player campaign here won’t be added to if you’re not keen on the multiplayer content. If you get bored without a constant stream of new multiplayer content, this isn’t for you. Ideally the fact the game is crossplay between consoles and the various PC markets will help keep it running for a while, but it really will depend on the audience.
At its core, this game will live or die on how keen you are to just engage with the 5v5 multiplayer Dogfighting gameplay. Everything else is a thin shell around that main idea.
Star Wars Squadrons does have a lot to offer in that respect.
The singular experience of getting that modern, high fidelity Star Wars dogfighting gameplay. Pitting your wits against an opposing player and working with your squadmates to bait the enemy.
That perfect moment in a chase when you slot through a tiny gap in some wreckage and you hear the crash behind you.
Skimming the deck of a Star Destroyer as warning lights flare and bombs drop beneath you.
The core flight mechanics are exactly what I wanted from this game.