Star Wars games used to be a guarantee of quality, during the Lucasarts years, we saw titles like X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, Knights of the Old Republic, the original Battlefront series, Republic Commando, and I could easily go on.
Since the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm, with the license being passed on to Electronic Arts, that guarantee has softened quite considerably. The two new Battlefront titles were good (at least, eventually) but still fell lacking in key areas, Jedi Fallen Order was a great story but an uneven gaming experience, and too many promising titles have died in development under this new regime.
Star Wars: Squadrons looks to change that, at least a little. This is a budget title with a limited main campaign and a multiplayer focus, geared towards an optimised VR experience. It isn’t looking to change the world, it just wants to be a solid gaming experience, and it pulls that off nicely.
The game is set after Return of the Jedi, what we’d call the Aftermath period, with the rising New Republic trying to crush the remnants of the Empire that refuse to give up power. It’s an interesting period of time for Star Wars and one that I appreciate seeing in a video game in some capacity. The campaign is nothing groundbreaking for the franchise but it is solid. The story is full of interesting characters with their own little stories to tell. A good deal of the missions feel like they were designed to prepare you for multiplayer, with a mix of dogfights, escort missions and fleet attacks, but that is to be expected. As mentioned earlier, Squadrons is a budget title and the focus was always on the multiplayer mode, so anyone expecting an expansive cinematic narrative was asking more than the game ever promised to deliver. What we have as far as the story works just fine. Certainly a cut above the stuff seen in Battlefront 2’s campaign.
Multiplayer comes in the form of Dogfight, which is your standard squad vs squad style deathmatch format, and Fleet Battles which has you and a squadron (of either other players or AI) squaring off against AI-controlled enemy fleets. You need to protect your own fleet while chipping away at the lines of the enemy fleet, first the wave of enemy fighters, then the larger battle cruisers, before starting to chip away at their main vessel.
Fleet Battles seems to be the primary focus of the multiplayer experience as it comes ranked and unranked modes whereas Dogfight is not ranked. However, matchmaking seems a little trickier for Fleet Battle than it is with Dogfight so it’s clear which mode is more popular right now. Dogfight is certainly my preferred mode as it offers a better balance of action and strategy, Fleet Battle starts out strong and gradually begins to slow down. Sometimes it will slow to a near halt and it can feel like the whole process is taking too long. A good game of Fleet Battle is terrific but the opportunity for good games is far more frequent with Dogfight.
For those who want to skip most of the headaches of matchmaking with strangers, you can create your own parties for these modes, but finding that option is not immediately clear. It’s there, it’s just tucked away a little. It’s a minor irritation but a significant one for a game that relies on its online component as much as this.
In multiplayer mode you can also upgrade your crafts, using the varied points systems amassed through multiplayer play, and there is a good range of different power-ups and cosmetic changes on offer to customise your starfighter experience to your needs.
Story mode and the multiplayer games are essentially the same in regards to what they offer, the only major difference being the names of pilots you fight with will change from Wedge Antilles to something about Joker or a barely veiled reference to bodily fluids, so it depends entirely on the gameplay to make it worth repeating the same style of game over and over. Star Wars: Squadrons absolutely succeeds at that.
If you’ve played Battlefront 2’s starfighter mode then the controls will make sense here, it’s all nice and intuitive from the start, but the game has a lot more depth than Battlefront 2’s offering. You have control over power allocation; switching between prioritising engines, blasters, shields or a balanced allocation at the touch of a button. Additionally, you can select to prioritise shields on the front or back of your New Republic fighter, or evenly distribute that power, and with Imperial crafts, you can decide focus entirely on engine power or firepower. Different situations will require different combinations, such as escaping from a locked-on missile will have you shift to full-power on your engines and pull off a quick manoeuvre. It provides a lot of avenues for strategy rather than your simple arcade shooter, bringing the game far closer to the more simulation style of the TIE Fighterseries. For an old fan of those games, that was a welcome shift in style. You could feasibly play the game in balanced mode the entire time but you would be limiting your potential in combat situations and probably making things more difficult along the way.
The game is also a lot more forgiving in terms of damage than its Battlefront 2 counterpart. In that game, it felt like even a slight nudge would blow your craft to smithereens. This was likely a design choice to keep the kill counts ticking up, keep the endorphins pumping, and maintain the sense of constant momentum. Star Wars: Squadronsis a much more exacting combat experience. You need to be tactical in your attacks, you need to be meticulous in your movement, and you need to be patient. You may need to stay on a target for a while as you chip away at their shield and hull, trying to keep on top of their attempts to outmanoeuvre you while hoping they don’t have back-up coming. It actually enhances the tension within the moment, you have no way of knowing if you will take your target down or someone will take you down. It is the closest a game has got to recreating that tension felt during the major space battles in the Original Trilogy from presentation to the overall mood it inspires.
Aiding this is the exceptional level of detail in the game’s presentation. The detail in the cockpits is stunning, a lot of care has gone into bringing these starfighters to life and grounding the player in this reality and they serve as the games HUD, everything you need to know about your ammo reserves, your engine functionality, your targeting, etc, is handled in an organic way. It’s all where you would expect to see it as the pilot of a starfighter. It is one of the best examples I have seen of a non-intrusive UI, it feels like one of those ideas implemented for VR games to reduce the visual noise but it works beautifully in standard play as well.
The maps are effectively rendered, although several of them are just variations on the same kind of maze of debris, you also get maps with giant space stations as the centrepiece and a brilliantly designed deep space shipyard. Hopefully, more varied maps, ideally from other parts of the galaxy, will be added over time.
The overall presentation is very much optimised with VR in mind, briefings are handled in POV, and you make your way around the hub by selecting locations rather than moving to them. It’s fine, the game is a budget title and I imagine it works brilliantly in VR. It’s such a small component of the game that it hardly matters. What matters is the flying and Star Wars: Squadrons hits that bullseye like it was shooting womp rats in your T-16 back home.
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