If you could sum Disney’s use of the Star Wars license up in a single word, it’d be controversial. The new Disney era of Star Wars is nothing if not inconsistent in quality, with projects ranging from fantastic to incomprehensibly terrible. It’s this dartboard approach that I feel led EA to acquire the license despite its reputation… Well, that and truckloads of money. EA’s work on the franchise has mirrored it’s film counterpart, with bizarre cancelations, predatory business models, a studio closure and only one flawed yet great game in Respawn’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.
It’s excellent news, then, that Star Wars: Squadrons is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s clear this was a labour of love for Motive Studios, and that EA surprisingly allowed the studio to make the game it wanted to make. Squadrons features some surprisingly meaty single-player offerings, a practice mode, an unranked variant of “fleet battles” that can be played offline or cooperatively with friends or randoms and, of course, a well structured single player campaign.
Now, before I delve into the campaign I want to quickly highlight the inclusion of bots. See, Squadrons is a multiplayer focused game and for Motive to include both a campaign and bot matches is fantastic, especially when most full-priced multiplayer games (like EA’s own Battlefield) don’t bother to include ways to preserve or at least simulate the online spectacle in an offline format. After all, servers don’t last forever – especially not on consoles. It speaks to Motive’s confidence in the game it’s built while also reminding me of a time when developers designed their games to be played well past their release date.
Continuing Motive’s bizarre but welcomed flex is the campaign itself, which is not only a pretty fun way to spend six to seven hours but actually serves a purpose in preparing you for the online offerings – to the point where Squadrons throws you into the campaign immediately when you first boot the game, and it’s a great learning experience. Don’t forget that Star Wars: Squadrons is a space simulation. It’s not anywhere near as complex as some of the other ones on the market like Elite: Dangerous, it definitely controls like one, forcing you to manage shields and power conversion while also tracking targets. You can also tweak all of that to give yourself further control over these mechanics: incremental control for converting power, increased momentum when slowing down to better simulate zero-gravity flight, rebindable controls and flight stick/HOTAS support on both PC and console… it’s all there.
Throw in eight distinct ships with variable loadouts (four for either faction) and for the uninitiated it can present quite the initial hurdle, which is exactly why Star Wars: Squadrons “encourages” you to complete the campaign. For those familiar with space simulators, it still introduces you to mission mechanics like capital ship weak points and the extremely easy and useful drifting mechanic while also being a fun romp with some interesting narrative beats and set pieces.
While the flight stick/HOTAS support is the definitive way to play Star Wars: Squadrons, it also comes with its own little quirks. Firstly, you’ll find yourself needing to re-bind the default controls to something a little more natural; having roll on twist instead of tilt feels horrendous, and you’ll want to hotkey various targeting filters rather than using the radial menu (and you’ll want to do this if you’re playing with a keyboard as well, trust me). Secondly, the dead zone feels unusually large, causing stick control to feel floaty, so you’ll want to play around a bit till it feels comfortable. That said, both controller and keyboard and mouse still get the job done if you justifiably don’t want to spend extra money on peripherals.
It’s important to note, however, that while Star Wars: Squadrons has notions of being a successor to the Tie Fighter and X-wing games, the campaign here isn’t going to scratch that itch. This is a VR-focused game, and that comes with caveats: player movement outside your ship is basically nonexistent and, for the purpose of multiplayer pacing, there’s no pre-flight checks, docking procedures or other things these space simulators usually have for the purpose of simulation and immersion. The game does present you with a hangar and briefing room between missions/matches, but it’s all very linear, serving as a glorified lobby where you get a beautifully rendered hangar instead of menus. It may become transcendent in VR, but without a headset the flippant commitment to immersion will feel underwhelming (and why is the player character so short?).
The narrative, however, is a big improvement over Battlefront 2’s offering, with the comparison coming from the similar themes both these games tackle. In fact, Star Wars: Squadrons does a much better job showing both sides of the Galactic Civil War than DICE’s last offering. It’s not nuanced or especially original – the Empire is still very much the Empire – but there are some attempts to humanise the characters of both factions. I even found myself more interested in the Empire and its cast of characters because frankly, they were more interesting and even had some pretty justifiable reasons for hating rebel scum. Shen’s “war isn’t personal, pain is” monologue and Vonreg’s bitterness after being “betrayed” by her friends and fellow pilots offer a refreshing reminder that the people behind the helmets aren’t always evil for evil’s sake. It’s also nice to see some appreciation for the expanded universe with characters and references like the aforementioned Vonreg showing up throughout the story. The story even subverts the superweapon trope, with the New Republic creating this plot’s weapon of mass destruction. All things considered, the campaign is a good time and it’s arguably worth the price of admission alone when factoring in the reduced cost.
…But that’s not really what we’re here for. EA and Motive have pitched Star Wars: Squadrons as a multiplayer experience first and foremost and that’s where the game really shows what it’s made of. When the game kicks off, it really kicks off: dogfighting through trenches in a space station, bombing runs on capital ships, your wingman swooping in at the last second to save you from a tailing enemy… it can be really, really exhilarating. There are only two PvP modes on offer. One of them is the typical deathmatch-style mode, Dogfight – your casual mode designed for those who want to jump in and rack up some kills. There’s no real need for teamwork so long as you’re killing more than you’re dying, but it does help, and coordination can change a match in drastic ways.
Star Wars: Squadrons‘ ranked multiplayer mode, Fleet Battles, is the complete opposite of Dogfight. Teamwork is all but mandatory, to the point where you’re going to have a very difficult time if you’re not queuing with friends or matched up with random players who are actually good at communication. The goal of each Fleet Battle is to take out the enemy team’s Capital ship. Sounds simple enough, but it’s far from it, since actually getting to that ship has a few steps to it: win a dogfight in the middle of the map, then push through and take out two frigates serving as perimeter defences before finally reaching the Capital ship – this is the hard part, because Star Cruisers and Star Destroyers are littered with turrets, covered in dense shields and have enemy fighters constantly spewing from their hangars.
The focus goes to taking out vital systems around the ship like shield generators and the targeting centre for turrets while making your way through swarms of enemy fighters. It’s here that teamwork becomes vital; an uncoordinated team might be able to brute force their way towards a capital ship, but throwing numbers at a Star Destroyer will amount to nothing. This is where the game opens up, where the different ships go from just feeling different, to actively taking different roles. You have to learn the differences between factions in order to play to your strengths. It’s a game mode where one weak link in your squad can get your team obliterated, and I love it. It’s that same rush I get from games like Rainbow Six: Siege. I love the need for communication and the satisfaction from executing some crazy impromptu strategy with one or more of your wingmen. Player-driven bombing runs constantly feel like death star trench runs, and a last ditch suicide dive can win a match. When two well coordinated teams go up against each other in a dramatic game of push and pull, Squadrons earns the praise it’s been getting.
Fleet Battles is incredibly daunting at first, so much so that the game locks it off till you reach level five. Once you reach level five, it then recommends a tutorial that breaks down each phase of a match step by step. It’s basic, so you won’t come away from it understanding the finer details or strategies needed in ranked play, but you will get the gist. The tutorial also has a bug causing the enemy star destroyer to stay on a single hit point, meaning you can’t complete it; this appears to be caused by breaking the game’s scripting for objectives, but you can solve the problem by simply rebooting the game.
Funnily enough, once you’ve reached level five and run through the whole tutorial… Star Wars: Squadrons still doesn’t think you’re ready for ranked Fleet Battles. It’ll start you off by recommending the unranked variant, which you play against bots either solo or in co-op; it might sound boring, but I strongly recommend sinking some time in unranked — it’ll help you get a feel for the game mode and the maps, all the while retaining some semblance of challenge as well. Playing against bots doesn’t hamper your progression, either, as you’ll still level up and you’ll still unlock rewards to customise your pilot and your ships. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from diving straight into ranked if you so choose, but if you’re planning to put some serious time into Fleet Battles you’d benefit greatly from the learning experience.
As shocking as this may sound considering who published it, Star Wars: Squadrons doesn’t have any microtransactions (so far); you earn everything in the game through level progression and making your way up the ranking. The praise that the game has earned around the industry for eschewing microtransactions really puts the state of the games industry into perspective — especially when you consider EA’s prior efforts with Star Wars: Battlefront and the frustration surrounding Marvel’s Avengers’ reliance on in-game purchases a little over a month ago now. I’m still hesitant to level too much praise at EA and Motive for it myself, since it’d be very easy for them to add cash packs or loot boxes at a later date, especially if the game picks up traction as a competitive experience, but I’ll hold out hope that they’ve learned their lessons. Plus, considering EA’s recent assertion that it’s not planning any further content for the game, I don’t see why it would want to add microtransactions anyway.
For all the positives to note about Star Wars: Squadrons, there are some technical issues that need to be acknowledged. I encountered a pretty frequent bug within matchmaking that would put me in a loop of menus and load screens and cause a fair bit of frustration on my part. Then there’s performance: my PC’s CPU is ageing, so I can’t hold that against the game, but I switched over to the console version and still encountered infrequent frame stuttering on my Xbox One X, predominantly in the pre-game lobbies. With that being said, the dynamic resolution scaling helps everything run at a consistent 60 frames per second once you’re in the game, and it caps out at 4K which means that Squadrons is future-proof for the next generation.
There are also some netcode issues to deal with. I encountered some pretty heavy lag on occasion and there seems to be a constant delay when it comes to hit detection and ultimately, time to kill; because of that, I’d find myself continuing to shoot at a target despite having been scored for the kill, or going from maximum hull integrity to space dust almost instantly, without being able to react. These issues can be annoying, yes, but they don’t happen constantly enough to ruin the game. Either way, Motive is well aware of the issues and has announced that it’s already working on a patch to deal with those issues, as well as the very few issues with HOTAS controls.
Those issues aside, though, Star Wars: Squadrons is a fantastic use of the Star Wars license that’s well worth the price of admission. Although I am a little disappointed with the overall scope of the game, the experience we do have is one that shows Motive’s love for the property, and makes it clear that EA gave the developer the freedom to build the game it wanted to make; that freedom has had an incredible benefit on the final product.
Although there’s a bit less to the game than I’d have hoped for, Star Wars: Squadrons is well worth the price of admission, and there’s plenty of enjoyment to be found.
Ty reviewed Star Wars: Squadrons using retail PC and Xbox One X codes purchased from Origin and the Microsoft Store, respectively.
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