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The Beautiful, Immersive Experience of ‘Star Wars: Squadrons’

The first dedicated ‘Star Wars’ space combat game to appear outside of arcades since 2003 lets players revel in the galaxy far, far away

Electronic Arts/Ringer illustration

As my ship hurtles toward the ruined remnants of a moon, I glance over my shoulder and see the ominous silhouette of a Star Destroyer blotting out a bluish nebula. The space between the wedge-shaped, mile-long monster and my comparatively tiny starfighter is crisscrossed with beams of bright energy. While weaving and rolling to present a tougher target, I throttle up, thumb a switch on my flight stick to reroute power to the shields, and toggle the transparent, protective canopy to cover the rear of my fighter. A missile locks on, and I wait until the instant before impact to release countermeasures, confuse its tracking system, and elude destruction.

Almost unscathed, I order my astromech droid to repair the residual damage, then boost away from the Star Destroyer, execute a tight, 180-degree drift turn toward the capital ship, and instinctively flip my shields to the front. I target the ventral bulb of the Star Destroyer’s power generator, instruct the rest of my squadron to join the attack, and request a resupply of heavy weaponry from my wingmate. As the Destroyer looms large in front of me, I shift power to my laser cannons and stitch its exterior with red blaster bolts, unloading two torpedoes as I fly by. Behind me, the grey bulb balloons into a satisfying fireball. I continue my attack run, emerging from the underside of the Star Destroyer to skim along its topside and buzz the bridge, strafing the surface as I go. Then I streak toward open space, the sounds of TIE fighters, turbolasers, and a John Williams soundalike score swelling in my ears. I just assaulted a Star Destroyer and survived. I’m definitely getting cocky.

This was one of many immersive, exhilarating sequences in Star Wars: Squadrons, a game released on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One this month that stimulates all of my Star Wars fan pleasure centers. Squadrons revitalizes a storied but stagnant genre of Star Wars games, putting a modern, multiplayer-oriented spin on space combat in the galaxy far, far away. The core experience of Squadrons is so faithful to the fantasy of flying a starfighter that it makes me feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t play video games. But by releasing Squadrons as a budget title with a somewhat stripped-down scope and no planned post-launch support, publisher Electronic Arts missed a chance to provide the definitive, lasting take on the standalone space sim that Star Wars gamers have been craving for years.

Squadrons is the first dedicated Star Wars space combat game to appear outside of arcades since Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike, which came out on the GameCube in 2003. It’s incredible that it took almost two decades for something like Squadrons to arrive, considering how fruitful flight combat has been for the franchise before. The earliest Star Wars games, including the eponymous 1983 arcade prototype, put players in control of Rebel fighters as they battled the Empire, and advances in visual fidelity only enhanced the appeal of virtual trench runs and dogfights. Between the debut of X-Wing in 1993 and the release of Rebel Strike 10 years later, LucasArts developed or published a dozen space combat games, including classic titles in the X-Wing, Rogue Squadron, Starfighter, and Rebel Assault series.

Then the tap turned off. Shortly after the arrival of Rebel Strike, LucasArts downsized significantly, the first sign of the financial distress and dysfunction that eventually led to the studio’s demise in 2013. Weeks later, Electronic Arts signed an exclusive, 10-year deal to develop licensed Star Wars games for consoles. The first several years of that pact yielded only two titles, 2015 multiplayer-only reboot Battlefront and its initially loot-box-laden 2017 sequel, Battlefront II. During that period, canceled Star Wars games outnumbered completed ones.

The years since Rebel Strike have seen a few flight-combat close calls: LucasArts canned a couple of Rogue Squadron trilogy rereleases, as well as a planned launch title for the Xbox 360, Rogue Squadron: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, which would have brought developer Factor 5’s flight combat into the online multiplayer arena. Free-to-play, browser-based game Attack Squadrons was shuttered in 2014 before its official release, and EA passed on a pitch for a Star Wars space-combat game from developer Double Damage in 2016. That left gamers with only a few tantalizing tastes of next-gen Star Wars space combat: Battlefront’s fighter squadron mode and X-Wing VR Mission add-on, and Battlefront II’s Starfighter Assault mode (a successor to the assault mode in the original, 2005 version of Battlefront II), all of which were engaging diversions but far from full-featured games.

Squadrons, which was developed by EA-operated Motive Studios, is essentially the offspring of that trio of teasers, offering VR support and online multiplayer mayhem but blending Battlefront II’s more superficial, pick-up-and-play approach with the story and simulation-style gameplay of 1990s PC standouts X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and X-Wing Alliance. The $40 game ships with an 8-to-10-hour solo campaign that tells an original narrative set shortly after Return of the Jedi, presented from the competing perspectives of the disordered Empire and the nascent New Republic. (Players create a character on each side of the conflict and take control of an array of familiar fighter craft over the course of 14 missions.) The campaign functions as a warmup for the multiplayer modes, which consist of a deathmatch-style dogfight and the objective-based, five-on-five “fleet battle,” in which players compete to take down fighters and support ships before disabling and destroying the opposing force’s flagship.

Squadrons’ story was coauthored by Bioware (and Star Wars: The Old Republic) veteran Joanna Berry and the two writers responsible for the competent campaign that Motive tacked on to Battlefront II, Walt Williams and Mitch Dyer. Motive’s two tales have more than a little in common, including characters who appear or are referenced in both, a protagonist who turns traitor to the Empire and aligns with the good guys, and a focus on the period after Palpatine’s (first) death. Like Battlefront II, Squadrons oozes Star Wars authenticity, but the impact of its story is undercut by its structure and its need to do double duty as an extended tutorial.

As with Jedi: Fallen Order—the buggy, derivative, and repetitive 2019 title that nonetheless represented a welcome return to story-driven Star Wars games and a step up compared to EA’s previous Star Wars efforts—Squadrons is hemmed in by two trilogies that prevent it from breaking consequential ground. In the aftermath of Endor, the fractured, reeling Empire is in denial about being on the retreat, and the newly legitimized Alliance is still struggling with its transition from rebelling to governing. That turmoil makes for an intriguing backdrop to what is ultimately a minor, mostly self-contained subplot without either the galaxy-altering stakes of the films or the kind of character work that fans of the franchise haven’t seen before.

Squadrons’ silent avatars are, by design, devoid of personality, and when they aren’t in the cockpit, they can only stand still as players point and click to propel them from place to place. The story unfolds via cutscenes and optional encounters in the hangars and briefing rooms with NPCs who communicate via monologues that inevitably conclude with reminders to proceed with the next mission. Most players won’t need to be told twice. There’s nothing wrong with the writing, and the glimpses of movie characters and recent fan favorites such as Hera Syndulla and Rae Sloane are treats for Star Wars devotees, but the less-than-dynamic delivery makes the interludes between missions feel like chores.

One reason why navigation feels so static outside of the starfighters is that Squadrons was initially conceived as a VR game. The entirety of Squadrons is playable in VR, and the game supports HOTAS (throttle and stick) controls and complete crossplay, meaning that those who get the game for one platform can play those who get the game for any other platform. That kind of compatibility is a technical feat, although it imposes some sacrifices: Likely because of the constraints of technology and/or budget, the scale of the skirmishes is small compared to the climactic space battles of Return of the Jedi, Revenge of the Sith, or The Rise of Skywalker. Thrilling as it is to take on a single Star Destroyer, it would be even more mind-blowing to go up against a massive fleet.

Although the unambitious campaign’s missions are mostly homogenous, even those who invest in Squadrons for the multiplayer action will want to sample the single-player first. Squadrons is deeply indebted to vintage Star Wars space sims—one of the default display names for the game’s New Republic protagonist is Keyan Farlander, which was borrowed from X-Wing’s Luke-like pilot protagonist—and anyone expecting Rogue Squadron–style simplicity may be overwhelmed by its steep learning curve. In my first few hours with the game, I kept pausing to track down the right button on my HOTAS—which wasn’t easy when I was wearing a headset—or forgot certain techniques entirely.

When it all came together, though, roughly halfway through the campaign, I felt like I’d graduated from the Academy. Mastering Squadrons is a mental and physical test, but the skill required to excel in its starfighters makes each kill an accomplishment. Thanks to that depth, the differences between TIE variants and New Republic craft aren’t just cosmetic. Each ship handles in its own way and possesses distinct capabilities, and it’s deliciously jarring to jump from the narrow viewport of a TIE Fighter to the relatively unobstructed sightlines of the A-wing or X-wing. (Maybe the Rebels won the war because their pilots could actually see.)

According to EA, only 15 percent of the audience has experienced Squadrons in VR. It’s definitely not a necessity—I completed much of the campaign the old-fashioned way—but it is the preferred way to play if you have a headset and strong stomach and once you have a handle on the deeply customizable controls. The fairly primitive PSVR hardware is plagued by a graininess and low resolution that higher-end rigs on PC sidestep, but even the PSVR can be a competitive advantage: Tracking enemy fighters is easier when one can simply swivel around in one’s seat.

More than that, though, VR makes it easy to suspend disbelief. Squadrons can be played only from a first-person perspective, and most of the information players need to know is conveyed by readouts in the cockpit instead of a heads-up display. VR puts the player inside that claustrophobic space, simulating the starfighting experience on a visceral level that a traditional screen can’t really replicate. There’s nothing like looking down and seeing your TIE pilot’s feet resting directly on the thin durasteel plate that separates the cockpit from space to remind you that your ship is unshielded and that your survival depends on speed and strategy.

With the exception of several well-received shooters, racers, strategy games, and other deviations from the norm, most Star Wars games fall into the Jedi- or flight-combat buckets. With apologies to the lightsaber stylings of Jedi Outcast, Jedi Academy, and Fallen Order, no video game has ever quite captured the illusion of being inside the Star Wars world the way Squadrons does when played with a VR rig and HOTAS (if you can find one). Maybe VR will one day solve the virtual lightsaber problem, but the best attempt thus far, the Vader Immortal VR series (which was ported to PlayStation in August), seems more like a tech demo or an amusement-park ride than a full-fledged game. Squadrons feels like the real deal.

That’s what makes it so deflating that there isn’t more of Squadrons to see beyond the campaign, the two multiplayer modes, and six multiplayer maps. In July, EA CFO Blake Jorgensen explained the game’s low price by saying that Squadrons “doesn’t have the breadth of some of our games.” There’s more than enough here to justify the $40 charge, but as someone who’s squarely in the “take my money” target market for a Star Wars flight sim, I can’t help but wish that EA had gone all out and constructed Squadrons to last.

Dogfights are fun excuses to say “I have you now” before disintegrating randos, and there’s real depth to fleet battles, although as always with objective-based online multiplayer modes, it’s best played with friends or at least people who are paying attention and willing to work as a team. The multiplayer modes’ MOBA-inspired strategic elements, variety in roles, and unlockable loadouts and skins lend Squadrons some staying power. But there’s no support for custom matches, and EA has no plans to create downloadable content or additional multiplayer modes. That lack of long-term investment is understandable—in the absence of microtransactions, there’s no constant revenue stream for EA, and the decline of the flight sim, coupled with Squadrons’ complexity, likely limits its audience—but it’s still a letdown.

To paraphrase Obi-Wan (who doesn’t like flying), Squadrons is a game I haven’t played in a long time. Its fans won’t want to turn off their targeting computers anytime soon, but EA’s no-frills approach to the title leaves them little choice. Here’s hoping that the next Star Wars space sim builds on Motive’s compelling core mechanics before Squadrons’ release starts to seem like a long time ago.