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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

'Star Wars: Squadrons' Is the Soaring Antidote to Force Fatigue

You may have seen this meme: Along with the quote "I grew up here," people posting images of their cherished virtual spaces—some chose their favorite Halo map, others a scene from a Zelda game. If I were to show my personal playground, it'd be the inky black of space as seen from a pixelated B-wing cockpit.

As a kid, I was obsessed with the Lucasarts classics Star Wars: X-Wing and TIE Fighter. This celebrated '90s series mixed the spaceships of the Star Wars franchise with the interface of a flight simulation game, letting players experience the Galactic Civil War from the pilot's seat.


Now, EA and Motive Studios are trying to recapture some of that old magic. Star Wars: Squadrons brings starfighter action back to modern consoles and the PC after decades of waiting. After all, if you wanted to swing a lightsaber or shoot blasters at stormtroopers, a variety of games catered to you. Heck, even in recent Star Wars media, we have bounty hunters galore and the Rise of Rey “All the Jedi” Skywalker–with pilots getting short shrift. So it’s high time us spaceship nerds get a piece of the action.

This title greatly expands on something I thought was fun on its own—the space-based Starfighter Assault mode in 2017's Star Wars: Battlefront 2 programmed by Motive. Thankfully, except for a few obviously reused models and music stings, this game is so much more than gussied-up Battlefront 2 DLC. Its solid single-player campaign and fun multiplayer modes make this new title a must-buy for dogfighting devotees whether or not they're Star Wars fans.

This Thing Really Moves

Though the campaign mode story begins during the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, the bulk of the story takes place after Return of the Jedi, with the Empire on the back foot, while the Rebels find themselves building a new government—along with a new fleet of capital ships. This is a period in galactic history that is still somewhat underexplored in Star Wars media until relatively recently (ahem, The Mandolorian, ahem).

You'll get to take on bombing runs, escort duty, and even menial tasks like scanning vessels for cargo. One of the final missions gives you your own big Death Star trench moment, flying an impossible mission which I won't spoil.

As the story unfolds, you bounce between both sides of the conflict, flying for Vanguard Squadron on the Republic side, and Titan Squadron for the Imperials. While there are short cutscenes, you can also talk to your wingmates as you make your way to the next mission's briefing. Although the lack of dialogue trees makes it less-than-interactive, it's still a way to glean additional context. Motive has created a new batch of characters worthy of the franchise, and who look and sound so intriguing you'll want to learn more about at least a few of them.

What I found impressive is that I never got restless between battles—everything about Squadrons feels well-optimized to waste as little time as possible. Even the generous checkpoint save system will dump you right back into battle without having to reload the entire level after you die. This made all the difference when playing on an OG Xbox One console, which definitely is showing its age when it comes to AAA game load times.

Lest you think that this is an arcade-y shoot-em-up in the vein of Star Wars: Rogue Squadron on the Nintendo 64, Squadrons spends a ton of time teaching you its deep control scheme. Seriously, every time I thought I'd learned every button combo and command, it'd spring another one on me. Perhaps the most important thing you learn is how to balance your fighter's systems—depending on the situation, you might need more speed or stronger shields, and you'll be able to readjust the ship accordingly with the push of a button and the flick of a stick.

I can hear the more hardcore flight sim nerds scoffing at the idea of using a controller. That’s why both consoles support select HOTAS systems, letting you fly with a joystick and throttle. Naturally, the PC lets you use just about any compatible joystick or HOTAS setup. Although I didn’t use any of these alternate input modes during my time with the game, I’d love to try a joystick at some point. Motive did an admirable job making Squadrons playable with a gamepad, but more buttons might be better in this case.

Each of the eight ships you pilot has a new cockpit layout to learn, unique strengths and weaknesses, and customizable loadouts. At the beginning of the game, you get a single ship class, but as you progress through the story, you unlock more and get to choose the one you fly for a given mission. That this is a game that rewards skill and practice, and the single player campaign helps you learn what works best for you before you venture into the online arena.

All Wings Report In

The multiplayer aspect of Squadrons is promising. With two major modes in tow (both co-op PVP), Squadrons lets players on any platform play together on five-player teams in dogfights, or what they're calling Fleet Battles mode.


Fleet Battles might be the more interesting option, since it focuses more on teamwork and follows a set procedure: first you attack the enemy's fighters to move the score in your favor, then you take on the smaller capital ships, and next the enemy's flagship. And unlike a Death Star, there's no one spot that makes the enemy's ship explode—you'll have to fly multiple passes to shoot out its shield generator, reactor, and other systems before you can lay waste to its hull and blow it to smithereens.

Unfortunately, Fleet Battles isn't available until you earn your stripes in dogfights. As you advance in level, you accrue XP and different kinds of points that allow you to unlock starfighter paint schemes, weapons, and even cockpit décor. The way you get these options is a nice contrast with the randomized loot crate-oriented Battlefront 2, and I hope it stays that way.

I think that I'm going to get a lot of mileage out of the multiplayer modes, but not all the six initial maps are great. Like, for instance, the beautiful level set on Yavin Prime, which is basically just a gaseous void. I vastly prefer the levels–like the starship scrap-filled Sissubo and the asteroid-peppered Nadiri Dockyards–that offer up places to hide, debris to navigate, and, inevitably, crash into.

In my experience, the online play goes one of two ways: either you're doing the shooting, or you're the fish in the barrel. Even early in the game's life, it sure seems like the player skill level ranges wildly, so no matter how good you are, you'll absolutely find someone who gives you a challenge. The differentiated ship classes could be an olive branch to players more accustomed to today's competitive shooters. Squadrons isn't exactly Overwatch or Fortnite, but you can see those modern influences at play in its multiplayer dynamics.

Happy Beeps

Coming off of the sprawling *Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order* from last year, EA has another winner on its hands with Squadrons. In my mind, the two games represent opposite poles of the Star Wars experience—the former is spiritual, a journey of self-discovery and healing, while the latter is pure coaxium fuel straight to the veins. Squadrons has no Jedi, no Sith, no lightsabers, , just complete focus on thrills and flying skills. With so much Star Wars media focused on space warrior-monks, or superhuman-tough bounty hunters, getting to step into the boots of a rag-tag workaday pilot feels novel, and like something the franchise was sorely lacking.

Moreover, I think Squadrons successfully taps into the spirit of those nostalgic Lucasarts flight gamese. Sure, it's a little less hardcore than yesteryear's X-Wing/TIE Fighter titles, but hopefully that'll bring a new generation of gamers into the fold. The 7-year-old me would have braved the Kessel Run to get a game that plays this well and looks this good.

I can only wonder if Motive has additional content coming, because even though I'll play the current maps and levels until the servers die, I know I'm not the only one who would put down hard-earned wupiupi for more. As it is, for $40, Squadrons represents fair value for money. But if this is only the beginning, then Squadrons has a bright future ahead of it after pulling off a Poe Dameron-level feat.

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