When Electronic Arts surprise announced Star Wars: Squadrons just four months before its release, the video game publisher tried to keep expectations low. EA priced the flight combat game at a modest $39.99 and said not to expect any post-launch content. But any concern that those tempered expectations were a poor reflection on the game’s quality wash away as soon as the player enters the cockpit of an X-Wing and TIE fighter.
The story in the campaign isn’t anything to write home about, but Star Wars: Squadrons fully delivers where it matters: the gameplay. The new title developed by EA Motive offers some of the best flight combat in video games and, critically, the mechanics feel definitively Star Wars. Squadrons not only nails flight combat, it immerses players in a galaxy far, far away.
The campaign’s storyline is unfortunately not up to snuff with the exciting space combat that surrounds it. It feels like a half-hearted attempt to construct a narrative around a string of flight missions. The cinematic short EA shared before the game’s release, Hunted, is far more compelling than any of the storytelling in the game itself.
The campaign is set shortly after the events of Return of the Jedi. You play as two different pilots, one aligned with the New Republic and the other with the Empire. By switching between the two protagonists the player gets to experience the full breadth of combat in the game, but the campaign fails to do anything interesting with a story told from both sides of the intergalactic war.
As nonspeaking soldiers, the characters you embody have no personality nor the ability to interact with your fellow soldiers. You can start a dialogue with your comrades, but they talk at you, not with you. Every “conversation” is entirely exposition. Some of the details about the characters’ backstories and motivations are intriguing, but still not engaging. To make matters worse, the characters’ backstories and even their personalities barely factor into the plot.
In fairness to the writers, they were clearly hamstrung by how the game was developed. Not only is the campaign built almost entirely out of assets from the multiplayer mode, but the narrative is also limited by the constraints of VR. While it was released on hardware that doesn’t have VR functionality (I played Star Wars: Squadrons on an Xbox One S) the game is clearly tailored to the virtual reality experience.
The dead giveaway is the player’s inability to walk around the hangar. You have to press a button to initiate a conversation with a character or enter another room of the ship. The simulation of walking in VR is a frequent cause of motion sickness, so it makes sense to avoid it in that experience. But people playing the game traditionally suffer because it makes all character interactions feel static.
The problems with the story can’t be blamed entirely on the VR mode. Portions of the game completely unhampered by VR, including cinematic sequences and conversations between pilots during space combat, are doldrum. The story is uninspired, delivering everything you expect from a Star Wars story but nothing you want. Worse than bad, the story is entirely forgettable
Though it fails narratively, the campaign is an excellent introduction to the gameplay. In the first hour or so the controls feel a little simplistic, but that changes as you unlock abilities that add depth to the flight combat. The campaign throws the player enough new abilities and customization options to keep things interesting while still leaving them enough time to grasp the new mechanics.
Operating a Star Wars starfighter feels like exactly how you’d imagine. You spend a lot of time flipping switches to divert power between weapons, shields, and speed. The experience is slightly arcade-y, but that’s fitting since Star Wars can be described as a slightly arcade-y film franchise. The game doesn’t try to simulate realistic space combat, it simulates Star Wars and does so very well.
The smartly paced campaign provides you experience in the cockpit of all 8 starfighters featured in Squadrons and leaves you feeling like an accomplished pilot. By the end of the campaign, you feel confident in your abilities, though you might be in for a rude awakening once you jump into multiplayer and face off against players who’ve spent even more time behind the cockpit.
Multiplayer is entertaining but frustrating. Not only is virtually every other player more experienced than you, they also have more equipment to choose from. Even though you unlock all the customization options for all 8 starfighters by the end of the campaign, those abilities are stripped away in multiplayer. They have to be unlocked by playing online, which gives the most experienced players an even greater edge over their competitors. That imbalance may discourage newbies from sticking around long enough to even the playing field. Not every player will be frustrated by Squadron’s multiplayer model, but it feels like an unnecessary turnoff for those who are.
Despite a handful of disappointments, Star Wars: Squadrons is a true achievement, delivering top-notch gameplay in the setting of one of the most beloved franchises in all of entertainment. The game isn’t particularly appealing to players interested in solo adventures, but single-player was never its prime focus. The title was designed to appeal to fans of the flight combat genre and, of course, fans of Star Wars itself. Both groups should be more than satisfied by Star Wars: Squadrons.