Whilst the modern series of films in the Star Wars universe has definitely been polarising the community for the last half a decade, the Star Wars videogame department has been seeing some much-approved love in the past years. Despite its rocky start, Battlefront II blossomed into a game that is still played and loved today. Jedi: Fallen Order blew fans away with a soulslike adventure game that told a compelling story. Vader Immortal was a short but enjoyable experience that tested the boundaries of what Star Wars in VR could be like. Now we have Squadrons, a space flight simulator that takes fans back to the old days of Star Wars: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter - a game that is described as ‘Star Wars space combat as it was meant to be.’ Star Wars: Squadrons takes everything good about X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and neatly wraps it in a contemporary bow that appeals to both old school Star Wars fans and newer ones alike.
The Star Wars: Squadrons experience comes in two parts - the single-player campaign, and the multiplayer modes. I’ll start with the single-player campaign, seeing as the game forcibly puts you into it the first time you load it. You play as two different characters - the latest arrival to the New Republic’s Vanguard Squad, and the newest edition to the Empire’s Titan Squad. The story of Squadrons is, for the most part, pretty simple. Being set almost directly after the Battle of Endor and alongside the story of Battlefront II (made clear with references to protagonist Iden Versio) obviously gives it little room to majorly affect the overall Star Wars canon. Despite this, it still tells a compelling story with the little wiggle room it has, even though the single-player is clearly not the main focus of the game. The characters are fairly hit-or-miss; the personal vendetta between the two squad’s Commanding Officers provides decent tension, although members of your squad itself either greatly stand out, or just fade into the background. Vanguard Squad’s Frisk & Keo, and Titan Squad’s Shen & Vonreg were the particular stand-out characters for me, but everyone else just felt like a loaf of bread.
The single-player is essentially an in-depth, interactive tutorial; each mission gives you experience with a new ship or playstyle. One will have you in an A-Wing, prioritising fighters as your Y-Wing teammate destroys enemy frigates. The next will have you piloting the Y-Wing, flying right over space stations to wreak havoc, while another has you in a TIE Reaper, a support ship, making you focus all your attention on shielding and defending a handful of shuttles while your AI squadmates keep you protected from the bulk of enemy fighters. It’s a genius method of spoon-feeding the game mechanics and teaching game roles in a way that is highly informative without being condescending or feeling like a slog for the player.
Taking a page from X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, you have the ability to divert power to one particular aspect of your ship, which is absolutely vital if you want to survive. Have a clean shot on an enemy starfighter? Divert power to your weapons to make sure your lasers don’t overheat before they can break line of sight. Making a bombing run on the capital ship? Force power into the engines so you can get close to it, and then prioritise shields to make sure you don't get ripped to shreds. This is furthered by the ability to prioritise which part of your ship is shielded. By default, shields are equalised, but if you’re charging towards a frigate, forcing all your shields to the front is a good bet to survive its barrage of lasers. Then if there’s a pesky fighter on your tail, throwing all your shields to the back is a sure way to stay alive a few seconds longer for one of your squadmates to help you out.
As well as power diverting, the ships themselves also have a plethora of options available. There are different types of lasers, hulls, shields, missiles, countermeasures and ‘auxiliary’ options to choose from. These can be unlocked very easily, and each option has pros and cons which cater to different playstyles. Nothing is locked behind a paywall, and every option is viable in the right hands and circumstances. Want to play fast and hit hard? Get burst fire lasers and an engine with high acceleration; just make sure you’re prepared to have difficulty turning sharp corners or hitting targets at a distance.
Whilst on the subject of customisation, you also have the option of customising the look of your pilots. These are purely cosmetic and are unlocked using ‘Glory’, which can be earned by playing matches, or by completing challenges. There are a wide range of outfits and helmets to choose from, as well as emotes and victory poses. Unfortunately, the only place where the customisation falls short (and this is really nitpicking) is with faces. There’s a small preset selection of faces to choose from, which can sometimes lead to an entire squad looking the exact same. However, a small part of the character customisation system that demands praise is how no body types, faces or voices are restricted by gender. The ability to make your pilot a trans character is a subtle addition, but definitely appreciated. Inclusion is important, especially towards a group that scarcely sees any representation in gaming.
When playing Star Wars: Squadrons, you can fly for either the Empire or the New Republic. Despite the obvious differences regarding the ships that either side has available to them, they actually have distinct functions, with each side having varying mechanics that allow for numerous playstyles. Regarding the cosmetic differences, the TIE ships have superior visibility thanks to the circular cockpit. Beyond this, there are two major functional differences the two factions offer. New Republic ships are all outfitted with shields, which as mentioned previously, can be used to block hull damage and redirect to protect certain areas of your ship. Aside from TIE Reapers, the Imperial starfighters get no such thing. This is offset by their higher hull integrity and better speed.
But this wouldn’t be enough without the formidable ‘Convert Power’ ability. This ability, available on TIE Fighters, Bombers and Interceptors, allows the pilot to overcharge their engines or weapons. Overcharging engines fills your boost meter and throws you straight into top speed for a quick getaway, where overcharging weapons instantly fills the laser gauge, which can allow an unrivaled amount of DPS if used right. This ability has basically no cooldown, but has drawbacks, in that it almost fully drains the alternate system in order to overcharge the desired one - overcharging engines will empty your weapons and overcharging weapons will immediately kill your speed, forcing your starfighter into a crawl. The convert power ability works independant to your power distribution, instead offering an instant boost, so it’s important to keep note of where your power currently is and where you want it to be if you end up draining one of your systems. This can be downright terrifying in the right hands, and the difference between an Imperial player who knows how to use the Convert Power ability and one that doesn’t can be pretty stark. The higher skill cap that it offers Imperial fighters is something I feel may need to be addressed in some form as the playerbase as a whole becomes more skilled.
With everything else out of the way, we can get to the real meat of Star Wars: Squadrons - the online play itself. At the time of release, there are three different game modes for online: Dogfight, Fleet Battle Ranked, and Fleet Battle vs AI. Dogfight is your standard 5v5 TDM; fly around, shoot down ships, win. It offers a nice way to practise against human opponents in an unranked environment and is always fun to just jump into for a quick bit of interstellar ship blasting. The selection of maps are taken from locations visited in the campaign, which gives a sense of familiarity. Each map is a satisfying battlefield, with asteroids and space debris giving you ‘cover’ to weave between. Apart from Yavin Prime. All my homies hate Yavin Prime.
Then we have Fleet Battle, the innovative tug-o’-war style mode that is satisfying to play and rewarding to win. This mode begins with a dogfight in the centre of the map. Defeating enemy starfighters earns you morale, and when you have enough morale, you can push up the battlefield to attack and destroy the opposing capital ship. Start dying, and you’ll have to fall back onto the defensive until you can build your morale back up again. This back and forth continues until one team has lost both their frigates and their capital ship. The mode relies highly on communication and good team compositions - the ideal set up is still being discovered, given the game's infancy, but the complexity to the mode gives it a lot of longevity. You need to be at least level 5 to play Fleet Battle Ranked, making sure that anyone who queues in the playlist knows what they’re signing up for.
Unfortunately, the ranked system seems to be a tad broken, both in how players get ranked, and actually ranking players to begin with. Players have reported winning nearly all their placement matches, only to be put in the lowest skill bracket. Some players are stuck at 0 MMR and can’t gain any, even when they win. If this wasn’t bad enough, the punishments for match abandonment are evidently not working. My friends who tried ranked before me complained about dropouts, and I didn’t believe how bad it really was until I actually played. Every match except one that I played had someone leave at some point, usually when they were losing. The problem with this is that Motive Studios have set it up so that if anyone in the server abandons a Ranked Fleet Battle, the match does not count any MMR change for any players - regardless of whether they win or lose. This punishes all players for someone rage quitting or even just their internet cutting out. This also results in most other players also disconnecting (as the match is already forfeit), resulting in countless games with just three or four committed starfighters sadly flying around.
In the interest of science, I went to see what the abandon penalty actually was. With heavy heart, I loaded into a ranked game, began the battle, and instantly left my teammates to fend for themselves. The menu gave me the option to rejoin, which I declined, abandoning the match. There was no punishment (except a match loss) or cooldown before joining another match. Pushing my luck —and my conscience— I tried queueing for another ranked game with thoughts of doing the exact same thing. It let me, and this time it did give a punishment: Low Priority Matchmaking. Essentially, it would take longer for me to find a match, but again there was no cooldown and it let me instantly queue back up for another Ranked match. Despite the supposed punishment, I didn't notice any significant time difference in finding a match. There may be more punishments on subsequent disconnects, but I didn’t have the stomach to find out. One positive thing I can maybe pull from my experiment is that as of writing, four days later, the penalty is still in effect, meaning that whatever it’s supposed to be doing, it’s meant to do it for a long time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to make any difference, and given how frequent disconnects are, I doubt the later punishments are more severe.
However, this is an issue that will hopefully be fixed in due time, and ignoring that, there is very little that can be said to fault Star Wars: Squadrons. Given how I’m not really a fan of aerial combat games but can still enjoy Squadrons is a testament to Motive Studios’ ability to bring newcomers to the genre and teach them the mechanics of the game without overwhelming them. The choice to disguise the tutorial behind an actually interesting Story Mode is a choice that they could have easily not made in favour of churning out a multiplayer-focussed game as fast as possible, but its inclusion is evidence of the care that has been put into this game. Learning from the mistakes of Star Wars games past, Star Wars: Squadrons has seamlessly taken to the skies, and I have a feeling that it can only soar higher from here.
This was reviewed with a Thrustmaster T.Flight Hotas X joystick.
STAR WARS: Squadrons (Reviewed on Windows)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
An enticing multiplayer experience that does a fantastic job of slowly easing players into its intricate design, Star Wars: Squadrons is making its mark on the gaming world. As long as Motive Studios can keep up with this momentum, I can’t see it crashing anytime soon.