Involved flight mechanics add a lot to the space combat of Star Wars: Squadrons, though the campaign's narrative components might leave you wanting.
Star Wars: Squadrons will is now available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Ahead of our full review, we've assessed the entirety of the game's single-player story campaign and general game mechanics after 8 hours of play. Over the coming days, we'll be testing game's online multiplayer (a major component which we were unable to access during the pre-release phase) to see how it performs in a general release environment before finalizing our thoughts.
For all the ups and downs I've had with various Star Wars media products over the past few decades, the formative space combat simulations of X-Wing and TIE Fighter on MS-DOS (or at least, my memory of them) have always been a fixed highlight. It's hard to go astray when you're focused on the minutiae of inherently cool sci-fi fantasy planes, as opposed to whatever's going on with Jedi lineages or space politics now.
There have been a few arcade-style Star Wars space combat games that filled the 20-year period since the last flight simulator, and some of them were even good. But Star Wars: Squadrons is now making a welcome return to some of the simulator intricacies, while still retaining a large degree of the approachable spectacle of the arcade-style flight games. And, based on the single-player story campaign, the balance Squadrons has settled on works very well and creates an experience that makes you feel as if you're really an active participant in a Star War.
The basic mechanics will be familiar if you've ever played any kind of flight game. You pitch your fighter up and down, you bank it left and right. You fly forward, not backward, and you can twirl until you feel sick. You maneuver your crosshairs onto an enemy and then fire lasers or missiles at them. You're locked to a first-person cockpit view of the action, but all of Squadron's missions are in space, which means maintaining altitude isn't something you have to worry about, and instead, you get the wonderful freedom of being able to fly along any axis--rolling your ship and flying upside down is a hoot. It feels like you could feasibly finish the Squadrons campaign relying mostly on those principles if you wanted to, especially on lower difficulty levels, and that's great. But Squadrons digs a little deeper with the ability to reroute power on your ship, a system that brings a nice layer of complexity in the advantages that it can open up for you and the considerations that come with that.
Each starfighter in Squadrons has the ability to rebalance the feed of power to prioritise different ship components: the engines, the laser weapons, and, on certain ships, the shield system. Doing so gives you access to specific benefits related to that system at the cost of reducing the efficiency of the others. Diverting all power to the engines makes your ship more maneuverable, gives you a faster top speed, and charges a speed boost; prioritizing lasers will let you fire them for longer; focusing on shields will allow them to recharge faster, and even overcharge to absorb more damage than normal. Furthermore, ships with shields can also choose whether to divert shield coverage to the front of the ship, the back of the ship, or balance them all over. It's not exactly on par with the Star Wars simulators from the '90s (power diversion isn't as granular, and you can't adjust your firing patterns or anything like that), but the notable systems are there, and there's still plenty to think about when you're in the thick of things.
You can leave the systems equally balanced and still be fine, but it's exciting to make these snap decisions in the middle of a mission and act more like the ace pilot you're supposed to be. Sure, you could simply let your X-Wing cruise over the Star Destroyer and shoot at its targeting module until your lasers run out, eating a bit of damage in the process, and then repeat. But you could definitely get things done way more efficiently if you shift power to your shields as you approach in order to overcharge them, flip everything to lasers as you begin to fire to get a dozen more shots in before you overheat, and then push everything to the engines as you crank the throttle to get clear, quickly shifting your shields to the rear to absorb all the turret fire coming your way. Constantly having your mind occupied with these mechanics on top of your mission objectives can give even the most straightforward sorties an involved and exciting edge to them, especially knowing that you could be putting yourself at greater risk if you're in a bad configuration for the situation.
The commands are simple to execute (mapped to the D-pad on a controller by default, though you can reconfigure all controls), meaning the challenge comes from internalizing the best options for the situations you find yourself in and remembering to change things up when the time comes, in the heat of the moment. It's these additional complexities and the advantages they give you that make me incredibly excited to see how much they'll change the familiar dynamic of video game dogfighting in Squadrons' multiplayer component. I want to know how high that skill ceiling goes.
Of course, the feedback you get from playing with these systems does a lot to make the experience really satisfying, and the tried and true Star Wars production design is executed well in Squadrons. The familiar sounds of droids and proton torpedoes are weirdly comforting, and hearing the crunch of titanium as you fly past a TIE you just obliterated is very exciting. The unique cockpits of each ship have a great look too, with easy-to-read gauges that don't betray the excellent retro-futuristic boxiness of the ships themselves. I personally appreciated the extra touch of '70s chic with some fantastic hairstyles on some of the pilots, though a few of the "cooler" campaign characters obviously didn't get the memo.
Across 14 missions lasting around eight hours in total, the campaign of Squadrons jumps back and forth between the journeys of two pilots, each flying on one of the two sides of the intergalactic war between the freshly rebranded New Republic and the Galactic Empire. It all starts with a defection, which leads to a secret military project and light musings on loyalty, personal morality, and what constitutes a victory while serving during wartime--a plot that succeeds in justifying the escalation of exciting space combat encounters, if nothing else.
The missions themselves are straightforward in nature, all offering a smattering of dogfighting as well as at least one other objective, such as taking down a larger enemy ship, defending one of your own, or hitting stationary targets like reactor cores and shield generators. There is some wiggle room for variance in approaches or strategies, but nothing major. Optional objectives crop up at times and can serve as ways to make an upcoming task easier if you're good enough to complete them. Later missions allow you to alter your loadout, and some even let you choose the ship you take into battle, but for the most part, a lot of these variables are predetermined in such a way that gives you ample opportunity to get familiar with the game's meaningful variety of vehicles and loadout options.
What makes these missions special are not the raw objectives, though: It's the spectacle of some of the maps they take place on. Squadrons takes you to some exciting regions of the Star Wars galaxy, which are easy to appreciate right away. Colourful nebulas filled with lightning storms, Star Destroyer graveyards, and a shattered moon are just some of the memorable stages for the campaign encounters.
You don't need to be a Star Wars fan to understand the game's events. There are a couple of brief but notable cameos from the Star Wars canon, but more time is spent getting to know original characters, the members of Vanguard and Titan squadrons--the Republic and Imperial teams, respectively. They fill the missions with practical radio chatter, but you get a better opportunity to dive into their characters through optional conversations that you can access before and after missions.
Vanguard Squadron is made up of a ragtag group of humans and humanoid aliens with personalities as varying as their colour palette--the confident one! The timid one. The scoundrel. Titan Squadron, on the other hand, is an all-human squad. And while each character shares a hint of backstory that explores how any sane person in this universe could come to join the fascist Empire, all of that is betrayed by character designs that strongly suggest that these people are all absolutely, definitely evil--menacing scars, elitist personalities, an ex-cop who loves "delivering justice," and one guy who cannot take off his terrifying, half-melted full-face pilot's helmet. Needless to say, despite the welcome opportunities for character interaction, the limited amount of face-to-face time you get to actually spend with your squads means your look into their lore and personalities rarely goes too deep, and it's hard to form any real connection with them.
Compounding this is the fact that your two protagonists are both silent. Despite character customization being the first thing you're asked to do--part of which is choosing their voice and personality--your character is never seen and rarely heard from during the campaign. You can be an absolute hero who carries the squad when you're in combat, but when you're simply hanging out in the… hangar, you feel more like a fly on the wall than a member of the squad, which is awkward.
Conversations with your fellow squad members are more like lengthy monologues that you listen to politely, and toward the tail end of the campaign, you feel like a pawn being pushed around to fight a feud you have no feelings on. Your character is unable to express even a fraction of the hesitation or emotion seen in the supporting cast, which undersells big story beats and what little the game is trying to accomplish in its thematic explorations, especially with the Empire. But, by and large, the majority of the campaign is still filled with good scenarios that push you to pilot your funky space planes as best you can.
Of course, another major component (if not the main component) of Squadrons is its 5v5 online multiplayer, which features a dogfighting mode as well as "Fleet Battles," an objective-based tug-of-war scenario between two teams. There is also a progression system that rewards a variety of cosmetic items and is notably free from microtransactions. How enjoyable these modes will be over a long period of time, and how rewarding the game's progression ladder ends up feeling, is something I'll be trying to come to terms with over the following days. But as my experience stands right now, the campaign of Star Wars: Squadrons is a solid showcase of setpieces that conveys what's possible with the game's engaging flight combat mechanics. Juggling all tasks required on your cool starfighter while soaking in the sights and sounds of Star Wars has been a real treat in the first 8 hours, even if I'm left a bit wanting.
|The Good||The Bad|
Involved flight mechanics add an engaging layer of complexity to space combat
|Campaign characters and narrative dressing leave you wanting more|
|The signature retro-futurism of Star Wars is well-executed across the board|
|Some beautiful stages that make you just happy to be there|
Keep an eye on GameSpot over the coming days for the full review of Star Wars: Squadrons, which will come after we've had ample time to test the game's primary multiplayer modes during the game's first week of release.