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 the balance Squadrons has settled on works very well in creating 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 prioritize 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 overcharge them and fire them for longer; focusing shields will allow them to recharge faster, and overcharge them 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 all 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.
Of course, the feedback you get in 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. Colorful 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 meaningless 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, the other major component (if not the main component) of Squadrons is its 5v5 online multiplayer. There is a team deathmatch mode dubbed 'dogfighting,' as well as the Fleet Battles mode, an objective-based tug-of-war scenario between the two main Star Wars factions. In Fleet Battles, the Republic and Imperial teams each enter the battlefield with a battlecruiser and two frigates, with the goal being to push through the opposing team's frigates and eventually destroy their battlecruiser. You do this by building attack momentum, destroying both player-driven and AI starfighters on the other side to gain points, which will then herald the arrival of an AI-driven corvette, that will automatically push into enemy territory and help you attack the capital ships head-on.
If you've ever played a MOBA, or one of the many multiplayer games that have taken inspiration from them, then you'll have a good grasp of the Fleet Battle dynamic. It rewards well-rounded team compositions, especially when each pilot adheres to the strengths of their ships--whether it be fighter, bomber, interceptor, or support. Success typically comes from coordinating with your team to attack in tandem with your AI ships to make the most out of each push. At its best, these focused attacks on giant flagships with a tightly-knit squadron of players capture the feeling of Star Wars' climactic starship battles.
Unfortunately, like MOBAs, your success in and the overall pacing of Fleet Battles can vary wildly thanks to the whims of online matchmaking. Unless you're in a party of friends and have some kind of coordination with them, Fleet Battles can be a slog. In a party of random players, you'll often find yourself in situations where no one on the team is making enough of a concerted effort to push when it is most opportune to do so or defend when the dynamics of a match shift against your squadron. At worst, it can be a drag, drawn out to the maximum time limit of 30 minutes, where the natural ebb and flow of AI ship spawns will bring the match so exceedingly close it might as well be a coin toss to decide the winner. Your efforts to rally your teammates by pinging ships to attack or defend can so often ring hollow, leaving you to make solo kamikaze runs into capital ships in an effort to try and nudge the needle in your favor, just a little bit. It can be frustrating--you'd think the general attitude among players would be towards teamwork and playing to objectives, especially given that Fleet Battles is the game's only ranked multiplayer mode.
But even in the most uncoordinated Fleet Battles, Squadrons has the capacity to create some excellent moments, like hiding your ship among some debris amidst the chaos, secretly bombarding a capital ship at long range in your Y-Wing, and getting giddy at the idea that the other team is going to catch you out very soon. And then, of course, there are the dogfights, which are so easy to get sidetracked by on account of the sheer excitement of the chase. The flight options at your disposal as well as loadout varieties offer many ways to manipulate the duel one way or the other in the midst of the action, and the rush you get from close fights can be incredible. And that's not to mention that the whole feat is an audiovisual extravaganza of screaming engines, shaky cockpits, and dizzying twists and turns.
The thrills of those duels happen a lot more in the dedicated team deathmatch mode, naturally, where the playfields are smaller and there isn't any room for confusion as to the objectives of the match. But even though the mode is a team-based one, so many times I've hopped into random matches and found myself establishing a focused rivalry with just one pilot on the other team, getting into exclusive cat-and-mouse chases throughout the duration of the match. There's definitely a prevalent part of the current multiplayer community who love a tense dogfight, and have an interest in sizing up against pilots of their skill level rather than trouncing on a rookie. When you find yourself in one of these duels, Squadrons feels like the definitive starfighting experience.
Much like the campaign, it's the maps that play an integral part in heightening these fights. Though there are only six in total, they are all excellent playgrounds that make starfighter chases more exciting, with plenty of obstacles to zip through and around at high speeds. I've had my most memorable duels in the dense asteroid field of Galitan, where you can throw all your power into your engines, weave back and forth through a cluster of space rocks and then suddenly loop-the-loop around one and get right behind your pursuer. The same can be said of Esseles, where you can get rid of a tail by taking a risk and flying down into the tight corridors of the space station, keeping your enemy guessing as to which hallway you'll go down next, and maybe dropping a seeker mine in a particularly squeezy doorway as a surprise. The only real dud map in my eyes is Yavin, which is purely empty space and has no obstacles whatsoever. Yavin matches are always just bloodbaths of laser barrages from all angles and at great distances, where your survival is entirely dependent on praying that no one will spot you as soon as you spawn next time.
Squadrons also features a progression system that rewards two different currencies to spend on unlocking different ship components and cosmetic items, and the game is notably free from microtransactions. Simply leveling up your profile will allow you to unlock a useful variety of different loadout options for either Republic or Imperial ships, each of which will give your ship a distinct edge in one facet of its operation at the cost of suffering in other areas. The currency for cosmetics is also doled out in daily challenges, and it's a slow drip-feed. Fortunately, the quantity of truly interesting cosmetic options is also quite low, at least for my taste, meaning the time I needed to spend in order to afford the things I wanted felt reasonable.
The real reason that you're driven to keep playing Squadrons is for the pure joy of dogfighting, whether that be in the game's team deathmatch mode, campaign setpieces, or perhaps in VR on PS4 and PC, where the sensory deprivation and head-tracking give you an extra layer of physical response to your flight maneuvers, which can be exciting for as long as you can stomach it. The campaign's narrative leaves you wanting, and the flagship Fleet Battles can be incredibly uneven. But the feeling of Squadrons' core flight combat is gratifying enough to sustain you through it all. The involved nature of juggling all tasks required to operate your cool starfighter at peak efficiency while soaking in the more mechanical sights and sounds of Star Wars is a stimulating experience that Squadrons just gets right.