Star Wars Squadrons will be the first game to bear the sobriquet since Star Wars Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike in 2003, and although EA Motive aren’t calling it an official revival, it was clear from my four-hour hands-on play session that they aren’t shying away from embracing Rogue Squadron’s core…well, motive: to capture the sheer, unbridled joy of fantasy space combat. This time, from a first-person vantage, with smooth crossplay as a clear priority, and featuring a signature Fleet Battle mode as the star attraction. Open a comms channel and wake your astromech droid, Gold Leader — here are our first impressions of Star Wars: Squadrons.
Right out of the star-gate, the good news is that the flying and combat in Squadrons felt solid. If you like trying to shoot at where the other guy is going to be while wiggling your spaceship to shake off the proton torpedo on your tail, you’ll be in Gammorean Heaven. I played with a mouse and keyboard, but other participants reported a similarly good experience with a controller. The game’s targeting system is effective and fairly intuitive, and although it’s been a minute since I got my dogfight on, I found myself immediately flashing back to my Rogue Squadron days. Targeting and strafing a turret on the surface of a Star Destroyer, the chatter between me and my teammates, jumping from one level to the next, the detailed sounds of lasers and explosions I shouldn’t actually be able to hear in space — it all felt right.
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And although I was far from an ace pilot by the end of play, the number of additional systems woven into the combat loop promised a depth that advanced players will certainly appreciate. It was clear to me that with some practice, I could become a much more formidable force for good and/or evil. Developers included power management, optional front and rear shields, customizable ship loadouts, the ability to drift, and a fairly wide variety of guns and gadgets that all provide different tactical options during a match. Though I was a little surprised I couldn’t interact with my droid. Perhaps my favorite round was spent behind the stick of a U-Wing support ship, dropping mines and health pickups for my teammates. And although at first I often got nailed by any missile lucky enough to lock onto me, by the end I was evading and dropping counter-measures like a pro.
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My session included primarily multiplayer components, but we did get to play through the prologue of the single-player campaign, which was told in a now-familiar style from the dual vantage point of both a New Republic and Empire pilot. I won’t spoil any plot details, but Motive promised a full campaign with bespoke missions touring some classic Star Wars locales, and what we got to play definitely whetted my appetite for more.
One of the most notable changes to the feel of a Squadrons game was taking the camera inside the ship. Inhabiting the actual cockpit, which doubles as the player HUD, did add to my immersion, and quickly bonded me with the pilot I had randomly slapped together from about 16 different template options. And although I wasn’t granted any Requisition Points, the in-game method of purchasing new weapons and parts for your fighters, I did get to play with a selection of aesthetic improvements to my cockpit that helped flesh out my character. My Empire pilot, for example, has a real thing for Vader. I mean it might be a problem.
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But the star of the show, when it comes to multiplayer, is the Fleet Battle, an epic, sweeping match that plays out in multiple phases. My squad of five, along with AI support fighters, competed to keep our sides’ morale up through kills and streaks, which in turn unlocked the chance to strike at the enemy’s cruisers, and, ultimately, their flagship. The flagship can be taken down in a number of ways: by strategically disabling various systems, or with a full-force barrage of sheer direct damage. Of course, as the tide of battle shifts, you might be called upon to hurry back and defend your own cruisers, or retreat all the way to your flagship and swap vessels to better serve your team’s goals for the phase. The structure was plenty engaging, and I found myself eagerly and easily bouncing from objective to objective, even if I wasn’t always entirely clear on why it had just changed. A good soldier doesn’t question orders.
Ultimately, Fleet Battle is an admirable attempt to deliciously complicate the idea of a dogfight, but it’s not the most ambitious version I’ve ever encountered. Levels featured well-designed debris to keep them from being simple sky-boxes, and other than getting stuck in an asteroid at one point, I didn’t encounter any technical issues. However, of the four fighter-types I could choose between, I didn’t find their role in combat to vary drastically. Support ships served their function and bombers indeed carried bombs, but all the ships handled relatively similarly with varying speeds, and the gameplay certainly wasn’t as diverse as, say, going from on foot to airborne in Star Wars Battlefront 2. That said, things might have been different had my ships been fully upgraded, with access to a wider variety of parts. In the end, this game is for those who love pure space combat, and want to do an awful lot of it, over and over, until they’re very very good at it. Like a good round of Overwatch or Mario Strikers, I found myself wanting one more bite at the apple, one more chance to prove what I’d just learned and hone my technique.
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EA Motive is supporting that goal with a strong dedication to crossplay. They’ve lowered the barrier to entry as much as possible, allowing full crossplay and voice chat between consoles, PC, and VR headsets. And although I wasn’t allowed to try the game out on my Oculus Quest, I can only imagine VR must take things up a virtual notch. Whether the ship’s many systems would control quite as easily with the Oculus’ simple motion controllers, I can’t say, but VR is definitely the version of the full game I’ll be picking up. Although the game focuses more on pulse-pounding than the awe of space travel, I’ll take almost any opportunity to go flying in virtual reality.
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Squadrons knows what it’s about. It’s a very focused game, on a path as narrow and thrilling as any Death Star trench. If you’re into first-person space combat, I doubt a tighter package will come along this year. And if you’re a fan of multiplayer team sports, you could certainly have a lot of fun putting together a squad of fighter pilot friends and taking a run at becoming the scourge of the servers. The developers clearly have a lot of love for the Star Wars universe, as evidenced by the gorgeous, pop-art and propaganda-inspired cutscenes that help set the game apart from a generic Star Wars look. So if you yearn for a return to simpler days, but with a few new monkey wrenches thrown into the works to keep things interesting, Squadrons has a seat waiting for you.