For an entire generation, there’s always been something thrilling about strapping into a starfighter from the Star Wars universe and dogfighting against the evil Empire; or piloting a TIE against rebel scum, punishing them for their insurgence. After all, it’s been the basis of a series of flight sim games going back nearly 30 years. The last time players could battle for air supremacy was 2017’s oft-maligned Star Wars Battlefront II, which featured a game mode centered on air skirmishes. Now, EA and developer Motive Studios have taken that mode and turned it into a full-fledged experience with Star Wars: Squadrons, and for fans of high-intensity aerial combat – and silly space operas – it’s a direct hit.
Star Wars: Squadrons features both a single-player campaign and a multiplayer mode. It’s stripped down to just the basics, and its reduced retail price reflects that. To date, there are no controversial microtransactions or season passes scheduled. It’s a pure aerial combat game that lets the player experience the Star Wars universe from one unique perspective – through the window of a cockpit.
Squadrons opens after the destruction of Alderaan but then jaunts forward to the aftermath of the Battle of Endor, which, with the “death” of the Emperor, sent the Empire scrambling. The player will experience the story from both sides; the upstart New Republic, and the wounded, but still rabid Empire. Each faction has four ship varieties that will come into play during missions, giving you a well-rounded tour of the game’s vehicular roster as a whole.
Familiar ships like the X-Wing, Y-Wing, TIE Fighter and TIE Bomber can be customized with unique loadouts before missions, depending on the player’s taste for combat flying sims. Knowing your ship and what it can do will be the difference between success and death. The 14 chapter story (not including a brief prologue) stretches to around 10 hours, but the true purpose of the narrative here isn’t to add to the Star Wars mythos. Instead, it’s designed to get players ready for multiplayer combat on a larger scale, but that’s not to say the (predictable) story isn’t interesting.
There are cameos from well-established characters like Wedge Antilles and Hera Syndulla – from the Star Wars Rebels TV series — and Admiral Rae Sloane, who is a major player in the novels and comics from the franchise’s Disney era. But other than those fun nods to the greater tapestry of this ever-expanding universe, the story is what it is, and by the time you finish the fight, you’ll be ready for the true meat and potatoes of Star Wars: Squadrons – the multiplayer.
Online battles come in the form of two modes: Dogfighting and Fleet Battles. Dogfighting is just that; two teams of five players battling it out over six maps. The maps are derived from iconic locations in the single-player campaign, and some feature obstacles like wrecked Star Destroyers and other detritus and asteroids that have to be avoided while hunting, or being hunted.
Fleet Battles are objective-based skirmishes that task players with destroying a flagship, one on each side, and games tend to go back and forth until one of the flagships is destroyed, or time runs out. The flow of a Fleet Battle starts with a sky-clearing dogfight, which then shifts to taking out two guardian capital ships, all before you can begin the final assault on the flagship. If you can’t destroy it before it restores its shield, the other side gets a crack.
These tug-of-war battles get intense, and teamwork is essential. If all five players are flying X-Wings, that could pose a problem, as a Y-Wing’s bombs are better served to destroy the bigger capital and flagships. You can switch fighters mid-battle, though, adding to the level of strategy needed to win the day. There are also two versions of Fleet Battles, ranked and unranked, and you can even choose to battle AI, should you want a break from human opponents.
Star Wars: Squadrons allows players to customize their ships and pilots with various skins, outfits, components, and more. A few hours into the game, I started to see some unique-looking ships, which made me want to keep going to earn more “glory” – the in-game currency.
What really separates Squadrons from the aforementioned Battlefront II game mode is how much added detail Motive Studios crammed into the gameplay experience. Pilots can adjust their fighters in real-time, dedicating more power to weapons at the cost of shields or engines, and in certain ships, shields can be moved to fore or aft, depending on what you’re looking to do.
If you’re charging into battle with guns blazing, add shields to the front and hike up power to the guns. If the first wave gets behind you, shift shields to the rear and balance out your power until you get another clean look at your enemy. If you think back to the first Star Wars movie, during the Battle of Yavin (the assault on the Death Star), the TIE pilots always seemed to be turning little knobs on their flight console. Years later, and I now know what they were doing! This is deep stuff for a Star Wars video game.
You quickly learn to adjust your fighter on the go, so Squadrons matches are much more than just fly, shoot, die, repeat. I absolutely love that I can situationally adjust my ship in the heat of battle, and the best pilots will learn when to push and when to pull back. Having that much control over my ship really sucked me into the experience, and then that takes on a whole ‘nother level when Star Wars: Squadrons is played in VR.
Strapping on my PSVR headset was a completely different experience than sitting in my recliner in front of the TV. Within minutes, I was in the cockpit zooming through debris fields, pulling off split-second maneuvers while blasting away at enemies, and wildly turning my head to look all around me to find targets.
When I first started out, I had some issues adjusting my VR headset to the camera, so on my screen, I was scrunched down in the cockpit. I felt like young Anakin in The Phantom Menace trying to see over the dash to fight. It added a new obstacle to overcome in the heat and chaos of battle, and let’s just say I have a new appreciation for the 8-year-old flying that Naboo starfighter in the film’s climactic space skirmish.
Once I got those technical issues sorted out, playing Squadrons on VR is like playing a different game entirely. The chaotic sounds of battle echoing through my ears, damage showing up as smoke filling my cockpit – and me sitting there in the middle of it all, palms sweating, my breaths quickening. It was insane, and I loved every second of it. I can’t say that actual combat is easier or harder in VR, but the experience is definitely not to be missed.
Still, I’ll never forget that first time flying through the gorgeous reddish clouds on Yavin, picking off X-Wings and barrel rolling to the point that my brain was telling me it was time to revisit what I had for dinner. No matter what flaws Star Wars: Squadrons has, nothing will ever compete with the feelings I had playing this game in VR, which, in case you’re wondering, is available in both online multiplayer and the single-player campaign.
Star Wars: Squadrons is very much a simplified combat flight sim that offers the player so much more as they dig deeper into the tools that Motive has given them. It’s not just about kill/death ratios and unlocking new paint schemes for your ships. It’s the experience of sitting in a cockpit of these iconic fighters and going into battle with friends and strangers, with or without VR. Squadrons runs smoothly, looks amazing, and really gives you the Star Wars experience first hand.
I sincerely hope this is the first of a new sub-genre of Star Wars flight sim games from EA, as there are plenty of opportunities to add new maps, ships, and game modes that further encompass the vast universe that is beloved by millions of people worldwide. Star Wars: Squadrons is the game I’ve been wishing for since the days of Rogue Squadron on the Nintendo 64, and hopefully, this is only the beginning.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A review copy was provided to us by EA.