Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Star Wars Squadrons is a passionate and gorgeous love letter to the original Lucasarts X-Wing and TIE Fighter games. One hour into the exciting single-player story campaign, I was screaming “NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS!” at the screen while blasting TIE Interceptors into space dust. I was 10 years old again, in the best possible way.
These are the best memories of my childhood, preserved, yet modernized. And you don’t have to be a fan of the original Lucasarts games to enjoy Squadrons; it’s fantastic all on its own. People who liked Star Wars Battlefront 2’s epic space battles will love this. For folks who grew up on the new Star Wars trilogy, and have dreamed of flying an X-Wing or TIE Fighter, welcome. There’s so much to enjoy here.
The best Star Wars flight game in years
Star Wars Squadrons delivers one of the purest, most exciting, and enjoyable Star Wars experiences. The immersive gameplay and well-voiced supporting cast helps draw you into the game’s world and engages you with the story’s stakes. You also don’t need to be a huge Star Wars buff to enjoy the game. Empire bad. Rebels and New Republic good. Now you’re ready to play.
For those familiar with Star Wars canon, the story is set soon after the Battle of Endor and the death of the Emperor. The Empire is in disarray and the Rebel Alliance has begun implementing and defending the New Republic. However, some Imperials battle on, fighting the Rebels and each other. Folks who have followed the comics and recently expanded universe cartoons will enjoy some of the cameos that pop up.
In the single-player campaign, you alternate between playing pilots on each side, telling a military science fiction story that feels equal parts pulp action, and Star Wars deep lore love letter that offers a fun window into the heroism and ferocity of Star Wars pilots. Without spoiling too much, it’s reminiscent of the plotline of the TIE Defender expansion pack for the original TIE Fighter.
The gameplay and story also feel like Star Wars in the same way that The Mandalorian manages to capture both the grit and the gee-whiz! feeling of the original trilogy. Your Imperial squadmates are brutal and cruel. Rebels are puckish rogues who make jokes, feel the Force, and try to fleece you at sabacc.
Missions involve zipping through tiny spaces, hunting down enemy fighters, and dodging debris and asteroids in gorgeous spaces worthy of No Man’s Sky. When your fighter takes damage, your instrument console will spark and your windshield will crack. You’ll shout “You hear me, baby? Hold together!” at the screen.
Your own pilot rarely speaks, except during missions, when they’ll respond to the comm barks of their squadmates. One of my favorite barks came from my Imperial pilot. Whenever Sol, my support ship squadmate healed her, she would say, “Thank me later!” to which my pilot snarled, “I owe you NOTHING!” So obnoxious. So Imperial. It’s fun! It’s funny! It’s just serious enough, and mostly not serious at all.
An immersive dogfighting experience
The devs brought back ship energy management, one of my favorite parts of the original Lucasarts games. You have to constantly manage your ship’s power levels in your engines, weapons, and (if your ship has them) shields. While this might sound boring, it immerses you in the pilot experience. You’re always squeezing the last ounce of performance out of your ship. In the midst of a pitched dogfight, you’re constantly switching between defense, evasion, or offensive power. And it helps create the “Oh god, oh god, oh god!” experience of dealing with your ship that’s been a part of every Millennium Falcon chase since A New Hope.
Also, when you choose to favor one system over another, your ship gains significant benefits. If you divert all energy to your ship’s engines, you go faster, but you slowly charge up afterburner thrust, which you can expend to evade missiles, break tractor beam locks, or escape pursuit. If you divert energy to your shields or lasers, you can overcharge them, providing more defense or damage. Once you divert energy away from either, the overcharge slowly drains, providing lasting benefit even if you need something else for the moment.
This used to be handled with keyboard commands (and still can be, if you’re using keyboard and mouse). However, the devs came up with a clever solution for HOTAS (hands-on throttle and stick) users. Flicking your hat switch quickly changes your ship’s energy distribution. Flick left for engines, up for lasers, right for shields, and down for even distribution between all systems. This means that you can make changes via muscle memory, without glancing at your keyboard. I imagine this would be particularly helpful in VR mode (I haven’t been able to play in VR mode, but I’ve heard nothing but good things so far).
A modern space sim
Squadrons is a love letter to `90s space sims and you can see it in all the little touches. Between missions, you can get to know your squad buddies in little non-interactive scripted sequences, reminiscent of the old Wing Commander games. The animation is a little awkward, but I find it endearing; it reminds me of a simpler time in gaming.
But the devs also made a point of eliminating the pain points of the genre. Missions are checkpointed, so if you fail or crash midway through, you don’t have to work through every mission objective again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled through long difficult missions in old school space sims only to crash and burn in the last five minutes. Performing every objective again gets old fast, and you don’t have to suffer like that in Squadrons. Also, when you respawn back at the checkpoint, you respawn with a spotless new ship. You won’t end up having one hit point of hull left and dying immediately.
In older space sims, crashing your ship against an object in space was a death sentence, or nearly so. Ricocheting off a Star Destroyer still sucks, but if you don’t bounce off and hit another surface, you’ll probably survive. It’s just a bummer to die this way, and I think the devs knew it. Now, you’ll take a bad hit to your hull integrity, but you’re not instantly dead unless you were using your maximum speed booster thrust (in which case, admit that you deserved it).
Damage is rarely permanent in Squadrons. If you fail at making a risky maneuver and take damage, you don’t have to live with it for the rest of the mission. You can equip a self-heal ability that has a long cooldown that provides a very nice 20 percent heal over time effect, and it’s a great impetus to shout “Lock that down, R2!”
Flying felt great on my Thrustmaster T.Flight Stick X. Despite the HOTAS shortage in the wake of Microsoft Flight Simulator, I sincerely suggest you try to find a proper flight stick to play Squadrons. If not, you can still get the job done on a gamepad or even KBAM.
Multiplayer: The Force is not with me
Squadrons also includes two multiplayer modes: Dogfight and Fleet Battles. Dogfight mode is a simple 5v5 PvP team deathmatch. Pilots zip around and try to land kills on the other team until one team reaches 30 total kills. The devs have a few compelling maps, including a saucer-shaped space station that you can fly into and through to chase and evade enemy ships, a debris field, and a nebula full of dangerous and damaging gases.
Fleet Battles mode is what you get when you ask the question, “What if X-Wing, but a MOBA?” Two Star Wars fleets face-off, and your goal is to destroy the enemy flagship. In the first phase, players on both sides engage in dogfights to earn points. The first side to earn enough points enters phase two and gets to push into enemy territory and engage enemy capital ships. If you can take out the two capital ships, you can start to make runs on the enemy capital ship.
However, even if you have the advantage and are pushing into enemy territory if your team loses too many ships, you can be pushed back. New capital ships will spawn, and your enemy team gets to take a run at those. A good match has pushes and counter pushes, and good teammates will call out targets for the squadron to gang up on. It’s a great concept, and I hope they build on it and deepen it. (There’s also voice chat, but I felt no urge to ruin my good day by talking to other human beings on the internet.)
Multiplayer, in general, is a reminder that I’m actually not as good at space sims as I’d like to believe I am. It’s a humbling experience that reminds me of my early days of multiplayer Modern Warfare 2, where “run out, die, run out, die” was all I did. And much like old school Call of Duty, when you win, it feels amazing, and when you get slaughtered it’s a drag. The single-player is determined to make you feel like a Big Damn Hero, multiplayer can make you feel like Jek Porkins, who climbed into his cockpit just to die.