I remember outlining an article I wanted to write about Star Wars games that EA should consider revisiting. I didn’t really imagine myself getting around to writing it anytime soon, but I was having fun just thinking about it. At the top of my list, two games battled for the first position — Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader and X-Wing Alliance. I love those games and thinking about them had me cursing the void in modern video game releases where space combat games used to fit. Later that day, EA announced Star Wars: Squadrons. I immediately forgot about the list and started to daydream about things I wanted out of this game.
In terms of gameplay, I wanted a game where I could feel like an ace starfighter. In order for a game to do that, it can’t hold my hand nor can it humiliate me with overly complicated systems. It has to let me pull off daring maneuvers, speed through narrow gaps, and generally just feel like a hero from the Battle of Yavin. Few games manage to sit comfortably between those margins. Squadrons, however, does.
Piloting is very easy to understand on a basic level. You move the analog stick to steer and pull the trigger to shoot. The throttle is mapped to the other analog stick and it works as you might expect where decreasing speed facilitates tighter turns. The simple controls can be used in complex ways, but the main campaign in Star Wars: Squadrons doesn’t require players to get too fancy with their flying. So long as players don’t fly in straight lines when they’re being shot at, they should be able to complete the relatively brief campaign without too much trouble.
The campaign does introduce players to one of the ways Star Wars: Squadrons really stands out from its console-based predecessors; Squadrons is the rare sort of game that could feasibly compel people to shout sci-fi cliches like “divert power to engine” to an ally over a microphone. Even if they don’t literally say that, the fact that players can “divert power” at all is a pretty rad way to introduce approachable tactics to the game. By default, a ship’s power is distributed evenly between engines, primary weapons, and, occasionally, shields. Power can be exchanged between these systems to increase that system’s potential. A player can divert power to engines to go faster, weapons to increase damage, and shields to increase recharge rate. Or they can continue to power a system until it becomes overcharged which is reflected in a dramatic boost in that system’s performance.
Diverting power, offensive maneuvers, and more take on greater significance in the game’s multiplayer. Now, multiplayer wasn’t something I really required, and at my advanced age of 31, my relationship with matchmaking is a bit strained, but I love its presence in Squadrons. It is, arguably, the best aspect of the game. Importantly, players who are nervous about learning the game alongside other humans can practice against AI and still have a blast. This is a great way to approach the strategy-focused multiplayer option, Fleet Battles. These fights play out in phases and manage to capture that Battle of Yavin feeling that I mentioned earlier. Playing with AI means there’s no rush to learn the intricacies of the mode and guarantees that some random person over voice chat won’t ruin the immersion.
If the game ever feels confusing, or too easy, players can alter the gameplay a bit in the “Pilot Experience” menu. The recommended setting, Standard, enables a HUD that identifies friends, enemies, and objectives. Meanwhile, the Instruments Only setting requires the player to reference the on-board flight instruments for information. I can’t foresee myself ever switching to Instruments Only, but I imagine it’ll be perfect for some. Controls can be fine-tuned even further within the game’s menus, which will be necessary for players who prefer pitch, roll, throttle, and yaw in different places. Flight controls can also be inverted.
In terms of story, my bar was pretty low since so many stories in Star Wars games have functioned as little more than an excuse to tour different locales. Squadrons does manage to clear that bar, but not by much. I also suspect that it was never meant to be the game’s main selling point. There are hints of something good in there, certainly, but the game somehow manages to create opportunities to get pretty deep only to squander them.
The first mission does manage to set up some moral tension and expectations that don’t have much of a payoff. In it, the player takes control of an Imperial Pilot who gets sent out with their squadron to search for refugees on behalf of the Galactic Empire. In conjunction with some relatively icky statements made by other Imperials, a series of suspenseful moments where the protagonist is commanded to scan civilian ships does give a sense of just how evil the Galactic Empire actually is. It’s a better means of vilification because it portrays them in a way that would be harder to see from an outside perspective. It is also made clear that the game is set after the destruction of Alderaan, and that horrible moment is given more weight in Squadrons than it was in the original trilogy. Again, it’s hard not to imagine what could have been with better follow-through.
It’s Star Wars, though, and cool ships and enormous spectacle are part of the fun. It’s alright that the story isn’t going to win any awards because it still does its job and doesn’t actively detract from the important parts of the game. Star Wars: Squadrons is the most accessible and potentially best way to experience one of the coolest parts of Star Wars.