Last night I had a few hours with the new Star Wars Squadrons game from EA and I thought I would write a bit about my experiences with the title from the perspective of a flight simmer. I’ve found quite a bit of crossover between the more serious side of flight simming and people who enjoy a good Star Wars game – especially one that puts us in the cockpit of an X-Wing or TIE Fighter. These are some first impressions.
I’m writing about Star Wars squadrons both as a fan of the old Lucas Arts X-Wing and TIE Fighter series of games (including X-Wing vs TIE Fighter) that I played in the 90’s as well as a fan of other space combat games stretching back from Wing Commander and all the way up to Descent: FreeSpace. In more recent times, as any regular readers here will know, I’m all in on more realistic aviation simulations from the new Microsoft Flight Simulator to the intense combat of DCS World and IL-2: Great Battles.
When I load up a game like Star Wars Squadrons, particularly after the developers have talked about full HOTAS support, I’m looking to make use of my flight sim gear as much as possible. More on that in a moment but let’s talk about the game itself.
Feels like Star Wars
The folks at Motive Studios have done a great job of making the game feel like Star Wars. From the look and feel of the ships to the audio design to the subtle and not so subtle film grain that they are placing on top of the scene, it all just fits together in a very “Star Wars” fashion.
I’ll likely write a full review later so I can save some of my thoughts for then but I did want to say that I appreciate the effort that went into creating several scenes in the game that show hangars and briefing rooms. In multiplayer, the waiting room places you and your four fellow pilots standing around a holographic table (an interactive one that you can watch a briefing on how things work in the game mode you’re playing). While getting ready for the mission you can go down to the hangar deck and interact with your ship – making cosmetic and systems modifications.
While you’re doing this, there are large numbers of characters walking around, working on things, talking and having conversations that are barely perceptible but all there. And it just adds atmosphere in an incredible way.
It’s almost indescribable what makes something feel like you’re watching or in Star Wars but I can report back as a fan of the movies from a young age that this is Star Wars. Really well done!
Into the space combat
There are several things that I already like quite a bit about Star Wars Squadrons. It is the closest thing to X-Wing and TIE Fighter as I can remember. It’s been many years since I played those games but this feels very similar but with a big graphical boost.
The best thing about those games was their hardcore attention to gameplay. Space combat was fast and sometimes brutal with targeting systems and power management to consider. Double front or double back shields from the movies? That was there and it’s here too.
Both sides have an equal number of ships with some asymmetry in terms of characteristics but overall everything feels well balanced between the Rebel Allian… ahem… New Republic and Imperials (this is set after the events of Return of the Jedi after all). The classics are all here with notable exception of the B-Wing which I really want to fly sometime.
The way the ships move is also very familiar to those old games. Not entirely and I feel like the physics could be a bit better but overall it’s satisfying enough. Make a quick turn and there’s definitely enough momentum on display to make it feel like you’re flying something that actually might exist. There’s also some cool slide mechanics that come into play especially when you use an available speed boost.
There are plenty of weapon and accessory modifications that change blasters or add different types of missiles or torpedoes. Each has an advantage or disadvantage which means there shouldn’t automatically be a better option although I’m sure some “meta” combinations may emerge and then get balanced out as with most games.
None of this is anything like the systems and flight modeling that we see in a flight simulation title, especially something like DCS World, X-Plane, IL-2 or some other more serious simulator but it is done well enough to give a little depth to the experience.
Last night I flew multiplayer with several people including Requiem from the Air Combat Tutorial Library, YouTube and Twitch steamer Wolfpack345 and Erik from Geeks with Kids podcast and Twitch stream. Based on responses at the end of several matches, we all had a great time doing it.
We did dogfights first before unlocking Fleet Battles. I think Fleet Battles is really the mode you want to spent the most time with as its a lot of fun and unlocks the full potential of all of the ships – especially the TIE Bomber and Y-Wing. It pitted us against both human and AI ships which helped to make us feel like we were part of a big Star Wars space battle. The scenarios feature a lot of “terrain” including asteroids, space stations, and the like. Space feels very crowded at times but that’s part of the fun.
Motive and the PR folks at EA made a big deal about VR support and HOTAS support, however, I can speak to the HOTAS part and say that the system is, at present, only half baked.
First, it only seems to recognize three controllers at once and so many people have had to resort to things like VJoy and Joystick Gremlin to try and create custom profiles to get the game to recognize their hardware. Star Wars Squadrons won’t recognize my VIRPIL MongoosT-50 throttle at all no matter what I’ve tried so far. Instead I awkwardly bound several controls to my WarBRD which at the least was working.
There’s some deadzone baked into the controller schemes too which is annoying and reduces the sensitivity causing overshoots. While useful for gamepads, its not for joysticks. I honestly think they are treating joysticks in the same way as a gamepad and that’s just not how it should be done.
The customization options also don’t seem to be terribly well thought through. It’s hard to determine which controls can use an axis, which are push button, and why do I need a customization screen for how to interact with the menu? The focus should be on the ship key bindings. It feels rather tacked on and it has me looking for sales on gamepad controllers that might work better with the title. Others in the group and elsewhere did have success with their hardware but it seems to all come from the mainstream hardware producers – Logitech and Thrustmaster.
Also, while the game supports VR headsets (of which I don’t own and can’t comment on), it strangely doesn’t support TrackIR/OpenTrack solutions. With VR being far harder to get right there are few reasons why head tracking options are not here .
My message to Motive and other developers is that these are not the only companies you should support and your software should let us use any game controller recognized hardware. Indie space sim title House of the Dying Sun did this all (the VR, the headtracking and the controller management) without trouble so I feel like Motive, an EA backed studio, needs to step up here.
Controller woes aside, Star Wars Squadrons does what it advertises which is put you into the cockpit of some of Star Wars’ most recognizable space ships and let you act out the fantasy of flying around in an X-Wing, TIE Fighter and other ships from this fictional universe in stunning fashion. The gameplay is fast, well thought out for the most part, and has some fun customizations. Multiplayer is where it’s at for the game but I look forward to getting into the campaign more too which seems to be more than I was expecting.
At $40 the price point on Star Wars Squadrons is not at full AAA title level but Motive made a smartly focused title for that price point and it seems to have paid off. This is fun and well done title that impresses for the most part. It’s a nice diversion from more serious flight simulation into the fantastical world of Star Wars space combat. They just need to rethink and rework their controller support.