I’ve been watching Star Wars movies and TV shows, reading books and consuming all things Star Wars since I was very young. I was hooked when the first Star Wars games came out that let me experience the fantasy of flying an X-Wing. I played X-Wing, TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, and enjoyed everything they had to offer, but that was 25 years ago and it’s been a while since we’ve seen a game that focused exclusively on Star Wars space combat. Now that we have one, how does it measure up to those legends of the past and what is it like to play in 2021 from the perspective of someone who normally plays flight sims? This is my review of Star Wars Squadrons.
My perspective on Squadrons
This review of Star Wars Squadrons comes from the perspective of someone who spends most of his entertainment time flying flight simulators. I’ve got multiple devices plugged into my computer, I use a Delanclip and OpenTrack to give me a TrackIR-like experience. I’m familiar with cold starting a DCS: A-10C, bouncing a Me262 jet fighter in a P-51 Mustang in IL-2: Great Battles, and flying an approach in a Cessna 172 in X-Plane and Microsoft Flight Simulator. Star Wars Squadrons is none of these things but does it still appeal? I also didn’t rush to write this review and so, unlike what you may have read back in the fall when it released, this is all about what Star Wars Squadrons is like in January 2021 – some big things have changed along the way!
Star Wars Squadrons is an unusual game in 2020 and 2021
News of Star Wars Squadrons coming to PC, XBox One, XBox Series X, PS4 and PS5 with some trepidation. Was this just a repackaged version of Battlefront 2’s space combat sequences? Was this going to have any depth to it or was EA out to make a quick buck? The truth is, I don’t know what the story behind the genesis of this game is, but I think it is an unusual title in the world of mass market games in 2020 and 2021.
Squadrons is unashamedly a space combat sim title. Squadrons places you firmly inside the cockpit of your starfighter with no over the shoulder 3D person chase view. I think that is a message that this is meant to be experienced from this perspective with no third person views or virtual HUD’s. That message, that this is a more serious space combat sim, is mostly received and seems to have been adopted readily by the player base.
Star Wars Squadrons also stands out in a market where nearly every game from the big publishers has to be a big AAA release. Squadrons eschews the convention coming in at a lower price and absent the usual collection of season passes, DLC packages, marketplaces and microtransactions. What you see is what you get and you get it all for about $40 USD.
Visually stunning, aurally pleasing
Star Wars Squadrons visual appeal is clear. The graphics look great, the cockpits of the star fighters are lovingly created and they look every inch the ships I remember seeing in the movies. The developers at Motive Studios put the power of the Frostbite engine to good use and rendered plenty of detail in the space environments that you fly around in.
Those space environments have been designed to intentionally have plenty of “terrain” with plenty of debris, asteroids, swirling storms or large space stations forming the scenery. This works great for gameplay, it fits Star Wars lore, but it also quite a departure from the days of old where space combat games used to be mostly empty expanses dotted with small ships and the occasional enemy fighter. Squadrons makes space feel a bit smaller but it impresses with that experience.
Squadrons leans in heavily to the starships and settings from the original trilogy as well as some notable appearances by some of the ships introduced in Rouge One: A Star Wars Story and it makes judicious use of well-established sound effects from the various Star Wars movies as well. The music, composed by Gordy Haab, sounds like it belongs in a classic Star Wars movie and has all of the needed leitmotivs from four decades of Star Wars movie themes.
The dream of flying a star fighter comes true
Star Wars Squadrons comes with four ships on each side of the galactic battle that’s taking place. For the New Republic you have your classic X-Wing, Y-Wing, and A-Wing ships from the original trilogy. There’s also the U-Wing which was one of the starring ships in Rogue One and one of the best ship designs to come from the more recent movies. Jumping over to the Empire, we have the TIE Fighter, TIE Bomber, TIE Interceptor and TIE Reaper. That last one, the Reaper, also comes originally from Rogue One.
The ships represent fighter, bomber, interceptor and support craft in order. Each ship fits into a specific role and has purpose in that role. Fortunately, most ships are general purpose enough to operate outside of their specific purpose if flown well. An A-Wing can attack a capital ship although usually in a more supporting role, and the Y-Wing and TIE Bomber are plenty capable of tackling fighters in a pinch – just without the agility of other types.
The game also added, for free, two additional types in December of 2020. The B-Wing is a different take on an attack bomber that offers more firepower but less multi-role flexibility afforded by the Y-Wing. Meanwhile, the Empire adds the mighty TIE Defender. This is an experts ship that benefits from power management skills and smart piloting to take full advantage.
Each ship has its own set of parameters and values. Although overall ‘balance’ between the ships is achieved, Motif Studios has done this in an asymmetric way. For example, the standard TIE Fighter, Interceptor and Bomber isn’t shielded and so they make up for this with slightly stronger hull values. They have that but they lack the recharge and flexibility that the Rebel/New Republic ships have with their shields.
Flying these ships is something that feels good enough to me for a space action game. There’s enough inertia and sense of weight to even the lightest of ships that you don’t feel like its something that is stuck on rails. Each ship instead feels like something that is actually flying along albeit in a Star Wars styled way. Star Wars has never aimed to do realistic space battles and draws heavily on the style of WWII flying movies. That’s well represented with this game.
There is some depth to flying these ships as well. Most of that depth is in managing the ships power systems and on the Rebel ships that is usually setting things between a balance of engines, weapons and shields while with the Empire it’s just engines and weapons (with the notable exception of the aforementioned TIE Defender). More power to engines means faster speed while more power to guns means the recharge rate on guns if higher and allows for longer bursts from your primary laser cannons.
Shields can be overboosted and, just like in A New Hope, you can put shields to double front (or double back) to protect yourself from oncoming fire. Tap the right button combination and you can also initiate a pretty good looking powerslide that helps you disengage and reengage with enemy ships.
It’s nothing like the kind of system depth and detail that comes with some of the more complex flight simulators out there but for an “arcade game,” it offers enough depth of experience to make for interesting fights between ships.
I should mention that Star Wars Squadrons does use a built-in auto aim system. It does require you to put your crosshair near the target and wait for the targeting system to lock-on but I know some people were annoyed with the system and so to each is own there. Locking on to a target and getting a tracking shot from laser weapons is part of the series’ lore right from the beginning so I don’t see this as an issue personally. It’s not over powered and it doesn’t make a poor shot any good but it also doesn’t penalize gamepad pilots who have less accurate controls.
Ways to play
Star Wars Squadrons is split up into a couple of different experiences including a training mission, a campaign that has missions that jump back and forth between Empire and New Republic, and both dogfight and fleet battle multiplayer matches.
Of all of those, the campaign is fun to play through and become accustomed to the craft while multiplayer fleet battles is what Star Wars Squadrons is truly all about. Fleet battles see’s a MC80 go up against a Star Destroyer complete with various frigates and blockade runners all making an appearance. The battle progresses in stages that go back and forth across the different areas while your defenses are challenged and the enemies are picked apart by successful attacks.
Once through the layered defenses, you can challenge the enemy capital ship directly with several weak points offering ways to exploit the ship’s design and lay waste to the enemy ship and secure victory. Fleet battles can sometimes last over 20 minutes or they can be over in a matter of a few minutes depending on how organized each team is. AI star fighters fill the ranks but most of the work is done by 5 humans on each team. Just enough to occupy each type of role.
Fleet battles is the most fun but it also is reliant on securing a solid match with evenly balanced players. That can sometimes be a challenge.
Customizing your star pilot and fighter
Star Wars Squadrons has a good amount of customization available. Each ship has dozens of cosmetic schemes that can be applied with in-game earnable points and your pilot can also be customized with several different looks, helmets, uniforms, etc. None of these customizations change the way your ship flies or fights but they do let you distinguish yourself in those starting and ending scenes and they are kind of fun to apply.
There are customization options that DO affect how your ship flies and several custom profiles can be applied. The default configuration for each ship is highly effective on its own but sometimes you’ll want to do things in a different way and that’s where the custom options come in. None of them are straight upgrades and are instead what I would call a sidegrade – offering options but not an outright advantage. That said, there are some emerging “meta” configurations that may offer a slight edge, however, I’ve kind of just been doing my own thing and having fun that way.
I have an X-Wing configured with standard lasers, concussion missiles, and a cool green scheme while another that is setup with Proton Torpedoes and stronger shields for capital ship attacks. One of my TIE Fighters has stealthy hull coatings to make it harder to track and ion missiles to disable my opponents. My current TIE Bomber, one of the toughest ships in the game, has Ion cannons and a beam weapon to attack capital ships. I have had the extremely fun experience of disabling an X-Wing with the ion cannons and then blasting said ship with the beam cannon.
Other weapons include a rapid-fire blaster with one version offering lock on tracking that can hit ships several degrees off angle with low damage while another has less of a lock on effect but higher damage.
Controls and views are the Achilles heel of Star Wars Squadrons… or they were
Star Wars Squadrons at release touted having full HOTAS support for players as well as VR as a major part of the experience. While VR was definitely part of the experience, only some HOTAS systems worked with Squadrons while others refused to even be recognized. My VIRPIL T-50 for example didn’t work and I ended up playing on a gamepad for a while.
Also lacking was TrackIR support. While VR was in, no TrackIR system was present and so looking around the cockpit was, for a time, the exclusive domain of VR players. Fortunately, in November and December of 2020, Motive made some big updates to the game and with it they have addressed two of the issues that were causing me the most trouble. They expanded HOTAS support to the point where it should work with all major and many more niche hardware makers and they added TrackIR and OpenTrack support.
The TrackIR experience is really good except when you stick your head into the edge of something in your cockpit and the screen goes complete black. I suppose this is to prevent people from putting their head through the canopy windscreen and gaining an advantage but other sims solve this by having more stringent bounding box rules and preventing you from putting your head through the glass to begin with.
Controls can be rebound on gamepad, keyboard and joystick offering quite a bit of flexibility.
The issue of maintaining a playerbase
There is big issue I haven’t touched on yet and that is, as a primarily multiplayer focused title, that we just don’t know how long the title will maintain the level of popularity necessary to sustain the player base. Articles, videos, and more have been written with concern over what Star Wars Squadrons will look like after a few months of release time and what it might look like in another 6-months.
There were some challenges with the ranked matches and leaderboards during the fall of 2020 also required tweaking by Motive and a reset which took a while to settle players into appropriate skill categories.
It’s hard to reach into the future on this but I do hope that Squadrons is somehow able to retain enough people playing on a regular basis to stay fun.
My experience with Squadrons has been really good, and, for the price point that the game is marketed at and the intentionally limited scope and scale, I think Squadrons is worth the money to check out. You’ll have a good time flying around in your favourite Star Wars starfighter enjoying the classic sights and sounds of the series.
Right from release, Star Wars Squadrons was fun and engaging and possibly the best Star Wars space combat experience since TIE Fighter or X-Wing Alliance. It’s not quite the same as those as this game lives in a different time with different expectations but it it succeeds anyways and it feels every inch the spiritual successor.
I was ready to lambaste the developers for poor hardware support and lack of TrackIR compatibility (when it was clear that headtracking through VR was already being done) but the most recent patches solved those issues handily. I’m glad I waited to write my review because as fun as the game was, the hardware problems and fumbling on them were causing me not to enjoy Squadrons as much as it deserves. With those solved and the B-Wing and TIE Defender being added, there’s little more for me to ask for from Motive. Except maybe some more new maps or scenarios?
Star Wars Squadrons is a fun space combat sim experience that puts your into your childhood memories of piloting an X-Wing in a pitched space battle and it does it with style, confidence, and fun. It’s not a serious ‘simulator’ title like I normally review but this is a lot of fun.