Star Wars Squadrons review: EA’s smallest scale Star Wars title yet – but also its best

By Alex Donaldson, Thursday, 1 October 2020 13:02 GMT

The best thing you can say about Star Wars Squadrons is that it completely nails the feeling of the space battles in those movies.

The physics are fantastical and dumb, but that’s the point. You can throttle up to maximum speed, boost toward and then past an enemy at ridiculous pace, then cut the engines, yoke hard to the right and perform a spacebound hand-brake turn, a drift to make Vin Diesel proud. As the nose of your fighter whips back around to face the enemy you just zipped past, you can throttle up to give chase and then let them have it: laser cannons, a barrage of locked-on missiles – whatever you’ve got until their ship disintegrates.

The only correct way to respond to this sort of action is with some sort of out-loud affirmation, just like the Star Wars characters do on the big screen – that signature over-excited holler of a hero who is ecstatic to have just taken a life. And, you know, you want to do it here, so immersed does Squadrons make you in Star Wars.

Squadrons is an interesting game because in many ways it feels like it’s fallen out of a different era. Here’s a 2020 EA game that comes at a budget price ($40/£35) and has a constrained focus. Where Star Wars Battlefront is a massive blockbuster of a game with too much on its shoulders, Squadrons is perhaps more like The Mandalorian in its scope. It is still ambitious – an experienced hand with knowledge of game development will surely be able to sense the game bump up against the restrictions of its premise and budget, even – but it works well within the space it’s in.

That means that you get a short (probably 7-10 hours, depending on how you play) but decent single-player story experience, plus a refined multiplayer suite of modes, ships and options. The single player is basically best thought of as a tutorial for how to control each ship – eight total, four for each side. The campaign has you flicking back and forth between the perspectives of The New Republic and the Empire, and mostly fills in story from between the original trilogy and the sequel trilogy movies. Familiar faces appear throughout this story, but they pleasingly don’t dominate affairs – instead the focus is on a small cast of new characters, including the player insert character, who can be named and their appearance selected from an ethnically diverse set of options.

The story scenes that tell the narrative feel similar to much of the rest of the game. This runs on the same expensive and powerful engine technology as Battlefront, but it’s clearly a game from a smaller team. As such the story sequences aren’t as lavish as elsewhere, the direction sometimes a little flat – but that doesn’t matter so much, as Squadrons trades on the strength of its characters, the detail of its ships (the real stars of the show), and the feeling that this really is your story, something helped by the game being basically entirely first person.

Nothing in Squadrons is really wasted – in fact, it feels like the development team behind it has been extremely economic. They had to build detailed, fanservice-packed hangar bays for cutscenes where ships take off, for instance – so why not let the player look around them? They do, but to avoid having to create too much detail, these on-foot sequences handle like an adventure game – you can pan around and click on select things for a closer look or to trigger a scene, but your feet are rooted to the spot. This consideration also means easier VR integration – you don’t need a complicated movement control scheme, as you’re always either sitting in a cockpit or standing still.

Multiplayer basically splits into two categories. Dogfights are essentially deathmatch; five-on-five team-based affairs where imperials and rebels duke it out to be the first to 30 kills. While in space it might not seem like your choice of ‘map’ matters much for these showdowns, it matters more than you’d think. Each has a slightly different layout of space debris which you can duck and weave between to avoid locked-on missiles or break the line of sight of an enemy on your tail. Positioning is everything in Squadrons.

The other big multiplayer mode is Fleet Battles. These are still five-on-five matches, but the human players are assisted by AI cannon fodder and capital ships. This is a tug of war back and forth, with each side having attacking and defending phases. The ultimate aim is objective-based – to keep the enemy off and away from your capital ships when it’s their turn and destroy the enemy capital ship when it’s yours. This is where the different classes of ship – the Fighter, Interceptor, Bomber and Support – really come into their own. Bombers, for instance, feel a whole lot less useful in Dogfights, but their payloads can be decisive versus a Capital Ship.

The few Fleet Battles I’ve managed to play so far did draw dangerously close to outstaying their welcome – they’re a long mode, a slog. But I also appreciate what they’re trying to do – in what is a 10-player game these exist to give a sense of scale, to hint at the larger fights we’ve seen in the movies. In that they’re successful, and diverting your shield power to the front of the ship before dive-bombing a Star Destroyer is a real thrilling feeling.

All of this would be for naught, of course, if the flying wasn’t good. But let me tell you: it’s great. It handles brilliantly on controller and the game was clearly designed pad-first, but it really clicked for me when I started using a flight joystick. Luckily we’ve recently been testing a bunch of flight hardware for Microsoft Flight Simulator, but for Squadrons I settled on using the Thrustmaster T1600M HOTAS and throttle, which can also be had in a ‘flight pack’ if you also want pedals. Playing like this with one hand on the stick and another on the throttle alongside a wealth of buttons on each feels incredibly satisfying – and again enhances that feeling that you really are in the cockpit.

Sticks are also supported on consoles, by the way. Props to the Squadrons team for excellent controller configuration options, too – I ended up with an almost entirely custom control setup.

Being comfortable with the controls is important because Squadrons is actually a surprisingly complicated game. The barrier for entry is low thanks to strong tutorials and easy basic use, but scratch beneath that veneer and things get in-depth fast. You can individually manage things like the amount of power to your weapons, engines and shields, or directionally alter where your shields are strongest. A good pilot won’t just do this every now and then – they’ll instead be constantly consulting their in-cockpit instruments and adjusting power and shields to fit the situation. I suspect that higher ranked multiplayer in this game will end up being a mind-bogglingly complex affair – and that’s no bad thing.

This is the triumph of Squadrons. It’s clearly a lower-budget title than EA’s other Star Wars efforts, but it comes with a price to match. It has more restrained intentions, but within that it still squeezes in as much detail, as much fanservice, and simply put, as much content as possible.

Squadrons feels like more than the sum of its parts. Most importantly, it does exactly what it set out to do – and does it very well indeed. It’s EA’s smallest-scale console Star Wars title yet – but also its best. Fleet Battles feel a little long and sometimes listless, and some will no doubt pine for a little more content – I personally would’ve really liked to see a 20-player (or more) deathmatch mode. But it’s nevertheless difficult to really criticize such a tightly-wound, complete package. As such, it’s an easy recommendation.

Version tested: PC. A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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