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This was posted when Star Wars Battlefront launched. With the new Death Star DLC now available, it's worth remembers that the starfighter combat in Battlefront is still really, really good.
The first time I hopped into a TIE Fighter in Star Wars Battlefront, I pulled what some might call a Battlefield - I plowed into a building and died. The second time, I was targeted almost immediately by a nearby A-wing and blown out of the sky. Then something miraculous happened: I got to be pretty good.
Once I got my legs under me, I started getting much better at juking, diving, and dodging out of the way of missiles while quickly wiping out opponents with a burst of laser fire. I also got good at using the auto-maneuver button - which is not so different from a similar command in Star Fox 64 - to shake enemies from my tail before hitting the jets to circle around a rock formation or a tower and get out of their sights. Before long I was topping leaderboards and even getting my share of ground kills - something I had never managed in Battlefield.
Along the way, I found that I unexpectedly loved Battlefront's starfighter combat. As I described in my review, it even compares favorably to Factor 5's Rogue Squadron series - a major compliment by any measure. Even 15 years after its release, the GameCube's Rogue Leader remains a strikingly attractive and enjoyable space combat shooter.
Like Rogue Leader, Battlefront is much more forgiving than the average simulation, emphasizing speed and fun over any misbegotten attempt at realism. The fighters are easy to fly and include a lock-on feature that dramatically raises accuracy while being faithful to the films. It's a smart departure for DICE's shooters, where warplanes and helicopters are frequently finicky and difficult to fly, giving rise to comics like this one from Penny Arcade:
The showcase mode for Battlefront's fighter combat is Fighter Squadron, and it's honestly my favorite mode in the whole game. Like everything else in Battlefront it suffers from a lack of variety and content - the objectives are always the same and there are only two starfighters for either to choose from - but it works much better than I had any right to expect for a tertiary mode. In some ways it's the game that I've been waiting for LucasArts to make since 1997's X-wing vs. TIE Fighter.
In Fighter Squadron, ten players per side engage in a mass dogfight along with a large number of A.I. combatants. As you approach the battle, you can see swarms of A-wings, X-wings, and TIEs looping, firing, and dodging in what can only be described in a ball of laser fire. Then you're suddenly in the middle of it, and fighters are shooting past all over the place as you try to get your bearings and start shooting down your foes.
The trick I've found is to get good at following an opponent as they try to loop away. If you can stay on their tail, locking on and wiping them out with a missile or a laser blast becomes trivial. If an opponent appears on your own tail, though, you dive hard and either hit the jets or activate your shields, then return to combat once the coast is clear. With these tactics, I'm averaging between 15 - 20 kills per round with maybe two or three deaths, though I tend to do better with the Rebels than I do the Empire. A-wings are brutally powerful in this mode - extremely fast interceptors with a tiny profile that benefit from the added bulk granted by shields. They are the bane of any Star Wars flight sim, and it's no different in Battlefront.
To keep things interesting, Fighter Squadron throws in a few variables. First, hero icons appear around the middle of the match that grant each side the services of either the Millennium Falcon or Slave One. These "hero" units are powerful, extremely difficult to shoot down, and absolutely crucial to your side's chances of winning the fight. If you see that one side has their hero ship, you need to go hunting for the icon on the ground and grab it as quickly as possible to mitigate their advantage; then you need to avoid plowing it into a tower, as I did the first time I got the Falcon. Sometimes it's hard to tell where the edges are on these bulky ships.
Another element is the transports that periodically launch from the surface and grant a large number of bonus points if they are shot down. These transports have a way of grabbing the attention of human players, making them easy targets as they try and grab the bonus, but the shuttles are unfortunately rather fragile. Often, the best way to win is to successfully defend your transport while shooting down your opponent's.
Taken together, all of these elements make for an intense, beautiful, and often deliriously fun mode. I'm even okay with the battles taking place planetside. DICE has taken their share of flack for not including space battles, but there's something to be said for the visual interest that a planet provides. It's often much more fun to dodge between rock formations and buildings than it is to battle in the emptiness of space.
With that said, I can think of a few immediate improvements that can be made to Fighter Squadron:
When I discussed this on an upcoming episode of the flagship podcast, Jeremy pointed out that what I really want is just a multiplayer sequel to Rogue Leader. And he's right! I would love for Fighter Squadron to become its own fully-featured game on Steam. With Battlefront's primary focus being first and third-person shooting, it's almost certainly too much to ask for them to throw tons of resources at Fighter Squadron. Honestly, I'm kind of glad that it exists at all.
But in making it as good as it is, DICE has naturally raised expectations. The mode seems to have a healthy server populations, and it's received praise in other quarters. It may not be anything more than a tertiary mode, but it's one of my favorite things about Battlefront so far. In that light, I hope it doesn't end up being neglected in next year's inevitable expansions.