Star Wars Armada wave II

I might have been a bit unfair to X-Wing when I originally reviewed the Star Wars: Armada core set. I gave Armada a pretty glowing recommendation and praised it for giving the player more meaningful decisions and for fixing a handful of complaints that I had with X-Wing. But I kind of neglected the fact that the Armada core set has pretty much the same fundamental problem that stopped me from giving a similarly high grade to X-Wing: the limited content of the package.

X-Wing had three small ships, and a handful of alternate pilots and upgrades to add some replayability. But the game really needed some expansions to really come into its own. And I pointed that out in my review of X-Wing's core set, and docked its final score.

Don't get me wrong, Armada does offer more content in its core set than X-Wing did! It also has three ships, along with alternate ship cards and upgrades. But those three ships are different sizes and strengths, and there's ten fighter squadrons to go along with them. Armada's core set also includes the objective cards that helped to give that game more structured play, while X-Wing only had a couple of scenarios. So I still think that the Armada core set offers more value than the X-Wing core set.

However, I also knew that having a roster of expansion ships would improve the game, and I baked that assumption into my review for Armada. This may have been unfair to X-Wing, especially considering that the Armada core set has other problems that X-Wing doesn't have.

The core learning scenario doesn't do the game justice

It's been difficult for me to get friends into playing Armada. X-Wing has always seemed to be the more popular game. It took me a very long time to finally figure out why. During the past couple years of the COVID pandemic, it hasn't been viable to get together large groups for bigger board games, so I focused more on playing smaller, 2 and 3-player games to limit the number of people over at once. Games like X-Wing and Armada were ideal for that situation. In doing so, I tried a new technique for introducing friends to Armada that would hopefully get them up to speed faster, and which also seems to be much more successful than my earlier teaching attempts using the Learning Scenario.

Put simply: Armada's learning scenario is kind of crap. After teaching friends and co-workers to play the game through the learning scenario, their responses to the game has always been a resounding "meh". I then have to spend thirty minutes or an hour explaining [in vain] the merits of the full game to people who have already lost interest.

The learning scenario takes most of the strategic decisions away from the players.

The problem with the learning scenario is that it puts pre-configured fleets up against each other with no upgrade cards, no objectives, and no obstacles to navigate around. Without upgrades giving ships special abilities that can turn the tide of a game, and without objectives that give the players something to fight over, the early-game decisions of setting the starting queue of commands are really the only significant decisions in the entire game. Unfortunately, the learning scenario takes those decisions away from the players by recommending a default starting queue of commands! Once ships have been pointed at each other and met in the middle of the board, the last 3 or 4 turns of the learning game easily degrade into a passive process of drifting ahead and mindlessly rolling attack dice. Or the players forget to queue up a Navigate command, and the ships fly past each other in round 3, and spend the rest of the match trying to circle back around to get back in firing range.

Sid Meier, the designer of the original Civilization PC game has defined a game as "a series of interesting decisions". By that definition, the learning scenario of Star Wars Armada isn't even a game at all because all of the interesting decisions have already been made by the rule book before the players have taken a single turn.

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Star Wars Squadrons - title

I don't think it will be controversial to say that the best part of EA's 2017 Star Wars Battlefront II was the multiplayer space dogfighting. It made me yearn for a good Star Wars flight sim in the vein of the old X-Wing and TIE Fighter PC classics. But in this age of big-budget, micro-transaction-fueled, multiplayer-focused, spectacle shooters, I wasn't going to hold my breath for EA (the exclusive rights-holder to Star Wars games) to deliver any time soon, especially after a planned remake from LucasArts was canceled back in 2009.

So it came as a surprise to see Star Wars: Squadrons. Yes, it's an online game with a competitive multiplayer focus, so no divergence from modern norms there. But it's also a $40, "middle-shelf" game built on a lower budget than the usual AAA blockbuster that EA produces. That lower budget and pricetag seems to have liberated developer Motive from much of the corporate burden of expectations associated with a larger-scale, more expensive product. Squadrons takes a few risks by raising the expectations and barrier of entry for players, and it doesn't stoop to offsetting its lower pricetag by incorporating a micro-transaction economy (at least not yet).

A flight-sim light

Much like the Ace Combat series, Star Wars: Squadrons hits a good, comfortable middle-ground between an arcade dogfighter and a flight-sim. Squadrons even errs a bit closer to sim in some regards via its power-allocation and sub-system-management mechanics. It is also much more restrictive about the use of special weapons. While Ace Combat allows players to coast along by shooting down almost every enemy plane with your stockpile of 60 or 70 missiles (despite flying a plane that only has between 2 and 6 missles strapped to its undercarriage), Squadrons focuses much more heavily on the use of the fighters' primary laser cannons.

Squadrons locks the player into a cockpit view.

Players are even locked into a cockpit view with limited HUD elements, forcing players to rely on the cockpit instruments. This game makes me wish I had a good PS4-compatible flight stick. The only flight stick I own is an old PC one, which I had to jury-rig to work with Ace Combat 7 on Steam.

No, it isn't as as involved as the classic X-Wing and TIE Fighter PC flight sims, but it's a significant step up from the N64 Rogue Squadron game and its sequel.

Motive has redeemed itself from the awful
single-player campaign of Battlefront II.

A more serious effort

Squadrons shows a lot of signs of learning from the failures of Battlefront II. In fact, I was surprised to find out that Motive was not the studio that developed Battlefront II's space dogfighting. That duty was handled by Criterion Studios. Motive was, in fact, the studio behind Battlefront II awful single-player campaign.

This time, Motive seems to have put some actual thought and effort behind Squadrons' campaign, its story, and its characters. Almost as if this is a project that the studio actually wanted to do, rather than being a project that was imposed upon them by a greedy publisher who just wants a token single-player mode in a game that is actually designed to scam money out of people with pay-to-win online multiplayer.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars story poster

I don't think that Disney's writers take Star Wars' universe very seriously. I'm not talking about story or continuity; I'm talking about the actual, physical space in which the stories take place. They've created a major problem. It's the same problem that frustrated me about The Force Awakens: there is no sense of scale to this universe anymore. I was really hoping that it was just J.J. Abrams and his writing crew being lazy in Force Awakens because his Star Trek movies suffered from the same problem. I had hoped that a new writing crew would improve the material (just like Star Trek Beyond fixed another of my biggest complaints about the reboots of that franchise after J.J. left the helm). But that laziness seems to not only be contagious, but has actually gotten worse in Rogue One. This movie takes something that was only a nagging annoyance in Force Awakens, and blows it up to almost movie-breaking proportions.

In the original Star Wars movies, the time-frames for hyperspace travel was always ambiguous. There were cuts between scenes, and the amount of time that it took for ships to travel was left to the individual viewer's imagination. But now, we see interstellar travel and communications happen instantaneously, in real time! It happens when the fighter crashes on Eado, and the rebel base on Yavin immediately loses contact and sends a squad of fighters to assault the base. It happens again when Rogue One infiltrates the Imperial data warehouse on Scarif, a transmission is intercepted, and a rebel fleet immediately gets rerouted to the planet.

This isn't just bad science; it's also bad writing. The hyperdrive has become a narrative crutch. For the entire second half of the movie, I felt no tension at all because I knew that if the heroes ever got in a jam, a rebel fleet (or reinforcements) could just appear out of nowhere to save the day. This is a prequel, so I already knew how it was going to end. This lazy script contrivance (and all-around dull characters) also made the journey to get there completely uninteresting.

But it goes deeper. How far apart are these places? Is the entire galaxy that accessible?

Basic elements of the overarching Star Wars storyline just completely break down when travel and communication is instantaneous. There's no distinction between the tightly-controlled "core", and the supposedly-lawless "outter rim" planets if a whole fleet of Star Destroyers can literally FTL to any planet in a matter of seconds. There's no need for anyone to make a hard-copy of the Death Star plans to physically transport it if they can transmit the data instantly. And there's no point in pursuing or intercepting ships (such as Leia's Blockade Runner) if hyperspace travel takes the ship to its destination in a mere moment. The empire's holdings become completely indefensible if entire rebel fleets can appear out of nowhere with no warning. Their installations are publicly visible, but the rebels are hidden. The rebels know where all the imperial bases are, and there's nothing stopping them from just jumping to random bases and blowing them up with no recourse from the empire. This universe has lost the believable, lived-in quality and sense of breadth and variety that the original trilogy so expertly executed. The Star Wars universe is broken.

Rogue One - hyperspace
Rogue One shows us instantaneous communication and travel between planets in real time.

"Just turn off your brain and enjoy it", people tell me.

No. I won't turn off my brain. There is no reason why our movies can't be both entertaining and smartly-written. Why aren't we holding our movies to that standard anymore? It's not a tall bar. "Not as bad as the prequels" is not good enough, and I'm not going to pretend that it is when dealing with entries of a series that contains - not one - but two - landmark cinematic masterpieces.

Even if every new movie were as likable as The Force Awakens, these little missteps add up. Each new movie that comes out chips away at the integrity of the franchise (and universe) in which all the movies (including the good ones) exist. We can hand-wave away our complaints about the prequels, or we can ignore them entirely, but we're now at the point at which the original Star Wars trilogy is a minority of the Star Wars film franchise, and it's only getting more diluted.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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