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Star Wars Squadrons - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Entire game is playable in VR
  • Good balance between arcade and flight-sim
  • Imperials are taken seriously as protagonists
  • Highly-structured, n00b-friendly multi-player
  • Ability to practice against bots
  • All ship upgrades have tradeoffs
  • $40, middle-tier pricetag
  • No manipulative, pay-to-win micro-transaction economy (yet)

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • No lead reticle for lasers
  • Needing to micro-manage squadmates
  • Excessive enemy fighters in Imperial missions
  • No local multiplayer
  • Only 2 multiplayer modes?

Overall Impression : B+
A spiritual successor to X-Wing vs TIE Fighter

Star Wars Squadrons - cover

Developer:
Motive Studios within Electronic Arts

Platforms:
PC (via Steam),
PlayStation 4 < (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $40 USD

Original release date:
2 October 2020

Genre:
sci-fi dogfighting

ESRB Rating: T (for Teen) for:
Fantasy violence, mild language,
multi-player user interaction (including voice chat)

Player(s):
single player campaign with online multiplayer

Official site:
www.ea.com/games/starwars/squadrons

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.

I was interested in Battlefront II's campaign because it was supposed to be played from the point of view of an Imperial pilot. Coming off of Battlefield One's single-player campaign that was composed of a series of vignettes told exclusively from the allies perspective, I was curious how EA would handle playing as the "bad guys". But the campaign totally copped out, having the bad guy protagonist turn coat a few missions in. It never even pretended that the Empire might be perceived as "the good guys" by its loyal servants, or that there might be some framing of the Rebels as terrorists and villains.

The Imperial campaign pays lip service to democratic reforms to the Empire after the Emperor's death.

Squadrons' campaign doesn't fall into the same trap. There's an Imperial officer turning rogue in the first mission, but he isn't the player character. The Imperial half of the campaign is actually played as a character who remains loyal to the Empire and its cause, who sees the Rebels as "scum", and who sees the deserter as a traitor. The Imperial half of this story even focuses on an Imperial captain with a goal that is, in many ways, righteous. She believes that defeating the fledgling New Republic (which she believes will fall anyway) would re-unite the Empire to prevent it from splintering and dissolving into petty conflicts and civil wars following the Emperor's death at the Battle of Endor. She even wants to right one of Palpatine's wrongs by restoring the Imperial Senate and an actual rule of law, as opposed to the Draconian fist of a despot.

Unfortunately, the idea of fighting for a more just and reformed Empire is pretty much dropped in favor a more simple revenge story, except this time it's the Empire racing to stop the Rebels (err, New Republic) from finishing its super weapon. It would have been nice if the Imperial campaign had been more about the Imperials trying to re-claim their morals and ethics after the death of the end of the reign of the tyrannical and amoral Emperor. That would have been an appropriate message in our current real-world political climate. Instead we have to settle for some occasional lip-service about restoring some semblance of Democracy. I guess that's as good as we can expect from a big publisher like EA.

In any case, I was pleased that the Imperial leader and the Imperial squadron never degraded to the levels of comic book villainy. They're ruthlessly misguided, clinging to a propagandized ideal of "law and order", but they aren't blowing up whole planets just for the LoLs. Their motivations feel believable, if not necessarily relatable. It's all serviceable, but nowhere near as cynically clever as the old TIE Fighter PC sim.

The New Republic squadmates are more developed and personable.

The New Republic half of the campaign is less bold and much more by-the-numbers, but I felt that the characters were a lot better developed. We get more of each character's backstory, and we get it sooner in the story, which makes it much easier to keep track of who is who. Even by the end of the campaign, I still wasn't sure which Imperial character piloted which ship in the squadron. The Imperial campaign focuses so strongly on Captain Kerril that the other Imperial pilots never really get much development or personality. The New Republic campaign does a better job of giving each character a more well-defined and recognizable role. Except that everytime Frisk spoke, all I could hear was any ghoul from any Bethesda Fallout. It was a bit distracting.

Unlike Battlefront II, Squadrons is fairly reserved in its use of fan service. There's one cameo from a side character who was much more prominent in the original expanded universe, but that's about it. The game takes place after the events of Return of the Jedi, so that rules out a climactic battle against Darth Vader, but the Imperial campaign could easily have included "boss battles" against the likes of Luke Skywalker's X-Wing or the Millennium Falcon. But no, the developers were restrained enough to tell their own story without feeling it necessary to lean on fan service.

Fan service is fairly restrained.

In the cockpit

The Imperial missions were also the weaker half of the game, in my opinion. A big part of the problem for me was the erratic difficulty of many of the Imperial missions. And that was mostly owing to the flimsy nature of Imperial fighters.

In actual Star Wars canon, Imperial fighters are supposed to be considered disposable. They are deployed in huge numbers and are relatively defensless and easy to shoot down. The Empire has a huge reserve of highly-trained manpower to replace pilots who get shot down, and the Imperial commanders have little concern for the life of those pilots. They also have huge reserves of resources for constructing and maintaining large fleets. So they usually seek to overwhelm resistance with sheer numbers and firepower.

The Rebels, on the other hand, are a rag-tag militia that has to make due with whatever manpower and materials they can scrounge up. Having a smaller reserve of pilots (especially well-trained ones) means they have to put more effort and resources into keeping those pilots alive and the fighters flying. Hence, they are given sturdier, shielded fighters that are easier to pilot and a bit tougher to shoot down. But they are almost always outnumbered and out-gunned in an open fight, and so have to rely more on guerrilla tactics and hit-and-run maneuvers.

The Imperial missions seemed harder due to the flimsier nature of Imperial fighters.

In Squadrons, however, both the New Republic and Imperial campaigns give you a single squadron of five pilots (including the player characters). Without large numbers to back them up, this puts the un-shielded TIE Fighters at a tactical disadvantage. You also take control of the Imperial squadron a bit later in the game, as the difficulty is beginning to ramp up. In addition to having to make due with un-shielded fighters, the game also starts throwing more numerous waves of enemy fighters at you.

I started the game on the "veteran" difficulty and breezed by with only a couple deaths in each of the early New Republic missions. But had to lower the difficulty back to "pilot" by the mid-game. Having to shoot down multiple waves of X-Wings and A-Wings from an un-shielded TIE Fighter, while also contending with static defenses from enemy bases, was just too overwhelming for me.

I had to lower the difficulty after
multiple retries of an Imperial mission.

But at the same time, playing on "pilot" just didn't feel as rewarding. The enemy ships were easy to shoot down with relatively little effort, for both the Empire and the New Republic. I really wish that Squadrons included some more customization options for the difficulty of the campaign. There is an extensive suite of customization options for controlling your fighter and for the game's U.I., but only a single difficulty setting with 4 options. It would have been nice to have separate options for the skill level of the A.I. enemy pilots, for the durability of enemy fighters, and for the number of enemy fighters that spawn. Heck, it would also have been nice to have customization options for the skill and independent assertiveness of you A.I.-controlled wingmen. I'll point once again to the varied difficulty options of The Last of Us Part II as a new standard for how difficulty customization should be implemented in games. But I guess that's the difference between a massive-budget AAA release and a mid-tier $40 game. Gotta make the cuts somewhere.

I'll also admit that my difficulty in the middle of the game also came from my own lack of knowledge of Squadrons' mechanics. As I said at the beginning of this review, Squadrons is quite a bit more complicated than your usual casual shooter affair. I had a grip on most of the basics, such as allocating power between engines, weapons, and shields, but I still wasn't using some of the more intermediate and advanced techniques.

I knew how to issue "attack" and "defend" orders to my squadmates, but I wasn't using those mechanics often enough, or very effectively. Put simply, my squadmates weren't doing a very good job of covering my back as my wingmen. This was a large part of why I kept getting shot down. It wasn't until later on in the campaign that I started double-tapping the X-button to auto-target the ship that was firing at me, then ordering my squad to attack that ship. Explicitly ordering your wingmen to engage your attacker goes a long way towards keeping you alive. Even if your wingmen don't shoot your attacker down for you, they will at least force it to make evasive maneuvers, which will get it off your back for a bit. This one skill might even be enough to allow me to go back and re-challenge those "veteran" missions that had initially stomped me.

There's no lead reticle for your lasers. You are instead expected to read the target's orientation on your HUD.

There's no lead reticle for your lasers either, which is something that also makes the game feel a bit harder than it maybe needs to be. Instead, you are expected to read the scope in your cockpit to see the orientation, velocity, and distance of your target in order to determine how far ahead and in what direction to lead your lasers. I think it's a bit much to ask of the player. The gameplay moves so fast that taking your eye off your target to glance at a display in your cockpit -- even for just a moment -- seems unreasonable. Modern fighter planes have a HUD that shows a lead reticle for the machine guns; you can't tell me that these high tech spacecraft don't have similar technology.

But those are really my only two complaints with how the game plays. Everything else looks and feels fantastic. And it gets even better if you have access to a VR headset and a good flight stick. I don't own a VR headset, but I took the game disc over to a friend's house to play it on his VR. In fact, that friend bought the game for my birthday, specifically so that I would bring it over to his house to play on his PS VR system. The best gift is the gift that the giftee can share with the gifter. It's a good philosophy that has served me well over the years, and I'm glad that my friends are starting to pick up on it as well. A gift for one of us is a gift for all of us!

Sadly, I didn't have access to a flight stick, so I had to make due with a controller for the couple missions and multi-player matches that I played in VR. But damn this was probably the best VR experience I've had so far. The VR is so much more immersive, provides a much greater sense of scale to everything, and makes everything in the game feel so much more tangible. Being able to keep your target in your sight as it tries to fly over your canopy makes it so much easier to follow and process the action. But it also genuinely looks and feels like a TIE Fighter just whizzed past my head, especially when compared to the same scene as viewed from a TV screen 10 feet in front of me. All the other fighters look so much bigger and more discernible, and they feel so much closer and the dangers feel so much more immediate.

VR also gives a lot more substance to the little atmospheric details. The cockpits feel more cramped. The cracked windshield and smoking control panels make me feel move vulnerable, as they are the only things between me and the empty void of space.

Squadrons is dramatically improved by playing in VR (and probably further improved with a flight stick).

All of these effects are in the vanilla game. You can double-click the right stick to toggle free look and see the cramped cockpit or watch fighters fly overhead. But seeing it all by simply turning your head without having to press a single input on the controller makes it all so much more real and immediate.

I've played some other games that include PS VR support. Ace Combat 7 is the closest analog, but that game only had a handful of missions that supported VR. Because of that, VR felt like an optional novelty, and not core to the experience. With Squadrons, the entire game supports VR, and is dramatically improved by it! You can even play the multiplayer in full VR with no issue at all. It might even give you a competitive advantage against all the poor plebs playing on TV screens. This game would have been a great candidate for a Steel Battalion-style cockpit controller.

Even the online multiplayer is good!

Frequent readers of my blog know that I don't care much for online multiplayer. Outside of the Souls-Borne games, I rarely play multiplayer-focused games. And if I do, the game has to have a strong single-player campaign to get me invested. For me to say that a game's online multiplayer is "good" is high praise.

There are two things that I think really separate Squadrons' multiplayer from other online shooters and the like. First and foremost is that lack of a pay-to-win microtransaction economy. At least, that's the case at the time that I write that review. Hopefully, EA hasn't tacked one on post-release in order to swindle gamers with a bait-and-switch.

There is no pay-to-win micro-transaction economy driving the mulitplayer.
All upgrades have trade-offs, and none is strictly superior to the others.

Yes, there is a progression system that looks almost identical to every other online multiplayer game. You gain experience by participating in online activities. The experience raises your level, which unlocks new content and awards currency that you can use to buy new equipment and cosmetics. There's daily challenges, and other long-term goals for you to grind towards.

The big difference is that players can't pay real money to skip the grind, and most of the useful equipment for your ships is available relatively early. Everything is earned through play. EA and Motive aren't constantly badgering the player to spend a dollar here or there to get some randomized reward, in the hopes of triggering an addiction that turns the player into a "whale". Did they maybe actually learn a lesson from their last attempt at a Star Wars online shooter? Or maybe the middle-tier budget and pricing of Squadrons allows EA to make a decent enough profit margin without having to resort to such sleazy tactics?

The second big difference between Squadrons and other similar online games is the way that the ship equipment is designed and balanced. Games like Battlefield and Call of Duty will usually reward the player with strictly better weapons that have higher damage output, or faster rates of fire, or higher ammo capacity, or reduced weapon sway, or the like, or some combination thereof. Or they'll offer upgrades to the existing weapons that marginally increase those weapons' attributes. The higher level players, in effect, have better gear that is more efficient at defeating opponents.

Success or failure in multiplayer is a result of a skill gap rather than of higher-level gear.

Squadrons works differently. None of the equipment (that I've seen) is a strict upgrade over the other equipment (including the stock equipment). Instead, everything has trade-offs. You don't earn a better laser that deals more damage and acts as a strict upgrade to your default laser. Instead, a variant primary weapon may have higher damage output, but consumes more ammo or recharges more slowly. Or a weapon my have a higher rate of fire, but deal substantially less damage for each shot. Each piece of equipment favors a particular playstyle or role, but none of it is just plain better than any other piece of equipment.

The combined effects of the equipment balancing and lack of microtransactions means that I don't feel like I have to grind for weeks, dying over and over again, just to unlock enough gear and upgrades to be competitive against all the other players. When you factor in the tutorials and ability to skirmish against A.I. bots, this game's multiplayer is surprisingly (and refreshingly) n00b-friendly.

There's also plenty of options for counter-equipment. If you find that you are frequently getting killed by enemy missiles, then you can equip armor or countermeasures that reduce the effectiveness of enemy target locking, at the cost of lowering your total HP and being more susceptible to basic laser fire.

Yes, even the multiplayer is playable in VR.

You don't get to see your opponents' loadouts before the match, so you can't really prepare a loadout specifically for a given match or opponent. And even if you could, that opponent could swap ships or loadouts when he or she respawns. Having a couple different loadouts for each ship is, therefore important, so that you can pick the loadout that is best suited to the current conditions of the battle.

Fleet battles

The only real hang-up with the multiplayer is that it only has two modes. There's a team-based dogfight and the larger fleet battle. That's it. No "capture the flag" or "king of the hill" modes. No longer mini-campaigns like in Battlefield One. There's not even a free-for-all deathmatch.

To the game's credit, that fleet battles mode incorporates a lot of elements of various other common multiplayer modes. Teams alternate between dogfighting, defending their own capital ships, and attacking the opponent's capital ship. So this covers both the "attack a victory point" and "defend a victory point" modes that you might see in other games. These battles usually go back-and-forth several times, which also gives it a bit of a "capture the flag" feeling.

You can practice fleet battles in single player against the A.I.

The fleet battles even have A.I.-controlled bot fighters, so inexperienced players can go after those while the experienced players duel it out with each other. Or you can play a bomber role and focus on the A.I.-controlled enemy capital ships. Or you can stick to a support role and provide repairs and re-armaments for your more experience (or skilled) wingmen. You can even practice the fleet battles entirely offline against A.I.s (with an A.I. squadron supporting you). Again, it's all very n00b-friendly.

Even though Squadrons only has the two multiplayer modes, it still offers everything that the multiplayer of Ace Combat 7 failed to offer (back when I was playing it around launch time).

A worthy successor to the classic X-Wing and TIE Fighter PC sims

You can also practice the fleet battles mode against A.I.-controlled bots. In addition to being a helpful low-stakes training tool, it also means that when the servers eventually get shut down, the fleet battles will still be playable in offline single player. It won't be as fun without human opponents, but it will be there. Sadly there's no offline local split-screen multiplayer. I miss split-screen local multiplayer.

The single-player campaign is pretty good, and I even enjoy the multiplayer modes. If I had a VR headset of my own, I'd probably be playing a lot more of this game, especially if I had a nice flightstick setup to go along with the VR. Squadrons is a triumphant return of the mid-market video game, and a return of wholesome multiplayer that is designed to be fun to play, rather than being a grindy time-sink designed to addict children to gambling in order to scam money out of them and their unsuspecting parents.

Star Wars Squadrons gets a slight edge over last year's best dogfighting game, Ace Combat 7, due to its more fleshed-out (and populated) multiplayer, more challenging single-player campaign, and full VR support (as opposed to the handful of bonus missions for Ace Combat 7's VR mode). Squadrons doesn't have the interesting and varied level design of Ace Combat 7, but it's no slouch in that regard either. Star Wars fans looking for a spiritual successor to the classic X-Wing and TIE Fighter PC flight sims will likely be pleased with Squadrons.

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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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