Squadrons is the big new hope for EA as it looks to make the most of its Star Wars license, and after playing through the campaign and diving into the multiplayer ahead of launch this week, I'm happy to report that this new space shooter is in pretty good shape, although it's not so sharp that it'll make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.
First things first: I strapped in for the campaign. Across 14 story-driven missions (16 if you include the two-part prologue), players are invited to place one foot on each side of the Imperial divide. The story gives you the perspectives of both the New Republic (basically, the Rebel Alliance with a fancy new title) and the Empire. It's a solid enough story, but it could have been a brilliant and nuanced examination of the humanity of those fighting for both factions, and while there are moments that entertain, the evil B̶r̶i̶t̶i̶s̶h̶ Imperial faction ends up feeling more caricature than authentic.
The in-game chatter between pilots is actually the best bit in terms of bringing the personality of your allies to the fore. You hang out in the hanger and talk to NPCs between missions, but there are no conversation or dialogue options; you just get a monologue from solitary characters or stand by and watch two others have a conversation. It's all fine, and some of the backstories that are shared do link back nicely to events that fans will be familiar with, but the absence of a back and forth between you and the others makes this about as interactive as an audiolog.
The campaign missions themselves are fairly standard space shooter fare, but the Star Wars wrapper does wonders for the feel of the whole thing. In fact, I think all those familiar elements helped drive me forward and kept me interested in a way that I don't think would have been the case in a new IP where I wasn't already invested in the backstory.
The campaign took me around 10-12 hours to complete, although I'm sure some people will fly through it much faster than that. That said, if you were to complete every secondary objective, listen to all of the monologues from all of the characters between missions, and stick it on 'hard', you'd be able to extend that play-time somewhat. I thought the 'normal' difficulty setting, with the standard pilot experience (so, a few helpful pointers on the UI to set you straight, not the more sim-like experience that should appeal to more serious simulation fans) offered a fairly well-rounded experience, although there were one or two minor difficulty spikes.
The story has you flying in two different squadrons, Vanguard (New Republic) and Titan (Empire). Each ship across both factions has its own distinctive feel and specific focus. For example, Tie Fighters and X-Wings are great allrounders that can do a bit of everything, but both factions also have ship-to-ship interceptors, bombers and support craft. As you can in Elite, it's easy to rebalance your ship systems to suit your immediate needs, so if you're taking fire and need more juice in your shields or engines, you can press the relevant button and boost that system. Similarly, if you're lining up a frontal attack, you can funnel the extra power to your lasers and let rip. Between missions, you can also swap out a variety of ship systems to make yourself more effective in a particular area. It seems like a well-balanced setup, with each new piece of equipment having pros and cons that you'll need to weigh up accordingly.
Multiplayer consists of two modes, the standard deathmatch mode (Dogfight) and a more structured mode called Fleet Battles. I think I actually preferred the simplicity of the standard dogfighting but Fleet Battles provides an interesting change of pace, especially if you get on a good team that talks. Even if it's just a little comms chatter, it makes all the difference - not only does it add to the immersion, but it also gives you a tactical advantage during play. The deathmatch mode is super-intense and high octane, and you can just focus on the fundamentals of battle, which I liked, and in no time at all I was swooping in and out of danger, lining up shots, and feeling like a fighter pilot.
Fleet Battles, on the other hand, move through various stages, where you have to balance team morale with hitting specific objectives. Once morale is high, you can head on to the next objectives with the rest of your team, which creates a real push and pull feel to the action. The matches are certainly longer, but the various stages of each game give it a unique flow, although sometimes it feels like you're being held back from attacking just for the sake of it.
There's a solid selection of locations with some stunning backdrops, and the best ones are reused in the multiplayer, with detailed metallic bases that stand out against the backdrop of space, asteroid fields, and one area that's full of cool environmental effects. Of course, it's the ships that are the real stars of the show, and I very much liked this part of the game, from the iconic designs to the detailed ship interiors. As a fan of classic space shooters (such as Star Wars: Tie Fighter), I couldn't have asked for much more in terms of presence and feel, and the authentic audio effects and soundtrack were the cherry on top.
There's a ranking system that underpins the multiplayer portion of the game and, naturally, the better you do the higher you'll rank. You can see your overall stats, and there are challenges to complete if you want to earn points to spend on the game's many cosmetics. What's more, you can also spend a different currency unlocking parts to further enhance your options for each ship. Beyond that, you can also decorate the outside of all the various craft, and spend credits on decorations for your cockpit. There seems to be a bunch of cool-looking items to unlock, and there isn't a microtransaction in sight, which is always nice.
If you want to continue the fun beyond the campaign and multiplayer, there's a training area where you can adjust the challenge to suit your needs; if you don't need the context of a grand story or multiplayer, I think you'll have a lot of fun with it. If anything, this portion of the game is a little underdeveloped, and I can imagine an alternate universe where players were given more control and could make their own challenge missions and share them around for the rest of the community to enjoy. Perhaps that'll come further down the line, but something along those lines would have boosted replayability.
While generally polished, as you'd expect given the parties involved, it wasn't flawless. I had to restart a couple of checkpoints because objectives wouldn't complete, at one point I couldn't control my ship, and in Mission 12 the whole game froze, forcing a restart. I lost a few minutes of progress and not much more, so it wasn't a huge issue, but I did notice that the game would often hang for a fraction of a second once objectives had been completed (presumably related to the checkpoint system), although it's not impossible that this was a hardware-related issue at my end. One thing I didn't get to test was the VR mode (6DOF in virtual makes me want to die) and I played on a regular controller, although if you've got a proper HOTAS setup, that's supported.
A few technical imperfections aside, Star Wars: Squadrons kept me entertained for the duration of the campaign, and I really enjoyed the multiplayer, in particular, the more streamlined Dogfight mode. Considering it's not quite a full-priced game, there's plenty to get stuck into, although I thought EA Motive could have come up with a couple of more interesting multiplayer modes to add even more variety. However, the core of the game - the cockpit experience, if you will - is Squadron's strongest aspect, and I think this can be a foundation for more in the future.
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