(STAR WARS: SQUADRONS is out now for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Distributor provided review copy.)
STAR WARS: SQUADRONS is one of the first licensed games of the iconic franchise that, in a long time, actually delivers on a full package without compromise. This is not a small feat, considering the absence of genuinely terrific games the saga has given, failing to make an impact even at their most promising. Designed for VR, but playable in first-person, SQUADRONS is an impressive comeback, a stellar audiovisual spectacle, and a surprisingly engaging story to boot. Who would have guessed!
Set in the immediate aftermath of Alderaan’s destruction, SQUADRONS follows the continuing conflict between The Rebel Alliance and The Empire. Upon witnessing the genocide on Alderaan, the Imperial captain, Lindon Javes, defects to the Rebel Alliance, leaving his former protege lost and furious over the betrayal. Years later, the conflict ensues after the Battle of Yavin, and the fates of all involved will become irrevocably entwined.
In typical STAR WARS fashion, SQUADRONS is highly operatic, incredibly cheesy, and delightful in every sense. It captures the fun and excitement of the series’ space battles effortlessly, and finally includes a narrative worth giving a damn about in the mix. Javes might not rise to the hall of fame ranks of STAR WARS greats, but he’s a surprisingly engaging hero, conflicted about the past he once took pride in and haunted by his former protege, Kerrill, who remains hot on his trail.
Sadly, neither of them are playable characters, and the player gets the part of a voiceless avatar without a personality. It’s a choice to allow for VR players a maximum amount of immersion in their experience, but everyone else will feel like they’re missing out. Not because the gameplay isn’t any fun, but it’s a showcase for a technology that’s just not available for everyone at the moment.
The game also suffers slightly from being situated between two significant trilogies, leaving it dangling at an odd precipice where it’s not quite canon and not quite fan-fiction. It’s clear very early on that nothing major will change in the universe, leaving these characters and events feeling distant, even as we’d like to love them.
The story and character limitations are most evident in the scenes between missions, where hangar bays remain upsettingly shallow, as players can only point and click at the next potential backdrop to inspect closer. Like in the old WING COMMANDER series, they’re a parlor trick to keep you occupied until the next showdown. Not a significant downside, after all, they’re super pretty, but a bummer nonetheless. STAR WARS thrives on exploring the minute details and the lived-in universe, even when the focus is elsewhere, it would be a blast to investigate the everyday comings and goings.
Once you’re in the cockpit, though, things pick up considerably. EA and developer Motive Studios have spared no expense in making this look, sound, and feel like the best STAR WARS experience imaginable. From the TIE-fighters’ roar to the instantly recognizable twang of blaster fire, SQUADRONS raises the bar of the series output considerably. Only the musical cues feel just a tiny bit off, sometimes effortlessly picking up on classic John Wayne cues and utilizing them beautifully in the whole. Still, mostly the soundtrack feels oddly restrained for something as bombastic as this.
The controls are decent on the keyboard and mouse, but far better on the controller, and superb on a flight stick. I don’t have the latter at home and have only played through a few levels with one, but it’s the only way I’d go into another dogfight. Neither controller nor keyboard is deficient in any way, but SQUADRONS is at its best through VR with a proper flight controller in hand. You can even tell who uses which controller in the multiplayer; it’s that big of a difference.
At just under 40€ on the EA store, SQUADRONS is cheaper than the usual AAA-fare because of its length. At around ten missions, the campaign will keep you entertained for about six to eight hours but offers very little enticement for a second playthrough. The multiplayer is the real draw here, with no microtransactions, loot boxes, or any nonsense in sight—just good old-fashioned dogfighting in the style of the classic X-WING VS TIE-FIGHTER games.
In that, it delivers in spades. The combat is visceral and fun, and it’s never not a thrill to soar along the deck of a Star Destroyer as enemy ships roar behind you. Based on the first week of playing after release, the community seems healthy, and there are no issues in finding games.
Now, arguably this could have (and probably should have) been a full release with a more significant campaign and more to do. But at the same time, it’s been ages since we’ve had a great STAR WARS game, that even a morsel feels like a feast at this point. And yes, those without VR systems will indeed miss out on the True Experience, but it’s thanks to the excellent design that even that sting wears off quickly.
But if you can get your hands on a proper Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or any other VR set that supports the game, do it. You’re in for a treat, one unlike anything we’ve seen yet.