Given the level of hype that invariably trails anything Star Wars-related, EA’s Star Wars: Squadrons somehow managed to slip out surprisingly quietly. As it focuses on the space-combat element of the venerable franchise, it follows in the tradition of much-loved Star Wars games like Rogue Squadron and X-Wing vs Tie Fighter.
Lore-wise, Star Wars Squadrons’ events take place in the period after the original trilogy, a time when the nascent Rebellion has rebranded itself as the New Republic, and a titanic struggle for space-supremacy with the Empire is taking place.
Going (Han) solo
Squadrons’ best initial entry point is via its single-player story campaign – although ultimately, the game’s primary focus is on its multiplayer side. As is the modern way, the single-player campaign is pretty short – in the region of 10 hours – but it’s also surprisingly good, managing to shoehorn a sense of narrative into gameplay that consists entirely of space-battles.
During the course of the story, you’ll flip between Empire and New Republic, initially piloting Tie Fighters and X-Wings, before getting to sample the likes of A-Wings and bombers. Strikingly, the different craft use the same base control system, yet manage to feel distinct from each other. The first-person cockpit view from a Tie Fighter, for example, is very different from that of an X-Wing, but you also develop an intuitive understanding of the ships’ manoeuvrability and flight characteristics.
At the controls
The control system is exemplary, with the left stick handling acceleration and roll, while all steering is handled with the right stick. Learning when to divert power to shields, weapons or engines is vital, and as the story mode progresses from what is effectively a tutorial to something more substantial, you get to grips with subtleties like diverting shields to fore or aft (the former vital, say, when you’re heading towards a Star Destroyer on a bombing run) and tuning the targeting system to highlight, say, turrets or targeting systems on big enemy ships.
The story proves to be great fun – it includes fantasy stuff like hijacking a Star Destroyer and defending it from Imperial recapture attempts – but it’s very much the prelude for the multiplayer.
Fleets of fun
Currently, when you play against real human opposition (although it is possible to select AI opposition when you’re learning the ropes), there are two available modes: Dogfight and Fleet Battles.
Dogfights pitch two teams of five players against each other, at the helms of various types of starfighters. Pure, no-nonsense space-combat, in other words, in which the loadout you choose proves vital. There are, for example, different types of lasers which trade off between power and burst-length, and you can choose between equipping a repair droid or a second type of missile, depending on your preferred playstyle.
Fleet Battles are longer, more involved multi-stage affairs in which Imperial and New Republic fleets face off against each other, and early triumphs lead to a rise in morale, which frees you up to take down the bigger ships before closing in on the enemy flagship.
In a Fleet Battle it is possible to adopt a support role – resupplying your comrades with missiles and repair droids, and jamming enemy missiles – if you don’t think your piloting skills are quite up to scratch, and once you generate some of the game’s Requisition currency (Glory currency lets you buy cosmetics only) you can buy specific weapons and start to blur the boundaries between the different ship classes.
The battlefields themselves are great – full of space-debris to use to your advantage – and the Fleet Battles, in particular, can ebb and flow in epic fashion. Publisher EA and developer Motive have already added new ships and weapons to the game as downloadable content, with further online modes also promised.
Star Wars Squadrons also promises to be extra-immersive when played with a VR headset – space-shooters work particularly well in virtual reality. There are plenty of online testimonials to Squadrons’ solidity when played via a VR headset.
Frankly, though, you don’t need a VR headset to play it: it’s deeply immersive even without one. It does a superb job of placing you at the controls of pretty much the entirety of Star Wars’ myriad spaceships, while miraculously avoiding any unnecessary fiddliness.