Star Wars: Squadrons
The Good: Finally, a new Stars Wars dogfighting game after a 23 year drought. Shiny, new graphics.
The Bad: So much like the last one, why did it take 23 years? A little buggy.
The Ugly: Limited multiplayer. Short single player campaign.
OK, to be fair, almost any Star Wars game is going to be judged as a AAA title just by default, even if what they’ve brought to the table isn’t quite at AAA prices. Still, Star Wars: Squadrons is priced at $40, not exactly something to sneeze at, and having played it for round about 10ish hours now, I feel like I’ve seen everything it has to offer, which actually makes the $40 seem kind of steep for what they’re offering: a few multiplayer modes, a short, highly-scripted campaign, and… uh, that’s about it. Some neat paint jobs for your X-Wing?
For those of you who were in diapers back in 1993, Star Wars had a dogfighting game called X-Wing, which ultimately became part of a three-game series. The market at the time had several space-based flight sims already established like Wing Commander, Freespace, Starlancer, and Independence War (I played them all). Big fan. X-Wing still managed to wonderfully set itself apart. For one, the Star Wars canon, the chance to take a fighter into the trenches of a death star, was huge. For another, it brought a new and different tactical layer to the game by allowing you to power balance weapons, engines, and shields, both for your playing style and to fit different tactical moments in combat. Making a run at a capital ship? Buff your shields and reinforce them in front, put power into your engines to help you close the range quickly, turn your weapon charging off. Then, once you’re inside capital weapons range, slam your engine power into your weapons and let loose the dogs of war. Then slam full power back into your engines to hasten your escape, reinforcing your rear shields to cover your backside. It was great. I would balance and rebalance my power systems dozens of times in combat. Another coolness, which I can’t frankly remember if other games allowed or not, was targeting individual subsystems on a capital ship, like shield generators or single laser turrets. This would let you deplete the defenses on one side of a star destroyer to allow ships like corvettes an opportunity to attack. It did have a kind of quirk that if you had some skill (and A LOT of patience), an X-Wing could take down a star destroyer solo. Ah, good memories of stripping a capital ship of all of its defenses, and parking right next to it, all power to weapons with shields and engines shut off, and just whittling away at the hull for an hour or so until it would die.
So I was excited to see more of that kind of space dogfight breaking the mold features that X-Wing had introduced more than two decades ago, and I’m going to be blunt – I didn’t get it. What did I wait 23 years for? Better graphics – oh, we got those. Much better. It’s almost a shame that you’re so busy flying and fighting that you can’t stop to appreciate the star destroyer you just defeated breaking majestically into pieces, and several times I found myself regretting that I couldn’t see the superb graphical wowza of all the havoc and damage I was wreaking. But actually new stuff is pretty thin on the ground. The layout of the fighter cockpits, the power balancing, targeting capital ship bits and pieces – it’s all been lifted verbatim from those older games. New stuff is limited to your ability to customize your ship. Beyond the paint job, and some silly cockpit flairs like a hologram and the Star Wars equivalent of fuzzy dice hanging from your rearview mirror, you have some opportunity to customize your loadout. Want high rate, lower power laser damage, or low rate higher power damage, or ion guns that do a lot of damage to shields, but not much to hulls. You can add different missile types or missile countermeasures or autorepair kits to your ship hard points. Engines options trade between high acceleration, high maneuverability, or faster top speed. Shields can be light and recharge quickly, or heavy and recharge more slowly, or add a stealth capability to counter enemy missile locks. I will confess that I only played with this modestly during the single player campaign, but people looking to earn all the combat medals for achieving every optional mission goal might play more. I think also if the multiplayer were more enticing, I might be inclined to goof around here.
The single player campaign consists of 14 missions, seven each played from the Imperial and Rebellion sides, but they interweave to tell a single story (oddly a story in which both sides feel they won at the end). It’s a good enough story to keep the missions rolling, but doesn’t’ really add anything gripping to the Star Wars canon (for the record, tactically, the Starhawk is a terrible idea). It would have been pretty interesting to have the option of choosing which side you wanted to play any given mission from or the opportunity to try it both ways, but they didn’t offer that, probably because it would require the story to branch a little, and that’s not happening here. The story is told through short movies and these sort of character pieces that I can only describe as weird. If you’re in a location, like the hanger, some characters will have a talk bubble over them. When you click on it, you’re treated to a monologue by that character containing some rambling about their past, musings on the state of the empire or rebellion, dreams for the future, or thoughts on how the last mission went or the next mission you’re going on looks. These pieces are well voiced, but they somehow lack energy or eye contact or simply reside somewhere in the uncanny valley – whatever, they’re not that interesting, take too long, don’t really invest me in these characters in any way, and offer no opportunity for interaction. In fact, sometimes you click on a talk bubble over two characters together, and they’re having a conversation without you, and then one looks up and says something like “Can’t talk now,” like you’re eavesdropping. The movies are well done. The missions themselves are very highly scripted, featuring some small open dogfight sections, meshed with big ‘you have to accomplish this thing at this time’ pieces. The dogfights are fluid and exciting. You get the opportunity to fly X-Wings and Y-Wings and Tie Fighters, Bombers, and Interceptors, and others. The ‘accomplish this thing’ pieces are mixed with some working very well, and others feeling so on rails that nearly any deviation leads to failure and that they spoil the flow of the combat. I’m hesitant to go too far into the plot and dump a bunch of spoilers just to talk about which ones work and which ones don’t, but you’ll know it when you get there (if you buy the game after reading this review).
Multiplayer is the real weak point, when it should be one of the strongest. Three’s dogfighting – only team deathmatch – and a mode called Fleet Operations. In fleet operations, players are grouped into teams, and each team flies a group of fighters defending a pair of frigates, that are in turn defending a capital ship. The first team to destroy the other’s capital ship wins. As of yesterday, a lot of people couldn’t destroy the enemy capital ship. You have to destroy the capital ship subsystems to take the ship down, and I found when I would destroy the subsystems, the game would fail to register that fact, and I couldn’t move on from there. No doubt an annoying bug, but one I suspect they’ll fix eventually. But there were so many other MP action options they could have thrown in. You could go with capture the flag, you could set up a game like Rocket League with space ships and shooting, replay the missions with live players, king of the hill, etc. So many options, but these are the only two you get here.
With the catastrophe of Anthem in mind, which I understand EA is still working on, I feel like EA is kind of throwing games out there in whatever condition they are in, and then patching and expanding them later. I suspect in time we may get more multiplayer modes, more maps, a mission creation and editing tool, and maybe some more mission content either from the community or the publisher. Does the audience hang around for that, essentially paying $40 to become in effect beta testers for game expansions? I can tell you in the case of Anthem I definitely did not hang around to see what it might become in the future, and I’m not particularly hungry to go back into Squadrons again either. Didn’t hate it. Didn’t love it. Don’t feel like it soiled my fond memories of the last X-Wing series in any serious way. It’s just another in a long line of Star Wars games that could have been great and instead ended up being solidly mediocre.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: Electronic Arts
This review is based on a digital copy of Star Wars: Squadrons for the PC provided by Electronic Arts.