‘Star Wars: Squadrons’ is (almost) the starfighter sim I’ve been looking for

CQQELDQK65H43M37WYMVT2UGBE - ‘Star Wars: Squadrons’ is (almost) the starfighter sim I’ve been looking for

Then you repeat the exercise. Again. Once more. The thrill starts to fade. Even after only a week, you want something … different. Something new. And there’s nothing “Squadrons” really provides to fill that vacuum, nor does it plan to in the future. The game itself is solid, but it feels like merely the start of something truly special. A player’s joy will likely derive from how much they want to work to create their own new experiences and how much they delight in testing their mettle against other like-minded opponents or flying with their friends. Absent either of those desires, the reasons to keep climbing into the cockpit are relatively limited, even with the added wrinkle of VR.

For as fun as it is to first sit in a virtual X-Wing cockpit, overall, the VR element feels like it restricted the game more than it enhanced it. The story mode’s stagnant dialogue scenes, in which conversations take place against blah backdrops, seem like a function of Motive making those scenes work for VR, rather than making VR work for the game. To accommodate the technology, it feels like the developers had to compromise. But if I had to choose between VR and a more engaging, dynamic story, I’d choose the latter every time.

Space flight in VR I can take or leave, too. The first few times, it’s a very cool experience, and it’s definitely easier to track what’s happening around your ship (i.e. tracking opposing fighters) by using your eyes instead of futilely panning the camera with a controller. But after that? I reverted to the standard mode. Playing more than two matches in VR made me feel unsettled. I really just wanted to pick up the controller and play rather than don the VR gear again.

While other reviews have noted the game’s wonderful visuals, playing on a PS4 Pro, it seemed to me that the starships and objects like asteroids and space stations were light on detail and texture. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was another concession for VR, particularly since the PSVR resolution is lower than that of most PC VR headsets.

While the frills and finer points may fall short, the foundation of the game — intricate flight/fighting mechanics and an engaging multiplayer mode — is good, but to a point. Players can test their creativity with custom loadouts, as well as their skill on the flightstick (or controller) and communication/coordination with their teammates via two kill-or-be-killed options: a 5-vs.-5 dogfight mode featuring only fightercrafts, or a multistage, back-and-forth space battle that incorporates AI pilots and capital ships and is decided when one side destroys the other’s flagship. Both are enjoyable for their own reasons — dogfights for a quick test of skill and Fleet Battles for a more enduring, immersive, strategic experience.

Fleet Battles in particular obligate players to think unselfishly. If you plunge headlong into a firefight, savvier foes are going to pound you into oblivion, which costs your team “morale” points and brings the enemy closer to achieving one of their three stage goals. Teams in Fleet Battles must first win fighter superiority via a dogfight in the middle of the map, then press on to destroy two small capital ships. Succeed there and players will be tasked with taking down a Star Destroyer or Mon Calamari Cruiser. Should the attackers lose too many fighters when fighting the capital ships, they’ll need to retreat to the defensive and recapture the advantage before renewing the attack.

The format is exciting and rewards players who put thought into their loadout and squadron composition. If everyone wants to fly an A-Wing or TIE Interceptor — the fastest and lightest fighters available — they’ll have a hard time taking down the well-shielded capital ships and need to return to their own to resupply. Variety in both ships (the bomber classes for both sides are versatile enough to take on both fighters and capital ships) and loadouts (heavy ordinance like Proton Torpedoes is more effective against bigger targets, and complementary gadgets like tactical shields and jammers can help defend your squadron) is critical to success.

The loadout element, however, leads to one of the game’s early frustrations. You must unlock new loadout options via requisition points, granted when your character levels up. Each new level grants access to new loadout options of your choosing, so you can usually snag what you want for your favorite fighter by Level 3 or 4. But with a number of equipment options and eight different ships spanning four classes, there’s a lot you’ll need to get to make other fighters useful that more experienced players will already have.

This imbalance produced some high-blood-pressure moments. In one memorable fight, I found myself pounding away on a fighter’s upgraded shields using standard cannons and missiles, only for the pilot to double back and melt me with a rotary cannon. (Note to new players: the rotary cannon is “the way,” and on the whole, TIE Bombers and Y-Wings are good entry-level ships, particularly with multi-lock missiles that can quickly target multiple enemies at once.) Once you’ve tricked out your top ship though, the playing field levels pretty quickly, assisted by balanced matchmaking as well.

The more time you spend in the cockpit, the more comfortable you’ll get with the traits of each fighter. To that end, it’s worthwhile to endure the story/campaign, but unless you really care, I’d skip the optional dialogue scenes to focus on flying and learning the controls. As I’ve noted before, there is a considerable learning curve. Even the basics can take time to develop. Turning is more far more challenging than any space flight in the “Battlefront” series given the impact of momentum. Go full throttle in one direction and that thrust will continue to carry you on that vector even if you begin to turn your craft in another. The mechanics are even more challenging than what we saw in the old-school “X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter” game, where you could nimbly twist and turn as you pleased with little regard for physics. It’s a change for the better, but one that takes some getting used to.

Because of this, regulating your speed is essential, but that can be tough to do with the thumbstick on a PS4 controller. You don’t need to keep your left stick pinned all the way up to maintain 100% velocity, but it’s almost impossible to find the 50% mark (the optimal speed for turning) without staring at the speed readout on your fighter’s dashboard. And if you’re staring at your instruments, you’re not watching your enemies, who are trying to obliterate you. With a joystick and throttle, you’d have a tactile way to gauge your set speed. Not so with a thumbstick that is constantly used to either roll (the default setting) or turn (the optional Aviator setting I preferred). More often than not I found myself flying too fast to turn quickly, or halted altogether, an easy target.

To become a true space ace, you’ll need to master a number of other systems as well. Shielded crafts can boost their protection in the front or aft of their ship, which is handy when being tailed or when making an attack run on a capital ship. Pilots can also prioritize energy flowing to their lasers, engines or shields (if their ship has them), granting each of those systems faster regeneration or an overcharged boost. Want to make a quick escape? Shift your shields to the rear, shunt the power to the engines, wait for the boost to fill, then speed off with the press of a button (L3 on PS4). It’s logical, and satisfying when you pull it off, but there are just a lot of steps for pilots that want to maximize their moves.

Take, for example, attacking a Star Destroyer. Sure, you can just point your ship at it and spray it with your lasers. That won’t do much though. The better path, one that is encouraged and most rewarded by the game, is to first target one of its systems (say, the shield generators), flip your deflector shields to the front, boost the engines to enhance your speed and maneuverability to avoid incoming fire, fire off a guided warhead like a Proton Torpedo, sneak inside the ship’s shields for maximum damage, level your shields (because now there are turrets on both sides of you), speed boost and then cut the engines and turn hard to drift around the tower, prolonging the time you can fire on it, redirect power from your engines to your lasers and blast away until you’re either out of range or your power is depleted, point your fighter away from the Star Destroyer, shift the shields back to your rear, redirect power back to the engines and speed away. When you’re finally out of range, maybe redirect power to your shields to recharge them, if you’re not being pursued by an enemy fighter. Then get ready for another run. It’s that simple.

Much like reading that sentence, it’s a breathless chain of events. And it’s fun, when it works. But getting to that point takes a lot of memorization and practice. Players are going to have to enjoy the learning process to really appreciate the best parts of “Squadrons,” because they do not come easily.

And ultimately, that’s the shame of it, because once you do start to master your ship, customize it to your liking, even accessorize it with fun little cosmetics like a carving of a porg, you feel like you’ve experienced all the game has to offer. There’s not much new to enjoy. There are no modes beyond dogfighting and space battles. There are no new missions for the campaign. There are no new pilots or outfits or ships to unlock beyond what comes with the game. There is no live service, nor planned downloadable content of any kind for the game according to an EA spokesperson.

What’s in the game already is enjoyable, but there’s not a lot that calls me to come back to it. The maps are fine, ranging from a wide-open skirmish over the gas planet Yavin to a debris-filled, asteroid-littered nebula, or a pair that center on a space station and shipyard (which you can fly through). I’m curious though if better players have or are creating specialized strategies for each of them, because most players I saw took the same approach with every map. The lack of variety made for a similar experience over and over. It feels like “Squadrons” will need an injection of something new at some point if it’s to succeed long-term.

And that’s the disappointing part for me, a big Star Wars fan. “Squadrons” is good, but it could have been truly special. As enjoyable as the learning process and first dozen or so multiplayer matches are, over time “Squadrons” starts to settle into a less impressive experience. After working hard to “get good,” that’s kind of the end of the line. Just as you get primed to get the most from the game, it leaves players to their own devices in a Star Wars universe that could provide so much more.

Imagine a multiplayer campaign where two sides engage in various mission types (escort missions, raids, recon) where each result shapes a multi-battle war between the Empire and Republic. The story mode even teased as much with the confrontations between Titan and Vanguard/Anvil squadrons. Stitch several such missions together and you could have a Star Wars-themed version of “Battlefield 1′s” Operations mode, where ultimate victory required success from one side throughout multiple missions on multiple maps. There’s nothing like that in “Squadrons,” and without continued support or content coming from Motive/EA, it appears we’ll never see anything beyond dogfights or Fleet Battles.

Because of that, the enjoyment derived from “Squadrons” will stem more from the game’s community than from the game. If a player loves the Star Wars universe, loves starfighter sims, loves socializing and strategizing with squadmates and doesn’t mind the limited modes available to them, “Squadrons” is worth picking up and investing in. But if you’re the kind of player who needs a reason to grind — new loot, new content, new anything — your enjoyment of “Squadrons” is going to be pretty fleeting.


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