Growing up with Star Wars as a child you would either fantasise about wielding a lightsaber or flying an X-wing fighter and blowing up the Death Star. The former was easy to recreate, coming across as lightsaber battles in the playground with some sticks and blue and red paint. The latter though – taking to space and getting involved in the thrill of the battle – was harder. A lot harder. That is until now, with the release of Star Wars: Squadrons, for it is this which puts you into the heat of a space battle as either a pilot of an X-wing or as part of the dark side utilising the power of a TIE Fighter. But will the force be with you?
It has to be said that traveling the galaxy and involving yourself in some Star Wars-themed battling isn’t anything particularly new. In the past, we’ve had the chance to enjoy the excellent Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, Star Wars: TIE Fighter, or the aerial battles found in the most recent Battlefront games. What Squadrons is hoping to offer to the party though is an updated version of those original games, one in which the focus is shifted heavily towards the multiplayer fun that can be had, seeing the most intense Star Wars battles go online.
We will however have to separate this review into two distinct sections: the story mode and the online experience. For they are two very different beasts.
Starting with the story and it is here where Star Wars: Squadrons advises you of how to play through things, by giving you a taste of how the game works and what is needed in order for you to become the master of the space dogfight.
You are asked to create two blank characters from scratch; pilots for the light side (New Republic) and the dark side (The Empire). These guys are fully customisable, pretty much as much as you like, but it doesn’t ever really matter at the end of the day because the whole of the story and campaign is set in the first person, and so you never really see them. The action throughout the campaign is split into you playing and taking part in missions with these two characters, working the New Republic route, and dropping in on The Empire from time to time. The idea is that the story campaign will give you a balanced view of the narrative that takes place from both sides, but it is with this where you’ll get a chance to fly the different ships on offer, taking in everything present on both sides.
The prologue starts around A New Hope, after Alderaan has been annihilated. We are introduced to a squadron of TIE fighters (including you) who are working together to take down Rebel infiltrations. One of the team betrays the Empire and goes over to the Rebel side; this is the essence of the story. What takes place now is set after the battle of Endor after Return of the Jedi, basically focusing on several skirmishes above planets featuring the two squadrons on opposing sides. It’s Star Wars, so it’s safe to say that the story is a good one, told well through both the missions themselves and some amazing cutscenes.
After each mission, you’ll end up at one of the bases, and given the opportunity to spend time talking to each of your squadron teammates, fleshing out the narrative and offering up some very interesting and colorful characters. Again, it’s Star Wars, so you should expect the weird and wonderful. Then you will take in a mission briefing that covers your objectives that lay ahead, then it’s back into the fray once more. Over the eight hour or so running time that the campaign rolls out for, things do slightly drag a bit and the structure becomes extremely familiar after a while. But that said, it’s an enjoyable playthrough right out to its conclusion.
The gameplay works pretty much how you might expect any kind of flight battle simulator to run. But what Star Wars Squadrons does do is ensure that the control and execution of the gameplay is very fluid; easy to begin with, but whether you will master it is another matter entirely. You start by being given a ship to fly, if you’re in the Rebel faction it might be an X-wing or Y-wing Bomber, an A-wing Interceptor or U-wing Support craft. Take on the role of the Empire though and you’re left with the TIE Fighter, TIE Bomber, TIE Interceptor and TIE Reaper. Some ships will be faster, others will be used for dropping bombs on space stations, and others still might be used for support use, delivering health and weapons to the squadrons. Whichever ship you’re in though, the controls work like what you would expect of a flight sim-styled game whereby you fly through space with a simple push of the acceleration or ground to a halt with a pull back on the left stick. You can roll, turn, duck, dive and perform death-defying drifts if you have the skills. It’s here where Squadrons becomes hugely immersive.
In battle, you are normally left to either go on the attack, or to attempt to defend a specific area. Whichever you do, it all boils down to a massive dogfight against the enemy. Each ship has different loadouts regarding weaponry, but it all comes down to firing as many shots as you can at anything that moves; lock on and you’ll also be able to fire a missile for extra destruction. Occasionally though there are specific missions that see you using bombers to drop weaponry on certain targets like generators in order to destroy space stations, or one mission that really sticks in the mind which sees you scanning drifting core wreckage to see if you can use them as potential bombs in a trap to take down huge transport ships.
It is with the full-on, highly intense space battles where Star Wars: Squadrons plays out best though, and it can be great fun, spinning your ship forevermore as you try to take down your foes. It’s where the game truly comes alive. But, for all the intensity, I have found things annoying in a few aspects. For instance, if you hit something – like a ship or asteroid – you just seem to bounce off with a little bit of damage rather than explode into a thousand pieces. Yes, it may be a game, but a bit more realism would be appreciated. Also, there is far too much preamble before the space battles themselves, leaving you to fly to one area before waiting for the battle to begin.
The multiplayer element of Squadrons is obviously where the development team feel the biggest draw for players will come, and even though I’ve enjoyed playing through the campaign, it does seem like a big tutorial for the main event – showing your skills to the online world.
There are a couple of modes in place with the multiplayer aspect, the first being 5 vs 5 squadron battles in Dogfight. This mode is a simple team deathmatch where the first to get to 30 kills wins the game. The battles are frantic and you fast realise that for all your training in the campaign, it doesn’t mean a thing when you are coming face to face with real-world players. In fact, learning your strategies is key here as you switch your ship power to the engines to become more nimble or put everything into the offensive side of things, flipping to weapons for more power and damage. You can put all your shields on the front of the vehicle, if you want, for more safety when attacking front on, or keep them equally balanced throughout. It is this level of detail and planning which easily separates the online Star Wars: Squadrons pros from the amateurs, and this means that the learning curve online is massively steep.
The other mode that you can partake in is that of Fleet battles – long, drawn-out strategy affairs that take around half an hour to complete. It’s all about attacking and defending ships with the whole thing playing out a bit like the Ground War mode in Call of Duty. This is brilliant for those who have got a team of players behind them, as communication is the key to any form of progress. It’s also the most enjoyable of everything that Squadrons delivers.
At the end of each and every game that you play, you level up and get given glory points to spend on new customisations like bobbleheads for the inside of your cockpits, or new suits or helmets. Some will find this fascinating, but I’ll be honest and admit that these cosmetic perks are of little interest to me. There are also requisition points that can be used to unlock ship components so that your X-wing can become faster or your TIE Bomber can deliver the heaviest of payloads. This will keep the completists out there and those who love a bit of engine tweaking very happy indeed.
Visually and Star Wars: Squadrons looks great in the variety of cutscenes that play out, and through the character conversations found in the hanger. The battles themselves are decent enough too, but I feel that this is a game that would thrive and look altogether better in VR. It’s almost made for it and that means for those of us stuck with the standard, regular game it is just good. Nothing more, nothing less. However, the sound is excellent throughout, delivering intense Star Wars vibes with both familiar and new soundtracks. There is some great voice work and performance capture too, complemented well with glorious sound effects that capture everything that is exceptional about the Star Wars franchise.
There are no two ways about it – Star Wars: Squadrons on Xbox One is probably one of the best of all the Star Wars games. It comes with a decent price that is suited to both its campaign length and the fun that is found in multiplayer. However, something is lacking in the story, the pacing is problematic throughout and I found the lack of modes in the multiplayer to be a tad disappointing. It’s Star Wars though, and this means that if you’re a fan of the franchise – or in need of a space dogfight or two – then you will no doubt love this game, probably playing it for years to come. Personally though, even with my love of Star Wars over the years, I feel much more comfortable holding a lightsaber than piloting an X-wing.