"Star Wars: Squadrons is a passion project," creative director Ian Frazier told an assembled group of journalists last week—his way, perhaps, of setting expectations for EA's revival of the classic LucasArts flight sim series.
We were on hand to experience Star Wars: Squadrons for the first time, using gaming PCs that EA shipped to journalists in their homes (the weirdness of that experience practically deserves its own article). Coming off its very successful first showing back in June, my expectations were high for Star Wars: Squadrons. I also felt a little trepidation. Would Star Wars: Squadrons play as well as it looked in the trailer? Would it be a glorified budget game?
Not all of those fears were allayed in the ensuing four hours, but enough of them were that I emerged from the event with my enthusiasm still intact. In the course of dabbling in the campaign prologue, the Dogfight mode, and the new Fleet Battles mode, I found an unpolished, but generally sincere effort to evolve the venerable genre. What surprised me was how much it resembled modern shooters, particularly Rainbow Six Siege of all games.
In other words, while Star Wars: Squadrons is definitely built on nostalgia, it's not entirely a throwback. Its roots are in 1997, but otherwise it's a space sim that firmly belongs in 2020.
Star Wars: Squadrons as a Hero Shooter
At first blush, Star Wars: Squadrons looks a lot like its forebears. It's entirely restricted to a first-person cockpit view, favorites like the X-Wing and TIE Interceptor return, and the prologue even has you inspecting freighters—an activity TIE Fighter fans will remember well.
Where it diverges is in how it handles squadron composition. Star Wars: Squadrons, takes the loosely-defined roles of ships like the TIE Bomber and makes them far more explicit, demanding that you bring a diverse mix of fighters to each encounter. In Star Wars: Squadrons, even a group of light, agile A-wings—long the dominant dogfighter in the Star Wars universe—can't stand up to a well-balanced group aided by support ships like the U-Wing, a newcomer previously introduced in Rogue One.
The support ships exemplify this dynamic. When I headed into Dogfight Mode, my squadmates and I naturally headed out in high-speed TIE Interceptors, where our Rebel enemies chose a broader mix of fighters. What we didn't realize was that, unglamorous as it might be, the TIE Reaper is absolutely essential in any Imperial team composition. Not only is it the only Imperial ship with shields, it's capable of reloading sorely needed warheads while launching repair drones. Without it, it's hard for the Empire to stand up to the sturdier, more heavily-armed Rebels.
There's also another unexpected star in the Imperial lineup: the TIE Bomber, possibly the least loved fighter in the Star Wars universe. Slow, chunky, and unshielded, it basically exists to make suicide runs on capital ships. In Star Wars: Squadrons, though, it can be loaded with multi-lock missiles that can target several ships at once, making it a menace in dogfights. It's still not my favorite, but Star Wars: Squadrons at least makes it fun to fly this time around.
When I mentioned all of this to a colleague of mine, they joked, "Wait, is EA trying to make Star Wars: Squadrons an esport?"
I hadn't really thought of it that way, but it certainly seems plausible. After all, Star Wars: Squadrons may be based on X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, but it has more than a little Rainbow Six Siege in its DNA. At heart, it's a class-based 5v5 shooter with defined objectives that require teamwork to complete. It even borrows the ping system that has rapidly become ubiquitous in modern shooters. The intense focus on cooperation, communication, and carefully crafted loadouts—Star Wars: Squadrons lets you choose everything from your laser cannons to your engines to suit the mission profile—further enhances the feeling that EA Motive's new space sim is in some sense Rainbow Six Siege in a Spaceship.
I imagine such comparisons will get the alarm bells ringing in the heads of veteran fans, who certainly don't want their sim to resemble a first-person shooter. They needn't worry: in the cockpit Star Wars: Squadrons remains faithful to the tradition of the X-wing series, albeit with a few key changes.
If you've ever played X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, you may recall that jarring moment when you discover that gunning your engines has a huge impact on your turning radius. In order to turn most efficiently, you had to go to 1/3 throttle, giving you a wide radius but also making you very vulnerable. It was X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter's most meaningful change, making it more difficult but also more nuanced than its forebears.
Star Wars: Squadrons follows that tradition. The old energy management system—in which you distribute power between engines, weapons, and shields based on need—is fully back, as are the turning mechanics. If possible, Star Wars: Squadrons leans even more heavily into those elements, with speed being one of the most important differentiators between Rebel and Imperial starfighters.
In Star Wars: Squadrons, TIE Interceptors can scream through the stars at warp speed, while Y-Wings and TIE Reapers handle like the boats they are. The X-Wing—the true "jack of all trades, master of none" fighter in the Star Wars universe—might be the hardest ship to actually use, simply because it has nothing in particular to commend it. Whatever ship you choose, learning to efficiently manage its speed and turning radius is the key to maximizing its potential.
It certainly took some getting used to, especially as a veteran of the old LucasArts sims. It may be a direct evolution of the X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter approach, but in many ways Star Wars: Squadrons's flight model feels totally different. It carries with it a raw sense of momentum that is only hinted at in the older games, and the 3D cockpits feel reactive to the action in ways that are only hinted at in X-Wing Alliance.
I found myself mentally comparing it to Star Wars Battlefront 2, not the least because the Dogfight mode frequently had me boosting out of trouble and weaving between space stations in the same way that game did. The two ultimately have totally different flight engines, but it seems to clear to me that EA Motive is trying to find a halfway point between the sim-like experience of X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and the fast, arcade-driven action of Battlefront 2, and it translates into an intense, high-speed space shooter that borrows the best elements of both.
Granted, it's not all good. If I miss anything, it's the carefully crafted multiplayer missions found in X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, in which you would attack starbases, interdict convoys, and disable freighters. These missions made X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter a unique and complex challenge, and trying to get a Top Ace rating on all of them was fun even when playing alone. By contrast, Star Wars: Squadrons rolls everything up into a single Fleet Battle mode: a multi-stage fight in which you focus on taking down fighters, then frigates, and finally the enemy mothership.
At the risk of spending too much time dragging a mode that I find broadly enjoyable, it seems at risk of getting a little staid and repetitive. If it's to avoid this fate, it will need a strong selection of original maps to make up for its lack of bespoke missions.
This brings me back to Star Wars: Squadrons as a "passion project." In describing how it first got started, director Ian Frazier talked about several EA Motive team members having a beer and reminiscing about the good old days of Star Wars flight sims.
"I heard that and I thought that would be darn cool, because I was also a big fan of those games, and so quickly we started to work on a pitch and ultimately a prototype," Frazier said. "That prototype gained traction, folks here at EA were excited, folks at Lucasfilm were excited, and before you know it we had a full-fledged project ramping up."
You can really feel that no-frills, grassroots sensibility in the way that Star Wars: Squadrons is presented. It tosses in some neat elements like an online waiting room styled as a fully-3D pilot briefing room, but the actual menus where you customize your ships tend to be very simple. Likewise, while there are a few cutscenes with fully-animated characters, most are stylized, lightly-animated sequences designed to get the point of the story across and little more.
Going with a 5v5 setup necessarily limits the scope of the missions, even in the Fleet Battles, where A.I. fighters are mixed in with the human players. It makes Star Wars: Squadrons feel perhaps a smidge smaller than it should. It certainly feels smaller than Star Wars Battlefront 2's Starfighter Assault Mode, where large setpiece battles take place across familiar locations like Kamino, with unique objectives for each. By comparison, Star Wars: Squadrons's more generic Fleet Battles feel a little simplistic. It doesn't even have the B-Wing.
Where it shines is in the moment-to-moment of the starfighter combat; those times when you crank your engines to maximum, or you dive through the superstructure of a space station to shake an enemy on your tail. Its enhanced communication encourages far more teamwork than the original X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, and the flight model is more nuanced, particularly in the way that it incorporates moves like the boost and the drift turn. I've only barely touched on the actual starfighter customization, where you can turn a Y-Wing from a heavy bomber into a flying battlestation loaded with missiles. Even just incorporating a station to use as cover makes the dogfights more interesting than they were in X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, where battles mainly took place against the empty backdrop of space, or occasionally an asteroid belt.
All of this leaves me with a broadly positive feeling about Star Wars: Squadrons, which is good because I was definitely ready to be let down after the high of the initial trailer. I get the sense that there's still a lot of polishing left to do, particularly with the graphics, and that there's still a lot to see in terms of the single-player campaign, of which I only received a tiny taste. Hopefully more maps will also help ameliorate the sense of repetition that threatens the multiplayer modes.
In any case, please forgive me, as I'm not entirely rational where Star Wars: Squadrons is concerned. In some ways it still feels too good to be true, which almost makes it suspect in my mind. "It's a passion project," I worry to myself, "There's no way this lives up to my expectations."
In that light, it's probably a good sign that I was deeply irritated when EA pulled the plug after four hours. I wanted one more try at taking down that Star Destroyer; one more crack at finding the loadout that could make my X-Wing into the beast I knew it could be. It could be a sign that EA is on to something with this game, or just a sign that I'm a genuine maniac for starfighter games. Either way, when playtests resume, I'll be there in my Y-Wing. After all, I've been waiting 25 years for this moment.
Star Wars: Squadrons is out October 2 on PC, Xbox One, and PS4.