It's fitting that Star Wars should be the franchise to lead space combat sims back into the mainstream consciousness. No franchise did more to define the genre during its '90s heyday; Luke Skywalker's famous trench run sparked the imaginations of a generation of developers. Its popularity waned as shooters became the dominant genre, but Star Wars: Squadrons has emerged to lead a promising revival; not just on PC, but console as well.
The spiritual successor to the old LucasArts sims of yesteryear, Star Wars Squadrons is an attempt by EA to rekindle the spirit of what Obi-Wan might call "an elegant genre from a more civilized age." It's not a grand revival, but neither is it a quick nostalgia cash-in. Rather, it's more of a passion project; a refreshingly honest attempt by EA to build on the franchise's rich history.
Anyone who has followed my writing will know how much this means to me. In 1997, I was there on the Internet Gaming Zone, braving horrendous lag to engage in one-on-one dogfights, and even now TIE Fighter numbers among my favorite games ever. No one is more pumped than I am to have a Star Wars space combat sim back in her life. But with that excitement comes the fear of a massive letdown, made all the more acute by EA's trouble with games like Star Wars Battlefront 2.
I needn't have worried. I'm happy to say that Star Wars: Squadrons mostly manages to live up to my very high expectations, albeit with a few caveats. It takes just enough from classics like X-Wing Alliance to be recognizable, but it's no slavish remake. Rather, Star Wars: Squadrons is a thoroughly modern update to an old-school genre, successfully layering mechanics codified in squad-based shooters like Rainbow Six Siege on to starfighter combat. In many ways, it's the realization of the dream of multiplayer Star Wars space combat from when X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter was first announced nearly 25 years ago.
In Star Wars: Squadrons, you hop into fighters, bombers, and interceptors and represent either the New Republic or the remnants of the Galactic Empire in multiplayer dogfights and fleet battles. Its gameplay is carefully balanced around teamwork, with A-Wings darting around knocking TIE Fighters out of the sky, and Y-Wings lugging photon torpedoes to defeat opposing capital ships. You won't find B-Wings or TIE Avengers among Squadrons's small selection of playable ships, but you will find support ships like the TIE Reaper, which are capable of repairing teammates from afar while inflicting nasty status effects on foes.
Compared to X-Wing Alliance and its ilk, Star Wars: Squadrons is quite a slim package, with only eight fighters and a half-dozen simple maps to choose from. Its multiplayer—which thankfully supports crossplay between multiple platforms—is split between a basic 5v5 Dogfight mode and more complex Fleet Battles, wherein Imperial and Republic forces battle it out in a tug of war culminating in an assault on the opposing flagship. It's capped by a short, but satisfying single-player campaign that shifts between the two sides while teaching the nuances of the combat.
If all of this makes Star Wars: Squadrons sound relatively limited, that's because it is. This is a compact experience designed to satiate the craving for an X-wing vs. TIE Fighter-like experience—no more, no less. In a way it feels almost like a proof of concept.
When you're actually playing, though, it's easy to forget Star Wars: Squadrons's limited scope because it's just so much fun. Even with only 10 fighters on the field, its battles have a hectic quality to them, with TIE Fighters screaming past and turbolasers exploding all around you. Zooming across the surface of a Star Destroyer is thrilling, as is the single-player mission that has you knocking out exhaust ports across a space station's trench, then flying into its superstructure to kill its main reactor—a perfect combo of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.
Its relative limitations are further obfuscated by a genuinely nice presentation, which has you stepping into a lively hangar to customize your various starfighters. You can even interact with a Gonk Droid—the Star Wars version of petting the dog. It's additionally augmented by generally solid VR implementation, which has an uncanny way of making you feel like you're actually inside a starfighter cockpit, or standing right there in the briefing room with Wedge Antilles (what, you didn't think Wedge would make an appearance at some point?).
I mentioned that I have caveats, so I'm going to lay them out here. First, it can be a little buggy, especially on PC. This manifests in A.I. fighters occasionally sort of spinning awkwardly in place, or weirdly merging into your ship when jumping to hyperspace. Second, while I didn't have any problems getting a Valve Index to work seamlessly with my rig—an i5-4690K with an RTX 2070 Super GPU—it sounds like the VR experience can be pretty varied. EA says it works best with either an Oculus headset or a PlayStation VR, so keep that in mind. Finally, Star Wars: Squadrons is clearly optimized with a controller in mind, often stacking multiple commands to a single button. This makes it a real pain to bind everything properly to a HOTAS flightstick, which is absolutely the optimal way to play Star Wars: Squadrons owing to its emphasis on rapid acceleration and deceleration.
Beyond that, my biggest complaint about Star Wars: Squadrons is that Fleet Battles can occasionally be a bit of a slog. Billed as Squadrons's flagship mode, Fleet Battles have you battling back and forth for momentum in large-scale engagements, with enemy capital ships and A.I. fighters joining the fray. To win, you have to take out all of the enemy capital ships, which can take upwards of 30 minutes. After multiple turns at trying to take down the opposing team's Star Destroyer, there comes a point where you just want it to be over already.
It's also very unforgiving, and if you just try and jump in and fire away, you will get annihilated. The campaign does a nice job of getting you to grips with the mechanics though, and after a couple of hours you'll be comfortably zooming around in your fighter of choice.
At its best, Star Wars: Squadrons is thrilling—a delightful distillation of the space battle found in films like Rogue One. Every fighter is highly-customizable, enabling you to swap engines, shields, and weapons depending on your mission profile. Top pilots will enjoy advanced moves like the drift, which has you boosting up to max speed, then cutting your engines and sliding around—perfect for continuing a bombing run or turning the tables on your enemies. There's even a point where you get to buzz a Star Destroyer's bridge tower; surely a nod to Top Gun, another movie that has had an outsized impact on the flight sim genre.
In an effort to give Star Wars: Squadrons a bit of longevity, EA further layers in unlockable cosmetics for your pilot, unique skins for your fighters, and other perks that can be earned by playing. Happily, these unlockables do not include microtransactions, so you needn't worry about EA marring the experience with loot boxes or other paid nonsense. This is a self-contained experience almost to a fault: I would sure love for Star Wars: Squadrons to introduce an expansion or seasonal updates.
What ultimately matters is that X-Wing is finally back. I've wanted a game like this for a good 20 years, but I never dared hope that EA would actually make it, much less get it right. Even my harshest criticisms of Star Wars: Squadrons fall away when I hop into the cockpit. This game is just so much fun to play, and I want more.
With luck, Star Wars: Squadrons isn't just a one-off experiment, but a new beginning. EA's tenure as the steward of the Star Wars franchise has been rockier than The Empire Strikes Back's asteroid field, but if it keeps greenlighting games like Star Wars: Squadrons, there may be hope for it yet. In the meantime, I'm going to keep hoping for a B-Wing update. Hey, if Star Wars space sims can make a comeback in 2020, anything is possible, right?
Star Wars: Squadrons is a slim but highly enjoyable revival of the classic LucasArts space sims. It's hampered by a limited number of maps, and its signature Fleet Battles are a bit of a drag, but its moment-to-moment combat is sheer delight. With a solid single-player campaign and above-average VR implementation, Star Wars: Squadrons is the multiplayer space combat game we've wanted since the days of X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter.