Last time I stepped into the cockpit of a Star Wars starfighter, it was to defend the universe from the evil Empire in Star Wars: Rogue Squadron. That title still holds a warm place in my fanboy heart, as does Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire and the many outer space adventures of Dash Rendar and the Outrider. But that was over 20 years ago. My piloting skills have built up more rust than an X-wing submerged in saltwater since then. I’m happy to say, however, that Star Wars: Squadrons, the newest franchise flight sim from EA, takes it easy on new recruits while offering tons of customization options for veteran pilots.
Star Wars: Squadrons is officially described as “an immersive, first-person space dogfighting experience set in the beloved Star Wars galaxy. The game features thrilling 5v5 multiplayer starfighter combat along with an original Star Wars story set after the events of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.” There’s a lot to unpack in that short description, but it says a lot. The flying is fun, which is an absolute necessity in games like these, but the real strength of this title at the moment is in allowing fans around the world to step into their own original Star Wars story.
That story starts out in a prologue that gives you a chance to get familiar with the workhorse starfighters of both the Empire (The TIE Fighter) and the New Republic (The X-wing). It’s short, sweet, and stacked with basic flight mechanics and important story beats that will set the stage for the rest of the campaign to come. I was honestly a little concerned that this short prologue — basically a stripped-down tutorial — would wrap up and dump players right into the multiplayer grind, but I was happy to discover 15 missions that split the difference between Imperial and New Republic adventures. And like the best Star Wars stories out there in all forms of media, Star Wars: Squadrons introduces characters on both sides who have entertaining backstories and relatable struggles, and give you compelling reasons to not only fly alongside them into battle, but to keep them safe while doing so.
As far as your own character, you get a chance to customize them very early on. Both your Imperial and New Republic pilot has a variety of preset looks and voices, but you won’t actually see your pilot very often at all. Almost everything in this game is first-person perspective. So while you’re wandering around the hangar, sitting in on a mission briefing, or dogfighting in high orbit, you really won’t get to see yourself — or your craft, outside of its cockpit — very much. This shift from third-person perspective of games like Star Wars: Rogue Squadron and Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire to a more realistic first-person perspective was rough for an old dog like me but likely more immersive for gamers who are more experienced with flight sims. It’s also tailor-made for those of you playing on a VR rig. I’d imagine that experience is much more tied into the thrill of flying a starfighter through space in glorious battle.
As it is, even the cockpit-focused fighting leaves a bit of a disconnect between the fighter’s sense of speed and space. There’s little haptic feedback to help you differentiate between, say, half-speed and full throttle. There’s also little in the way of visual reference to help make that connection, unless you’re in VR, I assume. More than once during a mission, I managed to “sneak” up on a target from a distance only to find myself suddenly about to smash into it. These crafts are very maneuverable and responsive, but there’s a noticeable gap between performance and awareness of the battlefield around you; that might be a “me” problem and less of an issue for other gamers, but my brain is trained on the out-of-cockpit flight perspective and it’s a bit disorienting to say the least.
So while the flying was fun and the fighting was rewarding — sometimes literally; completing missions grants medals, and in-game “currency” like Glory and Requisition to upgrade your crafts — I found the story more compelling. That story, after a prologue that sees the Empire hunting down refugees from the destroyed Alderaan, takes place four years later, between the original trilogy and the new trilogy, where the New Republic is attempting to shore up their victory by eradicating the last remnants of the Empire. But it’s a big universe out there, so there’s lots of clean-up to do. That makes for some really rich characters and interactions as both sides fight for what they think is right.
Star Wars: Squadrons also rewards longtime and diehard Star Wars fans with a bunch of organically placed Easter eggs. Namedrops aplenty appear, as do actual in-person appearances from some of the franchise’s most famous faces and a fair helping of some of the lesser-known ones. It’s great fun to see who is going to show up next and in what capacity, and it’s a literal blast to take that hype into the next battle.
While I haven’t completed the main missions, I’m eager to do so, if only to see how the story — a story that dares to do things the movies have yet to do — plays out from here. Hey, maybe I’ll even get good enough to graduate from the normal Pilot setting to take on the harder difficulties. But I’m mainly interested in experiencing the story, checking out the multiplayer branch of the game (which I haven’t had a chance to do yet), upgrading the whole fleet of available (and drop-dead gorgeous) ships and their many many customizable options, and collecting all of that sweet, sweet flair. If you’re a collector, this game will keep you busy. If you’re a flight-sim nut, this game will give you a good experience with plenty of tweaking options available to suit your style. And if you’re a Star Wars fan, it’s a must-buy.
Star Wars: Squadrons will launch October 2, 2020 on PlayStation4, Xbox One, PC via Origin, Steam and the Epic Games Store, and will be playable via Virtual Reality (VR) on PlayStation 4 and PC with cross-play support.
Dave Trumbore is Collider’s Senior Editor overseeing Games, Animation, and all those weird Saturday-morning cartoons no one else remembers. Test his trivia IQ on Twitter @DrClawMD