Star Wars: Squadrons Review – Let’s Go Full Throttle

Star Wars games have been coasting on the strength of the brand for a decade. Battlefront 2 is a middling squad shooter in a sea of superior multiplayer shooters, Fallen Order is a Souls-like that pales in comparison to the games that inspired it, and the rest are mobile Gacha games. They haven’t quite been in the league with the typical licensed games of the early 2000s, but they’re certainly not genre-defining or even particularly memorable, either. Motive Studios has broken the mold with Star Wars: Squadrons by delivering a quintessential fan experience and an exceptional action-flight sim. It may turn off some players due to the steep learning curve and PvP focus, but those that commit their time Squadrons will find an authentic Star Wars experience that is endlessly rewarding.

Story Mode = Multiplayer Training

The common advice going around is to play the campaign because it teaches you all the tools you’ll need to use in order to be successful in multiplayer. I was tempted to reiterate that advice here, but a lot of people have been asking me if the game is worth it for the single-player alone. Value is obviously subjective, but so are video games reviews, so the answer is an emphatical yes.

The 7-8 hour campaign is genuine Star Wars, for better and for worse. There isn’t much room for meaningful character development and I’ll admit my eyes glazed over more than once while all the technobabble washed over me, but it has such a cool narrative structure that ultimately I found the story pretty gripping.

The plot revolves around the New Republic’s Project Starhawk, a prototype battleship constructed from Imperial parts and technology. Led by an Imperial defector, Starhawk is a threat to the alliance both personally and existentially.

Missions alternate between the New Republic’s Vanguard Squadron and the Galactic Empire’s Titan Squadron. It’s a really clever way to handle the back and forth of an ongoing battle. Squadron’s story plays out like a deep space game of chess and you’re always playing on the side that has the advantage. By switching back and forth between sides it shatters any kind of emotional connection that could have been possible with the silent player characters, a choice I found bizarre at first for such an immersive game, but with this structure, every mission ends with a big heroic moment — you’re always on the side that’s winning.

The movie-like experience of the narrative is at odds with gameplay. This is even more evident when playing in VR because every time there is a cutscene and you’re taken out of the virtual cockpit to watch a 16:9 movie. I think it generally works though because the story takes a backseat to serve the gameplay.

The missions themselves are quite varied in environments and scenery, but I found them to be overly reliant on dog fights. There are very few “trench runs” or precision flying segments, and while I think it’s good to hold back on those to keep them exciting and meaningful, I still wish there were a lot more opportunities to navigate tight quarters at high speed and fewer open-air dog fights.

Ultimately the story does teach you all the advanced techniques and introduce the different ships at a good pace to set you up for greater success in multiplayer, for that that alone I think it’s worth playing through because the PvP side of this game is extremely sweaty.

Competitive Is So Fun I Don’t Mind Losing

There are two online game modes: Dog Fights and Fleet Battles. Dog Fights are the quickplay mode. 5v5, first squad to 30 kills. There’s a good map variety and it’s a fantastic way to hone your skills. I’m confident this is and will continue to be the most popular game mode, so I’m disappointed that the ranked playlist is reserved for Fleet Battles.

Fleet Battles are a lot more complex than dog fights. Teams take turns making pushes across a battlefield to assault capital ships and race to take down each other’s warship. Gaining advantage by killing enemies will spawn AI teammates that will help you advance the line. Fleet Battles are heavily inspired by MOBAs and I think there’s a lot of opportunity for deep strategy but unfortunately, the way matchmaking and quitters are handled makes this a no-go for anything short of a full five stack. I also think there are some significant balancing issues between the ships and I worry that a dominant meta will quickly emerge and the game mode will end up becoming rather stale. The Dog Fight mode simply has more legs because the rounds are shorter and you can solo queue and still be successful.

In either mode, the learning curve is incredibly steep. Squadrons is by far the most accessible flight-sim I’ve played, but that doesn’t mean it’s arcadey by any stretch. Aiming and maneuvering take a lot of practice even for skilled FPS players. The good news is that it’s a blast to play even when you’re struggling. I find it’s easiest with mouse and keyboard, hardest with controller, and most fun with a flight stick.

Hairpin turns around asteroids to dodge tracking missiles and zipping full throttle between the wreckage of a capitol ship you blew up 1 second before colliding with it are the kinds of thrilling moments that happen 100 times in each match. Every move you make determines if you live or die and the skill ceiling is practically infinite.

A Remarkable Simulation

I can’t overstate just how effective Squadrons is as both a space simulator and a Star Wars simulator. I’ve had every immersive Star Wars experience including Vader Immortal on the Oculus Quest, Secrets of the Empire in VR at The Void, and Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, and Squadrons is the only true, legitimately immersive Star Wars experience I’ve ever had.

I think it’s about control. Those other experiences are either on rails or strictly guided. In Squadrons, I decide where to fly and what to shoot at.  As your skills improve the experience just gets more and more immersive. Earning ranks in competitive feels like legitimate promotions.

Playing in VR with flight sticks is, no hyperbole, transcendent. I won’t spend too much time on it because I don’t expect most people will be playing this way, but if you have the opportunity to play Squadrons in VR you absolutely must. The freedom it gives you just to look in different directions before maneuvering is not only a huge competitive advantage, it just feels incredible.

Concerns About Longevity

Of course, a multiplayer game can quickly disappear without a player base to support it. This is Star Wars we’re talking about, so I don’t imagine it will suffer the same fate as Disintegration just did, but I still have some concerns. Despite the strength of the IP, it’s still in an incredibly niche genre. You have to want to learn to play Squadrons and it takes time; most people will have never played anything like it.

I’m also concerned about future content. There is no post-purchase monetization whatsoever, and it isn’t clear if future content is planned. There are only 2 game modes and both need ten players to form a match. Turning off cross-play on PC already can lead to queue times longer than five minutes. That might be matchmaking related and not because of the size of the player base, but it does cause some concern.

My hope is that the success of Squadrons will greenlight a Squadrons 2 that’s even bigger and better. Squadrons is a remarkable game that is the only modern Star Wars game I would consider genre-defining. For Star Wars fans, you can’t get a more authentic simulation anywhere else. The difficulty may push some people away, but those that commit to learning the ropes are in for a thrilling and unforgettable experience.

A PC review code was provided to TheGamer for this review. Star Wars: Squadrons is available now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

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Eric Switzer is the Livestream News Editor for TheGamer as well as the lead for VR and Tech. He has written about comics and film for Bloody Disgusting and VFXwire. He is a graduate of University of Missouri – Columbia and Vancouver Film School. Eric loves board games, fan conventions, new technology, and his sweet sweet kitties Bruce and Babs. Favorite games include Destiny 2, Kingdom Hearts, Super Metroid, and Prey…but mostly Prey. His favorite Pokémon is Umbreon.

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