Star Wars Squadrons
Since the beginning of Star Wars video games, flight combat sims were a staple. Star Wars Squadrons takes up the mantle of being the best offering in that genre for a franchise that has neglected it for years. While initial sales numbers definitely make Star Wars Squadrons a success, how long will its appeal last?
Spacefighter combat with X-wings and Tie Fighters have seen various forms in video games over the years. From the original Star Wars game and its wireframe graphics to Star Wars Battlefront’s incarnation with a third person perspective. No matter which way it was done, Star Wars games have leaned hard into the franchise’s iconic legacy. Simply put, Star Wars games will always need a spacefighter combat sim of some sort on the market.
Star Wars Squadrons was a bit of a surprise for gaming fans. Released in 2020, Squadrons was an Electronic Arts title focused on multiplayer battles all wrapped up in a reduced price bun. Believe it or not, it was the focus on multiplayer that makes the game as good and holds it back from greatness.
To start off, Star Wars Squadrons does have a story mode. You are allowed to customize the look of your pilot before jumping into missions that teach you the basics of flying your spacefighter. Flying for each side of the conflict, you get a feel for the differences between each of the starfighters and their purpose. While this story mode is there, the real difficulty and action that sustains this game is wrapped up in the multiplayer modes…all two of them. Either way, the game quickly reminds you that this is a ‘squad based’ game that centers around everyone on your team playing a role. Once again, these ‘roles’ are centered around your choice of starfighters when you spawn. Knowing which one is which and how to use them and their technology is the key to victory.
The four starfighter classes provided for each side (Rebellion vs Empire) are the building blocks for the 5 on 5 action designed into Star Wars Squadrons’ squad based gameplay. Fighters are the tip of the spear. They provide the basic dogfighting offensive power for each faction. Interceptors lean hard into the dogfighting skillset by being the fastest fighters in the fight. Bombers are slow but have the firepower to take down capital ships faster. Support ships provide healing and combat boosts to their squadmates and are more critical than most would think. With each of these classes having specific strengths and weaknesses, developer EA Motive intended the game to play as a squad based shooter. Each player would need to see what the others in their squad were flying and decide on what role they needed to take in order for the team to win.
Even with these classes, Star Wars fans know that Tie Fighters (which are the fighter class for the Empire) are fundamentally different from X-Wing Fighters (which are the fighter class for the Rebellion). Tie Fighters are faster than X-Wings yet they don’t have the ‘additional systems’ that X-Wings have (such as shield tech). X-Wings have shields and the means to divert power between weapons, shields, and engines allowing them to be durable and versatile. Squadrons manages to pay close attention to these differing strategies between Imperial and Rebellion ships and makes the flying of as well as the customization of each class for each side different.
Star Wars Squadrons basically has two multiplayer modes called Dogfight and Fleet Battle. Dogfights are simple. You launch from your respective flagships and tally as many kills against the opposite side as you can. Where the tactics and different tech really comes into play is in the Fleet Battles mode. In this mode, you are expected to take down your opponent’s flagship. First you take down the smaller capital ships that fly in between the stationary flagships. Then you are expected to target the individual systems of the flagship. This includes the targeting computer (which affects defensive laser accuracy), shield generator (which takes out the shields when destroyed), and the power systems (which highlights armor weak points to shoot). Once these systems are down, bombers and fighters can freely attack and damage the overall health of the flagship on their way to victory.
As with any flight combat sim, tight controls are extremely important. Also, if you are in your fighter and cannot feel the difference between the way an interceptor and a bomber flies and plays, then there is a problem. Star Wars Squadrons manages to expertly define each of the different kinds of spacecraft it has and provides enough strengths, weakness, and counter strategies to make them all important. These counter strategies (veiled as swappable fighter technologies) are what separates Star Wars Squadrons from its old school Star Wars counterpart in X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter (1997).
Without getting too detailed in how fighter customization works, Star Wars Squadrons manages to make leveling up as a pilot important. Doing so allows the player to have better technology on their craft to make surviving the different modes easier. This allows players to have ‘builds’ for taking on capital ships and for taking on fighters. If opponents are taking you down with a lot of missiles, there is tech that dampens their targeting causing it to take them longer to lock on to you. If you plan on taking a capital ship head on, there is tech that increases the efficiency of your shield generator or hull strength. There are auto aim cannons, burst fire cannons, ion cannons to take down shields, rapid fire cannons, and more. There are shields that regenerate quickly. but have a low maximum damage capacity. Some shields take less damage from laser cannons but more damage from missile fire. There are jammers, missile chaff, various types of hulls, and engines. Couple all of that with the different classes and you have various loadouts for each class for basically any situation.
All of this strategy and tactics woven into a multiplayer focused shooter at a reduced price sounds like you can’t lose, right? Well, here is how this formula breaks down.
First of all, with such a small match size (5 on 5) all it takes is for one player to not know how to play very well for the rest of the match to become lopsided. This basically means there is a pretty significant learning curve. Learning how to divert power between these systems on the fly as you are finding and evading targets is the foundation for whether or not you are good or bad at this game. Casual players will often ignore this and it will cause them to perform poorly in almost every match.
Second, the small match size coupled with no additional AI fighters to fill out the map makes the battles seem less grand or epic. A huge part of Star Wars space battles in the movies was seeing waves and waves of Tie Fighters swarm about a handful of X-Wings on the movie screen. This game doesn’t provide that feeling.
Lastly, there just doesn’t feel like there is enough in the package to keep players coming back for more. Hardcore players will only get a challenge if they are in a tournament atmosphere. Casual players will only have fun if they don’t mind getting wrecked by those that ‘main’ Squadrons. Then there are only so many ‘pilot levels’ to achieve before you acquire all of the tech for each of the ship classes. Couple that with only having two multiplayer modes that play the same throughout the seven multiplayer maps and the appeal will wear thin quickly. EA Motive has also said they don’t plan on providing DLC or additional content so that also limits the game’s lifespan as well.
In a way, Star Wars Squadrons feels like a proof of concept. Almost as if the developers just wanted to see how well received the combat was for a larger project, Squadrons feels it should be a mode woven in a larger MMO or adventure game. The execution is great but the satisfaction is a bit lacking. In the end, this X-Wing love letter is more of an appetizer than a main course meal.
- Star Wars Squadrons manages to expertly define each of the different kinds of spacecrafts
- Star Wars Squadrons manages to make leveling up as a pilot important
- There is a pretty significant learning curve.
- Small match size