Are we really getting a modern take on the 90s’ outstanding X-Wing games, complete with that same nerdish detail and with the power and spectacle possible on modern hardware? All of it. It’s all true. EA is indeed making a successor of sorts to Totally Games’ beloved series, building an entire experience around the evergreen fantasy of battling in the skies of the Star Wars universe. And while Star Wars Squadrons is its own thing – developed by EA Motive, it’s a stripped back and very modern game, complete with a whole heap of unlockable cosmetics and ties to the new Disney-sanctioned lore – the links to classics like TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance are deliberate and for old-timers like me mighty satisfying too.
The basics, though – you’re taking charge of one of a fleet of iconic Star Wars ships, in one of two small squad-based multiplayer modes or in a single-player adventure. I got to sample the opening of that single-player adventure, which has a neat dual perspective – you choose two pilots and lightly customise their avatars, with one to fight for the Empire and one to fight for the New Republic, then see their fates intertwine over a short campaign. A tutorial is set shortly after the first Death Star blows up Alderaan before a short three year time skip places you in a story that takes in cameos from the likes of Wedge Antilles, Star Wars Rebels’ Hera Syndulla and new extended universe star Rae Sloane.
It’s grand stuff, full of all the spectacle of classic Star Wars as you clear out mobs of fighters and thin out weapon arrays, all combined with writing that feels like it’s been staled through several layers of approval as is the way with more modern Star Wars, though I think it’s fair to say that the single-player isn’t really the main focus here. Instead it feels like a neat way to become acquainted with the systems, and the delightfully sim-ish way the business of space combat is handled here.
The headline, for veterans of the X-Wing series like me at least, is that power management is very much at the core of the experience. You’ll be juggling power between shields, lasers and boosters, empowering one at the expense of another depending on the situation, while also able to access overcharged speed and firepower by converting power. There are neat tricks to be found too, like double boosting then cutting the engines to enable a deft drift that sees you rapidly change direction – and most importantly, when pulled off at exactly the right moment in a dogfight, makes you feel just like Poe Dameron.
Which is honestly all you could ask for when playing a Star Wars game, and judging from a handful of multiplayer matches Squadrons has more than its fair share of exhilarating Star Wars moments. In dogfights it’s there as you head out from the open stars into the hull of a spaceship and dodge its innards before bursting through the other side – hopefully, with a little skill, with the wrecked carcasses of your pursuers left in your wake. The basic five versus five skirmish mode has all this in spades, and if it’s a little more depth you’re after the Fleet Battles mode aims to deliver.
Here’s where strategy comes more into play as you work with your squad to take down an Imperial Star Destroyer – or, if you’re playing as the Empire, an MC75 Star Cruiser. There’s some slightly convoluted mechanics underpinning it all – taking down AI enemies will help fill a bit of your team’s morale meter, while taking down player-controlled ships will fill up even more, and when you’ve enough morale on your side you can perform a run on the opposing enemy flagship. What it ultimately means is there’s a neat ebb and flow to battles as the frontlines move back and forth, and as assaults are carried out and seen off in equal measure.
Playing into that is a clearly defined class system that is, for Star Wars fans at least, self-explanatory. TIE Fighters and X-Wings serve as the all-round fighter class, while A-Wings and TIE Interceptors perform a slightly different role with their increased speed and agility. TIE Bombers and Y-Wings are your bomber class, and an extra twist is provided by the support class that features Rogue One’s U-Wing and TIE Reaper, both able to repair allied ships while disarming enemy attacks. It’s all complemented by a fairly effective targeting system that lets you easily switch between ships and is quick to let you know where your next prey may be, as well as a ping system that’s indispensable when figuring out how exactly to take down a flagship with its various systems of defence and attack.
There’s a deep enough toolset for some serious strategies to emerge (though I admit I didn’t exactly master any myself in my short playtime) and it all suggests that Star Wars Squadrons’ Fleet Battles will provide an engaging multiplayer experience, though there are still a few small reservations. It all feels quite slight, as if it’s a part of some bigger package that’s been cut loose. Maybe that’s in the aftermath of Star Wars Battlefront’s Fighter Squadron and Starfighter Assault modes – both of which didn’t offer quite the same amount of depth here, but that still offer some of the same fundamental thrills. Indeed, the slimmer price point of Star Wars Squadrons – this is coming in at around £34.99 – feels indicative of that.
Some small gripes also emerge during play, though nothing that can’t be fixed in the weeks before release. HOTAs support remains a fuzzy area for console, and even in the PC build that’s offered up for demo it’s not currently available which suggests controllers are first in mind for Star Wars Squadrons players – which, as a grumpy old veteran of Ace Azzameen’s campaign, feels like the wrong priority. Still, the mouse and keyboard support that I settled on for this first playtest certainly did the trick, while a controller was also faithful to the nuance of managing one of Star Wars’ iconic ships.
VR support – which will be featured through the version of Squadrons – is also something we can’t sample just yet, which leaves me keenly anticipating seeing how full HOTAs support and a headset come together with the detail and spectacle of what EA Motive’s delivered here. I’m also keen to see where exactly the campaign can push the action, and how creative the mission design can get – while also a little sceptical whether a slew of cosmetic items and ship components (all unlockable with in-game funds – after being burnt by Battlefront 2, this is a strictly no microtransaction game) can lengthen the appeal of the two multiplayer modes on offer. For now, though, Star Wars Squadrons really does deliver a decent enough take on some of the same things that made the X-Wing series so cherished – and I’m more than happy with that.