One of the most anticipated game releases of the last month was probably Star Wars: Squadrons from Electronic Arts. This is the latest Star Wars title from EA, and there was a good deal of anticipation around the title. Frankly, there was a lot of build-up, with its promise to be the first exclusively space-combat based Star Wars game in a very long time. Really, there was a lot of building up because it is a rare addition to the genre of ship-to-ship first-person space combat games. For me, I was pretty excited about the prospect of this as the genre is thoroughly underrepresented, and frankly the titles that are out there by-and-large, fall short of my expectations for one reason or another. We will get to that, as there is a certain calculus that goes on for me when I do pick one of these games up.
Before we continue on with this though, let me make one thing abundantly clear – there are SPOILERS AHEAD. TURN BACK NOW if you must, but don’t blame me if you learn something you didn’t want to.
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Star Wars Squadrons picks up in the Star Wars timeline just after the destruction of Alderaan, with the Imperial forces hunting down Alderaanian refugees, every single one of which is considered a traitor to the Empire, and must be destroyed. It is in this cauldron of death that Capt. Linden Javes, one of the storylines main protagonists, is a highly decorated and skilled Imperial pilot and commander decides to defect to the Rebel Alliance, after seeing the unnecessary and unjust slaughter of innocent refuges by the Empire. Javes commanding officer, Commodore Rae Sloane, who appears elsewhere in Star Wars lore, orders Javes into action to hunt down fleeing Alderaan refuges. Javes, his protege Terisa Kerrill, another Imperial pilot, and the player, set out on a mission to hunt them down, though with Javes voicing some questions as to why they are bothering hunting down refugees.
We begin by initially taking on the role of an Imperial tie fighter pilot under the command of Javes, operating off the ISD Vigilance. The captain is given orders to fly into combat to seek out and, when found, destroy a group of fleeing refugees, who have been left without a home due to the destruction of Alderaan. For some weeks or months after Alderaan is destroyed, the Empire, riding high on the destruction of the home of Princess Leia Organa, and the dissolution of the galactic senate by Senator Palpatine, the Empire has made it a primary mission to hunt down and kill any fleeing Alderaanians as traitors to the Galactic Empire.
As the player, you are ordered to chase down and try to stop Javes by chasing him through a series of tunnels in a large asteroid. Naturally, your efforts are thwarted, which is where Prologue I ends. During the second half of the prologue, Javes has now defected after refusing to destroy the fleeing Rebel fleet, and the player is dropped into an X-wing as a Rebel fighter, as part of a Rebel Fleet. Upon receiving a distress call from the fleeing refugees, the Rebel fleet jumps into the fray to defend the fleeing Alderaanians from Sloane and her pursuing Imperial fleet. Succeeding in helping the escaping refugees, the Rebel fleet jumps away, having thwarted the Empire again. This prologue sets in motion the rest of the plot, with the remainder of the story picking up 4 years later, with an Empire that is more and more in disarray and heading towards its demise (which many years later will lead to the formation of The First Order.) Terisa Kerrill, Javes former protege and the games main antagonist, having risen to the rank of Commodore, becomes hell-bent on seeking revenge against her former mentor and Imperial defector. Javes becomes a leading figure in the Rebel Alliance’s command, and is charged with the care of a new, extremely powerful weapon that is set to be used against the Empire.
The Star Wars: Squadrons solo campaign is set up very much like Battlefront 2‘s solo campaign before it. In Squadrons, the solo player plays through a sequence of 14 missions, which flip back and forth between missions on the New Galactic Republic side and the Imperial side. On each side, you are simple referred to as “pilot’, or may notice being referred to as a “Titan” or “Vanguard” pilot, with a numerical designation within the squad. In both cases, the player steps in to play the role of the squads brash new flying talent, and steps out of each mission having to succeed at the mission and proving their worth and value to the team.
Many players, especially in a multi-player co-op/PVP such as this, will want to customize the appearance of their avatar. If you are one of the bunch that spends as much time making your avatar as you spend playing your avatar, prepare to be a little disappointed. Upon first entering the game logged into your Xbox account, you will get presented with your (limited) choices. Fortunately, you can later go back and change your character’s appearance, but your decision will be a quick one, as your choices are pretty limited. Choose from 5 male or female options, plus (after you have earned come in-game currency), 4 alien races. Aside from facial appearance, body type can be chosen (from two options). A larger assortment of gear is available for appearance customization, though much of it is unavailable when you are just starting out due to a lack of funds. You may also select from Rebel and Imperial sides but will ultimately have one of each. I suspect with time, there will be more if EA decides to release DLC packs.
Overall, the good news in this is that it doesn’t matter much in Star Wars: Squadrons. Seriously, there are few times you will see your avatar aside from a random cut to the cockpit of your fighter, or from the little headshot of your avatar in the top left of the screen and the associated “social” menu. Full-body shots of you standing next to your fighter in the hanger bay of your respective Imperial or Republic carrier also show your character’s outfit, but its not something that is featured widely. As for other players, you will only ever see a headshot of them, as well as a group shot during the load-in on co-op missions, so your appearance to others is really pretty minimally featured.
Training and Tutorial
There are two different paths to go about training and tutorials. First, playing through the full storyline is a great way to learn, as the missions start off fairly easy, limiting large, tough, and hardened targets and sticking to mostly dogfights. The first mission also incorporates a training element to teach you, the new fighter pilot on board, how to control their Tie Fighters, X-Wings, etc. The second option for training is under the “Multiplayer and Training” menu, which includes a “Practice” option and a “Fleet Battles Tutorial”. Both are useful options for practicing outside of the normal story progression without the interruptions of a mission, and a far less punishing environment than attempting to learn by playing in PVP dogfights and fleet battles, which for a beginner, can be maddeningly difficult. (Think making you want to throw your controller at the wall difficult.)
I did find the practice mode to be useful, especially because in the practice mode, all of the ships and mods are unlocked, allowing the freedom to test out any equipment setup you’d like. Want an X-Wing, but not sure what engine spec will work for your style? Like to fly a Tie Interceptor, but leery about flying a ship without shields? Not sure if you can shoot straight enough and want to test out a cannon that auto-aims at the sacrifice of power? Well, these, and all manner of other options are yours for the trying.
Additionally, I very much enjoyed that the game gives a pretty robust system for setting up the circumstances of the practice field. You can add to the fray enemy fighter wings as well as, as well as raider class vessels, flagship-class vessels (think Star Destroyer), as well as setting up timed obstacle courses. This gives a great, no consequences opportunity to test out and practice new load-outs on different enemy vessels, as well as practicing your flying and trying to master various maneuvers. This especially includes the dreaded “drift” maneuver, which, the way the story tutorial describes it, makes it sound SOOO easy… It’s not as far as I’m concerned… but I suck.
The Fleet Battles tutorial also contained useful information on battle tactics for taking on an enemy fleet. The fleet multi-player and fleet AI battles are the ones that I truly found to be the most daunting, and some of the tactics.
The story mode, as its name makes clear, takes the player through a sequence of missions that follow the storyline in the struggle between the New Republic Alliance and the Galactic Empire. As you play through the missions, the player switches back and forth between playing an Imperial fighter and a Rebel fighter, each charged with missions to support their side’s goals. There is a wide arrangement of missions, which include dogfights and capital ship fights, but also other mission objectives which include various other tasks like scanning objects and ships, and defending certain objectives (such as an outpost or sensor probe).
The story mode is really where Squadrons perform well for me. Frankly, when I heard about Squadrons a few months back, the first question that I had was “will there be a story mode, and will it be more robust than Battlefront or Battlefront 2?” The answer to the latter part of that question is a resounding “Yes!” Battlefront 2 performed far better from a story perspective than Battlefront did, but its storyline was still pretty short. Squadrons feature 14 missions. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as long as I’d have liked, but it still provided many hours of gameplay. It’s about on par with the length of story mode gameplay that was present in Battlefront 2, and far superior to Battlefront.
When it comes to space fighter games, the key characteristics that I look for and draw a cross-comparison to come from what is, at least for me, arguably the greatest space combat game franchise of all time, Wing Commander. Those of you who are a bit older, this is for you. I originally played Wing Commander in my middle- and high-school years. I distinctly remember having a friend whose father worked for NEC and had an awesome desktop PC with some kicking audio and a flight stick. That was my first foray into space-based dogfighting. Several sequels to the original came out to varying degrees of success, but most had a robust combat system, some upgradeable gear, and were exclusively campaign-based games (with the exception of Wing Commander: Privateer).
So naturally, I immediately started looking for some of the connections to the benchmark that Wing Commander set for me. From a storyline perspective, the story is not nearly as robust as might be possible. In other campaign-driven games, Wing Commander included decisions needed to be made, and had at least a passing impact on the progress forward, even if the progress forward results in the same endgame. In Squadrons, if you lose on a mission (ie, get killed, your carrier gets blown up, or your other objectives failed,) you start the mission over. There is no other way forward. It would have been interesting to see a path forward even where one fails at a mission (another feature that Wing Commander integrated into its campaign system.)
Though the story is present, I didn’t feel the story was overly compelling or interesting. The story starts out really good, with great cinematic elements in the Prologue. There is some live-action footage featured in the cut scenes and some good dialogue. Once getting past the prologue though, things sort of go downhill. Although there is still some dialogue attached to each of the mission briefings, and a cut scene here or there, its mostly animated. Also, throughout the both the Rebel and Imperial carriers on which you reside, there are randomly placed NPC’s (that mostly serve as either wingmen during missions or some other support element) just sort of “hanging around.” You can speak to them in a limited manner, but they really have very little interesting to say and don’t add anything to the gameplay themselves. If anything, they are simply a distraction. They will add to the clock in terms of time you have logged in game, but they don’t add in any way to mission success or the main plot. I still felt compelled to talk to each of them, if for no other reason than to acknowledge that effort was put in by graphics artists, devs, programmers, voice actors, etc.
In the end, the story mode is great, but without a very compelling story, which boils down to, more or less this – (Again, SPOILER ALERT)- Captain Javes, the aforementioned Imperial defector is being hunted down by a angry and bitter Imperial who was his former colleague. She is butt-hurt over the fact that he defected to the Rebel Alliance and has been a thorn in her side for years. Her lust for vengeance has clouded her judgement in tactical decision making as she essentially will stop at nothing to kill or capture him. This, as a result, leads some bad outcomes and some lucky breaks, but ultimately results in her downfall. End scene. Yes, there is more to the story, but really when its boiled all the way down, its a story of revenge and vengeance that leads to the protagonist winning. It is very much in the tradition of the Star Wars model of storytelling.