Gameplay & Physics
Returning to my earlier comparison to Wing Commander titles, the dogfight physics and controls are pretty well done. I was a bit confused at first on the directional control. In most flight-based games, the stick is set up to act in the same way it would in an airplane. Specifically, pitch (up and down) is always inverted – ie pull back on the stick to go up. In Star Wars: Squadrons, the default controller layout on the Xbox One is non-inverted pitch control – ie down is down. Although I quickly overcame this strange control mapping, it wasn’t the only thing that I ran into with the default controller settings that frustrated me. The other challenge that I found was on velocity control. The right stick is set up for pitch and yaw (up/down, left/right respectively) and the left stick is set up for roll (left/right) and velocity (up/down). It took a few missions to really get it under control, as I frequently found myself inadvertently changing my velocity in an undesired manner. I even checked out alternative controller mapping but found no easy solution as one must have an “increase” and a “decrease” control over the velocity of the fighter. I did like the level of controllability over this flight characteristic as being able to easily change speed has a big impact on one’s dogfighting ability, but combining these controls with the roll control can have some unintended consequences if one isn’t careful on the controls. I couldn’t find a better control mapping than the default in this respect – even with my Xbox Elite Wireless 2 controller.
Controllability is overall quite good. It does take some getting used to, like with anything else. However, I didn’t find that it was exceptionally challenging to pick up some basic tactics to avoid getting shot up by missiles and learned pretty quickly to use features like adjusting shields to double-front when making and inbound run on a carrier and double-rear when running away from the carrier I’ve just bombarded. Transferring power between systems is very simple and doesn’t unduly take the player away from concentrating on whatever objective they are currently focused on. As for PC players playing this title, there is probably a good bit of advantage they can take from using a flight stick or mouse and keyboard over their controller wielding cousins.
Like Battlefront and Battlefront 2, Squadrons has a PVP mode, which is really all that is left of the game after you’ve played through the campaign. I do enjoy some PVP battles from time to time (and I’ve spent far too many hours in PUBG to prove that.) Your options for PVP are limited to two different scenarios, as it currently stands. Option one – a 5 on 5 dogfighter match. A team of 5 Rebels and 5 Imperial fighters are matched up against each other and dropped into one of a small number of maps which include an asteroid field and some sort of starbase built upon a planetoid. In this option, the mission is simple. Kill the enemy. The team that ends with the most kills after the allotted time (or reaches 30 kills first) wins. Mission over. The player can, at least, choose both their faction and their preferred craft before the match begins, and after playing some matches, earns points that can be used to open up a wider range of gear types. All of the available gear is the same as gear that a player has potential access to during campaign missions. Each alternate gear has advantages and disadvantages, but at least gives players the option to use different gear-related tactics if they find that one type of gun works better, dependent on their own skill level and/or abilities.
The second option is a carrier group vs carrier group mission where each team starts with a carrier and a couple of escort class vessels, and each team must attempt to destroy the opposite sides’ capital ships, while also defending their own from the opposition, which is, naturally, trying to do the same thing. These battles are also 5 on 5, and so feature a healthy number of AI-controlled craft, in addition to the capital ships. The AI fighters present little challenge, but the AI-controlled capital ships can be quite a giant pain in the ass, so much so that on one recent round I played with Jason, we spent a good 15 minutes just trying to get NEAR one of the capital ships, only to be blown up by its turbo lasers, without fail, every single time we came within about 2000 meters of the damn thing. It was an exercise in futility that, at some point in my past, would have likely caused me to chuck my Elite 2 at the wall. These missions can be fun, but also extremely maddening if the team you get paired up with has no idea of the right tactics to use, refuses to communicate via voice chat or both.
The bottom line
So this is a lot of information about Squadrons, and what does it boil down to? Do I regret spending $40 to get a copy? No. It’s fairly cheap for a game these days, and I’ve gotten a couple of dozen hours of good gameplay out of it, including time spent in PVP. More time than I spend on many new games… I don’t think the story mode is overly replayable, though there is the option of increasing the difficulty level, and there are plenty of Star Wars fans that will probably love to repeat the story mode for the story. I’ve finished the story and playing PVP repeatedly is just a “more of the same” scenario as the maps are very limited, as are the objectives. Very little variety.
There are, however, a lot of reasons that the $40 price reflects exactly what EA put out in Squadrons. In my opinion, EA took a formula that worked OK for them on Battlefront and Battlefront 2 and did the exact same damn thing. Keep production costs low and, as a result, keep the price relatively low, so as to make money off of volume sales. At $40 versus $70, you easily can cast a much wider net and get a lot more takers, even if it means more of those takers are disappointed in the game. Everyone knows it going to sell because it says “Star Wars” on it, so make it cheap and easy so as to make a profit off the volume. Did it work? Sure. Did I have fun playing Squadrons? Yes. I wouldn’t say I hate the game, and frankly, I had a decent amount of fun playing it. It’s not, however, anything I would consider greatly replayable, and it’s definitely forgettable.
So what it comes down to for me is this – Squadrons is no Wing Commander. I know you may be tired of hearing it by now, but there is no excuse for EA to have limited this game. I would have gladly paid $60 or $70 for a game that achieves the past greatness of the Wing Commander series. Instead, EA produced an OK game, but the game shows its cheapness all over the place. The graphics are good, but disappointing in many ways- from the fact that one cannot explore the inside of the carrier ships, with the only true exploration being by pivoting in place or doing a walk-around of one’s fighter in the hanger, to the fact that a lot of the backgrounds are essentially static and just not that interesting to view. The only place the graphics are worth anything is in the cockpit and the cinematic Prologue missions.
The voice acting for the characters is good to meh. The talent isn’t all bad. It would have been nice to see more cinematic cut scenes. The storyline is underdeveloped and as a result, I’m just not that compelled by it, once the game gets into mid and late game. Rae Sloane is a great character who has appeared elsewhere in Star Wars lore. It would have been great to see further development here.
The most disappointing thing about this game is that I KNOW that EA is capable of much greater things. Going back to my damn Wing Commander references- Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom, which came out in 1996 for the PC. It featured an All-Star cast that included none other than Mark Hamill, John Rhys-Davies, Malcolm McDowell, and Tom Wilson. The acting was well done, the story was there, even if it was a video game. It was an adventure game set in a space combat simulator, and it was EA. You’d think having produced arguably the most successful space combat series of all time, EA would have used some of their experience to produce a top-notch space combat game packaged in the most natural franchise for such a genre. Instead, Squadrons feels a lot like Battlefront 2, when it could be so much more.