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Imagine yourself as a ten-year-old (it shouldn't be too hard, most of us were ten at one point), and that you've just seen a Star Wars film for the first time. The story was chronically easy to follow and the acting was laughably hammy, but there was something sharp about it. What you really fell in love with was that feeling of fantasy, of escapism into a world where you could be a futuristic ninja with a laser sword, and you could be best friends with a talking frog puppet. You could take down an entire space station with nothing more than your starfighter, all while your vaporised pseudo-grandpa whispered words of encouragement in your ear.
Those starfighter scenes in particular appealed to an unchecked sense of curiosity and danger. Blitzing through the deep fathoms of space, engaging in heart-stopping dogfights with enemy craft, while lumbering starfleets of all-sized ships pulverised each other with a kaleidoscope of lasers. It was the coolest thing you'd ever seen, and from that moment you knew what you wanted to be when you grew up. You wanted to be an X-wing pilot.
In Star Wars: Squadrons, it seems EA's Motive Studios are squarely gunning for that level of immersion. A first-person spin-off title set between the climactic Battle of Endor from Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi, and the new-canon Battle Of Jakku first depicted in Star Wars Battlefront 2, Squadrons has a very specific goal in mind; to make you feel like a futuristic aerial ace.
Talking to Ian Frazier, the creative director on the game and self-confessed Star Wars nerd, we began to unpack the ethos behind the game, its mechanics and what exactly it means to be a pilot in a galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, X-Wing Vs TIE Fighter, Star Wars: Starfighter and Star Wars: Battlefront 2 (2005) are all well remembered as examples of the genre at its best; something not lost on Frazier and his team.
"I don't want anybody to think, 'Oh [Squadrons is] that thing with a coat of polish.' We pull from the heritage of a whole bunch of games. If you look at all the Star Wars flight games - even non-Star Wars space combat games in the '90s - we're trying to pull a lot of different threads, and make something new from those threads. So are we looking back to the past for inspiration and trying to pull some things from that? Yes, absolutely. But there's nothing that's really 1:1, it's sort of a new mix."
In Squadrons, you and up to four other friends join forces against an opposing team of pilots to do battle in fan-favourite locales and new destinations alike. In modes like the heated Dogfights or tug-of-war-style Fleet Battles, the fate of the galaxy will be perpetually fought over during these fleeting embraces. How this makes the player feel is naturally paramount to the experience, and it's something that past titles have achieved with varying degrees of success.
"The core game mechanics of how you control the ship are entirely new," Frazier says. "All of the details of how those work are very much new and very much viewed through the lens of: 'Okay, for a modern gamer, how do we make this compelling?' You'll notice that drift maneuver, for instance, where the player kinda spins out. That kinda stuff you didn't see in the games 20 years ago."
The initial teaser trailer for Squadrons also got fans talking because it confirmed the inclusion of a standalone single-player story that precedes the main multiplayer action. Naturally, Frazier wanted to keep the details of the story under wraps. What we do know is that it will be canon, and weaves a dual storyline around two warring pilots, both of whom you customise and play as yourself.
What Frazier was keen to emphasise, however, is the importance of catering to all types of players. One of the most lauded additions to DICE's Battlefront II of 2017 - with which Squadrons shares the Frostbite 3 game engine - was the ability to play offline against bots, when the idea of dipping your toes into a full-blooded multiplayer game didn't appeal. That's something that will be entirely possible here, too.
"In multiplayer, Dogfights and Fleet Battles alike are five on five, and if you want to play online competitively against humans you can," Frazier explains. "But [if] you don't want to deal with human competition, you can play that mode against AI but with human buddies - either that you've invited, or that you've matchmade with. Or, finally, you can say: 'No, I don't want any of that, I just want to shoot TIE Fighters and I want to have this Fleet Battle and not have other people to deal with.' That's also an option. You can play it and the other four members of your squad, they will be bots. You will be against a group of five bots and you'll have the lower-tier AI filling out the rest of the battlefield."
There's also the sprawling customisation options that will allow prospective pilots to tailor-make their own Star Wars personality. Aside from the standard pilot appearance options, players will also be able to deck-out the interiors of their cockpits with personal touches, and outfit the exterior hulls with paint jobs.
But that doesn't mean Motive has forgotten about the purists, as Frazier is eager to point out. "There's always gonna be folks who don't wanna see that, they wanna keep their experience 100% pristine," he says. "So we actually have an option in the game that lets you hide other people's cosmetics." Indeed, Star Wars fans can be a particularly meticulous group when threatened with non Lucas-esque imagery.
Despite showing gameplay during 2020's digital version of EA Play in June, there was still a bit of a question mark over exactly how battles will play out. Two groups of five pilots - one representing the New Rebellion's Vanguard Squadron, one the Imperial's elite Titan Squadron - clash in the centre of chaotic Fleet Battles. But... what then?
"What you represent is kind of the elite part of the squadron on the battlefield," Frazier explains. "The best of the best. The tip of the spear, that will tip the balance of the battle one way or the other. That doesn't mean you're the only people there. There are AI-controlled fleets on both sides - that's both capital ships and fighters - that are there partially to provide that sense of scale and spectacle, [and] partially there for mechanical reasons."
He goes on to explain the importance of 'morale' in changing the tide of battle. "Morale is the main thing that lets you tip the balance of that tug-of-war back and forth, and get your AI fleet to support you. So if you're getting a lot of kills, whether that's AI or humans, that can get your AI fleet to sort of push forward [to] join you for the offence, and give you the support you need to not get blown to bits when you try to go fly against something like a Star Destroyer."
Part of what inspired this kind of grand-scope gameplay that gradually narrows to a focus was the recent popularity of battle royale games. In titles like Fortnite and Call Of Duty: Warzone, players are slowly squeezed together as the action begins to come to a head. Something the team at Motive looked at with great interest.
"When we started the game, we had the fleets working really early, but it felt quite static and we didn't like that," Frazier recalls. "So we started playing a lot of battle royale games, and battle royales always have that circle that shrinks, right? We like the way those escalate tension in the BR, but we hate how gamey it is, like, 'What is the circle, and what is it doing?' So in our game, because they're all ships and they all have engines on them, we kinda get some of that feeling of the shrinking circle because the fleets actually converge over time."
While we're on the subject of inspiration, Frazier also picks up the fact that players can return to their motherships to switch their loadouts on the fly, so to speak. A feature that was much loved by fans in Pandemic Studios' 2005 hit Battlefront 2. "We're still tinkering with the specific details of respawning, but you can change your ship or loadouts [that] you have assigned to your ship at that time. You can also fly back to your flagship, like your MC75 or Star Destroyer, at any time, fly into the hangar and you'll get repaired and re-armed and change ships if you want to. You don't need to die to change ships"
Currently, there are eight pilotable crafts confirmed for Squadrons including the X-wing, A-wing, Y-wing and U-wing for the New Republic, and TIE Fighter, Interceptor, Bomber and Reaper for the Empire. Each is touted to bring different abilities and loadouts to the battle, and to be a unique piece of the puzzle in the interlocking group strategy.
With that weighty strategic element, Star Wars lineage and the slick visuals of the game (at least from the trailers we've seen) there's naturally going to be the ever-present question of how the game could be moulded into a spectator esport. While Frazier insists the game hasn't been made with that in mind, he admits it could still make waves with the right crowds.
"The way I would say it, is that the game is esports friendly, but it's not built to be an esport as such," he says. "We haven't set out to make that the focus; and yet, when we play it, I'd be lying if I said that it didn't kind of lend itself to that in certain ways. We'll see when the game comes out, and we see how folks react and what kind of things start emerging as far as spectating and stuff goes. But who knows, maybe we'll end up seeing an esports scene. It'd be awesome."
There's also the not-insignificant commitment to VR. While the technology hasn't quite taken off with the mainstream (indeed, VR represents less than one percent of the gaming market at even the most ambitious of estimations) Star Wars: Squadrons has full VR and crossplay support. Coming up against a fully plugged-in VR pilot with a compatible HOTAS (hands-on throttle and stick) setup might sound daunting, even unfair to traditional gamepad and TV players, but Frazier isn't so sure it's going to be a problem.
"We were worried about [unbalanced matchmaking] for quite a while, but at this point honestly no, I don't think [it's a problem]. What we found was that VR has an advantage in the sense that your situational awareness is better, especially in ships that have more of a peripheral view like the A-wing. However, it's more like being a real pilot, and being a real pilot is challenging. Being aware of all your instrumentation, trying to take in all the sensory input all the way around you, is quite difficult for most players, and you don't have that level of focus that comes with frankly having a screen in front of you that takes everything and puts a box around it."
Whatever the final outcome, that narrative of putting the fun in fundamentals seems to be at the core of what is driving Star Wars: Squadrons. "We're all about imagining really being the pilot, putting on that outfit, getting in there grabbing the stick and flying the ship," Frazier says. For every life-long Star Wars fan with a penchant for speed, that sounds like a hell of a sales pitch.
Star Wars: Squadrons will release on October 2nd for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, and will be VR compatible on PS4 and PC.
Featured Image Credit: EA Motive Studios
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