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After a few years of feeling a fairly intense case of Star Wars fatigue, I think Star Wars: Squadrons might just have single-handedly reawakened my love of the franchise. I recently got to go hands-on with an early build of the upcoming sci-fi dogfighting sim, and it truly is everything fans of games like Rogue Squadron and Rogue Leader have been waiting for.
EA's Motive Studio has managed to capture the essence of the series' epic big screen outer space battles and transplant it into a game that carves out a new future for ship-based combat in the franchise, while still paying tribute to those iconic titles that came before.
Star Wars: Squadrons creative director Ian Frazier explained that this was very much a passion project for the team, and I'm happy to report that Motive's love for Star Wars is obvious from the moment you load the game.
A brief prologue/training exercise put me in the shiny boots of an Imperial pilot tasked with hunting down and destroying a refugee ship from the planet Alderaan - the planet that the Empire just blew apart with the Death Star.
Jumping into the cockpit of a classic TIE fighter just felt right. The darkened interior of the ship was gently bathed in the red glow of various mechanisms, warning lights, and flight instruments. The way my commanding officers barked orders at me in sharp English accents as I soared through the black expanse of space carrying out their demands felt cold and clinical in that way the Empire is.
And then, after a few story beats, I'm a Rebel soldier. I shoot straight into battle in a battered X-wing, its scratched windows and battered instruments a stark contrast to the sleek beauty of Empire crafts.
I turn in my seat to see the repair droid behind me, ready to help. I crack jokes with the rest of my squad as I weave in and out of imperial fire, flying low underneath a Star Destroyer to evade detection. John Williams' iconic 'Binary Sunset' plays as I duck and dive. It feels right. It feels like Star Wars.
Of course, all the fun details and Easter eggs in the world wouldn't be worth a damn if Squadrons controlled like a no-good Nerf herder off his face on blue milk. Thankfully, that's not the case at all. The game plays like an absolute dream - even in the early preview build I played.
Squadrons controls a lot like your standard flight combat sim might. You can adjust the throttle by pushing the left stick up or down, and change direction with the right stick. Trigger buttons can mark targets, fire lasers, let off missiles, and activate special abilities which range from regenerating shields to clouds that can interfere with incoming projectiles.
Everything feels as tight as responsive as you could hope for. There's a bit of a learning curve, but it wasn't long before I learned how to keep the throttle in just the right spot to perform sharp turns and avoid missiles, Meanwhile lining up your own perfect shot and blowing up an enemy ship is satisfying in the same way pulling off a perfect headshot or nailing some with a green shell in Mario Kart is.
But a lot of the really exciting moment-to-moment gameplay comes from the ability to divert power between your guns, shields, and engines. At the flick of a button, you can immediately prioritise speed, power, or defenses at the expense of the other two.
You can do this at any time, meaning you're always considering the best approach as you fly through space, changing up your strategy at the drop of a hat. For example, you might go in all guns blazing with full power behind your laser cannons to take out an enemy ship, only to come face to face with a full fleet. That's not a problem though: simply divert all power to your engines and zoom out of there, weaving through missiles and fire as you go.
It's an ingenious little system that kept me constantly immersed and engaged as I worked to anticipate my enemy's own approach and channel my ships power in the most efficient way to combat them. I usually just ended up flying away, to be honest.
During my hands-on time, I got to play through two 5v5 multiplayer modes: Dogfight and Fleets. The former was a fairly standard team deathmatch-type deal, in which two teams (Empire and Rebels) compete to get the most kills.
There are four types of ship for either team, each of which comes with its own unique advantages and disadvantages. There are also further options to customise your ship with different weapons and loadouts, again with their own pros and cons.
I can't really speak for how much these loadouts and options can impact the game based on my brief time with it, but it certainly feels like there's enough on display to lend some real strategic weight to multiplayer. As it stood, my (Imperial) team in Dogfight essentially just clambered into the most powerful TIE fighters and dominated the X-wings, but it did the trick.
The Rebels were better prepared for the second round, making use of a mixture of support and heavy ships to outnumber and ultimately overpower us. At this point I learned that communication between your team is absolutely key in Squadrons. This is especially true in Fleets, where both teams are essentially responding to rapidly changing objectives as they fight to push back the enemy and destroy the opposing team's central ship.
There's a lot going on in Fleets, and a lot of ways to win or lose. The good news is that even in the heat of battle, it's fairly easy to keep track of where your objectives are courtesy of an incredibly handy ping system. There are also options for voice and text chat, so it's clear that Motive really want/need you to talk to your squad.
Let your team know what you're doing or what you might need help with, and you'll have a much easier time of it. This is not a game where you can fly straight towards the Star Destroyer on your own and try and blow it up, because you will get shot right out of the sky. I learned that the hard way.
You've probably figured this one out already, but Star Wars: Squadrons is a gorgeous-looking game. The cockpits, which is where you'll be spending the vast majority of your time, are beautifully realised and entirely true to the ideals of the two opposing factions.
As I mentioned earlier, TIE fighters are sleek but ultimately cold, while X-wings are scrappy and unreliable, but ultimately loveable. It's kind of like Mac vs PC, actually, except I don't think Apple ever blew up a planet using a massive space laser cannon.
The environments themselves are... well, they're your standard outer space arenas, but Motive has done an excellent job. The way the light bounces off your cockpit as you duck through incoming fire or shoot straight through an enemy ship that you've just blown to pieces is mesmerising. This is one of those games that I'd happily just sit and stare out for hours... if only people weren't constantly shooting at me.
EA doesn't have the best track record when it comes to launching Star Wars games. We all remember what happened when Battlefront II first released, right? Fortunately, Motive has insisted that it will be avoiding the danger of releasing a microtransaction-stuffed mess by putting Squadrons out as an entirely "self-contained" experience.
That means what you buy is what you get. That's it. No catch. Is it really quite sad that this is something we now need to specify? Yes. Am I relieved that all of the options to customise your pilot and ships can be earned entirely through gameplay? Also yes.
In every sense, Star Wars: Squadrons looks and feels like a thoroughly old school experience, taking everything from the last few years of Star Wars games that have actually worked, while leaving behind the things we hate.
Even if flight combat sims aren't your thing (they certainly aren't mine), I feel pretty confident you'll have a good time with this one. It remains to be seen how the multiplayer will evolve and grow over time, but if I had to guess right now? I'd feel confident in saying that we're looking at the next big Star Wars game - one that a dedicated community of fans will no doubt keep alive for a long time to come.
Star Wars: Squadrons will be available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC from October 2nd, 2020.
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