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Lifewire / Andy Zahn
Full virtual reality support
Intense aerial dogfights
Tight control scheme
Perfect sound design
Conversations with NPCs are lengthy and dull
Star Wars: Squadrons is a polished and exhilarating space combat game that throws you into a classic Sci-Fi universe. This game truly shines in VR, but is a blast on any system and offers a breathtaking experience with surprising depth at a remarkably low price point.
Chances are, whether you grew up with Star Wars or discovered the franchise later in life, you’ve considered just how awesome it would be to swing a lightsaber or pilot your very own X-Wing fighter. Star Wars: Squadrons grants you the second of these fantasies to a never before seen degree. This long-overdue follow up to the 1993 classic Star Wars: X-Wing aims to offer the same intense dogfighting, but with the advantages of modern tech. I reviewed the PC version.
Star Wars: Squadrons has a fairly hefty download before it's playable, so be sure your hard drive has at least 26.4 GB of storage space. When the game boots up you can alter basic settings to set language, volume, display settings, and everything else needed to optimize your experience. I struggled a bit to get it to play well with my dual-screen setup, but eventually, I was able to get it to a playable state on my ultra-widescreen Samsung CHG90 display. In the end, I found it more comfortable to play on a standard 16:9 aspect ratio monitor.
The game picks up after the destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope. You get to play both sides of the conflict in alternating story missions as both an Imperial pilot and a Rebel pilot. Both characters are customizable with a range of preset options. I always appreciate it when a game gives me the option to create my own character.
The range of presets is fairly limited, but welcome nonetheless. As is traditional for me, I chose to rename the protagonists after characters from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. The Rebel hero became Lu-Tze, with the evil Vorbis on the side of the Empire. I was happy to be able to find a suitably sinister British accent for Vorbis, though hilarious results are possible with mismatched voices and characters. In the end, though, you’ll be spending most of the game from a first-person perspective, with your character only briefly present in cutscenes.
Star Wars: Squadrons is drop-dead gorgeous.
Next, you can choose whether you’d like a more guided experience with the standard HUD, or if you’d prefer a more immersive and challenging experience. The game also offers a mode where only your cockpit instruments are displayed. It’s probably a good idea to start off in the standard mode until you get to grips with the controls and gameplay. Lastly, choose your difficulty setting (which will depend on your general experience with flight games), and you’re off to battle.
Squadrons starts off with an obligatory tutorial mission to teach you how to fly. Though it’s somewhat prolonged, the initial awe of the scenery of an Imperial battlegroup banishes any boredom that you might expect from a tutorial mission. Gliding around Star Destroyers and other classic Star Wars spaceships is quite an experience.
The story is passable, if not terribly deep or ambitious, and is basically there to connect the battle sequences and give context to the fight. Voice acting varies from mediocre to passable, and there’s clearly some effort put into establishing likeable characters. However, though the character models are good, there’s definitely a bit of the uncanny valley on display here, and it’s particularly noticeable in the first-person conversations where you stare dumbly on as an NPC spouts exposition at you.
In between story missions you are fixed in place in different rooms, where you click on different characters to talk to them. I found these sequences to be very linear and I found that they tended to drag on. I’d certainly have preferred to be able to walk around rather than teleport between locations on the ship. This is probably due to this game being intended to be played in VR where the fixed positioning makes more sense due to the limitations of VR, but the game would've been well served by separate control schemes. This is a minor gripe; if desired you can just skip through these sequences pretty quickly.
The real meat of the game is in battle, and it’s an incredibly intense and immersive experience. Whatever system or control method you’re utilizing, there are a lot of different inputs and functions to learn. This would be daunting to newcomers, but the campaign does a great job of gradually introducing new controls and mechanics at a pace that makes them easy to pick up.
One of the most complex aspects of the game is team and system management, which involves making quick decisions about the layout of your ship and the behaviour of your allies. The basic power systems are easy to master, and simple “attack this” and “defend that” commands aren’t hard to learn, but there are more complicated systems as well that add a level of depth to the game for dedicated players.
Both the empire and rebels have a range of four classes of ships to choose from - a jack-of-all-trades fighter, a slow bomber with a fearsome arsenal of weapons, a fast and agile interceptor, and a support class ship. I really appreciated that the game doesn’t just make these reskinned mechanically identical clones for each faction. Instead, each side has its unique quirks that affect gameplay, and somehow the designers were still able to balance the game so that neither team feels outgunned by the other.
Dogfights are fast, brutal, and thanks to a wide variation in map design, each match feels remarkably fresh and non-repetitive. There is some of the traditional looping around in circles, but between the obstacles placed about the map, the different capabilities of the various ships, and the interaction between you and your teammates, this happens only occasionally.
The one thing that pulled me out of the game at times was the somewhat wonky ship physics, which make sense from the pilot's seat, but look a bit weird to see from other ships. You can stop quickly and turn on a dime, which benefits gameplay on a technical level, but is a bit jarring and unrealistic to witness.
One important aspect of gameplay is how Squadrons balances the fragility of its fighters with creating a fun experience. It does this using shields and repair kits that vary from ship to ship and which can be customized. It walks the fine line between allowing you to mow down enemy fighters without wailing away at them for ages, while also preventing you from feeling like you’re piloting a glass canon.
There’s also ship customization, which allows you to alter various aspects of your aircraft such as armament, hull, and engines to enhance various attributes, though this usually comes at a cost to other capabilities. For example, you can trade speed for extra agility and vice versa. It requires a deep understanding of the ship you’re customizing so you’ll probably want to wait to touch this till you’ve had plenty of practice in battle. There are also cosmetic customizations, such as paint jobs and ornaments. Both gameplay and cosmetic customizations are purchased with separate types of in-game currency.
Star Wars: Squadrons is drop-dead gorgeous. Ships are lovingly rendered and great detail was paid to getting the lighting, environments, and effects just right. The cockpits of the different ships you pilot are fully realized and mesmerizing in their realism. It’s easy to get sucked into ogling a grand alien vista or just reveling in the experience of being in the cockpit of an honest to goodness X-Wing. Explosions, lasers, enemy ships tearing apart in fiery gouts of flame, and the realistic damage to your own ship, provoke many tense near-death situations that hit home and are bound to get your heart racing.
The game is less attractive in VR, with muddier textures and blurrier skybox, but the trade-off for added immersion is well worth the sacrifice. Actually moving your head to scan around the glass cockpit for enemy fighters and capital ships (or your own wingmates) and then diving in to engage is some of the most fun you can have in VR.
With the vast majority of video games, your experience is almost as dependent on what you hear as what you see. In this regard, Squadrons is a masterpiece. This game perfectly replicates the epic feel of classic Star Wars space combat from the laser fire, to the roar of your engines, to the exhilarating whoosh of grazing an asteroid. There’s also the unforgettable John Williams soundtrack, which is fully present here and is just as vital to the experience of the game as it is to the films.
I was able to get consistently high frame rates during gameplay with my custom gaming PC running 32 GB of DDR4 RAM, an AMD Ryzen 7 2700X processor, and an Nvidia RTX 2070 GPU. However, I experienced some odd stuttering in the hanger between missions, which seemed more of a graphical bug than an issue with the power of my PC. I also played Squadrons on a laptop with a less powerful processor, 16GB of RAM, and a Nvidia RTX 2060 Max-Q. The game performed well and provided a smooth gameplay experience at maximum graphical settings.
Dogfights are fast, brutal, and thanks to a wide variation in map design, each match feels remarkably fresh and non-repetitive.
Squadrons offers customizable support for a wide range of different control schemes, from gamepads to HOTAS flight sticks to mouse and keyboard. I had to fiddle with a few settings to get my stick and thrust control up and running, but when I did, it added an extra layer of immersion to the experience. However, mouse and keyboard is clearly the optimal and intended control method for Squadrons.
Squadrons features a basic but robust multiplayer mode, the bread and butter of which are team-based dogfights. These are exciting and challenging matches that truly test your skill at the game, and thanks to a decent selection of varied maps it really doesn’t get old.
The other mode features massive large scale multi-stage fleet battles, which require careful team coordination to advance across the battlefield and destroy the enemies’ flagship. It’s a good idea to save this for after you’ve played through most of the campaign, learned the controls, and have tried your hand at a few multiplayer dogfights.
With an MSRP of just $40 Star Wars: Squadrons is a surprisingly reasonably priced game that bucks the trend of modern AAA games uniformly releasing for $60 regardless of what content they are able to offer. It’s not the longest game, and there is a limit to end-game multiplayer content, so $40 is pretty much the exact right price for Squadrons. It’s refreshing to see a distinct lack of any extra monetization in the game, with no annoying microtransactions or loot boxes.
If you’re looking for a deeper, more daunting, complex space sim, Elite Dangerous is the next step. Squadrons is far more exciting, being laser-focused on intense aerial combat. Elite Dangerous is a more methodical game, with a focus on exploration and trading, though there’s also exciting combat there if you want it.
An exhilarating space combat experience that is particularly well suited to VR.
Star Wars: Squadrons is a fine successor to classic space combat games, and is an undeniably exciting and realistic experience. It’s best if played with a VR headset, but is worth your time and money on a traditional screen as well. The memory of my first flight at the helm of a TIE Fighter in this game has stuck with me with surprising clarity in a way that few moments in video games do, and it’s something you really have to experience for yourself to understand.