HIGH Playing in VR.
LOW Not playing in VR.
WTF How did it take EA so long to do something cool with this franchise?
Star Wars Squadrons provides what might be the strongest before-and-after case for VR we’ve yet seen. It’s fundamentally the same game either way, yet my recommendation rests entirely on the hardware that the prospective buyer intends to play it on.
On a TV or monitor, Squadrons feels like the budget title that it is. It looks great and plays smoothly, but there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen in a thousand other Star Wars games or a thousand other space flight titles. The low-energy story campaign feels like it exists purely as a tutorial for the multiplayer mode, which itself consists of a measly two variants — one of which is a stock-standard deathmatch. It’s a scant offering even for a reduced price tag.
In VR, however, Squadrons takes on an entirely new shape. The cockpit instruments that did little more than reduce visibility in flat mode suddenly envelop the player, making them a more direct part of this universe than any game prior. Sights and sounds that we’ve grown accustomed to, like the bright colors of cannon fire or the whining of a TIE fighter’s engines, are redefined upon having a physical presence all around us. VR elevates Squadrons from something we’ve seen countless times before to something we’ve never seen before.
Following a brief prologue concurrent with the events of A New Hope – in which a unit of TIE pilots is betrayed by the only guy without a British accent – the story unfolds after the destruction of the second Death Star, jumping in perspective between both sides of the war. The Imperials cling to what little power they still have, while the freshly-christened New Republic are working on a secret project that will hopefully finalize their victory once and for all.
Those expecting a modern successor to the X-Wing series may be disappointed, as Squadrons is light on the space sim elements aside from the ability to focus power on engines, weapons or shields. Although the campaign does an adequate job of introducing players to the few advanced mechanics (like drifting), Squadrons isn’t complex enough to make its story mode worth a playthrough for learning purposes alone.
Meanwhile, those expecting an exciting new chapter in the Star Wars saga will find a frustrating lack of enthralling setpieces and a cast of characters more distinguishable by their accents than their personalities. Although there’s some joy to the campaign’s dogfights, they’re bogged down by the insistence on returning players to the hangar between missions to engage in one-sided conversations with people we couldn’t care less about.
Ultimately, the campaign is something to test and then forget about in favor of the more immediate thrills in the two multiplayer modes. Thankfully, that’s where Squadrons soars.
Both modes are five-versus-five, pitting New Republic pilots against the Empire. Each side offers four ship classes – the speedy vessels are fragile but can easily outmaneuver attackers, bombers are slow but deal heavy damage, balanced ships have a bit of everything, and support craft are big and sluggish and provide the opposite team with easy kills.
The basic deathmatch mode is self-explanatory, but Fleet Battles is where Squadrons shines. It’s essentially a virtual game of tug-of-war in which the ultimate goal is to destroy the enemy capital ship. The team that’s on the offensive is decided by whoever’s scoring the most points at any given time, and victory involves first blowing through two frigates and then meticulously chipping away at the target ship’s shields and support systems. It’s a large-scale, drawn-out process that feels like something out of a Star Wars movie.
Also, the map design is great. One doesn’t usually associate dogfighting games with “great map design,” but I’m serious. They do a wonderful job of balancing large, open spaces with narrow corridors and tight crevices where players can attempt to lose assailants who then need to weigh whether or not a higher kill count is worth risking colliding with an asteroid or chunk of debris. When paired with a wide array of secondary weapons and countermeasures, dogfights are so much more dynamic than just a bunch of ships firing lasers at each other.
Again, though, it’s going to feel like an awfully slim package for anyone not experiencing it in VR, which pulls players further into this universe than they’ve ever been. We’ve controlled Star Wars ships before, but to see the cockpit instruments physically wrapping around me is a entirely new feeling.
Even better, the ‘tunnel vision’ sensation of playing in first-person on a TV screen is gone in VR, when the massive cockpit window of an X-wing provides substantially more visibility above and to the sides. But even with the much more limited viewing field of, say, a TIE fighter, I was still aided by the unbroken sense of action unfolding in a 3D space around me. When an enemy ship would disappear to my left, I’d still be aware of that ship’s position relative to mine in a way I wouldn’t be in a traditional format. I was frequently the top scorer in Squadrons matches, and I don’t chalk it up to skill – it’s because I was playing in VR.
While Squadrons has likely already come and gone for those who can’t experience it as its best, I can’t overstate just how vital it is for Star Wars fans fortunate enough to play in VR. This is arguably the first productive thing EA has done with the Star Wars franchise — I don’t know what took them so long, but I hope it’s a sign of things to come.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Motive Studios and published by Electronic Arts.It is currently available on PS4, XBO and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PS4 with PSVR. Approximately four hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. 20 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Fantasy Violence and Mild Language. Removed of context, the violence itself is relatively harmless, as it just involves ships firing lasers at other ships. However, the campaign does have players playing as an Imperial pilot and occasionally attacking civilian ships at a couple of points throughout the campaign.
Colorblind Modes: There are colorblind modes available in the options for deuternopia, protanopia and tritanopia.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles are available for all dialogue. Much can be happening in a match and audio cues can absolutely be helpful in locating threats as the player is twisting and flipping along three axes, but there’s enough visual feedback (particularly through the ship’s radar) that they’re not necessary. Squadrons also offers a voice-to-text option for incoming chat, a text-to-voice option for outgoing chat, and a narrated path to accessibility options by default.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls. The Y-axis can be inverted.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.