Star Wars: Squadrons PS4 review – Revenge of X-wing vs. TIE Fighter

EA’s new Star Wars game recalls the glory days of LucasArts space combat simulators but with a modern twist in terms of multiplayer and VR.

For years we’ve watched with secret jealously as ever more obscure games get unexpected sequels or reboots… but never the ones we wanted. The X-Wing and TIE Fighter space combat simulators of the mid-90s were not only catnip for Star Wars fans but divorced of the big name licence they were still incredibly well designed video games with no modern counterpart in terms of the depth of the simulation and tactical gameplay. We never expected to see anything like them again and yet, here Star Wars: Squadrons is.

Announced with nothing like the fanfare of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Squadrons not only has an obviously lower budget, but it also has a lower price tag than usual. And as far as we’re concerned that’s a very good thing indeed. A more expensive project would never have been this indulgent, in terms of the complex controls, and while the story campaign is short, at around seven hours, that’s justified by the price and the potential-rich multiplayer.

EA gets a lot of stick, much of it thoroughly deserved, but in this instance they’ve acted in a way that enables the developer to create a knowingly niche title out of one of the most mainstream media licences in the world. Squadrons is not on target all of the time, and we can’t pretend it’s exactly what we wanted from a Star Wars space combat simulator, but it does come a lot closer than we ever imagined.

We’re particularly surprised to find that EA hasn’t sought to resurrect the more console-friendly Rogue Squadron franchise, but Squadrons takes almost all its major design cues from X-Wing and TIE Fighter. It’s purely first person, with no third person camera; the controls are unashamedly complex, especially when it comes to targeting; and all the combat takes place in space and not in the atmosphere of planets.

We don’t want to scare anyone off by repeatedly referring to the controls as complex, as we don’t mean that as a negative – quite the opposite. The basic flight controls are as straightforward as they can be, but the game furnishes you with a wide range of options to adapt to new situations on the fly. This is enabled by an impressively versatile targeting system, with options to focus in on everything from the sub-systems of larger capital ships to whoever’s attacking your current target.

The game reuses the ELS system from X-Wing, which allows you to shunt more power into your engines, lasers, or shields. TIEs don’t have shields but they can overclock their engines or weapons, while Rebel (technically New Republic, since this is set sometime after Return of the Jedi) fighters can choose to switch all power to front or rear deflector shields. On top of this is a wide range of optional loadouts, with different kinds of missiles, countermeasures, and specialist equipment like a repair system.

It’s a shade less complex than X-Wing, since you can’t do things like change the firing pattern of lasers, but much more involved than the, still very good, starfighter combat in Star Wars: Battlefront 2. (Oddly, Criterion, the UK team behind Battlefront 2’s Starfighter Assault and X-wing VR mission, are not involved in Squadrons at all.) We prefer the more simulation style approach in Squadrons but the handling model in Battlefront 2 still feels faster and more satisfying, somehow managing to react exactly how you’d imagine the ships would from just watching the films.

By comparison Squadrons feels a little stiffer and, apart from the human (and alien) character models, has inferior graphics, with ships frequently skittering across space in a disappointingly unconvincing manner. Squadrons has still got it where it counts though and there are some neat tricks like a boost that works well in combination with one of the specialist engines and a neat drift manoeuvre that’s satisfyingly difficult to pull off properly.

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In general, Squadrons manages the difficult balance between pseudo-simulation and accessible action game very well but where it can struggle is when it comes to the mission design. This is where TIE Fighter in particular excelled, as it created a sort of space combat sandbox where you were given your mission and resources, in terms of allies and capital ships, and left to work things out for yourselves.

In Squadrons though the route to success is not only more obvious but there’s less opportunity to improvise. It can be done, if you attack enemy ships from unexpected angles or make use of some of the more unusual specialist weapons, but while you can order around the rest of your team, including calling in for a supply drop, Squadron loses the more real-time strategy style elements of the older games.

There’s the occasional optional objective but the game never dares to throw too many tasks at you at once, which was the source of much of the tension in the earlier titles. The end result is that some missions just aren’t exciting enough, no matter how satisfying the dogfighting may be. The plot and characters are also largely uninteresting and the attempts to give your wing-mates personalities falls flat, especially as it means you know they’re never in danger of dying during a mission.

Not only can you not interact with them during briefings – they just talk at you – but they don’t react to what happens in mission. We felt sure that completing a secondary mission as the Empire, where you shoot down defenceless civilians, would cause some dissention, as at least one character implied they were uncomfortable with the situation, but it never does – you just get some bonus points at the end of the mission instead.

As well as the story campaign, Squadrons also has a separate multiplayer, which includes basic dogfighting options and a more substantial 5v5 mode called Fleet Battles – an enjoyably involved objective-based match where you slowly chip away at the other side’s fleet until you get the chance to take out their flagship.

The matchmaking is a bit flaky at the moment (although it’s already better now than it was on launch day) but the multiplayer has plenty of potential if it’s expanded with more options. Best of all there’s absolutely no loot boxes, just unlockable cosmetics and alternative weapons and equipment that you obtain with earnt in-game currency. Which suggests EA really has learnt its lesson from Battlefront 2.

We’ve purposefully not mentioned the VR options until now because we played the campaign through on a normal TV first, as we knew that’s how most people would play it (Xbox owners, of course, don’t get a choice). It was all very enjoyable but slipping on the PlayStation VR headset completely transforms the combat experience.

Not only do the game’s graphics look significantly more impressive in VR, as you peer around your cockpit and out at the depths of space beyond, but it makes the game a lot easier to play, as you can track enemies just by following them with head-tracking – instead of having to have one eye glued to the radar the whole time. Ace Combat 7 was similarly good in this regard but that was only a short, separate VR mode whereas the whole of Squadrons can be played in VR, including the briefings.

EA has been heavily criticised for its initial use of the Star Wars licence but Fallen Order, and even later updates to Battlefront 2, have demonstrated a willingness to be more experimental and not just make a generic, shallow licensed game. Squadrons is certainly not that and while it’s not perfect it’s an impressively unconventional release that we hope will be used as a template for other Star Wars titles in the future and for film-licensed games in general.

Star Wars: Squadrons review summary

In Short: An unexpectedly involved space combat simulator that manages to replicate the thrills of the 90s X-Wing and TIE Fighter games with surprising clarity – and an excellent VR mode.

Pros: An impressively deep pseudo-simulation that dares to ask more of its players that just a simple space shooter. Enjoyable multiplayer and superb VR options. Sensible price.

Cons: The handling model isn’t as immediately enjoyable as Battlefront 2. Some uninspired mission design that ignores the potential for sandbox gameplay. Dull plot and characters.

Score: 8/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Price: £34.99
Publisher: EA
Developer: Motive
Release Date: 2nd October 2020
Age Rating: 12

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