Star Wars: Squadrons – First Impressions

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the story mode prologue missions of Star Wars: Squadrons. Further spoilers may be present for other iterations of the Star Wars franchise.

It’s a rarity these days for me to pick up a new game the day it’s released, but that’s what I did for Star Wars: Squadrons. I remember with fondness titles like Rogue Squadron, which I played on the Nintendo 64, as well as the spaceflight sections of the first Battlefront II, and I’d had Squadrons on my radar (pun intended) since it was shown off at EA Play in June. I don’t pre-order as a rule, but when the game was released I picked it up on Steam. My slow internet connection meant that I had to leave it overnight to download and install, but I got up the next morning eager to jump into the cockpit!

First, Squadrons needed me to download and install the latest Nvidia graphics card driver. It’s been a while since any game insisted on something like that! But that didn’t take too long and I was ready to go – only to be confronted with a strange graphical issue when the game booted up. I have a 4K display, and for some reason Squadrons had cut off the majority of the display, only showing a small portion stretched out to full-screen. If anyone else encounters this issue, here’s how I fixed it: pressing Alt + Enter to exit full-screen mode. From there, I was able to access the graphics settings and change them from whatever bizarre resolution Squadrons thought I wanted to a standard 1080p full-screen experience.

This was all I could see at first! Not the best start…

When the game restarted I got the proper experience. I appreciate that Squadrons offers a range of options for colour-blind players; though I’m not colour-blind myself my brother-in-law is, and I know some titles can be almost inaccessible for people with visual impairments. Any accessibility features like that are a welcome addition.

Despite being marketed as a game with a multiplayer focus, Squadrons insists that you first play the prologue of its campaign. It’s also recommended to complete the campaign, but after the prologue is complete it’s possible to jump into multiplayer. As someone who isn’t big on multiplayer gaming I was planning to play the campaign anyway, but it’s worth knowing that it isn’t possible to go straight to multiplayer if that’s what you’re buying the game for. All told, the prologue took less than an hour to complete, so it isn’t a huge time-waster for people who want to dive right in.

You’ll receive this message upon clearing the prologue.

The campaign has an unusual format in that players are assigned two playable characters, one on each side of the conflict. The main setting is post-Return of the Jedi, looking at the conflict between the remains of the Imperial forces and the New Republic, but the prologue takes place years earlier, just after the destruction of Alderaan (as seen in A New Hope). This narrative choice won’t be to everyone’s taste, and I’ve already seen criticism online from players who wanted to be able to pick a side and stick with it all the way, but I don’t mind that. It’s different, interesting, and it gives a more rounded view of events (as well as allowing players to fly both Imperial and Rebel/New Republic ships).

The destruction of Alderaan, as seen in-game.

The character creator is rather basic. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it a “creator,” rather there are a dozen or so pre-created faces and two body types (male or female) to choose from. There are a few different voices, and although the player character doesn’t seem to talk much, that’s a nice touch. The game is played entirely in first-person mode, so perhaps a character creator is unnecessary. You do get to choose your character’s name, though, and there’s a “randomise” option if you want the game to generate a Star Wars-sounding name.

My Imperial pilot…
…and my Rebel/New Republic pilot.

The voice options and the name are the more important points. The voices are good, and although there are only a few types, they are all clearly different from one another. Names will be shown in subtitles (if you have subtitles enabled; I always do). After customising the two characters, the prologue began, and it was a moderately interesting story surrounding a convoy of refugees fleeing Alderaan. The Empire tasks a squad of TIE fighters with finding and destroying the convoy, and the Rebels task a group of X-wings with defending it.

The game begins with the Imperial mission, and this is where I got my first taste of gameplay. Squadrons is not a cakewalk, and it takes time to get the hang of the controls. I’d say it’s closer to a simulator experience than an arcade-style game such as Rogue Squadron, so be prepared for a learning curve.

The view from the cockpit of a TIE fighter.

I’m someone who prefers to play with a gamepad, but even so I didn’t find the controls easy at first. The control pad is mimicking – in a very basic way – a HOTAS or dual-stick cockpit, with the left thumbstick used to throttle up and down and the right for turning. I found this counterintuitive at first; most games use the two triggers – right to accelerate, left to slow down or reverse. Using the thumbstick for this takes some getting used to.

The throttle controls.

In that sense, players who use a proper HOTAS setup – which Squadrons does support – may find it easier and more immersive. I have seen reports online that it takes time to calibrate a HOTAS for Squadrons, but I think that’s true for many titles, and as someone who doesn’t have a HOTAS I can’t verify that. However, if I find myself getting really into the game, perhaps getting that kind of setup is something I’d consider.

Squadrons gives you plenty of time to acclimate to the controls, though. The first few minutes of the mission consist of gently following the lead TIE fighter around the fleet, and from there the action amps up slowly rather than dumping you right into a huge battle. This is not only greatly appreciated, but arguably necessary! Perhaps the most ardent combat flight sim players don’t need this level of hand-holding, but I’d suggest that most gamers will.

It was definitely helpful that the game didn’t launch right into a huge firefight.

The prologue offered an interesting – if somewhat predictable – story of an Imperial pilot (not the player character) who defects to the Rebel Alliance. During the aforementioned mission to chase down a fleeing fleet of refugees from Alderaan, the TIE squad’s captain chooses to defect, and after a firefight and a chase, the action then switches to Rebel forces. This is the dual narrative at work.

Taking on Rebel X-wings.

I did die once during this section; Squadrons will automatically destroy your ship and force you to respawn if you fly out of bounds of a given section of a mission, and I chose to investigate a tunnel before it was time. The tunnel would turn out to be where the refugees were hiding, and where Captain Javes would defect, but the linear narrative doesn’t want players straying from the course laid out, which is fair enough. There’s a short timer to give you a chance to turn around before having to restart.

Going the wrong way leads to dying and having to restart.

I’m not sure whether this applies to all the different classes of starfighter – I assume it does – but it’s possible to be out of weapons range. Even when a target appears to be relatively close, the game will designate it “out of range” unless it’s within 1000 metres (or whatever the Star Wars galaxy’s equivalent of metres is!) Again, once you get the hang of this it’s fine, and targets all have floating distance numbers when locked-on to tell you how far away they are. 1000 is a nice round number that should be easy to remember!

An out of range target.

After the defection, the action switches to Rebel forces, and I got a chance to pilot an X-wing! This was great fun, and both ships have incredibly detailed cockpits. I’m sure the other vessels that can be played will also be created in such stunning detail too. The visuals in Squadrons are truly impressive and offer an immersive Star Wars experience as a result. I know some people will insist that “graphics aren’t everything,” and while this is true, there’s no denying that a title like this works exceptionally well when it offers players the best visual experience possible.

The X-wing cockpit.

After another “fly around the fleet and get used to the controls” section, the X-wings are called into action to assist the refugee fleet that we’d been pursuing as the Empire moments earlier. These missions work well back-to-back, and I enjoyed the different perspectives. Both the Rebel and Imperial missions offer a lot to do, with different objectives to complete in addition to dogfights against enemy fighters.

My X-wing came under attack!

Captain Javes, the defecting Imperial pilot, is welcomed into the Rebel family and provides information that helps the Rebels defeat the Imperial forces and protect the refugee fleet. It was a fun sequence to play though, and while I feared for the defector’s life, he appears to have survived the events of the prologue!

The refugee fleet.

There was a great sequence which involved attacking a Star Destroyer at close range. After defeating a handful of TIE fighters, the Imperial defector insists we need to take out the capitol ship’s ability to track the fleeing refugees, otherwise they’ll just follow and catch up to them later. I believe that this is the first taste of Squadrons’ “fleet battles,” in which players team up in multiplayer (or against the AI) to take on larger fleets. Each ship has several weak points that have to be knocked out. Here in the prologue we just had to destroy one before retreating with the rest of the Rebel forces.

Jumping to hyperspace.

Overall the prologue serves as a great starting point for what seems to be a fun title. Its control scheme and semi-simulator style will mean it isn’t to everybody’s taste, and players looking for a more casual experience may be disappointed. There’s only one viewpoint: a first-person, in-cockpit view. This means you can’t switch to get a third-person view from behind your spacecraft, and again this is something that won’t be to everyone’s taste.

Electronic Arts has shown a great deal of respect for the Star Wars brand here, not only by avoiding microtransactions, but also by pricing the game below the standard “full price” of £55/$60. I almost certainly wouldn’t have picked it up on release at that price, but for £35 it feels fair and a reasonable purchase. The short campaign (estimated at around 6 hours) may have a bearing on that, but as we’ve seen recently, some other titles – such as the remake of Resident Evil 3 – have been content to try to charge more for campaigns of a similar length. Credit to Electronic Arts for not doing so.

The Rebel player character.

Squadrons is a simple game with complex gameplay that will take time to master. But it’s fun! I had a great time earlier in the year playing through Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and this looks set to be my second fun Star Wars experience of the year. Even while I’m writing up my first impressions I’m itching to jump back in and have another go at piloting an X-wing or a TIE fighter and having my own crack at being a pilot in the Star Wars galaxy.

For this price, it’s hard not to recommend Star Wars: Squadrons if you’re someone who enjoys this kind of gameplay. If you aren’t, but still want that Star Wars pilot experience, there’s always Battlefront II, which has a starfighter mode, or you could even go back and look at older titles like Rogue Squadron.

Star Wars: Squadrons is out now for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. Star Wars: Squadrons was developed by EA Motive and published by Electronic Arts. The Star Wars franchise is the copyright of Lucasfilm and Disney. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.