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Star Wars: Squadrons hands-on: the flight sim we've been waiting for

After playing just a few hours of Star Wars: Squadrons, I'm mad that it's taken 21 years for someone to make a Star Wars flight sim again. X-Wing Alliance came out in 1999, and in some alternate timeline (or galaxy) we spent the 2000s and the 2010s playing a new X-Wing or TIE Fighter every few years, enjoying better graphics and physics and more elaborate flight systems with each upgrade. Somehow it took two decades for Lucasfilm and EA to remember that flying a damn X-Wing is cool as hell, but here we are, at last—Squadrons is proof that getting in a cockpit and blasting through a space dogfight is still one of the best ways to experience Star Wars.

It really only took a few minutes to assure me that the developers at EA Motive hadn't screwed anything up here. This is genuinely the 2020 reimagining of X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter I hoped it would be, with some beautifully rendered cockpits and combat arenas set around space stations and stunning multicolored nebulas. 

While flying might be a bit more forgiving than it was in those games 20-plus years ago (I ricocheted off walls a few times without taking too much damage), this is still more sim than Rogue Squadron. It's first-person only. You have to actively manage your power system between shields, weapons, and engines to suit the moment; you can also rebalance your shields from front to back with a button press, which will help more skilled players survive dogfights. Aiming your standard laser cannons doesn't give you a leading target reticle that tells you exactly where to shoot, so you'll have to get a feel for that yourself, eyeing the speed and distance to your target.

Even turning takes finesse. Like a race car, at half-speed your fighter can make tighter turns, which is key for avoiding missiles or other players on your tail. While I didn't play Squadrons long enough for flying to feel second nature, a few months from now skilled pilots will be mastering the timing of decelerating to half thrust and turning 90 degrees to juke a lock-on, then jamming all power to engines to as they accelerate to get behind an enemy ship and shoot it to pieces.

Just dodging a missile felt like an exciting accomplishment in my play session, and I felt like a bit of a badass when I managed to quickly shunt power to shields and rebalance my front shields to the rear when I started getting shot, then corkscrew away from the enemy on my tail. It takes some coordination to do all of those at once, let alone follow it up with a kill.

I played Squadrons with an Xbox gamepad, because unfortunately the demo version didn't have full hands-on-throttle-and-stick support yet. A joystick definitely feels like it will be the right way to experience this game—though I did pretty well with a pad, it was still hard to wrap my head around moving efficiently in 3D space. But that's a big part of the learning curve for any flight sim, and I'm glad that Squadrons feels sophisticated enough that it'll probably take me many hours to really get good at it.

(Image credit: EA)

My Squadrons demo was focused on multiplayer, but there's also a singleplayer campaign, which you can play from the perspective of the Empire and the New Republic. I only played the prologue, but the developers told me that the campaign will have bespoke missions to go along with its story. That was reassuring, since Squadrons is a $40 game that seems largely focused on its multiplayer—I was a little worried that the campaign might just dress up the same modes with a few cutscenes in between.

That's not a knock against the multiplayer, though. The primary mode, Fleet Battles, is where players will be spending most of their time, and it delivers just the right scale and structure to make for exciting multiplayer showdowns.

Fleet fights

Fleet Battles are 5v5 matches, either online or with and against bots, that throw you and your teammates into a large scale, tug-of-war fight between two flagships. In between each side has a pair of smaller capital ships (which still dwarf your starfighters) that you have to knock out before attacking the flagship, and the battles are filled out with a bunch of AI fighters flying around. These increase the scale of the battle and mean you're rarely going to spend much time without a target, even if the other team's players are all respawning.

Fleet Battles are Squadrons' showcase mode, and probably what the majority of players will spend their time on. The other mode, dogfighting, is lower investment and a good way to learn the basics, but the scope and added strategy of Fleet Battles makes them a lot more engaging. It's a bit more straightforward than something like Battlefield 1's Operations mode or even Battlefront's Starfighter Assault, with neither team being explicitly on attack or defense.

At the start of a Fleet Battle, the two teams butt heads in a dogfight and start scoring kills against enemy players and AI TIE Fighters or X-Wings. There's a meter for each team's morale, and getting kills fills the meter up for your side (other players are worth a much bigger morale boost than AI fighters). Once you pass a certain morale threshold, you can move forward to attack the enemy capital ships, which are heavily armed and armored. If your team dies too many times, the meter will sway back in the other direction, and you'll have to go on defense and protect your own capital ships until you earn enough kills to go on the offensive again.

The final stage is attacking the flagship, which is a big cruiser for the Republic and a Star Destroyer for the Empire. Like in the classic Star Wars flight sims, to take down these ships you need to destroy certain weak points, like the shield generators and the power systems, so it's a multi-step process. And again, you can still get pushed back to defense if you lose too much morale (ie die too many times), and the turrets on the flagships can take you down really fast. 

I like the structure of the fleet battles a lot, because they give each team a chance to make a comeback, and you can't just brute force your way to a win. Dying gives the other team points, so suicide runs are pointless, and attacking solo is a good way to get targeted by every turret on giant ship. Against another team of decent human players, teamwork and ship composition will be important—you'll have to attack targets together, and with the right balance of nimble A-Wings or TIE Interceptors and heavier-hitting bombers to make real progress.

There also seems to be a decent amount of strategy in how you approach each stage of the battle. Every few minutes each team will send an AI attack cruiser into battle that can help you push forward into enemy space. Destroying one of these is worth a lot of points on the morale meter, but they're also likely to kill you if you don't attack with a coordinated team, which would end up giving your opponents the advantage. Knowing how to capitalize on those will be important. On the flagships, there's no correct order for what you destroy first, so defenders won't always know exactly what you're going for. Plus, you're in freaking space—there are a lot of directions to come from.

Ultimately the Fleet Battles add just enough structure and scale to the basic act of flying a starfighter in Star Wars: Squadrons. And again, that experience is good enough to make me wonder what the hell took so long to make this happen.

Build your fighter

(Image credit: EA)

Long-term, Squadrons seems like it's relying on its ship customization system to create variety across hours of multiplayer. You can unlock a ton of different laser cannons, missiles, shields, even hulls for both the Republic and Imperial ships, and these seem like they'll genuinely transform the playstyle of your ship. One shield offers less defense but speeds up how fast your lasers charge. Another makes your ship take way less damage, but never recharges if fully depleted.

There are laser cannons that offer some auto-aim, but don't hit as hard. There are rockets that can't lock-on but give you tons of ammo, and others that take ages to lock on but can do big damage to capital ships. Any of these could really change how you approach each phase of a Fleet Battle, especially when you factor in playing with 4 friends with similarly tweaked out configurations. You could make a sturdier A-Wing or a faster, glass cannon Y-Wing, or swap ships mid-battle to counter a particular enemy player who's outgunning or outmaneuvering you.

Most of those parts were locked, so I didn't get to try out many of them. But the ones I did try made for some memorable moments. In my first dogfight rounds I picked the slow, boatlike TIE Reaper support ship, which let me throw out resupply materials for my teammates. Because I wasn't as maneuverable, I opted for the homing lasers, and racked up a pile of kill assists on fighters I helped whittle down. Later, in a fleet battle, I discovered the fun of the automated ion cannon, which zapped a TIE Fighter I was chasing, leaving it helpless for me to blast to pieces.

It'll take hours more with the game to get a good sense of how dramatically those ship parts affect the dynamics of a match, but I'm hopeful they feel like meaningful unlocks to chase as you earn points just for playing. 

My one real worry with Squadrons is that Fleet Battles might not be enough to keep its multiplayer going long-term. I think it's a good mode. Plenty of competitive games, from Counter-Strike to League of Legends, have survived for years or decades on a single gametype (and hell, sometimes even a single map). But the spectacle of the battle, of being in a starfighter, is a big part of the appeal here, and after 20 years it's hard to be satisfied.

Squadrons is a $40 game, and the developers aren't pitching it as a games-as-a-service model where new stuff is constantly added. EA says it wants this to be a satisfying complete package from the start. I don't completely buy that—I think Squadrons is likely to get quite a few post-launch updates if it's a success, and I hope those add just a bit more scale and variety to the combat situations that I sense might be lacking right now.

Flying up to a giant Star Destroyer in my demo was an awesome experience—I can't overstate how great this game looks in the Frostbite engine, and how well the detailed cockpits ground you in the universe. But I'd love EA to bring in Super Star Destroyers or attacks on a space station, something huge that really sells how tiny your fighter is, in comparison. Co-op for the campaign, too, feels like a natural addition. I hope Squadrons gets the opportunity to expand, because what I've played of it so far is really promising. 

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.