EA is publishing a space combat simulation game. Who'd have guessed that would happen in 2020? The pattern of EA's Star Wars games has been reasonably predictable so far—DICE making a Star Wars FPS wasn't much of a stretch, nor was a third-person action game from some of the creators of God of War on PlayStation.
But a successor to the Lucasarts sims of the '90s? That seems like the kind of game that today's EA would never make.
Star Wars: Squadrons is a pleasant surprise. What's exciting is that the developers are openly owning this new game's debt to '90s sims, like X-Wing vs TIE Fighter. There was no subtlety from creative director Ian Frazier as he introduced the game at this week's EA Play event: He showed his own childhood drawings of the ships' cockpits from that series.
Clearly many others at developer Motive Montreal share his passion. And EA is even bold enough to call Squadrons the "definitive Star Wars pilot experience," which will no doubt be hotly discussed by a fanbase that hasn't seen a Star Wars game like this since 1999's X-Wing: Alliance. It even supports flight sticks, and VR will put us in those cockpits in a way the classic sims never could.
Read our in-depth retrospective on the making of Lucasarts classic TIE Fighter, which shaped the course for much of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
It's weird that this game exists, but it's exactly the direction that Star Wars games should've been pushing in for a long time. Battlefront suggested EA was mostly interested in a one-size-fits-all Star Wars experience, encompassing Jedi battles, ground combat and space combat. Squadrons suggests a future where we can have Star Wars games that occupy a single genre, to deliver a more granular version of that type of fantasy.
In an interview with Polygon, Frazier went into detail about Squadrons' flight model, and how they're making sure that dogfighting doesn't get players stuck in an endless 'death loop'. If you thought this game was a custom version of Battlefront 2's (pretty good) Starfighter Assault mode, only built for first-person, that wasn't the team's starting point—the X-Wing series was. There's no 'leading reticle' while you're aiming your lasers at another ship, because the developers want to capture the realism that helped define those earlier sims. The team looked to make a game that felt like a "World War II simulation" at its basic level, before adding more Star Wars-specific elements like speed boosts and ship power management.
That's exactly what you want to read when your Star Wars gaming memories are grounded in the Lucasarts classics. Frazier invokes Factor 5's Rogue Squadron, too, as another influence, citing the fact that there's an age range of talent at the studio with their own stake in Star Wars gaming history.
EA remembers the classics
My guess is that Squadrons makes sense for EA right now because it's not as resource-intensive as making a new Battlefront or Jedi Fallen Order game—hence why it's being sold at a lower price, and why it won't even have microtransactions or DLC. So far, this is the only non-sports game that EA has scheduled for release later this year. According to a Kotaku report from February, Squadrons is one of just two Star Wars games that currently exist at EA, after a spate of cancellations. The other is a Jedi Fallen Order sequel.
It seems miraculous that Squadrons has made it this far. But this seems like anything but a cash-in. Squadrons has been in development for at least two years. It feels like the perfect marriage of EA listening to fans of older Star Wars games—seemingly never its priority since acquiring the license—and the collective passion of a development team that really wanted to make this specific kind of competitive game.
While there's clearly an audience for the likes of Elite Dangerous and Star Citizen on PC,a 5v5 space combat game could fairly be described as a niche proposition. Does a self-contained multiplayer spaceship shooter fit into this current age of online games, even with Star Wars attached?
The fact that EA is willing to bet that the answer is 'yes' is enormously encouraging.
I got the strong sense from the EA Play presentation that the singleplayer mode, with a story told from both Imperial and Rebel points of view, is designed to be a primer for the online part of the game, not the real meat of the game. The X-Wing games arrived with hefty, difficult campaign modes, and I hope Squadrons can compare favorably in this regard, too.
The Star Wars games I loved in the '90s seemed destined to live in the shadows of EA's blockbusters, which are designed to sell 10-15 million copies. Sure, EA wants a ton of people to play Squadrons, too. But making a successor to X-Wing vs TIE Fighter for the modern age is a crowd-pleasing move aimed at a more specific audience of PC gamers. It's exactly what EA should've been doing all along with this fictional universe.
That said: Where is my damn B-Wing, EA? I can only assume the greatest Star Wars ship's absence from Squadrons is an accidental omission, rather than a deeply personal attack.