For the past few years, we’ve seen EA try to claw back to solid footing with its Star Wars video games. After a disastrous launch, Star Wars: Battlefront 2 reversed MTX course and enjoyed years of free support and updates, while Respawn Entertainment managed to deliver 2019’s solid-if-uninspiring adventure of Jedi: Fallen Order.
That was enough to earn some reluctant hope that this week’s Star Wars Squadrons would continue EA’s positive streak—and do so at a lower price point ($40), with no microtransactions, while recalling the glory days of X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter. Early Tuesday, I received retail versions for PS4 and PC, which wasn’t much time ahead of today’s embargo but perhaps enough to write a tidy “impressions” post about what fans could expect from the game’s launch tomorrow—particularly its enticing VR mode, which is arguably the biggest VR-specific Star Wars flight experience yet.
Since Ars is a PC-focused site, however, I have to begin any impressions with a dire warning. Until we see significant patches to Squadrons‘ PC version, I must advise prospective players to not buy the game on PC (yet).
Every flavor of Wing and TIE
In Squadrons‘ 16-mission campaign, players alternate between piloting X-, Y-, A-, and U-Wings for the Resistance, and TIE Fighters, Bombers, Reapers, and Interceptors for the Empire. A prologue pair of missions sets into motion a mild tweak to Star Wars lore: Turns out, Alderaan wasn’t entirely destroyed at the end of Episode IV, and a mandate to wipe out its remaining survivors sees a longtime Empire lieutenant defect and switch sides. (You were onboard with a super-laser destroying an entire planet and its culture for the sake of galactic “order,” but a follow-up request to wipe out remaining civilians is too icky? Interesting flavor of fascism there.)
Fast forward after the prologue, and your both-sides campaign follows the events of Episode VI, with players joining squadrons on both sides of the conflict as each side transitions to its new identity of the rising New Republic and down-but-not-out Galactic Empire. The campaign begins with a kooky cast of throwaway good guys, and the game very much wants you to bond with these characters… in the form of them talking to your silent protagonist between missions with zero dialogue options on your part.
If tone is what you remember about classic LucasArts flight-sim games, be warned that this campaign lands in somewhat bubbly territory. This isn’t a Care Bears adventure, mind you, but expect lots of Clone Wars-caliber “let’s go!” declarations, plus a decent number of ominous, “I wonder what all of our missions are going to lead to” moments of obvious foreshadowing.
Should you mash the “skip” button (which I currently recommend, as the sluggish plot points repeat mid-mission anyway), you’ll find yourself in open-space battle zone after open-space battle zone, where you engage with enemy forces in large-scale dogfights. Mid-mission objectives pop up frequently: Kill all of the enemies flying in your direction; destroy specific parts of a larger craft; take down radar jammers before engaging with foes; kill anything that comes near while protecting a convoy; and so on. Sometimes, you’ll fly around large structures with tunnels and paths that guide your progress, but don’t expect many arcade-style levels where you barrel down a straight-line path.
Yet in spite of the game revolving around open-space combat, Squadrons features a particularly arcadey brand of dogfighting. For starters, the campaign’s advice, once enemies lock on to your position with missiles, is to simply begin turning wildly and erratically. You’ll have to progress a little ways through before the game does anything to teach players about its “drift” functionality, which I’ve yet to get the hang of but is a welcome twist to the otherwise straightforward control scheme (and is one major point ahead of the incredibly straightforward controls found in Battlefront 2‘s Starfighter Assault dogfighting mode).
Also, the game’s default suite revolves around linear speed management in unrealistic zero-G blackness, as opposed to the drag-heavy or loop-de-loop flying you might associate with console dogfighting classics like Crimson Skies. Thus, when you yank your ship’s throttle down to zero, it will slam to a mid-space stop and hover in place, instead of demanding that players manage a reverse-thrust system to stop themselves from endlessly floating. I’m personally fine with that! But I point it out to remind readers that this game relies on “Star Wars physics,” from the same universe that brought you the gravity-dependent Episode VIII bomber run against a Dreadnought.
PC woes, mostly with VR
My progress in tackling the campaign was severely halted on PC by a few bugs. On multiple occasions, the game would tell me to tail a specific AI squadmate, but that squadmate would begin flying in endless, wacky circles, U-turning over and over without the game realizing that I had zero way to move the mission forward. (Because the game often revolves around open space, and corrects for when players fly in an arbitrary direction after completing an objective, your next vital waypoint won’t materialize until the game warps enemies or objects into the edge of your horizon.) Closing and restarting the game wouldn’t fix this; I had to restart entire missions to overcome this bug.
This came after I struggled to get the PC version’s VR modes up and running for multiple reasons. Much of this may have to do with my review copy only working on EA’s Origin launcher, not Steam. In order to play in VR on the Origin version, you have to go into an in-game options menu, then click into the VR sub-menu, and then select “toggle VR.” Once you do this, you have to leave your flat-screen monitor, put on your VR headset, and answer the “Did the mode switch properly?” question within 15 seconds, or the SteamVR fork shuts down and dumps you back to your flat-screen monitor.
In my case, this was further complicated by the SteamVR overlay blocking the Squadrons prompt, so I had to power on my Valve Index controller (which is otherwise incompatible with the game) quickly enough to tap the “menu” button, then grab my preferred controller and say yes, before the 15 seconds ran out. In a dream world, players will someday get a “launch in VR” button before the game even begins, either on Origin or Steam, but as of press time EA’s reps have yet to answer my repeated questions about this.
My PC-VR woes didn’t end there. The pre-launch version of the game regularly glitches when it transitions from flat-screen play to VR mode, in such a way that menus don’t appear and the game is unplayable. The only way I could fix this was to switch the game’s flat-screen version from “full screen” to “borderless” or “windowed,” and I’m hopeful that bug is quickly squashed.
I’m less hopeful about potential bug squashing for the Valve Index, the current best PC-VR option to support 120Hz frame rates. When playing Squadrons in VR at its 90Hz setting, with all VR graphics settings near-maxed on an RTX 3080 and i7-8700K, SteamVR’s frame-time graph confirms that its frames render at roughly 8.2ms. That’s within the threshold of a 120fps mode, which I prefer for spin-filled space-flight sims like Eve Valkyrie and Elite Dangerous; you’ll do a lot of high-speed spinning in Squadrons, owing to its arcadey, fake-physics core, and as a sensitive VR user, I struggled with that lurching sensation while trying to chase foes in dogfights.
However, in the game’s pre-release build, formally toggling Valve Index to 120Hz mode tanks the frame rate closer to 90-100fps, and it introduces erratic frame time spikes, even with all visual settings turned down to their bare minimum. (Not good for my VR space nausea.) Plus, honestly, going back and forth to test different SteamVR settings was made all the more difficult by the game randomly crashing when transitioning from a between-mission barracks to flight sections (with no crash dialogue shown by either SteamVR or Origin).
I harp on these VR issues because, well, gosh. When I got the game working smoothly on SteamVR, the sensation of being inside classic Star Wars starfighters, with waves of light shining in such a way that perfect shadows danced over my TIE Fighter’s interior, I felt like I was on the coolest Disney amusement park ride of my life. Sadly, thanks to bugs, that sensation was fleeting, and I had to do most of my testing outside of VR, where the lack of customizable FOV (ughghghgh) meant the game’s flying sensation paled in comparison.
Only six maps? Really?
Unsurprisingly, the brief pre-release period didn’t come with an opportunity to fully test online play. Currently, Squadrons‘ online play comes in two modes: straight-up dogfighting, which essentially works out as five-on-five team deathmatch, and “fleet battles,” which adds objectives to the mix. The latter is the more compelling option (at least, as I’ve tested against AI opponents), since it has players attack each other, and AI foes, in order to accrue “momentum.” With enough momentum banked, one side can overpower the shields on the three massive, turret-lined ships in the back of their half of the playfield and begin destroying them. Whichever side loses its trio of massive ships first, loses.
I found myself really liking the action and wanting to play more.
In my mostly offline tests, I was startled to see only six online maps ship with the launch game. Two of these are mostly barren expanses, which are snoozers for multiplayer battles. The others are quite compelling, in terms of forcing pilots to either weave through asteroid fields or deal with massive, obstructing crafts, and between these and the tight, arcade-friendly control scheme, I found myself really liking the action and wanting to play more. But the battling arenas all have something in common: they look generic as heck, without any recognizable Star Wars iconography, let alone any unique or particularly pretty architecture. (Maybe EA Motive can swipe some of the gorgeous maps that Criterion made for Battlefront 2‘s flight modes?)
While I’m hopeful that EA has gotten its Star Wars-related servers together for launch day traffic surges, I can’t conclusively answer what to expect from matchmaking—especially since Squadrons turns cross-platform matchmaking on by default, and there’s no telling whether that will result in healthier online lobbies or more matchmaking bugs.
In good news, most of the above complaints do not apply to what I’ve tested on PlayStation 4’s VR mode. PSVR exhibits a few stutters while otherwise maintaining a mostly steady frame rate during combat. It’s far blurrier than what you’ll find on PC-VR, but that blurriness seems to smooth out Squadron‘s motion and comfort levels—and it is certainly more efficient at delivering detailed space battles than what I saw this summer on Sony’s Iron Man VR. But with so little time between getting the game and turning this impressions piece around, I can’t confirm that the entirety of Squadrons‘ VR mode holds up to motion-sensitive scrutiny (though its opening prologue missions offer some of the more crowded, geometry-rich stuff you can expect in the campaign, and they hold up, at least).
But on PC, little quirks kept popping up in my tests. You can’t physically “walk” around the between-mission hangars, yet even with characters frozen in place, their animations can glitch. (I wonder if an option to walk around the detailed hangars was scrapped as a band-aid over a QA nightmare.) The game supports a default mapping for HOTAS controllers, but it doesn’t automatically recognize specific joysticks and throttles (unlike this year’s Microsoft Flight Simulator), so you’ll need to manually map your preferred control option (and I didn’t see an easy path to download a pre-made template for, say, a combination joystick and throttle as part of the Thrustmaster T.16000 package). And whatever controller you want to use must be powered on or plugged in before you boot the game. Should you turn your favorite Xbox or PlayStation gamepad on mid-game, you have to close and restart the game to use it.
Weirdest of all, despite running a 144Hz monitor for flat-screen play, and my frame time tool reporting a 144Hz refresh, I was surprised to see on-screen action not match up. (I immediately compared the action to Rocket League on the same monitor, and the refresh difference was clear.) It’s possible that the game’s menus are properly synced to high refresh rate monitors, but the actual 3D action isn’t, hence tripping up Rivatuner Statistics Server’s framerate counter. I’m not sure what’s up there; maybe it’s tied to the high-refresh-rate issues I saw in VR.
Beyond tech issues, the thing I kept coming back to during my brief preview period was how much I wanted a co-op partner in the campaign missions. A basic “ping” system can direct AI squadmates’ fire at foes, but that’s about it for interaction, and I didn’t find any of the characters endearing during my incomplete progress. (Games like Squadrons remind me how the chirpy cast of Star Fox gives Nintendo’s classic arcade-flight series a surprising sense of purpose.) But EA Motive’s campaign missions absolutely leave organic room for a real-life squadmate to shout divide-and-conquer strategies with, and I’d love to see that option added someday.
Before I go sending the developers my wish list for additional features, however, I should probably wait for them to finish the game (at least on the PC version). As a straightforward, reasonably priced arcade blaster with some unique flair, Squadrons has its charm—and is easier for me to recommend, especially to families, than Battlefront 2 ever was (not the highest of praise, but still). I’m just hopeful it gets closer to a recommended state of polish and bug squashing.
Listing image by EA Motive