I'm old. Old enough, in fact, that I have very real and very fond memories of the early Star Wars games. One in particular game to mind this weekend: X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter. (I know there were Star Wars games before, and even Star Wars games pertaining to starfighter piloting shenanigans, but ask anyone: X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter was the pinnacle of that particular subset of games.)
Granted, technology has somewhat advanced since 1997. But still, loading up Star Wars: Squadrons on my Xbox One X (thank goodness for Game Pass Ultimate, especially since it includes EA Play. Because I'm sure as hell not paying for an EA game.) made those memories rush up in my head by the minute.
What I liked
All in all, I had a good time with the game. For whatever reason I found myself at the business end of a Star Wars-kick, and after finishing the Battlefront II campaign and DLC (I should write something about that, too, shouldn't I?) I was just telling my friend Martyn that I enjoyed the dogfighting parts of Battlefront quite a bit; and that I wish a remake of X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter would've existed.
Long story short, about 12 seconds after I said that I realized there's Squadrons. The gameplay trailer and screenshots looked promising, so off I went.
The game is fun. Coming from Battlefront, where the time you spend in your starfighter is an "extra" and not core gameplay, it took a few missions to get accustomed to the UI and gameplay. Personally I prefer playing from an external perspective (like in Battlefront 2 or in Star Wars Galaxies' Jump to Lightspeed) -- mostly because I suck at games that are reflex-based -- but it was fine. I understand the game plays in VR, and that means the internal cockpit view had to have happened. Although, as Tony Stark said, "is it too much to ask for both?" A simple switch would've done it. Even after getting used to the controls and view I often found myself limited by the enormous blind spot of the cockpit. I probably wouldn't make a good fighter pilot.
But the vibe of flying the various starships is on point. The banter, both leading up to the action and during, is super fun and informative. And the game is beautiful.
The controls are responsive enough, and the challenge is fair. I played on 'story mode' because I just wanted some fun dogfighting, and know my limitations. The AI at this setting is a bit dumb, and most challenges came not from the enemy fighters but missions with particular objectives to hit with little margin of error. (Like entering a capital ship's tight hyperdrive shaft, or managing a bunch of explosive reactor cores in the middle of a debris field.) But that was what I expected, and in fact asked for, so no complaints there.
Bonus points for the singular EA game in my memory that isn't bogged down to the Upside Down with microtransactions and ads and shit like that. According to the game, every customization option can be unlocked by playing. I didn't test it, but honestly just the lack of all the usual EA bullshit in the menus felt like a breath of fresh air.
The game was short, only 14 missions, but I cannot complain about that. I can see the enormous potential of it in multiplayer, even if I'm not interested, and playing it VR, so I did like that option even if I didn't use it.
But speaking of short, it was also kind of... uneven. Which brings us to the stuff I didn't like.
What I didn't like
The game, as fun as it is, feels like it was rushed. The core gameplay is polished and well put together, as detailed above. The rest, however...
The dissonance between the actual flying/fighting parts and the connective tissue was kind of jarring. I didn't mind the static viewpoint and conversations that played out like a visual novel. The format was fine. The writing was off, though. A lot of times the lines felt like first drafts of something that could've been a lot better with a little more polish.
And what's perhaps my biggest gripe with this was that the player has no agency. Aside from a handful of missions where you're able to select the type of ship you want to fly, nothing has impact on anything. Some branching options, even if in the grand scheme of things didn't do much, would've masked the nailed-down-with-Imperial-durasteel-rails the story train was speeding along on. It really did feel like a "whoa, we need to finish this fast, what's the least we can do."
And the story itself felt-- weird. I was looking forward to playing both sides, and a lot of good stories could've been told from the Imperial perspective. But from the very first cinematic the Imperial side is cast as the villains. Which is understandable, okay, but Squadrons didn't even commit to that concept. Instead, it tried to have it both ways: present the Empire squadron as a single-mindedly vengeful lot not worthy of sympathy, yet making half-hearted attempts of nuance with the other Imperial pilots trying to share their own perspective between missions. Pulling in different directions, Squadrons found itself going nowhere, and it brought down the enjoyment by a lot.
The Rebel (excuse me, New Republic) side fared better. At least the other Republic pilots are marginally more interesting and colorful. Frisk in particular is delightful (but even that isn't saying much because the contrast enhances that quality) and Gunny's weary caution is a texture often missing from an over-idealized Star Wars. And it was great to see Hera again. (Particularly coming from watching Bad Batch religiously week to week.)
So, according to the game, we have a blinded-by-revenge Empire and a newly minted, war-weary New Republic. Except as the story unfolds, it turns out the Imperials are much better at things than the Republic, and although we do of course get the inevitable happy end (more on that in a second) it's on the Empire's terms, not the Republic's. Captain Teresa Kerrill gets her revenge, and deals serious blows to the Republic in the process, without trading much, if anything.
The whole story just feels disjointed. Unable to commit to either side, or put in the work to do an actually balanced, intertwining story, Star Wars: Squadrons falls short by no small measure. Which would be fine: it's about flying starfighters and blowing other starfighters and other miscellaneous things up in space. That was an option, not saying it's a particularly attractive one, but an option nonetheless. Alternatively, it could've been a purely multiplayer game. But again, it's neither here nor there.
Deus ex get the hell out of here with that
Before closing, let me address something that made me throw my controller down and almost quitting the game. If it didn't happen at the very end, after which there wasn't much to control anyhow, I would've removed Squadrons completely. I'm talking about, of course, the miraculous survival of Lindon Javes.
Deus ex machina is an annoying but traditional part of Star Wars. There's always a Millennium Falcon, a Rebel fleet, a delayed ally, or what-have-you that swoops in and saves the day. Do I wish there wasn't? Oh hell yes. It's lazy. It takes away from the investment in the protagonist, essentially saying that they can't overcome the obstacle by their own wit and skill and perseverance-- which would be the entire point of us following them.
But by god the way Squadrons resurrected Lindon Javes was disgusting. No explanation, no preamble, no nothing: quite literally he's just exploding back into the thick of things. Yuck.
And perhaps the only saving grace of the story was Javes' sacrifice and death. The only commitment Squadrons (seemingly) made in the story, and said "this is the way it is." Just to undo it. Gone the emotional impact, gone the lessons learned, gone the one thing that made an effort in the story.
Star Wars: Squadrons verdict: 4/10
I had a good time with Squadrons, but between the shortness of the story, the shortcomings of the story, and the serious mistakes of the story, I can't rate it any higher. It's a fun romp, for sure, especially if you're looking for a multiplayer Star Wars dogfighting game. (Although I don't think there are too many other contenders.)
But the story and the anemic attempt at creating characters left a bitter taste in my mouth. Maybe with the next one.