The “Star Wars” franchise has been in shambles ever since Disney acquired Lucasfilm. Following George Lucas’ weirdly politically focused prequels, fans hoped for a return to the fun, adventurous tone established by the original trilogy. But Disney instead served up a volley of poorly thought-out “Star Wars” fan service that evokes little except overwhelming franchise fatigue.
After the headache-inducing “Star Wars” material of the 2010s, Star Wars: Squadrons is a welcome change of pace. A space combat simulator in the vein of the old-school Star Wars: X-Wing and TIE Fighter games, Squadrons puts players in the cockpit of iconic “Star Wars” vehicles, allowing them to live out dogfighting sequences reminiscent of the original films.
Throughout Squadrons, developer Motive Studios remains committed to immersing players into the “Star Wars” universe. Each of the eight playable ships has a unique cockpit design, replete with lore-appropriate LED indicators and beeping instruments that offer important information through aesthetically faithful means. No two ships fly alike, and yet each controls in a manner that feels completely congruous for “Star Wars.”
Squadrons grows less engaging with each moment not spent inside a cockpit. Unfortunately, this constitutes a non-negligible portion of the game. Set just after “Return of the Jedi,” the story is standard “Star Wars” fare: Players switch off between a Republic and an Imperial pilot, playing on both sides of an extended standoff between Rebel leader Lindon Javes and his former protege, Imperial captain Terisa Kerrill.
Though the dynamic between Javes and Kerrill is the focus, players don’t control either character and are curiously relegated to a side role. Despite creating an original character for Squadrons, the player is never heard nor seen on screen, instead remaining a silent witness to the plot. As a result, players feel like a pawn in the story and are prevented from getting too invested.
On each team’s missions, players are accompanied by a four-person squadron, but the banter intended to elevate the characters from generic computer companion status comes across as incredibly shallow. In part, this is because Rebels are written as cringe-inducingly optimistic and good-natured, while members of the Galactic Empire are one-dimensional, evil stereotypes with pompous British accents. But it is also due to the mandated player silence, which makes the protagonist feel out of place in relation to the rest of the characters.
Squadrons’ story missions themselves are straightforward, mostly providing excuses for players to jump into massive, action-packed dogfights amidst visually striking environments. Objectives typically involve clearing the airspace of enemy fighters, escorting vulnerable companions or taking down massive enemy flagships. The last type is most challenging, but also most rewarding — it requires players to understand the strengths of their particular loadout and target enemy subsystems accordingly. By working together to destroy smaller components such as shield generators and targeting systems, players can make the larger job easier to achieve.
Many similar objectives carry over into Squadrons’ cross-platform multiplayer mode, which for many will constitute its primary component. Here, Motive Studios fares much better than DICE’s Star Wars Battlefront games, which were plagued by game-breaking matchmaking issues and pay-to-win microtransaction economies. Squadrons’ matchmaking is fast and reliable, there is little in-game lag and all cosmetics are earned through player progression.
However, there are only two multiplayer game modes: 5v5 dogfighting and multistage fleet battles. The former, when restricted to short sessions, can add interesting twists to the single player dogfights by challenging the player to adapt to others’ playstyles. Though, after a few rounds, the gameplay stagnates and falls into an uninspired loop. The latter mode, in which victory is earned by coordinating a well-rounded team, remains the sole multiplayer game type capable of sustaining engagement over long periods of time.
Squadrons’ scant multiplayer content is fairly excusable given that Motive Studios displays something that is deeply missing in the development of every other Disney era “Star Wars” game: genuine passion. Though there is much in Star Wars: Squadrons that distracts from its compelling space combat, the carefully designed core gameplay is gratifying enough to carry the experience for most players.
This review is based on the PC version of Star Wars: Squadrons.