While the immaculately detailed ship interiors and charming characters may have been what hooked me into the Star Wars: Squadrons campaign, its light but fun PvP multiplayer is exciting for a more unexpected reason: its terrain. The accessible but nuanced flight controls and systems management still stand strong, but facing off against human pilots shows just how much room there is for making tricky maneuvers around asteroids or through tight corridors. The letdown is that there isn’t more of it here in terms of modes, maps, or progression.
Squadrons has just two modes: Dogfight, which is a straight-up 5v5 slugfest where you race to 30 kills; and Fleet Battles, which instead gives each squad a large capital ship that must be dismantled and destroyed by the opposing team through a game of starship tug o’ war. Both share the same six maps, none of which alter a mode’s objective or general strategy but do vary in both gorgeous visuals and clever obstacle layouts. The exception there is Yavin, which might have the prettiest skyline of the bunch but pays for it by being a completely empty area with nothing to maneuver or hide behind, making it a total killjoy whenever it comes up in matchmaking.
Both modes are made fun simply by the fact that Squadrons’ flying mechanics are a blast. As I said in my campaign review, it’s fairly easy to just jump in and start flying, but here your skill is much more important and there are lots of little choices to make that will surely be reflected on the scoreboard. Knowing when to shift your ship power from shields to weapons for a boost of extra damage, or from weapons to engines when you need to make a quick getaway, can make all the difference during a fight. Subtle throttle control also let me pull off exciting moves that felt straight out of a Star Wars movie, such as speeding away from an attacker to hide behind an object only to cut the gas and flip around to catch them unaware.
Don’t Get Cocky, Kid
In a big open space, the Dogfight mode could easily fall into the flight game doldrums of fights devolving into mindlessly spinning in circles around your opponent – and that can certainly still happen at times. But (with the exception of stupid, empty Yavin) Squadrons gives you plenty of opportunities to cleverly use the level layout to your advantage and break out of those knots. I absolutely loved flying close to walls, through space stations, or around objects to throw off enemy missile locks or get the jump on another ship from an unexpected angle. Juggling power management while pulling near the terrain and being rewarded with a kill for your efforts feels fantastic, sometimes making me laugh or shout excitedly like I’ve seen Star Wars pilots do themselves so many times on the big screen. (Note: I have never exclaimed and will never exclaim “Now this is podracing!”)
The Fleet Battle mode can have a similar appeal, but I found I actually enjoyed it less than the Dogfights despite its grander objective and greater depth. While it’s most similar to a regular objective-based shooter mode, it has some clearly MOBA-inspired elements too: weak AI fighters will periodically head toward the enemy side, and two medium-sized ships need to be taken down (like League of Legends’ towers) before the other team’s main capital ship can even be attacked. Grabbing kills will change the balance of a bar at the top of the screen, and that needs to be filled before your team can go on the offensive at all. It’s an interesting structure that prevents blind rushing, and I seriously appreciated that taking down a capital ship is more than just repetitively pumping lasers into it until you win: there are spots where specific systems like shields or turret targeting can be strategically focused to disable them.
That said, these matches will sometimes drag a bit as that tug o’ war bar shifts back and forth, and a bit too much time can be spent flying toward an objective rather than in the action. Additionally, since the larger target ships are controlled by AI and are generally more out in the open, there’s little opportunity for those intense outplay maneuvers that take advantage of the terrain while trying to damage them. There’s a meta strategy to Fleet Battles that could be fun to explore with a full squad of friends, but the focus on static objectives over dynamic chases dilutes what excites me most about Squadrons’ combat somewhat regardless.
Instead, the focus is put more on bigger-picture strategy. While I’d almost always just lock in one of the four ship classes – Fighter, Bomber, Interceptor, or Support – and stick with it for a whole Dogfight match, Fleet Battles had me actively swapping based on the situation. On the defensive? Take a Fighter or an Interceptor to quickly clear out nearby enemies. Reached the capital ship? Switch to a more durable Bomber to withstand its turrets and deal some big structural damage. Weapon loadout choices became more nuanced too, as many of the auxiliary options are designed specifically for capital ship assaults, making them pretty much useless in a one-on-one dogfight – things like a temporary forward shield to ward off their fire or a sustained laser that kills your mobility but deals massive damage straight forward.
All that is to say there’s certainly something interesting here, it just doesn’t thrill me as much. Coordinated squads will likely be able to find impressive strategies and team compositions, much in the same way as its MOBA inspirations do – the fact that Fleet Battle is actually a Ranked mode will help with that, as well – but the experience I’ve had playing with and against randoms players is far messier than that ideal. Still entertaining, mind you, thanks to the flying itself and the impeccably detailed Star Wars fantasy around it, just not as instantly gratifying as the Dogfight mode’s more intimate and nuanced duels.
Unfortunately, Squadrons’ Ranked mode seems to have a pretty frustrating “leaver” problem at the moment, too. In my experience, only about half of the matches I queued into would stay an even 5v5 all the way to the end, and that really sucked. Sometimes someone would leave early on and it would let everyone leave and requeue without a penalty, but I also had times where members of my team would bail deeper into a game and my only options were to leave and suffer a penalty for doing so or play out a clearly doomed match – similarly, I’ve also been on the flipside, and begrudgingly finishing a 5v2 stomp isn’t exactly an exciting way to win.
All Dressed up and Nowhere to Go
EA has apparently learned a lesson or two in recent years, so Squadrons has managed to avoid the massive progression woes Star Wars Battlefront 2 faced at launch – but its own systems are just a little too thin to keep me invested in them for very long. First off, many of you will be happy to hear that there are no microtransactions whatsoever here, with unlocks coming from two different currencies earned exclusively by playing matches: one is used to unlock new ship loadout pieces like weapons or engine modifications, while the other is used on cosmetics that range from swanky ship skins to flashy pilot outfits and adorable dashboard toys.
Every functional ship piece is the same price, at one “Requisition,” and nearly every choice is a matter of personal preference rather than a clear power upgrade. You might sacrifice some of your maximum speed for better maneuverability, for example, or trade shield capacity for recharge rate. Additionally, Requisitions are handed out relatively liberally as you level up, and unlocking a specific part will make it available to all the relevant ships in that faction. That does mean progression flattens out pretty quickly, but it’s for the ultimately positive reason that you can unlock exactly what you’d like pretty much right away. Whether you want a faster engine or a more agile one, or a hull that makes you stealthier at the cost of max health, the effect these changes have on your ship can feel significant.
The other half of the progression coin, cosmetics, is somehow both lovely and laughable at the same time. There’s a ton to customize here: ship skins and decals, pilot helmets and clothing, and even dashboard toys for every cockpit. The coolest of them cost more of the cosmetic currency, called Glory, and are definitely enticing me toward playing to unlock them… or they would if most of them weren’t effectively invisible in nearly every relevant way, that is. While the dashboard options are amusingly appealing (who doesn’t want a Kowakian monkey lizard staring at them while they fly?) the rest of these items feel largely pointless thanks to Squadrons’ camera perspective.
Every IGN Star Wars Game Review
This is an exclusively first-person game where you rarely get close enough to enemy ships to get a look at how they are painted (let alone what tiny decal is on their wing), and usually you only see your pilot during a victorious post-match results screen. Why would I care much about skins for stuff I’ll only get a quick glimpse of in the menus and cutscenes between matches? It’s not an easy problem to solve, I’ll freely admit that, but it’s still a problem. There are a few cosmetic options that I am looking forward to unlocking (mostly dashboard options that I can actually see during a fight), but they’re not exactly that irresistible hook to keep me coming back for more.
Speaking of coming back for more, I hope developer Motive changes its mind about having no plans for post-launch DLC, because a package of additional modes, upgrades, ships (B-wing please!), and maps would go a long way toward fleshing out Squadrons’ content – and even if that were $20, it would still only bring it up to par with the standard $60 USD price in total. Right now there’s just not a whole lot here, which is disappointing when the fundamentals of its flight and combat are so strong.
To Infinity and Beyond
[Editor’s Note: If you’ve read our single-player review this part will be familiar, but VR and HOTAS support are just as relevant (and impressive) in multiplayer as the campaign so I’m including it here as well.]
Squadrons also has full VR support on PC and PS4, as well as full HOTAS (flight stick and throttle) support on all platforms, which is extremely impressive. I used an Oculus Quest with a link cable on PC, and apart from having to awkwardly watch the cutscenes before and after a match in 2D, it’s just a phenomenal way to play. You can take in every inch of its detailed ship interiors, track enemies with your head, and more easily marvel at the lovely space around you. The fact that you can play this entire game in VR is just incredible, easily earning it a place as one of the best VR games available.
Add a HOTAS into the mix and it gets even more impressive, to the point where I almost never want to go back to a controller. It sounds cliche, but the immersion of slamming the throttle and twisting the stick to weave in and out of Star Destroyer debris is exhilarating. I’ve had a chance to try three common flight stick options out on PC with various effectiveness: The Logitech Extreme 3D Pro, the ThrustMaster T.Flight HOTAS 4, and the Hori HOTAS Flight Stick (the latter two of which were provided to us by the manufacturers for this review). Regardless of your choice, you will probably have to fiddle with remapping controls a bit, but Squadrons makes that pretty painless to do.
Using the T.Flight was just incredible for this, with more than enough buttons to comfortably map everything important – Squadrons doesn’t have nearly as many inputs to manage as a sim like Elite: Dangerous – and compatibility on PS4 and Xbox One as well, depending on the model. I also loved that the throttle notches into place in the center position, which is important in Squadrons to let you turn tighter faster. The Extreme 3D Pro was a similarly solid option, though its small throttle and button layout does make it a little awkward to use. The Hori HOTAS, on the other hand, doesn’t feel suited for Squadrons at all. It doesn’t have that crucial stick twist you need in space flight, and too many of its inputs are mapped to double button presses seemingly designed with only Ace Combat 7 in mind (which it sort of was). To be fair, this is a stick primarily meant for PS4, and it even only showed up as a gamepad on my PC, so it may have better results on that platform.
And for those who really want to get into the nitty gritty of their Star Wars sim dreams, you can extensively customize what UI elements do or don’t show up, tuning exactly how much you want to rely on your own eyes and the readouts of your dashboard. It’s the added touches like this – alongside a host of wider accessibility options – that make Squadrons feel like far more than the quick and dirty Star Wars-themed dogfighter it so easily could have been.