I have kept Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels on my bookshelf for years. It’s an encyclopedia of all the famous spaceships from the movies and a lot of more esoteric starfighters from the Star Wars expanded universe. You can pore over engine schematics of a Y-Wing, read about the firepower of the Imperial-Class Star Destroyer, or find out the top speed of a TIE Interceptor. This all probably sounds like a massive waste of time unless, like me, you spent your formative summers writing Star Wars fan fiction. But it’s the exact sort of knowledge that you’ll need to grasp—or in my case, remember—if you want to survive in Star Wars: Squadrons. EA’s latest game from the Lucasfilm franchise is bubbling with delicious spaceship lore, and it’ll crank up a part of your brain that you probably haven’t used since you built LEGO X-Wings in your parents’ basement. Yes, I did that, too.
Star Wars fans all have their favorite starfighter games. I loved Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike for the GameCube. The generation before mine called old-school ship simulators like Star Wars: TIE Fighter and X-Wing all-time classics. Hell, even if you don’t know anything about Star Wars, you probably enjoyed the Trilogy arcade game between tubes of funnel cake at the boardwalk. Some time over the past 15 years, though, starfighter games went out style. It probably has something to do with the fact that, as in the case of EA’s jittering, overstuffed Star Wars: Battlefront series, every video game these days is required to somehow encompass all genres of gaming at once. It’s exhausting.
For this reason, it’s hard not to love, or at least appreciate, Star Wars: Squadrons. The new game from EA is 100-percent starfighter combat. No battle royales. No ground combat. No lightsabers. Just ice cold space, baby. You can take part in massive fleet battles online, tinker with your ship under the hood, fight the Empire (and the Rebellion) in a pretty solid story mode, and if you’ve got it, you can strap on a VR helmet for 360-degree immersion. And best of all, when the game drops on October 2 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC, it’ll cost only $ 40. For a studio that has faced years of criticism about microtransactions and broken or unfinished full-priced titles (it was almost impossible to get through a round of Star Wars: Battlefront 2 without getting kicked off the servers), it seems like EA finally built something that can stand on its own.
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Squadrons is not the kind of game you can just drop into, rack up a few kills, die, respawn, and repeat. You’re going to have to do your homework. In past starfighter games, you had the option of controlling your craft from a third-person perspective. Here, EA has you strapped down in the cockpit, where all that can save you from the crushing vacuum of space is a throttle and some blinking switches. You’ll have to pay a lot of attention to those switches. Each ship in the game, on both the Rebel and the Imperial side, controls a bit differently, and even within each ship is a pretty steep learning curve. On speedier vessels like the A-wing (my favorite), you’ll want to divert your ship’s energy to your weapons to leave a mark. But the more powerful ships are sluggish, and you’ll be spending hours learning how to balance the engines with the heavy artillery you have at your disposal. There’s a decently wide degree of customization available for each ship—but not huge. This commitment to restraint is Squadrons’ biggest draw: For the first time, flying in a starfighter isn’t just a button-mashing fantasy. It’s science fiction.
But the real cherry on top of Squadrons is the VR experience. I’ve spent a number of hours with the game’s campaign. It’s enjoyable; there’s enough depth of character to keep me playing (though, in 2020, it feels a bit odd to play as a pilot from the Empire, who are obviously Nazis). When I broke off from the story to try out some online dogfights in a press event, I decided to dust off my PSVR headset to see the war-torn asteroid fields of Squadrons in virtual reality. And for a few marvelous hours, I was, at long last, fully immersed in the fantasies of my youth. I was blasting at ferocious speeds around jagged-edged battleship scraps, shattering TIE Bombers with my A-wing laser cannons, and when I looked up, I actually saw through the top of my cockpit the enemies hurtling toward me from above. Down in my periphery, I saw my hands on the controls, flicking switches and throwing the steering mechanism back and forth to evade the proton torpedoes in my wake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen VR “work” at a level of complexity like this. There were dozens of other starships on the map, and I was skirting around them in virtual reality. Man, if only my 10-year-old self could see this.
I’m the one person I know who preferred the spaceship battles in Battlefront over the traditional run-and-gun foot soldier thing. So I can’t really predict how well Squadrons will sell, especially since, unlike even a few of the classic Rogue Squadron games, you will never set foot outside of your starship at all. But to me, that’s just another reason to respect EA’s creative efforts here. Not only did it venture to make a game without lightsabers, without even stormtroopers or blaster rifles, it committed to something risky, something far-out. Now that the main series of films is finished, it seems Disney is allowing the Lucasfilm franchise to rediscover itself. With Squadrons, we see the future of Star Wars start to take shape. From the cockpit of my RZ-1 A-wing interceptor, the galaxy looks appropriately starry.
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