This is going to be really awkward, because all of the screenshots I remembered to take of this game were taken in VR mode, which means they look like crap in part because on a flat screen, seeing what I see results in a “bow tie” kind of display, and because the game is running at a strange resolution in order to get both eye-screens running properly.
I hadn’t actually planned on picking up Squadrons. I am rather cool on Star Wars, and while I like it OK there’s nothing about the IP that revs my engines if you get my drift. But at the last minute I saw that I could get a good deal on the game (which was already priced below industry standard) and I do love me games about flying around in space, so I jumped on it pre-launch in order to secure the pre-order cosmetic benefits.
I started the prologue missions in 2D because although I planned on digging out the Odyssey for the game, I hadn’t yet done so. I also flew with the mouse and keyboard. If I didn’t have the HOTAS and the VR setup in the wings I probably would have suffered from buyers remorse, but that’s just me: my bar for a good “space combat sim” is pretty high, and things just didn’t feel right without The Full Monty.
Once I plugged in the headset and reprogrammed the HOTAS, let me tell you: this game does both suitable justice. I’ve done ship to ship combat in Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous, but Star Wars ship combat is another beast all together. It’s fast, loud, and chaotic. There’s small A-Wings and larger capital ships. There’s lasers flying all over the place, things are exploding, missiles and bombs are flying. It’s a complete mess. And with the headset and HOTAS, it felt pretty damn real. Being able to look around to follow a target or to check your turn for obstacles, to look down at your instruments, and to feel the form of the ship you’re flying is just so damned cool (and probably the dream of many Star Wars fans). Flying with a stick that offer pitch, roll, and yaw is a godsend, and working with a throttle midpoint felt natural. Not a few times did I lean in my chair, or flail about IRL when I made a tight turn into an asteroid or another ship.
As it’s called Star Wars Squadrons, plural, you will find yourself flying for both the Empire and the New Republic (as this takes place after Return of the Jedi). Through circumstances inherent in the story, each squadron that you represent is engaged in a rivalry with the other as the narrative progresses. Naturally that means you won’t be fighting against yourself, but it does make for some awkward player moments when you invariably find yourself rooting for one side or the other, only to have to play “against the grain” during the next mission.
You’ll find yourself flying most of the iconic Star Wars fighters and support craft, like the X-wing, TIE fighter, Y-wing, TIE interceptor, and others. Some are assigned to you for scenario purposes, but eventually you’re able to select which one you want (with only the mission briefing to inform you about the best choice). Each ship can also change it’s loadout of main weapons, two support options, missiles, shields, hulls, and engines. I didn’t end up customizing things too much over the course of the campaign, as I figured that I didn’t know enough about the ship, component, or mission to make a suitable decision.
Gameplay can get frantic. I found that lining up shots wasn’t always easy, as the AI was either very, very smart, or sometimes rock stupid. Considering early on the game teaches you that slowing down helps you turn quicker (a la most space combat flight sims) and I saw a lot of enemy ships doing this very thing, I might be tempted to favor the former assessment. Most of the time tight turns aren’t going to help anyway, though it’s hard to break out of the “I must stay on my target’s ass all the time lest he appear on mine” mentality. With so many enemies on the screen I often ignored the targeting reticle and just shot at whomever crossed my path anyway. This way, it was easy to avoid the “jousting” mechanic that seems to pop up in a lot of space combat sims, which usually comes down to a factor of limited targets.
Overall I didn’t find the game too challenging on the default “Pilot” level. I made it through the first 10 episodes without dying or failing a mission, but the last 4 missions were serious pains in the ass which I did fail and which did kill me on occasion. Some missions had simple-on-paper objectives, but trying to sort out the specifics in the game space was frustrating. While there are defend-the-target missions, you never get a visible meter of how well or poorly you are doing; most of the feedback comes from the comms chatter of your squad, so after you’ve done the same checkpoint a dozen times, you learn which lines are offered whether your succeeding, and which indicate that you’re headed back to the last save point.
I know I keep harping on this, but I consider it to be a massive selling point of the game for me — the environments overall are excellent, but in VR, they are mind-blowing. Everything is to-scale, which means that taking your X-wing on a run across the deck of a Star Destroyer is stupidly exhilarating. One mission has you flying around a very large Imperial listening post in a Y-wing, meaning you have to bomb a lot of targets. Some of them are on the surface, but others have you flying through a narrow band between the inner and outer rings of the station, dodging TIE fighters and turret fire as you attempt to complete your objective. Flying through asteroids, debris, or exploding moons is so much more terrifying and exciting in VR than it could ever be on a flat screen. Jussayinsall.
I’m not going to talk about the story much for those who dislike spoilers. I would say it’s “Star Wars Baseline”, mainly because Star Wars is pretty much a one-trick pony anyway: Evil Empire versus Hopeful Rebels, sometimes one side makes gains, sometimes the other side makes gains, and a lot of impossibly large space ships blow up. I heard that many Star Wars luminaries are name-checked within, and I recognized Wedge Antilles (of course), Admiral “It’s a Trap” Ackbar, Hera Syndulla (whom I recognized from the 2 episodes of Star Wars Rebels that I watched once), and Iden Versio (from Battlefront II). If there’s anyone else of import involved, I don’t know who they are and I’m OK with that, I’m not playing this game as a fanboy. In the case of Squadrons, the cut-scenes, opportunities to chat with your squad mates, and the briefings are really only speedbumps to prevent players from completing the campaign too quickly.
I don’t really know what else to tell you about Star Wars Squadrons except that it’s a very good space dogfighting game (probably) in 2D, and is an amazing and immersive space dogfighting game in VR. As it only took me about 10 hours to complete on the “Pilot” level of difficulty, I wouldn’t say that everyone should run out and get a VR headset just for this game. But if you are on the fence about VR and are eyeballing the next generation of devices, put this title on your wishlist for the day when you buy one, because I don’t think you’ll regret it.