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 level design. The accessible but nuanced flight controls 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: Dogfights, which are 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 modes share the same six maps that vary in both gorgeous visuals and clever obstacle layouts, but don’t alter the overall objectives or structure.
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 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 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. Additionally, 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 keeps shifting back and forth, and a lot more time can be spent flying toward an objective rather than in the action. Additionally, since the larger target ships are controlled by AI and generally more out in the open, there’s less opportunity for those intense outplay maneuvers that take advantage of the terrain while trying to destroy them. There’s certainly more meta strategy to Fleet Battles that could be fun to explore with a full squad of friends, but played with and against randomly matched players it just seems like less of what excites me most about Squadrons’ combat.
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 heavier hitting but slower missiles.
All that is to say there’s certainly something here, it’s just not something that thrills me as much. I’m sure coordinated teams will 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 had at launch is far messier than that ideal. Still fun, 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 duels.
All Dressed up and Nowhere to Go
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. First off, some 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 to adorable dashboard bobbleheads.
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. Additionally, Requisitions are handed out relatively liberally when you first start playing, and unlocking a specific part will make it available to all the relevant ships in that faction. That does mean progression can flatten out pretty quickly, but it’s for the ultimately positive reason that you can unlock exactly what you’d like fairly fast. Whether you want an engine that increases maneuverability or max speed, or a hull that makes you stealthier at the cost of other stats, the effect these changes have on your ship can feel significant and it’s all in your hands to choose.
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… if most of them weren’t invisible in nearly every relevant way, that is. While the dashboard options are awesome and appealing (who doesn’t want a Kowakian monkey-lizard staring at them while they fly?) the rest of these items are 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 clearly see how they are painted (let alone what tiny decal is on their wing), and only ever sometimes see your pilot in a post-match results screen. Why would I care about skins for stuff I’ll only get a quick glimpse of in the menus 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.
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 total. Right now there’s not a whole lot here, which is disappointing when its core is 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.
Review in Progress Verdict
The thrill of using incredibly detailed TIE fighters and X-Wings to weave in and out of Star Wars: Squadrons’ opportunity-filled maps as you duel other players in 5v5 dogfights is an absolute treat. Its flight systems reward quick thinking and its customization is centered around personal preference instead of power upgrades, but it feels like there’s so much more that could be done with it all. There are only two modes with six maps shared between them, alongside some simple progression to hold it all together, so it seems this love could be more of a steamy affair than a committed, long-term relationship.
That said, I’ve still only had a day and a half to play against real people at this point and my thoughts could certainly change as I play more over the weekend. It feels a bit premature to put a final score on Squadrons’ multiplayer just yet, but we’ll lock that in when this review is finalized early next week.