Star Wars: Squadrons is not the experience you're expecting it to be. Don't get me wrong, the space dogfighter does exactly what you want it to do, but it's a more strategic take on space dogfighting that offers plenty of reward if you go beyond the basics of what your ship can do.
Approachability isn't an issue, as EA's intriguing sim eagerly plonks you in the cockpit of your favourite starfighter, kicks you into space, and gives you a light show that will make your eyes twitch with delight. It doesn't take long to see that lingering behind the glossy exterior is a dedicated flight simulator, one that not only wants you to feel like you're sitting in any Star Wars fan's childhood dream, but that you will master the intricacies of the craft you're in. If you were expecting a knockabout experience that only nailed the aesthetics, Star Wars: Squadrons is going to be a surprise akin to Luke discovering who his father is.
Stay On Target
Okay, so discovering that Star Wars: Squadrons' ships are a lot more intricate when it comes to controlling them is maybe not up there with one of cinema's most recognisable twists, but it does make it feel a lot more involved than the dogfighting we've seen in recent Star Wars games. A major part of this is down to each ship's Power Management systems which, depending on your craft, mean you're able to shift power between your thrusters, lasers, and shields.
What could have been a decorative touch quickly becomes an intriguing strategic decision. Pushing everything into the thrusters means you can move across the map quickly, but you'll do less damage with your lasers. Conversely, putting everything into your lasers means you'll pack a punch, but you'll be less nimble as a result. Because they change on the flick of a button press, the key becomes knowing when to prioritise putting your power into the area of the ship that needs it the most, flinging your ship into a good position, getting your shots away, and then racing away again.
This, in a subtle way, captures a different type of magic that we usually see from Star Wars games. Whereas Battlefront focuses on the spectacle, Squadrons focuses on the scrappy feel of trusting your instincts. This isn't about trying to recreate the Trench Run from A New Hope or the Battle of Scarif, but giving you the tools and time to hone your skills so you feel like you're creating your own stand-out moments.
This type of control also extends to how your ship actually flies. You'll notice your throttle gauge in the cockpit is shaped like a pyramid, to not only indicate when you're at top speed, but also when you're at top manoeuvrability. Learning how to balance those two things is key in battle, for when you need to race to the frontline or when you need more control over your craft to shake a locked missile, which is possible if you swerve and weave your starfighter quickly.
And all of this is before we mention the ships themselves. There are a total of eight in the game, with four classes for you to choose from. Interceptors are nippy but weak, so perfect if you want to sneak behind opponents, while Bombers are lumbering ships that are handy for dealing mega damage. You'll also get a Support class that can drop handy resupplies for teammates around maps, and open up potential avenues of keeping other players in the game. Each felt distinctive, and alongside the different designs in each cockpit, offer up opportunities for you to either focus on perfecting your skills in one craft or learning when best to redeploy in a different ship.
In truth, it's the sort of game that takes a few hours for everything to click in place. Early multiplayer games I have in the Dogfight mode are a mix of exhilarating moments where you manage to stalk and destroy another fighter, interspersed with manic button pressing as you realise you're about to be turned into space dust and try anything to escape. But it feels like this will be part of the fun of Star Wars: Squadrons, the journey from enjoyable chaos to mastering complete control over your ship.
Looking in Alderaan places
If that sounds more demanding than you might expect, then the game does a good job of easing you in, with a prologue that runs you through the basics of controlling your ship, while setting up the events of the single-player story. At the start of the game, you'll have to create characters for both the Empire and Republic, as you'll regularly be hopping between the two factions, and get dropped into events just after the destruction of Alderaan.
It's a short snappy intro that tees up the main story nicely, as you get a chance to test out a TIE Fighter and an X-Wing against some (thankfully accommodating) AI. While the game's single-player focus is on a canon story just after Return of the Jedi, but this section is clearly here so you're ready to hop into the multiplayer if you'd rather just getting blasting away online.
If there's one major thing that carries across all elements of the game though, it's that you'll be flying a squadron of 5 and communication is going to be key to survival. While voice chat doesn't happen too much in my preview session, as everyone is more focused on getting to grips with the game's systems, the game itself offers you plenty of ways to communicate with teammates. There's voice chat, text chat, and a ping system, that can flag threats and info with a tap of a button, like in Apex. Still, with so much going on, it feels like voice chat is going to be the best option, especially when it comes to making sure you and your squad are on the same wavelength in the game's main mode: Fleet Battles.
This multiplayer mode initially reminds me of Battlefield's Grand Conquest, where you and your squadron attempt to push back the enemy's front line, giving you opportunities to attack their bigger ships in the fleet, and eventually destroy their Capital Ship (A Star Destroyer for the Empire, an MC75 for the New Republic). Key to pushing the front line forward is taking out enemy players and AI ships, with AI ships in this mode to add to the sense of scale. If either team manages to take out enough of the other team's players, boosting their Morale meter, they'll get a chance to push forward while the other team defends. That's not a static condition though, with matches swinging between offence and defence, as your team works their way to the final ship to destroy.
The result is an engaging and large battle filled with small moments where you feel like you're a part of the Star Wars universe. One moment sees me spawn in, with the enemy's Raider bearing down on my team's Capital Ship. I'm in the nimble but weak A-Wing, and can see it's on low health, thanks to the fires that are breaking out across its hull. I make a beeline towards it, the pew-pew of my lasers drowned out by the huge ship exploding dead ahead. I instinctively pull the A-Wing up, arcing it over the flames, and for a brief second, feel completely immersed in the world.
But Fleet Battles aren't purely about these emergent moments of blissful spectacle, it's also key to the game's natural skill progression. As you're learning the ropes early on, you'll focus on targeting big objectives with whatever craft you feel most comfortable in, while as you get more used to the rhythms of the game, the aim is that you start to experiment with the game's meta, changing your ship throughout the game as and when the situation demands. Factor in a group of four mates and the level of depth on offer here has the potential to match what we've seen from the ships as well.
What's most exciting about my time with Star Wars: Squadrons is that it feels like I barely scratched the surface of what's possible. Whether it's the Fleet Battles I take part in that are enjoyably scrappy as everyone tries to figure out what the best plan of attack is, to the multi-minute dogfights that can see hunter become hunted in the blink of a second, there's clearly plenty of for talented pilots to learn and explore from just playing the game. How well you'll be able to may depend on if you can rally a squad together – or trust your skills flying with the people you're matched with online – but for now, it's shaping up to offer more depth and detail from piloting a starfighter than I could have hoped for.
Star Wars: Squadrons is due to launch on October 2 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.