I’m coasting over the upper lip of the asteroid when I see that my wingman’s gotten themselves into some trouble. A Rebel X-Wing, apparently unobserved, has slipped in behind their TIE Bomber, likely angling for a missile lock that’ll chew through the Bomber’s resilient but shieldless hull in seconds. Still outside laser range, I move into action: Redistributing my own TIE’s power output to goose the engine into overdrive, cutting the distance between us, and snagging a lock of my own. The X-Wing pilot is fast, but I’m faster; a few tight banking turns later—cutting down to half-throttle to improve my turning speed, keeping my crosshairs glued firmly to their tail—and they’re dust, and my teammate flies on largely unscathed. The Force was with us on this one; BonerFartz420 has been saved to fight another day.
It’s in its ability to generate ace moments like this, pretty much on demand, that EA’s new dogfighting sim Squadrons earns its place in the wide and varied pantheon of top-tier Star Wars games. Although the game’s single-player campaign is merely serviceable—bouncing players back and forth between an Empire-New Republic grudge match playing out in the aftermath of Emperor Palpatine’s (temporary) death in Return Of The Jedi—it’s in its online multiplayer battles that Squadrons comes alive, gifting players with opponents capable of actually keeping up with a human pilot. (Because they actually are a human pilot, natch.)
As an updated riff on the classic TIE Fighter and X-Wing franchises (but with a little bit of arcade speed imported from the GameCube’s Rogue Squadron—complete with a brief cameo from Denis “Wedge Antilles” Lawson himself), Squadrons drops you into the beefy, highly detailed cockpits of a whole collector’s buffet of classic Star Wars fighter crafts. You’ve got A-Wings, Y-Wings, Interceptors, and, of course, the classic match-up between the workhorses of their respective fleets: The smaller, fragile TIE Fighter, facing off against the more durable, less immediately lethal X-Wing. Every ship has been lavished with an attention to detail that borders on fetishistic; the sense of instrument-packed claustrophobia imparted while staring out the big, iconic round window of a TIE Fighter is palpable even after hours in the cockpit.
As for what you actually do in said cockpit, well, that’s where Squadrons occasionally lets itself down. The plot of the game’s story mode is interesting enough, digging into a period of Star Wars history that the films have outright ignored in favor of jumping forward to three sequels’ worth of First Order nonsense. It’s especially interesting to see the Empire trying to cope with the loss of power and prestige heralded by the loss at Endor, with minor officials seizing power for their personal fiefdoms, and pilots nursing wounded egos and fatally injured pride. Surprisingly, for a franchise typically so willing to paint things in black and white, the story lets itself drift into some unexpected places, including a few worrying instances of both-sides-ism, with feints to painting the New Republic as just as bad or bloodthirsty as the Empire. Which is, itself, looking pretty diverse and (relatively) tolerant all of a sudden, for an organization that’s canonically made up of pasty white English dudes playing Space Nazi. But the actual conflict driving things is perfectly functional, with a revenge-seeking Imperial officer attempting to stop her former mentor-turned-rebel from building the New Republic a powerful new ship-killing weapon.
Where things get rough is in the actual content of the story missions, which struggle to find something more for players to do than just blow AI ships out of the sky ad infinitum. Although there are a few clever touches—including a late-game mission based around an improvised minefield that’s just as likely to consume your fighter as it is to take out the enemy capital ships—for the most part, these missions lack much in the way of excitement, instead asking you to pound away at big ships and listlessly dogfight with the computer. At best, the story campaign—despite a few lively performances from your squadmates, and one quick character cameo that’ll be a thrill for fans of Star Wars Rebels—is little more than a decent tutorial for the real meat of Squadrons: The multiplayer battles.
These take two forms: Straight 5 on 5 dogfights where both teams race for kills, and a more complex mode where each side vies for control of the battlefield so that they can take down the other’s flagship. And while the latter has clearly had a lot of attention paid to it—including a whole ranking system designed to get players hooked on a series of admittedly cool cosmetic rewards—it’s the dogfight battles that offer the purest expression of what Squadrons does well. It’s here where all the things that make aerial combat fascinating, confusing, and totally nerve-wracking combine, as you attempt to knock your enemies out of the sky while desperately bobbing and weaving to avoid meeting a similar fate. It’s genuinely thrilling to find yourself trapped in a series of banking turns with an enemy ace, desperate to break the killstreak they’ve been lording over your squad. It’s also a killer way of showing off the game’s razor sharp sense of motion and speed, which are utterly riveting, whether you’re playing the game traditionally, or within its shockingly good VR implementation.
Among other things, Squadrons carries the rare distinction of being a game where slipping into VR isn’t merely a trade-off of quality for novelty, but a clear improvement on the original model. Provided your stomach can handle it—there are features to help with motion sickness, but this is a fast-moving, 360 degree space dogfighting game—the immersiveness of the cockpits, and the intensity of the fighting, are only emphasized when you can actually move your head around inside them. (Dear TIE Fighter designers: Please consider installing rear-view mirrors in your next model.) Even playing on the (admittedly grainy) visuals of the PSVR, the sense of motion is still absolutely incredible, especially when you factor in the speed at which the multiplayer battles play out. For the purposes of this review, I forced myself to play through half the game without my headset on, but was always eager to hop back in the cockpit “for real.” It’s not quite the VR killer app that, say, a Beat Saber might be, but if you’ve got the hardware and the stomach for it, it’s the ideal way to play.
Outside hardware early adopters, Squadrons’ longevity is going to come down to how readily its multiplayer side ends up being embraced; if the supply of aces to shoot down peters out, so will much of the game’s appeal, Star Wars or no Star Wars. For now, though, the ability to load up a compelling, adrenaline-pounding aerial battle, at the ready, is one hell of a selling point all on its own.