If you find the opening to this article off-putting, it is going to be hard for you to endure the story of “Star Wars: Squadrons.” The game’s single-player campaign is a series of largely forgettable missions in which the goal is to teach players the game’s controls and mechanics to prepare them for the multiplayer mode, rather than provide an intriguing tale set in the Star Wars universe. To be fair, “Squadrons” was always about creating an enduring multiplayer starfighter sim. But if you’re into the game for the single-player missions, just know that they are functional, not fun. They’re the vegetables you’re forced to eat.
I wanted to feast on another Star Wars story like that of “Jedi: Fallen Order.” The problem with the “Squadrons” story is that it never delivers a main course to sink your teeth into. Even the elective dessert of optional dialogue scenes provides little sweetness. Instead, the non-player characters spout off, unasked by your silent protagonist, about backstories that have little to do with the missions you just completed or the story’s larger arc. They talk at you, like a series of bad speed dates, offering little information that has any impact on anything in the game, droning on about their backstories, that seemingly exist only to elevate them beyond anonymity.
It’s a shame too. There seemed to be potential, with characters like the mysterious, battle-scarred Shen, who keeps coming back to fly for the Empire after multiple crashes and lost dog fights. But the game just doesn’t succeed at bringing players deeper into the Star Wars world.
The plot centers on Captains Lindon Javes and Terisa Kerrill and their competing squadrons as the newly minted New Republic tries to stamp out the last vestiges of the Empire. The plot picks up right after the destruction of Alderaan when Javes, an imperial pilot, suddenly grows a conscience and defects. The plot jumps ahead to a series of events after the Battle of Endor. Javes and Vanguard Squadron (of which the player is a part) help protect a new, supersecret capital ship from Javes’s former Imperial protege, Kerrill, and the pilots of Titan Squadron (of which the player is also a part, as a different character). The missions bounce back and forth between the New Republic and Empire, teaching the player how to use the systems of various starfighters while their squadron mates prattle on during optional dialogue scenes about past exploits. What’s worse is that the NPCs hold these one-sided expositional conversations in almost an arrhythmic fashion, emphasizing odd words and pausing so long after sentences it made me feel the game was trying to load the next line from a CD-ROM.
And the vast majority of these conversations are delivered not through cinematics or cut scenes, but simply in front of mostly static backdrops while the NPC gesticulates like an animatronic mannequin on a Disney World ride. Even in virtual reality, which the game offers via PSVR, the story fails to be immersive. The game’s redeeming quality, though, is that the story is not the product’s focus.
Even as it squanders the wonderful storytelling potential the Star Wars universe provides, it’s clear “Squadrons” was created primarily to serve as a multiplayer platform. Servers were open for only a limited time before the game’s Friday release, so views on that portion of the game will follow next week. But you could get a good feel of the spaceflight sim via the campaign. Though similar to many of the controls veterans of “Star Wars Battlefront” experienced when piloting starfighters, the physics, first-person perspective and more intricate environments make navigating missions far more challenging. It hews much closer to older Lucas Arts titles like “X-Wing” and “TIE-Fighter” than arcade-like “Rogue Squadron” on Nintendo 64. There will be a steep learning curve as players adapt to using different classes of fighters — the A-wing, X-wing, Y-wing and U-wing for the Republic, and the Tie Interceptor, Fighter, Bomber and Reaper.
If flying is your main focus, the game will be fun — once you adapt to it. And for that reason, the campaign serves a purpose, even if it’s not a particularly enjoyable one.
Start with the flight controls. On the PlayStation, the default controls assign throttle controls and rolling to the left thumb stick, while the right handles pitch and yaw. It’s an unwieldy combo that led me to performing, let’s say, unorthodox maneuvers instead of simply making the ship go where I wanted. I also had a tendency to spin like crazy. While young Anakin would have been proud of me, it was a little frustrating at first. One mission, which requires you to rotate your Y-wing to drop downward-firing bombs while skimming the trench-like surface of a space station, resulted in more than a few crashes. Often I’d inadvertently accelerate as I tried to spin, or slow accidentally and present myself as an easy target to enemy fighters. I found more success linking the roll controls to the right stick and flying more like a fighter plane in EA’s “Battlefield” series. You can customize your controls even more to your liking, which you may want to do because it’s hard to manage your speed or keep it consistent when your thumb is so frequently manipulating the left stick. What I really wanted was a joystick and throttle instead of a controller. I was encouraged to read that “Squadrons” would support that setup.
Some of the additional systems — like the targeting wheel that breaks down radar blips into categories like allies, objectives or even critical components on capital ships like turbo lasers and shield generators — can be hard to handle in the middle of a dogfight because of the throttle link on the left stick. In addition to the targeting wheel, you also use the stick for things like angling deflector shields or shunting power to your engines or weapon systems. It’s a lot to remember, but it’s also tough to go from accelerating with the left stick pressed forward, to shifting power to your back shields (which requires the left stick pulled down) when you’re being tailed by an enemy fighter.
The weapons systems, which consist of various configurations of lasers, missiles, mines, bombs and ship-disabling ion cannons, are easy to use, though the targeting reticle is a little clunky looking in some ships. Splashing starfighters, monitoring your own ship’s health and calling for resupply and repairs are simple to master and it’s satisfying when you take down opposing fighters. Some of the more intricate mechanics (the targeting wheel, shunting power to shields and optimizing your speed for increased maneuverability) are much harder to master while staying focused on targets or threats.
With multiplayer serving as the centerpiece of the game, customization will be key to keep users happy well into the future. That part looks promising, as users can customize weapon loadouts, utilities (like a repair droid or a tactical shield the Tie Reaper can attach to normally unshielded TIEs), countermeasures, shields (for those ships that have them), armor and engines. Experimenting with different combinations there will be more of a factor in multiplayer than it has been in the single-player campaign, as teammates can construct complementary classes and loadouts.
Cosmetically, players will be able to apply paint jobs, stickers, holograms and tchotchkes to their fighters. You can even get a hanging bauble, like a Kyber crystal or carving of the Millennium Falcon. I, personally will be waiting to see if (or, more realistically, when) they add Han Solo’s lucky dice.
The time for “Squadrons” to shine will clearly be when multiplayer servers are turned on in full. That’s when the game can be properly judged. We will revisit that portion for a full review next week. For now, the single-player mode just feels onerous, existing solely for players to better learn the game’s mechanics and different ships’ abilities rather than adding any substance. A strong story could have made this a really fun process, an opportunity to show a different side of the Empire and Republic beyond the Evil-vs.-Good framework Star Wars has so often embraced. It could have created a character worth investing in and provided a story like those found in the “Rogue Squadron” book series.
Instead, the most memorable moments from the campaign can best be described as an instruction manual. If those instructions allow for an enduring, enjoyable, months-long experience in multiplayer, the story will have served its purpose and I’ll probably remember it a little more favorably. But there’s little I want to remember right now beyond the starfighters’ controls.