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Star Wars Squadrons impressions: A heavy asterisk at launch for PC players

  • Prepping for Star Wars Squadrons battle, Empire edition. EA Motive
  • Things are a bit more chill on the New Republic side of things.
  • A familiar friend in the backseat.
  • When missions take place in the empty void of space, at least EA Motive puts together a handsome cloud array for the backdrop.
  • Moving into a more debris-filled zone.
  • Take out turrets, look for breach points.
  • Wedge briefs us for our next mission.
  • Clone Wars-caliber dialogue, at best.
  • There's enough atmosphere out here to support such a fiery explosion… right?

Game Details

Developer: EA Motive
Publisher: EA
Platform: Windows PC, Xbox One, PS4
Release Date: October 2, 2020
Price: $40
ESRB Rating: T for Teen
Links: Amazon US | Steam | Origin

For the past few years, we've seen EA try to claw back to solid footing with its Star Wars video games. After a disastrous launch, Star Wars: Battlefront 2 reversed MTX course and enjoyed years of free support and updates, while Respawn Entertainment managed to deliver 2019's solid-if-uninspiring adventure of Jedi: Fallen Order.

That was enough to earn some reluctant hope that this week's Star Wars Squadrons would continue EA's positive streak—and do so at a lower price point ($40), with no microtransactions, while recalling the glory days of X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter. Early Tuesday, I received retail versions for PS4 and PC, which wasn't much time ahead of today's embargo but perhaps enough to write a tidy "impressions" post about what fans could expect from the game's launch tomorrow—particularly its enticing VR mode, which is arguably the biggest VR-specific Star Wars flight experience yet.

Since Ars is a PC-focused site, however, I have to begin any impressions with a dire warning. Until we see significant patches to Squadrons' PC version, I must advise prospective players to not buy the game on PC (yet).

Every flavor of Wing and TIE

In Squadrons' 16-mission campaign, players alternate between piloting X-, Y-, A-, and U-Wings for the Resistance, and TIE Fighters, Bombers, Reapers, and Interceptors for the Empire. A prologue pair of missions sets into motion a mild tweak to Star Wars lore: Turns out, Alderaan wasn't entirely destroyed at the end of Episode IV, and a mandate to wipe out its remaining survivors sees a longtime Empire lieutenant defect and switch sides. (You were onboard with a super-laser destroying an entire planet and its culture for the sake of galactic "order," but a follow-up request to wipe out remaining civilians is too icky? Interesting flavor of fascism there.)

Fast forward after the prologue, and your both-sides campaign follows the events of Episode VI, with players joining squadrons on both sides of the conflict as each side transitions to its new identity of the rising New Republic and down-but-not-out Galactic Empire. The campaign begins with a kooky cast of throwaway good guys, and the game very much wants you to bond with these characters… in the form of them talking to your silent protagonist between missions with zero dialogue options on your part.

If tone is what you remember about classic LucasArts flight-sim games, be warned that this campaign lands in somewhat bubbly territory. This isn't a Care Bears adventure, mind you, but expect lots of Clone Wars-caliber "let's go!" declarations, plus a decent number of ominous, "I wonder what all of our missions are going to lead to" moments of obvious foreshadowing.

Star Wars Squadrons launch trailer

Should you mash the "skip" button (which I currently recommend, as the sluggish plot points repeat mid-mission anyway), you'll find yourself in open-space battle zone after open-space battle zone, where you engage with enemy forces in large-scale dogfights. Mid-mission objectives pop up frequently: Kill all of the enemies flying in your direction; destroy specific parts of a larger craft; take down radar jammers before engaging with foes; kill anything that comes near while protecting a convoy; and so on. Sometimes, you'll fly around large structures with tunnels and paths that guide your progress, but don't expect many arcade-style levels where you barrel down a straight-line path.

Yet in spite of the game revolving around open-space combat, Squadrons features a particularly arcadey brand of dogfighting. For starters, the campaign's advice, once enemies lock on to your position with missiles, is to simply begin turning wildly and erratically. You'll have to progress a little ways through before the game does anything to teach players about its "drift" functionality, which I've yet to get the hang of but is a welcome twist to the otherwise straightforward control scheme (and is one major point ahead of the incredibly straightforward controls found in Battlefront 2's Starfighter Assault dogfighting mode).

Also, the game's default suite revolves around linear speed management in unrealistic zero-G blackness, as opposed to the drag-heavy or loop-de-loop flying you might associate with console dogfighting classics like Crimson Skies. Thus, when you yank your ship's throttle down to zero, it will slam to a mid-space stop and hover in place, instead of demanding that players manage a reverse-thrust system to stop themselves from endlessly floating. I'm personally fine with that! But I point it out to remind readers that this game relies on "Star Wars physics," from the same universe that brought you the gravity-dependent Episode VIII bomber run against a Dreadnought.

PC woes, mostly with VR

My progress in tackling the campaign was severely halted on PC by a few bugs. On multiple occasions, the game would tell me to tail a specific AI squadmate, but that squadmate would begin flying in endless, wacky circles, U-turning over and over without the game realizing that I had zero way to move the mission forward. (Because the game often revolves around open space, and corrects for when players fly in an arbitrary direction after completing an objective, your next vital waypoint won't materialize until the game warps enemies or objects into the edge of your horizon.) Closing and restarting the game wouldn't fix this; I had to restart entire missions to overcome this bug.

This came after I struggled to get the PC version's VR modes up and running for multiple reasons. Much of this may have to do with my review copy only working on EA's Origin launcher, not Steam. In order to play in VR on the Origin version, you have to go into an in-game options menu, then click into the VR sub-menu, and then select "toggle VR." Once you do this, you have to leave your flat-screen monitor, put on your VR headset, and answer the "Did the mode switch properly?" question within 15 seconds, or the SteamVR fork shuts down and dumps you back to your flat-screen monitor.

In my case, this was further complicated by the SteamVR overlay blocking the Squadrons prompt, so I had to power on my Valve Index controller (which is otherwise incompatible with the game) quickly enough to tap the "menu" button, then grab my preferred controller and say yes, before the 15 seconds ran out. In a dream world, players will someday get a "launch in VR" button before the game even begins, either on Origin or Steam, but as of press time EA's reps have yet to answer my repeated questions about this.

My PC-VR woes didn't end there. The pre-launch version of the game regularly glitches when it transitions from flat-screen play to VR mode, in such a way that menus don't appear and the game is unplayable. The only way I could fix this was to switch the game's flat-screen version from "full screen" to "borderless" or "windowed," and I'm hopeful that bug is quickly squashed.

I'm less hopeful about potential bug squashing for the Valve Index, the current best PC-VR option to support 120Hz frame rates. When playing Squadrons in VR at its 90Hz setting, with all VR graphics settings near-maxed on an RTX 3080 and i7-8700K, SteamVR's frame-time graph confirms that its frames render at roughly 8.2ms. That's within the threshold of a 120fps mode, which I prefer for spin-filled space-flight sims like Eve Valkyrie and Elite Dangerous; you'll do a lot of high-speed spinning in Squadrons, owing to its arcadey, fake-physics core, and as a sensitive VR user, I struggled with that lurching sensation while trying to chase foes in dogfights.

However, in the game's pre-release build, formally toggling Valve Index to 120Hz mode tanks the frame rate closer to 90-100fps, and it introduces erratic frame time spikes, even with all visual settings turned down to their bare minimum. (Not good for my VR space nausea.) Plus, honestly, going back and forth to test different SteamVR settings was made all the more difficult by the game randomly crashing when transitioning from a between-mission barracks to flight sections (with no crash dialogue shown by either SteamVR or Origin).

I harp on these VR issues because, well, gosh. When I got the game working smoothly on SteamVR, the sensation of being inside classic Star Wars starfighters, with waves of light shining in such a way that perfect shadows danced over my TIE Fighter's interior, I felt like I was on the coolest Disney amusement park ride of my life. Sadly, thanks to bugs, that sensation was fleeting, and I had to do most of my testing outside of VR, where the lack of customizable FOV (ughghghgh) meant the game's flying sensation paled in comparison.

Only six maps? Really?

  • One of the game's six multiplayer maps at launch. The debris is interesting to fly through, but it's not attractive from a distance.
  • Another debris-filled map, which doesn't look so great as a still. In motion, light glances around the battlesphere in compelling ways, at least.
  • My favorite of the six battling maps at launch, if only because it has an actual iconic ship smack in the middle for players to fly around. (Why no open passages to fly through, though?)
  • Fleet battle overview map, which you'll see after each death. Your team is trying to destroy their giant, turret-loaded ships while protecting your own, and you can only attack your foes' larger ships when you've built up "momentum" by killing foes enough times. It's got a WWE-style vibe to it, in terms of the constant back-and-forth.
  • Set up ship-specific loadouts between matches.
  • Each option has a decent number of tradeoffs, and none can be purchased with real-world money.
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