Right up front, Star Wars Squadrons is by no means perfect. It’s a game with flaws — a fairly generic story, it’s light on the viable game modes and Yavin might be literally the worst multiplayer map of all time. But it plays wonderfully and it looks gorgeous, and when it’s working it’s like nothing else.
There’s no way a game like Squadrons could be “easy to learn and difficult to master”. Difficult to master, certainly, and Motive Studio has done a phenomenal job at making sure their game has the depth required of a game where mastery might be pursued. I mean that with some… qualifying elements… but it’s broadly true. It’s difficult to master in the same way that I believe Overwatch is.
But you can’t make a game involving combat in a 3D Space that is easy to learn. What is easy, I think, is for those of us who grew up with Descent and X-Wing vs TIE fighter and Elite to assume that our familiarity with the systems translates for others, but it doesn’t. Rocket League is easy to learn. Fall Guys is easy to learn. Among Us is easy to learn.
The moment you challenge someone to ‘quickly’ understand the concept of combat in an arena where ‘Up’ is meaningless, easy to learn goes out the window. Even Ender needed a few chapters to work that out. I play with some guys who have mastered radial compass call-outs. Not just the idea of “Enemy at my 300”, but the additional info of “look to your 308”. We still haven’t worked out a decent way to communicate locations in Squadrons yet.
Squadrons does ease you into the concept, however. The Story mode prologue is arguably enough to teach a player what they need to keep track of to start down the path to success in multiplayer. It handholds you through ideas that, after just a few games of multiplayer, you will be chaining together in quick succession as you do your best to win.
Watch how, in this sequence (in the video), I take down an enemy pilot, switch full power to my engines, adjust shields to rear and then boost through the skeleton of a Star Destroyer to escape a pursuer.
That is, hands-down, one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in a game. It might be the coolest thing I will ever do in a game. And when I watch it back, I don’t even execute the maneuver all that well. I’m slow to boost on the tail end of the sequence, and I probably only live because I managed to secure my kill before my opponent reached the pick-up — if they’d reached it and then died, I wouldn’t have been able to recover as much as I did.
I’m playing Star Wars Squadrons on PC using a HTC Vive as my primary display. Again, it’s not a flawless experience. I’m not entirely sure why, but SteamVR appears to have some issues working with Origin and is prone to crashing. Cutscenes and loading screens are in an odd theatre mode, which I understand but I find a little jarring. And there isn’t a quick way to switch between VR and Regular beyond the Toggle Option in the menus.
But every time you find yourself in the cockpit of a new starfighter, there is nothing else like it in the world. Perhaps the Millenium Falcon experience at Galaxy’s Edge, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see that any more.
When the game fades in to the player sitting in the cockpit of an X-Wing, I briefly wondered if I needed to install windscreen wipers in the headset. That is a huge moment. You are sitting in the cockpit of an X-Wing. When you turn your head, you can inspect everything within. Your movements aren’t directly matched — I’m playing on controller, not flight stick — but they’re mirrored enough to be meaningful. Thanks to the giant canopy on the Rebel starfighters, you have nearly 270 degrees of unobstructed vision.
This isn’t exclusive to VR. You can ‘free-look’ by pressing the right thumbstick, but it’s not the same. Forget about not being in the same league, it’s not even playing the same sport. Free-look is awe-inducing, but it’s something you do once, to appreciate the sheer volume of detail in each and every cockpit.
The lovingly crafted buttons and dials and screens, the attention-to-detail in the reflections, or the scuffed wear and tear. Based on my annoying habit of gripping my controller too tightly and accidentally boosting my way into a wall by clicking the left thumbstick in, I presume I would hate free-look on the right thumbstick before long.
VR, on the other hand, is something I use every second of every game I play. And unlike free-look, which I’d probably wind up unbinding (I’ve genuinely considered — but obviously dismissed — ditching boost), I wonder if I can even play Squadrons without VR now.
It’s at its best in Rebel Alliance ships, which feature extreme viewing areas thanks to the broad see-through canopies, but even Empire ships benefit. There’s a definite adjustment period required, a learning issue, but where Rebel ships have 270 degrees of vision above the horizon, Imperial ships acquire a great deal of extra information on the Z axis below.
There was a wow moment for me when, while piloting a TIE Bomber, I realised I could turn my head to one side and look below the control column to find a target. It’s such a minor thing, but the absence of rigidity is immersive in an almost indescribable way. You get used to doing things in the space of your starfighter simply because you think it should work — and then it does.
What makes Star Wars Squadrons work as an expression of the power of VR is that it transports you into a seat many have long dreamed of filling. I’m reminded of a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin and his tiger friend are making wishes. Hobbes wishes for a sandwich, and Calvin berates him for his stupidity. A trillion, billion dollars, is what Calvin would wish for, he says. A private continent. His own space shuttle. Hobbes gets a sandwich, and smugly declares that he got his wish.
If Calvin had wished to sit in the cockpit of an X-Wing, it would have been as similarly ludicrous as his other desires. And yet, with VR and Star Wars Squadrons, I got my wish. No other VR game has ever managed that before. They’ve come close, but limitations have always held them back.
VR is built upon the idea of presence, the nebulous concept that hinges on blurring the lines between fantasy and reality in a way that is often out of reach for many games. On realising the idea of a game really making you feel like X. And when the presence factor is done well, it can be a massive boost to immersion in a game.
But too often VR games are built solely around this concept. They do little beyond this. And so after the wow factor fades, you’re left instead with a game that amounts to not much more than some unsatisfying shooting and the same four puzzles repeated over and over.
Star Wars Squadrons was built as a robust space-based dogfighting game first, and VR was added — but nailed — afterwards. And while its space-based dogfighting might be a little prone to deathballing and while one of the maps is a travesty, it still succeeds in being a generally great game — and a phenomenal VR experience.
If you’ve already got a VR headset, Star Wars Squadrons is a must-have. If you’ve got a powerful PC already, and the requisite disposable income, I’d heavily consider buying a VR headset for Squadrons. I think it’s that amazing an experience.