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October 2021

Star Wars: Squadrons

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Racing
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Motive Studios
Release Date: Oct. 2, 2020

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PS VR Review - 'Star Wars: Squadrons'

by Andreas Salmen on Oct. 26, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Buckle up, take full control of starfighters such as the X-wing and TIE fighter, and feel the adrenaline of strategic first-person 5v5 multiplayer dogfights alongside your squadron.

Buy Star Wars: Squadrons

Star Wars: Squadrons is a change from Electronic Arts' recent online-centric offerings. It's a 5v5 Star Wars combat flight simulator. The game has a significantly smaller scope, no in-game microtransactions, and no planned additional content on the horizon. The big surprise is that the complete product is playable in VR, both on PC and PS4. While we've already reviewed the full game on the PS4, this article will focus on Squadrons' VR qualities, specifically on PSVR.

Although it's primarily an online multiplayer title, Squadrons features a short single-player campaign that lasts around six hours, depending on your skill level and difficulty. We take part in dogfights and fleet battles with different characters from the Empire and the New Republic, and we witness a new storyline that takes place directly after the destruction of the planet Alderaan in the original movie, "Star Wars: A New Hope." Refreshingly, the game doesn't rely on any known characters from the universe and focuses on telling a "smaller" story in the context of the original trilogy. It's a great way to get your bearings, since it introduces basic gameplay mechanics and concepts to you through some enjoyable set piece missions. It's the best place to start your career as a pilot, and it is a remarkably fun one at that.

Squadrons is very easy to get into, and the game and controls are the same regardless of whether you opt for VR, except with the liberty to freely move your head around. Unsurprisingly, VR elevates this to another level by putting the player in the game. The VR works well throughout, especially since it's played sitting down with either a controller or HOTAS, if you have one handy.

Since the entire game is playable in VR, the campaign will likely be the first destination to give the reliable X-Wing a tour around the nearest star destroyer. Even when playing without the assistance of VR gear, sitting in a meticulously re-created cockpit of a variety of ships from the Star Wars universe is a dream come true. VR helps to immerse you in the experience and story, since you feel like you're standing in the same room with the characters.

The game emphasizes diverse characters and making you feel like part of an actual squadron during the campaign — casual banter and all — but it doesn't achieve that goal across the board. As we switch sides between the Empire and Republic every few missions, our conversations with squadmates and commanders are often optional and lack impact. Outside of missions, conversations can sound stiff and incoherent, with characters reciting a bunch of lines with weird pauses in between.

Both the Empire and Republic have four ship types to choose from. The Bomber/Auxiliary, Fighter, Interceptor and Support have different abilities, depending on the selected class and whether you're with the Empire or the Republic. The Bomber is the heavy class that's capable of dishing out and taking more damage, especially against larger ships, but at the expense of maneuverability and speed. The Fighter class is an all-around class with good firepower, decent speed, and hull to hold off incoming fire. The Interceptor has greater offensive capabilities and is quite fast and maneuverable, but at the expense of being fragile. The Support class ensures that your squad is in good shape during a fight by healing and supplying ammo. Ultimately, the key to winning is to have a good team that consists of all of these different fighters to complement one another, but there is a learning curve.

It's glorious to fly ships in Squadrons, but the sense of skill feels especially rewarding in VR. Threading the needle through narrow passages, drifting around a corner, losing an enemy by circling a couple of asteroids — almost every aspect of the gameplay can feel empowering. It's satisfying to fly around obstacles, rotate on your axes, and buzz past debris or other ships. The game has a useful tracking and ping system, so we can decide what to track, like our enemies, flagship subsystems, objectives and squadmates; any subgroup can be selected with the press of a button. You can use this feature to track your pursuer and request that your squad provide air support. The system works reasonably well, but you'll frequently lose track of things by not being able to catch up to targets or losing them in the skies.

Part of what surprised me about Squadrons was its demanding gameplay loop. Using a controller is trickier than using HOTAS, but when it clicks, it controls well. During a battle, we can lock on to targets, shoot our main and auxiliary weapons, and manage our ship's energy. Most tasks are simple in theory, but managing and balancing all of them in the heat of battle can be quite demanding, especially for new players. At any time, our energy must be used strategically. By default, our engine, weapons, and occasional shields have the same energy attributed to them, but can maximize the energy of any of these systems at the expense of the rest. Routing energy to our weapons causes more damage, but we become a sitting duck due to reduced speed. Energy routed to our engines, however, yields slightly improved speeds and charges up boosting to reach an objective quickly or to get out of a tricky situation. Some ships have dedicated shield systems that we can route energy to, and we can even focus shields on either the front or back of the ship.

Ship interiors are crafted with an attention to detail that is astounding. Every single ship looks different, with layouts that are completely faithful to the source material, while still retaining the same design elements to alert the player of important functions like energy distribution, shields, and targeting. You can turn off the in-game HUD and fully rely on your digital cockpit.

What Squadrons does well is re-creating the hangars, which are filled with ships and mechanics. It feels like a missed opportunity then that we cannot walk around the hangars but must stand in the same spot almost every time. Usually, we'll stand in the hangar or briefing room, and we can rotate to engage in conversation, but that's it. It would've been great to walk around in the hangars.

There are a lot of variables to keep track of in Squadrons. Recognizing and exploiting situations with the correct energy settings becomes vital for higher skill tiers, but it doesn't end there. One of the tougher tasks is keeping track of the action when in the cockpit, and this is where VR provides a slight advantage. The view is fixed to a specific perspective in 2D, although you can technically look around with the right thumbstick, but VR provides the benefit of being able to freely move your head inside the cockpit. Of course, this is also dependent on your ship. TIE fighters usually have a limited field of view that might benefit those who suffer from motion sickness in VR. An X-Wing, on the other hand, has an open cockpit that provides a 360-degree view and higher susceptibility to motion sickness when watching the action while moving in a different direction. It's worth noting that there are no VR comfort settings for the gameplay, so what you see is pretty much what you get. The only comfort options are for on-foot situations between missions when talking to characters or watching mission briefings.

The game ran and played perfectly well in PSVR, making it one of the most impressive titles on the system. It won't surprise anyone that PCVR likely looks much better than PSVR, but at the same time, my opinion is that Squadrons in VR is a better experience than the standard version. There are two things to factor in: the processing power of the PS4 Pro and the resolution of the headset. We had almost no issues at all with the performance and visuals.

Everything close to you, especially the cockpits of the ships, are as sharp as possible given the display resolution. Anything closer than medium distance looks relatively sharp without sacrificing too much visual fidelity. Lighting and effects are detailed and crisp to do the heavy lifting in selling the VR experience. Objects that are further away eventually decline to a muddy blob on the horizon. It's noticeable but is not game-breaking or overly disadvantageous in competitive games. You only have a certain range with your blasters, so when you are in range to hit someone, you can see them to a reasonable degree.

As an aside, the game is built to accommodate VR, but the campaign usually shows cut scenes in a flat theater mode; gameplay and conversations with supporting characters occur fully in VR.

Squadrons has superb sound effects and the original soundtrack, so prepare your ears for some comforting Star Wars sounds as ships and laser fly around. When you reduce the first enemy fighter into a ball of fire and hear the debris hit the hull as you push through the fire, you'll recognize that the sound and presentation are superb.

Across six shared maps, Squadrons has two online modes: Dogfighting and Fleet Battles. Dogfights are 5v5 team deathmatches, and Fleet Battles requires destroying the other side's capital ship for victory. Before we can reach an enemy capital ship, we must take out two smaller destroyers that are stationed in front of it. As both teams square off, one eventually gains the advantage by removing enemies from the battlefield. This essentially goes back and forth until one of the capital ships goes up in flames.

The most frustrating part of Squadrons is the matchmaking and ranking system, which got off to a bumpy start and placed a lot of players in random ranks or the highest rank to create some mismatches. The most annoying part of the experience is the way it handles abandoned matches. As soon as a player leaves the match, the whole match is voided. I sometimes struggled for hours to have an unabandoned match. Almost every match started with the dreaded message, "Player left," so I could either continue playing but not get ranked or leave and go through the whole matchmaking process again. It takes about 10 fleet battles to get ranked, but we played about 20 matches to play 10 matches that counted toward a rank. It's frustrating and something that EA and Motive should figure out ASAP.

It's a testament to the quality of Squadrons that the game feels like it hasn't reached its full potential due to being held back by the limited selection of maps and modes. Six maps feel restrictive, especially since one of them (Yavin) is essentially an empty map for head-to-head destruction. The highlights are the areas that provide larger spaces for combat alongside more intricate constructions to weave around and lose your pursuers. My favorite is Nadiri Dockyards, where the middle section is essentially an intricate system of pods and angles and eventually an open space where the capital ships are located. Other standouts, like Galitan and Zavian Abyss, are essentially hostile asteroid fields that are a joy to navigate and chase foes around. There's room for more interesting content down the line — or that's what I hope because Squadrons may struggle to retain the interest of casual and more competitive players over time. The other concern is how fair the battleground will be going forward, mainly due to the advantages that players may have with different equipment, like HOTAS or VR headsets. We'll have to see how that aspect pans out.

At its most basic level, Star Wars: Squadrons is a solid title with great gameplay and presentation. Its reduced price and limited scope are a good value proposition, but I'd love to see some more content down the line. If you own a VR headset, Squadrons is an amazing experience and almost a must-have title, although it still has some things to iron out to become as good as it strives to be.

Score: 8.2/10

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