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A loading screen from an early demo of Star Wars: Squadrons shows a team of five rebel pilots staring down an Imperial armada. Image: Motive Studios, Lucasfilm/Electronic Arts

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Hands-on with Star Wars: Squadrons’ Fleet Battles

She’s got it where it counts, kid

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

I’m three and a half hours into a marathon demo of Star Wars: Squadrons, the new combat spaceflight simulator from Electronic Arts. A back-and-forth Fleet Battle has been raging for the better part of 30 minutes inside the Nadiri Dockyards, as a New Republic MC75 Star Cruiser and the Imperial Star Destroyer I rode in on play a high-stakes game of chicken. Now it’s time for the Empire to make its final push.

Inside my TIE bomber, I’ve put all power to my weapons systems. I’m slowly building up a charge on a ridiculous and powerful beam laser. If I can close with the 75 without getting shot out of the sky, I have a decent chance of ending the match. Even with a partial charge, the beam laser is a monster that can do serious damage to even the largest capital ships.

With just a little over half the laser’s charge stored up, I tap the directional pad to ease more power over to my engines. I’ve only been playing for a little while, and I’m not quite sure how long I have before the charge dissipates. The bigger problem at hand, however, are the multiple turbolaser batteries bristling on the New Republic Star Cruiser’s dorsal side. In the last few passes, they’ve chewed me apart. With a little more speed, maybe this time I can evade them.

Just a kilometer ahead is a 150-meter-long Imperial Raider, which just dropped in from hyperspace to join the party. Pushing down on the stick, I put the Raider between me and the 75, skitching behind the little warship and using it for cover. The gambit works, giving me just a little more time to close the gap and charge my laser.

Better still, it looks like no one on the Republic side of the fight has seen me. That’s likely due more to the glitchy state of the game’s HUD than anything else, but I’m not complaining. Full power to the engines now as I roll left and bank hard, turning into the broadside of the 75 like a dive bomber lining up on the deck of the Sōryū at Midway Island.

Full power to weapons once more, I hammer both the right trigger and the right shoulder button on my gamepad. My little bomber grinds to a halt as the beam laser’s giant green light arcs out from underneath the cockpit, quickly joined by my rotary laser cannon as it spins up. To my right now I can see the X-wing rising over the gentle curve of the 75’s hull, ready to line up the shot. But before they can reach me, I’ve landed a mortal blow on the Mon Calamari-made cruiser.

A TIE Reaper, TIE Bomber, TIE Advanced, and a vanilla TIE sit on the highly-reflective landing pad inside an Imperial Star Destroyer. Image: Motive Studios, Lucasfilm/Electronic Arts

As the final scoreboard comes up, I’m already thinking of how I’ll approach the next round of Fleet Battle when Star Wars: Squadrons goes live this fall. Close communication will be key, as each of the five-on-five matches will be ranked during online play. The hardest part, I think, will be finding enough people with the right kind of skills — and the patience — for high-level ranked play.

Taking down a capital ship armed to the teeth with defensive batteries is one thing. Taking those same ships down while up against five human pilots who know what they’re doing should be something else entirely.

I can already see different wing compositions and loadouts working better than others. Two bombers might be enough, maybe, with an escort of just a few fighters armed with shield-disabling ion weapons and anti-ship missile batteries. The only question is whether to make the fifth ship a support vessel, or load up the formation with another bomber.

In an interview with Polygon on Monday, Motive Studios creative director Ian Frazier said that these kinds of tactical decisions are all part of the plan. Due to the asymmetrical nature of the capital ships themselves, players will need different strategies depending on which side of the battle they find themselves on.

“Approaching an MC75 Star Cruiser is different than approaching a Star Destroyer,” Frazier said. “Where their turrets are placed, where their tractor beam emitters are relative to the hangar, and so on. All those things make a difference in how you need to be able to attack those ships, and ultimately makes a difference in balance.”

The big equalizer, Frazier said, is player skill.

“Internally, the way that our capital ships are set up, we have what we call the ‘Porkins to Poe’ scale,” Frazier said. Jek Porkins is one of many Rebel starfighter pilots killed during the Battle of Yavin in Star Wars: A New Hope. Poe Dameron is the ace starfighter pilot from the modern trilogy — the man who destroyed Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens.

“If you fly straight at [the capital ship] — in a straight line, you’re not doing any evasive maneuvers — there’s a certain amount of damage that we expect you to take,” Frazier continued. “And, if you’re performing extremely well — you’re [putting] power to engines and you’re being evasive — they’re much less effective.”

A wing of TIE Bombers lets go with a volley of continuous-beam lasers in Star Wars: Squadrons.
Two TIE Bombers go to work with Beam Lasers on a New Republic corvette.
Image: Motive Studios, Lucasfilm/Electronic Arts

Eventually, players will get the hang of how to survive an encounter with Squadrons’ capital ships. They’ll be able to return to the hangar on their own capital ship, to rearm and to repair before going back for another attack run. After that, the biggest threat will be the other players.

For that reason, Squadrons will feature a robust practice mode. It will allow players to spawn in capital ships at will and try out different strategies. There’s also an offline single-player mode that allows players to fight alongside friendly AI. Add in a full-featured, five-player “comp stomp” mode against enemy AI, and Squadrons will give players plenty of opportunities to level up their skills before heading into ranked play.

Star Wars: Squadrons is scheduled to be released for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One on Oct. 2. On PS4, the game will be compatible with PlayStation VR. On PC, expect to be able to use the most popular flight sticks, hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) setups, and rudder pedal sets on the market. The game will also be compatible with PC-based virtual reality systems, including products made by Oculus.

Thrustmaster T16000M FCS HOTAS for PC

  • $160

Prices taken at time of publishing.

Thrustmaster is an old hand at flight sticks. Their 16000M series is compatible with games like Elite: Dangerous, MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries and the upcoming Microsoft Flight Simulator. It’s also the control stick of choice for bounty hunter Din Djarin on Disney Plus’ The Mandalorian.

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