Flying starships in Electronic Arts games over the last decade has been a mixed bag. In Star Wars Battlefront, released in 2015, starfighters felt stiff and awkward — like plastic models stuck to pegs and held out in front of the camera. With Star Wars Battlefront 2, the flight model was a bit more nuanced. But the environments still lacked the scale and grandeur to really let virtual pilots cut loose.
After spending some time inside the cockpit of every starfighter in Star Wars: Squadrons, it’s clear that this new space combat simulation is much more finely-tuned.
The difference begins with the maps themselves. During a four-hour press event on Monday, I played Squadron’s new Dogfight mode, which pits two teams of five against each other. The map we played on was called Esseles, which in the lore of Star Wars, is a powerful Imperial listening post tucked away in a forgotten corner of the galaxy. In Squadrons, it feels more like a playground.
The installation at Esseles is wide and flat — much like the Imperial base in orbit around Scarif in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The theater of combat is divided in half, with furballs happening both on the top of and below the massive disk-shaped facility. In between is a labyrinthine network of tunnels and little bits of superstructure. It’s easy to get lost inside the starbase, and skilled pilots will be able to use these passageways for cover and concealment as they maneuver around the enemy.
Flying inside Esseles is a far cry from the cramped, claustrophobic spaces in Battlefront 2. I was able to open the throttle wide, racing down long corridors or banking into curved sections. I could just as easily put on the brakes, pull up on the stick, and change direction without bumping into the wall. I can see these interior spaces being used as chokepoints, something similar to the narrow passageways common in competitive first-person shooters like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
The big differentiator for Squadrons, however, is the diversity of its ships. Each side, Imperials and Rebels, gets four unique starships to choose from. While they’re grouped together into four classes — fighter, interceptor, bomber, and support — their capabilities aren’t the same within each class.
My least favorite starship to fly was the New Republic’s X-Wing. Compared to the nimble Imperial TIEs it felt slow and awkward. It’s a multi-role ship, however, and performs well in a dogfight and as a fast-moving bomber, but it lacked the speed and maneuverability of the TIE.
My favorite ships by far were the TIE Interceptor and the A-Wing. Both were lightly armored, but incredibly fast. Outrunning enemy missiles or confusing their tracking by slipping behind cover was a breeze. It will take more time to get my feet under me as an attacker inside these ships, but on the defensive they’re tons of fun to fly.
Meanwhile, both the Y-Wing and the TIE bombers feel like more purpose-built attack ships designed for a single mode of play. Neither of them stands up well in a dogfight, mainly because they lack speed and maneuverability. Both have fairly powerful forward guns, but lining up a shot on smaller, faster ships is nearly impossible. Look for them to excel in Squadron’s Fleet Battles mode, but only when supported by fighters manned by attentive pilots.
The most curious ships by far are the support-class ships, which include the New Republic U-Wing and the TIE Reaper. Both are relatively new ships featured in Rogue One, and both were used in that film to transport troops into ground combat. In Squadrons they take on a very different role, providing fire support to lock down certain sections of the map and helping to repair friendly ships. They feel vital to the cooperative nature of the game, but only time will tell if they’re much fun to actually play.
That leads me to the game’s controls. I played using an Xbox One controller exclusively, and overall I liked the basic button map quite a bit. It puts pitch and yaw on the right stick, with the throttle and roll on the left stick. EA promises that controls will be completely customizable, so fans of different input methods will be able to tweak the game to meet their needs.
A key to being a good pilot, regardless of the ship you’re in, is managing the throttle. Pushing it all the way forward limits your turn radius, while pulling it all the way back limits your speed. Setting it right in between, however, gives you the best balance of speed and maneuverability. Looking at the throttle on the dashboard takes your eyes away from the enemy. That means players using a hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) setup should be at an advantage, since they’ll be able to know exactly where their throttle is set just by feel alone. Anyone with a virtual reality headset should also have the upper hand, since situational awareness and visibility are key to piloting. There’s a lot of stuff flying around in Squadrons, and ships are very tiny at a distance. That means bigger monitors will be key, not simply displays with higher resolutions.
Sadly, neither the HOTAS controls nor the VR systems were functional during my demo.
Star Wars: Squadrons is scheduled to be released for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One on Oct. 2. It will be compatible with PlayStation VR head-mounted displays on console, and with PC-based virtual reality systems. The game is fully cross-play compatible, and developers tell Polygon that there won’t be any restrictions in ranked play based on platform or input method.
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