You spend most of Star Wars: Squadrons sitting in your ship. For a pilot, thrusting into the vacuum with a star war on the other side of the glass, this lonely position is a front row seat. The danger of being up there above civilisation, loosed from its dream of life, is that the bigger picture goes blurry. “Get your head out of your cockpit,” says Princess Leia, in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, advising a hot-headed pilot, named Poe, to hang fire. “There are things you cannot solve by jumping into an X-wing and blowing something up!” Yeah, right. That’s pretty rich, coming from a woman whose hair, at its most iconic, made her head resemble a TIE fighter.
The story of Squadrons unfolds over fourteen missions, all of which are solved by blowing something up. We first follow Lindon Javes, a pilot and instructor for the Galactic Empire, whose features bear the weight of someone whose dark side is beginning to lighten up. “I didn’t sign up to hurt innocent refugees,” he says, which makes us wonder what he did sign up for, and how, apparently until now, he has soared above the stench of his side’s tactics. A similar swerve was made by Iden Versio, the heroine of Star Wars Battlefront II, who hopped to the side of the Rebel Alliance after her homeworld was marked for advanced global warming. That defection felt more convincing, whereas when Javes’s moral targeting computer splutters and beeps back to life, in accordance with the demands of the plot, you don’t quite buy it.
Our attention tilts between the New Republic and the Empire, or, more specifically, between Vanguard Squadron and Titan Squadron. You play as two new recruits: one assigned to the command of Javes, on the side of good, as signified by its carrot-and-cream jumpsuits, and the other to bad, who opt for charcoal numbers accessorised with nozzles, and helmets whose mournful grimace suggests a neglected pre-mission bathroom trip. The game was written by a squadron of its own, comprising Joanna Berry, Cathleen Rootsaert, Walt Williams, and Mitchell Dyer (the latter pair wrote Battlefront II), and the result is nothing if not democratic. Between missions, you fraternise with your fellow-pilots—highlights include the cheerful Gunny, who may be the sunburnt cousin of the creature from The Shape of Water, and, on the Imperial team, Shen, who carries the shrapnel of past battles (“Cybernetics keep me going”) and never removes his half-melted helmet.
By the end of the campaign, I knew how he felt. There is, however thematically appropriate, an airlocked quality to Squadrons. Outside your ship, whether in the icy hangars of the Empire or the warm bustle of the Rebel bases, you can’t move, only swivel the camera, cutting between boring briefings (something about a superweapon) and static conversations. The game has clearly been made with the enveloping powers of VR in mind, but the result, for those without the hardware, is that reality seems all too virtual. Where Star Wars most potently transports us is in its flashes of authentic texture—the writhing pans of food in the Jedha street markets, in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, or the mint-green milk that sloshes over Mark Hamill’s beard, in The Last Jedi. The closest we get here is the creak of your pilot’s leather gloves, and, sadly, we never leave space; no atmospheres are ruptured and seared through, and thus the air never feels breathable.
Still, this is not a deal breaker, given that breathless is clearly what the developer, Motive Studios, is aiming for. Even without the eyeball-grazing depth provided by donning a VR headset, the joys of Star Wars: Squadrons still live in the melding of player and machine. The process of becoming acquainted with your craft—that of feeling, not thinking—happens to be the best mechanical exploration of the Force I’ve found in a Star Wars game. The reason being that the Force doesn’t actually feature. No forks of lightning, hissing from the fingers, or objects psychically slung through the air; instead, the far superior mysticism of the user interface. To praise a UI programmer—in this case, Darin Casier—is to risk insulting them, of course, given that good UI is that which melts into the back of the mind, but with Squadrons it’s worth the risk. As the dials and glowing gauges of your dashboard slowly replace the controller in your hands, you almost feel like robing yourself in dusty Jedi brown and meditating.
The action itself harks back not only to Star Wars: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, from 1997, but to the Rogue Squadron series and the more recent Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter, from 2002. All of which is to say that the central pull of panning and looping through the black, lasers blasting at each wing, hasn’t changed all that much. Nor has it dimmed. The slow-release pleasure of a proton torpedo, as your crosshairs clamp into place and the missile hounds your quarry as if hungry for its exhaust fumes, is still worth the price of entry (a sober £34.99) alone. Not to mention the online multiplayer—available in standard Dogfight mode (essentially, Team Deathmatch) and the far busier Fleet Battles, in which two teams of five compete in an objective-based tug-of-war to destroy the opposing capital ship.
You could argue that Squadrons breaks no fresh ground, that it is merely the latest in a prized patch of genre; but the ground, fresh or otherwise, was left behind long ago, and being the latest is no bad thing. Aside from Star Wars: Battlefront—Rogue One: X-Wing VR Mission (a title as long as the ship in the opening shot of A New Hope), which was DLC, publisher EA has yet to provide us with a Star Wars-flavoured addition to the genre. The last Rogue Squadron game was released a long time ago, in 2003, and absence does much to sharpen our thirst for simple pleasures: those of hopping into a hunk of metal and shooting things.
Not that I would tarnish the beauteous TIE fighter—with its blunt, sawn-off silhouette and near-gothic octagonal porthole—with so dull a description. “There’s something very forthright about a TIE fighter,” says one character, a line that will speak deeply to those who emerged from Lucas’s worlds with a headful of machine dreams. Elsewhere, there are X-wings, naturally, along with Y-wings, A-wings, TIE interceptors, and so forth, all with various advantages and changeable loadouts. Our view—which never leaves first person—is used almost expressionistically, as sights that we’re used to seeing far, far away become, with the brief burn of an engine, close, close by. “From inside, you forget how big our Star Destroyers really are,” notes one of the Empire’s lieutenants, as you cruise above the pale canyons of its hull. The art direction, led by Mike Yazijian, offers up a feast of backdrops. One fight unfolds just off the shore of a cracked moon, whose bone-white innards unspool into the void; another rages through a blood-red nebula, as though space were suffering a bout of eczema. Forget about the stale story. Leave the briefings behind. Get your head in your cockpit!
Developer: Motive Studios
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Xbox One, PC
Release date: October 2, 2020
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