Star Wars: Squadrons review | Much like Darth Maul, starfighter sim flatters to deceive

The EA Motive-developed combat flight simulator hyperspace-jumped onto PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on 2 October

Star Wars Episode I: Racer on the Nintendo 64 was the first Star Wars game I ever played — at around the turn of the millennium. To my 15-year-old self, the podrace had been one of the most thrilling parts of what I felt back then was a pretty entertaining enough film (the present-day me could not sit through it long enough to get beyond Qui-Gon Jinn's explanation about Midi-chlorians) and the game most certainly did it justice.

From perfectly replicating the acrid dusty environs of the Boonta Training Course on Mos Espa and capturing that oddly satisfying 'wug-wug-wug' sound of a podracer as it makes a sharp turn, to featuring the ultimate Sebulba fanboy, that lovable scamp Watto, who even takes the time to hum Mad About Me (more popularly known as 'The Cantina Band Song') to himself, Racer seemed to have it all. If that wasn't all, the game was an absolute blast when played with a friend (or enemy too, I suppose) in split-screen multiplayer mode. And for a while, it was an incredibly exciting game that kept you coming back for more. For a while.

The biggest problem, ultimately, with Star Wars Episode I: Racer was the same one that presently afflicts Star Wars: Squadrons that made its hyperspace jump onto PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on 2 October. And that problem is that while gameplay mechanics lend themselves to what is inarguably a rollicking good time, it all gets very old very quickly.

But we'll get to all that in good time. Squadrons is a Star Wars space flight/combat simulator that puts you in the cockpits of starfighters belonging to the Galactic Empire and the New Republic. You get to fly eight starfighters in total: Two of each class — Fighter, Interceptor, Bomber or Supply — and one apiece from each alliance. Being able to zoom, stalk, prowl or drift across the galaxy in eight different starfighters is a mouth-watering prospect in itself. Especially when you consider that while the experience of flying spacecraft of one class (whether in terms of handling, offensive capabilities, speed or the ability to absorb damage) differs sufficiently from that of the next, there are dissimilarities between the Republic and Imperial vessels of the same class.

Screen grab from Star Wars: Squadrons

Screen grab from Star Wars: Squadrons

For instance, in the Fighter class, I found the Republic's X-Wing to be a little more agile than the Imperial TIE Fighter, while the latter's weaponry seemed more powerful than that of the former. Right off the bat, this makes a difference both strategically and tactically, and isn't too far removed from the way playing as FC Barcelona is tactically and strategically a completely different experience when compared with playing as Real Madrid (even though they might have similar overall ratings) in modern-day football games. And you'll notice this difference as soon as you switch classes or alliances over the course of the game.

Speaking of which, Squadrons offers two modes of play: A story mode and a multiplayer mode. The latter is further divided into Dogfights and Fleet Battles, which we'll examine in a little while. In all probability, it's the story mode you are likely to jump into after firing up the game, so let's look at that first. Set after the events of Return of the Jedi, or Episode VI if you prefer, you essay the role of two reasonably customisable — but to little avail since you rarely get to hear and almost never get to see yourself — characters, one of whom is an Imperial pilot and the other, a Republic pilot.

This is a very interesting dynamic that allows you to experience both sides of the conflict, casting you on one hand into the heart of the Empire's efforts to rebuild after being humbled in the Battle of Endor and on the other, into the Republic's efforts to consolidate its gains having just destroyed the second Death Star. If all of this sounds Greek to you, revisiting the original trilogy of films is in order. Amid twists and turns aplenty — of both the literal and figurative varieties, you watch a story of revenge, redemption, brutality and human nature develop from both perspectives. And it serves as a nice way by which to acquaint you with the arsenal of starfighters at Squadrons' disposal.

At least that's the premise.

In actuality, the eightish-hour-long campaign mode is a glorified tutorial, dressed up as a story. Considering the game's biggest draw, in pre-release marketing and publicity, has been its multiplayer component, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, I can think of a lot worse things than a campaign that teaches you the core game mechanics, alongside an engaging narrative. Unfortunately for Squadrons, that's only partly accurate. Why? All in good time; for now though, watch this video:

That the campaign mode teaches you the core gameplay mechanics and even slips you a few tips that will come in very handy in the multiplayer arena is absolutely accurate. That this plodding excuse for a story — only marginally more entertaining than life must be for Kylo 'One Expression' Ren's facial muscles — can be described as 'engaging' is anything but accurate. What makes this so much worse is that there was so much potential for a story told from both sides of the conflict that could make you empathise with both positions. What it instead turns out to be is a hodgepodge of lazy tropes, even worse dialogue and characters who are about as memorable as Captain Gregar Typho.

If this was an episode of Family Guy, we'd cut to a shot of the good Captain Typho taking a break from his duties as head of Padmé Amidala's security detail at the Galactic Senate, looking into the camera and intoning, "You don't even know who I am." But this isn't Family Guy, so let's press on.

It takes a special skill to create characters, who appear to hail the most boring morasses of the Star Wars universe, but somehow Squadrons nails it. But that isn't even the most egregious part of the story mode. That honour goes to the cutscene-mission briefing-actual mission-repeat structure of the story across 15 chapters (including a prologue). While the perspective changes, the format remains identical whether you're in Empire or Republic camp. The hangars and briefing rooms are laid out in exactly the same way and your teammates mill around in the same areas, ready to provide some painfully uninteresting exposition or backstory. The desire to hit 'skip' was very strong. Sprinkled in between the 'war table' cutscenes (where battle strategies are laid out... very slowly) are a few brief glimpses of outdoorsy space action in the form of short cutscenes that do a far better job pushing the story along than most of the indoors stuff.

On the multiplayer side, things are a lot brighter. Dogfights are your normal Team Deathmatch-style affairs, with upto 10 players split into teams of five, while Fleet Battles are a more sophisticated version with teams competing to destroy each other's Capital Ships. It's a bit like the dynamic of Counter-Strike married partially with that of Capture the Flag, where each round sees one team tasked with the defence of a Capital Ship, and the other tasked with attacking it.

Screen grab from Star Wars: Squadrons

Screen grab from Star Wars: Squadrons

While the gameplay is the only redeeming feature of the sorry story mode, multiplayer is where it really sings. Interchangeable starfighters and customisable loadouts (in terms of the sorts of lasers, munitions and defensive equipment like protective shields you wish to stock) lend themselves to a variety of different battle styles, each replete with their own strengths and weaknesses,  and ensure that no two rounds are identical.

Aside from customising loadouts, the ability to direct power to shields (and even choose which side of your vessel gets most shielding), engines or weapons at the flick of a button is most handy indeed. Coupled with a solid control system that sees throttle and roll assigned to the left thumbstick, pitch and yaw to the right and weapons and munitions on the triggers, it's the targeting mechanism — that tags either objectives, allies, enemies or anything else you fancy — that makes this whole space flight business so much easier to navigate. On the aesthetic side, while space and its various components — stars, galaxies, nebulae, ships, asteroids and explosions — are pleasing enough to the eye, it's the way the HUD makes way for in-cockpit instruments that makes for real immersion. I'd go as far as to say that everything about the gameplay just feels right: It's facile enough to pick up, but quite tricky to master, even at medium difficulty levels.

Squadron's problem overall is that apart from the rich gameplay mechanics, the package is just too thin to even justify a pricetag of Rs 2,499. There are six multiplayer maps on offer, which are great fun for a while but just like Star Wars Episode I: Racer, that fun wears thing once you're zipping around the same hulking mounds of debris or tricky asteroid fields, and know the ins and outs like the back of your hand.

Ship battles have always held a special place in the Star Wars lore, whether you're talking about the Battle of Yavin (A New Hope), the Obi-Wan Kenobi-Jango Fett dogfight (Attack of the Clones), the Battle of Scarif (Rogue One) or the Escape From Jakku (The Force Awakens). And over the years, we've seen a fair few games that have taken a solid crack at nailing this genre. While there have been some success stories like X-Wing vs TIE Fighter and X-Wing AllianceSquadrons provides one of the most intuitive, challenging and ultimately rewarding experiences among Star Wars space flight/combat sims in terms of its gameplay alone. Everything else disappoints, either immediately or in time.

Which is a crying shame really.

Game reviewed on PS4 Pro. Review code provided by publisher

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