Electronic Arts
October 19, 2020 4:59 PM EDT

I’m flying through the Nadiri Dockyards, where the New Republic constructs warships to take on the ever-expanding Galactic Empire. In my X-Wing starfighter, I’m being followed by an enemy TIE Bomber set on turning me into space dust. Hit after hit knocks out my shield until I decide to hide behind an asteroid, kill the engine, and watch as they zoom by, landing right in my sights. “You’re a galactic pain in my ass!” I scream to my silent squadmates when the shot connects, leaving only a shower of sparks and debris as evidence of my deft maneuver. It’s my fifth kill in a row, the final kill of the match, and the last one needed to win the dogfight by a single point. I realize I’m on the edge of my seat and slump back into my chair, basking in the feeling of a job well done, and itching to tell everyone that Star Wars: Squadrons is the most fun you’ll have in a virtual cockpit.

But, like a backyard barbecue or round of paintball in the woods, it’s better with friends.

Squadrons, EA’s multiplayer-focused space combat game (developed by Motive Studios), is one in a long line of Star Wars tie-ins that put you in the pilot’s seat of your own nostalgia-fueled fantasy vehicle. This time, you play as two green pilots on either side of the war between good and evil: the Jedi-loving New Republic Navy’s Anvil Squad, and the Galactic Empire’s Titan Squad. During the game’s single-player campaign you bounce between sides, flying up to eight different ships for both sides.

The game’s story, ostensibly about a turncoat Galactic Empire officer being hunted by the team who trusted him, is short enough to be filled with incredibly exciting set pieces, but long enough to frustrate you with predictable and boring out-of-cockpit scenes. At times I found myself laughing at the bland dialogue, and once audibly groaned when a character’s last ditch effort to take down the Galactic Empire involved—you guessed it—flying through a tiny corridor to shoot some missiles into a hole. Sound familiar?

Also, not a single Jedi or Force user? Come on!

But once you’re in the cockpit, Squadrons does a fantastic job of making you feel like you’re actually, well, flying. To manage your energy levels for systems like weapons and engines, check your radar for enemies, or figure out how many proton torpedos you have left, you’ll have to look at those flight instruments, friend—hard to do when you’re dodging giant rocks, lasers, and bombs.

Each ship has its own strengths and weaknesses—TIE Bombers deal more damage at the expense of mobility; A-Wing starfighters sacrifice durability for better maneuvering. That adds up to a very interesting combination of ships when it comes to five-on-five multiplayer matches, the game’s main selling point. Ships also offer customizable loadouts, letting you equip different engine types or armaments to suit your tastes, be they speedy flybys or head-on assaults.

What’s particularly exciting about Squadrons is the inclusion of cross-platform play. Players can compete across consoles and computers, providing you with a pool of potential squadmates to team up with or enemies to take down. Unfortunately, you learn pretty quickly you’re not the hot-shot pilot you think you are, and it’s not because you didn’t log enough hours in flight school.

Squadrons allows you to control your ship with either a controller, mouse and keyboard, or HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick), essentially a flight joystick used to control planes in other games like Microsoft’s Flight Simulator or the Ace Combat series of military dogfighting games. You can also use a virtual reality headset to immerse yourself in your cockpit, turning your head to give yourself a better view of the scene compared to others not using VR.

In a game like Squadrons, your controls can mean the difference between mediocrity or believing you’re the most dangerous threat to anyone in the galaxy willing to try their luck against you. Playing with a controller is easy enough, but it’s hard to navigate through a field of asteroids unless you’re logging hours learning the ropes. Making split-second decisions against competitors with a more intuitive setup puts you at a disadvantage, and made me wish I could filter out HOTAS-equipped players.

Multiplayer matches are an exercise in tactics—when you can convince your squadmates to follow directions. Matches take place on up to six different maps, and range from traditional team deathmatch dogfights to Fleet Battles, which have you alternating between attacking enemy capital ships and defending your own from oncoming opponents. These high stakes tug-of-war battles are where the game shines, but also where its biggest weakness lies.

See, in Star Wars films, there’s chatter all over the pilot’s comms. Team leaders direct squadmates to focus on particular enemies or weak points on enemy ships, while squadmates call for backup if they find themselves outgunned. Unfortunately, that only works if you have a squad willing to literally talk the talk. Oftentimes I found myself the only person on my team speaking, directing teammates where to go or asking for a little assistance if someone was on my tail. You can issue commands with your controller of choice, but it lacks the urgency you need in the middle of a heated dogfight. There’s no “I can’t shake ‘em!” button, you know? Sometimes, even on the winning team, it felt a bit lonely out there in space.

If you love Star Wars, you’ll love Star Wars: Squadrons. If you love dogfighting, you’ll also love Squadrons. If you don’t mind being destroyed by someone with a controller setup that makes them a god among mortals on the battlefield, you’ll enjoy Squadrons. But take our advice, and stick to the practice mode first.

Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com.

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