"There's a TIE on my tail, he's going for missile lock." The X-wing of Vanguard Five streaks across the sky, above me and to the right. Fire trails from one engine as he banks and stalls trying to shake off the TIE Interceptor that's close behind him, green laser blasts like lightning in the sky around his wings.
I open the throttle of my A-wing and pull back on the stick, using boost to accelerate toward them as fast as I can. "I'm in pursuit, Vanguard Five. Keep weaving." My headset comms are full of noise, as other members of my squadron call out enemy fighters, call for help, and make frustrated noises as they're blown out of the sky... again. Laser fire is everywhere.
I level to the same trajectory as the TIE in time to see his laser fire rake the side of Vanguard Five. This is going to be over in less than two seconds. Levelling off, my targeting reticle starts to tighten on the TIE, who's still entirely distracted by trying to shoot down the stricken X-wing in front of him. I divert all the power in my craft over to the weapons at the same moment that I lock on. I launch an ion torpedo and it slams into the rear of the TIE Interceptor, immediately disabling all of his systems and leaving him drifting in space. For a moment, he's helpless - and a moment is all I need. I let rip with my A-Wing's primary blasters and the enemy craft explodes in a ball of fire and metal shards. I twist the stick, setting the A-Wing into a spin that carries it through the explosion - just like in the movies. Vanguard Five has moved out of the chaos for a moment, no doubt repairing his craft before he re-engages. Grinning to myself, I switch power back to engines, boost, and then drift 180 degrees and head back toward the main battle.
Moments like that are what make Star Wars: Squadrons one of the most enjoyable games I've played this year - and they happen constantly. It's the closest most of us will ever come to flying an X-wing or a TIE Fighter. It's also a sign of a serious change of direction (for the better!) for publisher EA, but we'll come to that later.
It's been a long, slow generation for fans of flight sims. While the original Xbox looked after us with Crimson Skies, and the 360 generation was blessed with the phenomenal Il 2 Sturmovik, there's been little this gen that's excited those of us who enjoy deflection shooting, the whines of missile locks and the sight of fighters being blown from the sky. With the generation winding down though, Star Wars: Squadrons has appeared. It doesn't just scratch that flight sim itch; it's also the most immersive Star Wars experience I've had since Star Wars: Rogue Leader launched with the Nintendo Gamecube all the way back in 2001. If you're a Star Wars geek, this might be the flight-sim you've been waiting for.
Star Wars: Squadrons is a fine example of a comparatively short game delivered by a team that know exactly what they want to achieve, and who then spare no effort on executing that vision. The game puts you in the cockpit of some of the most iconic starfighters from the Star Wars universe, in the period between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Those craft are impeccably recreated. They look and sound exactly like they should - and flying them feels just like you imagined. The level of attention to detail here is just staggering - the only people who are bigger Star Wars nerds than those of us playing it are obviously the guys who made it. The sound, in particular, needs to be mentioned. Play this through a decent headset, and you can hear the laser blasts coming past you and hear your astrodroid screaming behind you as you take fire. The twin roar of TIE fighter engines as you open the throttle is something that you'll feel in your soul if you're a certain age. The music also has that traditional Star Wars bellicosity - especially in the Imperial cutscenes.
The gameplay emphasis is entirely on space battles - with combat ranging from straight up dogfights that swarm the skies with enemy starfighters, to missions that involve escorting frigates or destroying capital ships. You'll never, at any point, be inside the atmosphere of a planet - but the environments are big and varied enough that you won't feel like you're missing anything. Ship type and loadout become essential in later missions of the campaign - and in some of the PvP modes - where the difference between loss and victory can come down to the timely deployment of a support craft.
There's a single player campaign available here - it's fairly short but in spite of that tells an interesting enough story, not least due to it splitting its run time pretty evenly between the Rebel (sorry, New Republic!) and Imperial perspective - and I think it's the first time that a game has ever really made effort to paint shades of grey into the motivations of the average imperial pilot. What the campaign is really doing though is acting as a lengthy tutorial for the multiplayer side of the game - which is where I can see most of us getting our money's worth from it. There's a reason the tutorial is as long as it is - and that's because there are a lot of mechanics in this game to master. Can you play it casually? Absolutely - but if you want to get the best from it, you're going to need to understand how to fly the ass off whichever starfighter you've picked.
Shields, engines, and weaponry are all systems that you can divert power to on the fly - allowing you to do more damage or survive longer depending on what is needed in the moment. Shields can be diverted to front or rear, or held at a level surrounding the ship. Engines, once powered to max, can also be used to boost - and a boost can be used to drift. Drifting sees your ship spin through 180 degrees, and is a really useful tactic for avoiding incoming missile or turning a pursuing fighter into a target in a heartbeat. Your fighter also comes equipped with a configurable loadout of bombs, torpedoes and defensive measures - all of which change the way in which you'll engage in combat. You'll earn points to pour into these upgrades as you progress through the multiplayer levels, and you'll earn cosmetics in the same way. And that's the only way you'll earn them - because in an unusual move, Star Wars: Squadrons is a curiously "one-shot" game.
Developer EA Motive has already confirmed that there will be no DLC. There are no game-as-a-service intentions to extend its tail with new content, or cosmetics, or time-limited events, or microtransactions. In that way, it feels like a throwback to the last generation - days when you'd spend your money, receive your game, and play it... and then move on. It's a refreshing move... especially as it's a game that actually left me wanting more. It's the first game I've played in a while that, were DLC be announced for it, I'd probably actually buy it - especially if it involved one of any number of standout moments from the Star Wars movies. The opportunity to do the Death Star trench run from Episode IV in a game that looks, sounds, and feels like this one does would be an opportunity that the child in me could not possibly say no to. Ditto the Battle of Endor from Episode VI. It makes a change for a game not to be milked dry by EA - but they really seem to be getting better in this regard lately, especially when it comes to games carrying the Star Wars logo on them. Maybe they learned some valuable lessons from the debacle that was Star Wars Battlefront 2's horrendous launch - and at this point I think videogame players can start to hold out some hope.
So, is Star Wars Squadrons something you should pick up? I'd say if you're a fan of either flight sims OR Star Wars, the answer is a big yes. If the answer to both is yes, then the big yes becomes an emphatic one - delivered in caps lock with several exclamation points following it. The more time I spend with this game, the more I feel as though it's a game that I've wanted ever since I was a kid, hunkered in front of a TV watching Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star. And while I'd love to have seen the inclusion of more of the classic Star Wars movie moments here, what did make it in is more than enough to justify the cost of entry. I can see this becoming my PvP game of choice - and I reckon I'm going to be playing it for quite some time to come.