From the moment legendary concept artist Ralph McQuarrie
pencilled a rough design for the A-wing, it was OP. The X-wing? It’s got a multi-pronged silhouette for TIEs to target. And the Y-wing is a lumbering bomber, despite its flat view from the rear.
The A-wing, though. It’s fast. It’s small. Unlike the TIEs – or any of the other Rebel starfighters for that matter – it has an open-view bubble cockpit. Your best bit of frying it is to hit it from above on its capital A shape, but “above” is a relative term even when you’re dealing with Star Wars space ‘physics’.
This inherent problem of the A-wing as the Grand Moff
of all mobile starfighters is something creative director Ian Frazier
is keenly aware of when we start talking about the 5v5 multiplayer Star Wars: Squadrons
. Which also has a co-op mode and a campaign for those afraid of the competition amid an ocean of stars in that beloved galaxy far, far away.
"You look at players who play RTS games competitively; there’s that idea that focus or attention is a resource. Only so much of your brain can do different things..."
“You mentioned the bubble cockpit of the A-wing, how much situational awareness you have,” says Frazier. “I was actually pretty worried about that early in development. I was worried about Rebels
. I was worried about VR versus non-VR because we support both.
“It’s funny, I went back and looked at the game FAQs page for the original X wing vs TIE fighter in 1997,” Frazier continues. “And this note came up there, 20 years ago, saying, ‘Hey, how do these factions balance?’ or something to that effect. And the answer then I found to be equally true today in Squadrons, which is: “it’s a question of focus”.
“You look at players who play RTS games competitively; there’s that idea that focus or attention is a resource. Only so much of your brain can do different things. The TIES, without needing to manage shields, without having a lot of peripheral stuff to see, they’re very, very focused. So you have less to deal with. That fact you have less to deal with is actually a pretty significant win for the player that’s in those TIEs.”
That said, Frazier notes that the VR-wielding A-wing pilot has an awareness edge, even if it’s a lot to take in.
“Something like an A-wing in VR is the most extreme case of tonnes of peripheral view,” says Frazier. “You have the most situational awareness. If that’s what you want, A-wing plus VR is the optimal build. But there’s a whole lot you have to process and have running through your brain when you’re in that situation. More like being a real pilot, there’s a certain skill of filtering and processing that information.”
The other way of managing the tricky balancing act of the A-wing is by ensuring the Rebel interceptor doesn’t have a lot of hope if you do catch one in your TIE’s sights.
"You can take components to make that less true, but each ship has its range of how tough and how fast and so on it can be..."
“In Squadrons, interceptors are comparatively flimsy,” says Frazier. “You can take components to make that less true, but each ship has its range of how tough and how fast and so on it can be. They’re on the high end of speed and manoeuvrability, the low end of durability. Granted, you’ve got shields – and you can do certain things to counteract that – but, by default, the big problem you have in an A-wing is if someone catches you, you’re going to be real sad.”
Frazier specifically mentions a starfighter-mounted tractor beam as one potential counter to reigning in zippy interceptors like the A-wing. Fans of X-wing vs TIE fighter may recall the tractor beam was part of that classic space sim. But while Frazier says the Squadrons team is comprised of devs who love the classic Star Wars space sims and those who were more into Rogue Squadron, Squadrons sounds very much like a successor to the sims rather than the arcadey games.
“Many of us on the team are huge fans of the Star Wars flight games from the 90s,” says Frazier. “The fundamental pitch was, we want to bring back what was awesome about that but in a way that makes sense for modern gamers.”
I’m sure I’m not alone here, but when I first heard the announcement for Star Wars: Squadrons, my excitement was immediately curbed by the belief that this would effectively be My First Space Sim. After all, while the starfighter stuff in DICE’s Battlefront II
was fun at first, it lacked the kind of depth that would afford it any real longevity as a popular competitive mode. After seeing the initial gameplay reveal, though, and talking more with Frazier, it appears that EA Motive is building Squadrons with skilled play in mind.
“We took [the starfighter handling from the movies and shows] and we went, ‘Okay, where can we find knobs that we can turn up to bring this to the next level to make this more exciting, to make you feel like a badass pilot?’ Fundamentally, that’s what we want. We want you to come through this feeling like an ace.
"Has enough depth and enough of a skill ceiling to it that you have to actually be an ace. There’s cool stuff you can do with the lower skill level that we think players will have a lot of fun with, but we want you to have that sense that when you’ve been playing the game for longer and practising and trying different stuff..."
“And we want to have something that has enough depth and enough of a skill ceiling to it that you have to actually be an ace. There’s cool stuff you can do with the lower skill level that we think players will have a lot of fun with, but we want you to have that sense that when you’ve been playing the game for longer and practising and trying different stuff, you’re always learning new tricks.”
One of these neat tricks is the option to flip a pursuit on its head and turn a tail pursuit into a cockpit full of blaster bolts for your pursuer. Once again, the interceptors seem to be the best fit for this in a game of fighters (X-wing and TIE fighter), bombers (Y-wing and TIE bomber) and support (U-wing and TIE reaper).
“Let’s say you’re in one of the faster ships like an A-wing or a TIE interceptor and you’re going at full speed,” says Frazier. “Those ships generally have more for boost charge; they can go faster and longer. You cut it off, you whip around, and you will maintain some momentum, but you’re not full-blown driving backwards. It’s more like you’re drifting slowly to a stop as you fly backwards with some of that forward momentum. Again, it’s not real physics, it’s Star Wars physics, where there’s kind of some drag in space and that’s simulated there.”
This is one of the ways to avoid that dreaded situation that all-too-frequently occurs in all manner of flight-based sims: the one where you’re caught in a perpetual purgatory of chasing each other’s tails in a dogfight. Mercifully, Squadrons has other ways of addressing this.
“Space combat games in general or even flight sims, they often have what we call the ‘death loop’. It’s that problem: I’m chasing your tail and you’re chasing mine. If you’re in something sluggish and I’m in something zippy, I’m probably going to win. But if we’re roughly evenly matched, loop and loop, around we go.
“The various components you can put on your ships are ways to potentially address that. But in terms of the core flight model, that boost ability and, ultimately, the drift ability are a big part of how we address that.”
Love it or lump it, that drift ability is the one inspired by Poe Dameron’s slick space skidding at the start of The Last Jedi. It’s a manoeuvre that stands out in defiance of Star Wars’ core World War II flight-model inspiration but it’s one that’s looking like a welcome addition in a Squadrons dogfight.
"Some of the balancing is done that way, in terms of what they’re allowed to equip, which mostly just fits intuitively. Like, you don’t see A-wings dropping bombs..."
One of the other deeper components of Squadron is the ways in which you can unlock and assign various components to your starfighters. While you shouldn’t expect to use components that convert, say, a bomber into an interceptor, there are ways to tweak your starfighter to suit a role or how you want to play.
“There are certain components that are tied to a certain ship or class of ship,” says Frazier. “There are other ones that can go to multiple different ships. It really depends. Some of the balancing is done that way, in terms of what they’re allowed to equip, which mostly just fits intuitively. Like, you don’t see A-wings dropping bombs. Neither narratively nor gameplay-wise, it’s not a natural fit for an A-wing.
“And all of our components are orthogonal. It’s not like you get the laser and then you get the level-two laser that’s just better. Instead, there’s the standard laser, which is pretty balanced. Or you can get the one that’s more like, say, an SMG where it’s pretty close-range and it’s kind of spray-and-pray, not good at a distance, not great energy economy, but it can be really good if you like fighting up close.”
As if the prospect of equipping an A-wing with spray-and-pray laser cannons isn’t threatening enough, EA Motive is also including the most famous A-wing moment from the movies as a rare but viable strategy for heroically taking down a capital ship.
“It happens very rarely, and it’s hard to pull off, but it is technically possible in our game to win a match by flying your A-wing into the bridge of a Star Destroyer at the very last minute,” says Frazier. “It doesn’t happen often because of a whole lot of different variables but holy crap is that awesome when it happens.”