In 2013, Electronic Arts signed a deal granting them the exclusive rights to develop and publish Star Wars video games. For most of that time, sitting on the most lucrative licensing on the planet, they managed to release...three games, and cancelled at least three more.
That’s a terrible return! After years of neglect from a dying LucasArts, and in the wake of the cancellation of the high profile 1313, at the very least the EA deal should have brought with it a level of commercial competence—able to draw on the publisher’s immense stable of studios and experience—that delivered Star Wars fans a new generation of games to get lost in.
Instead, from 2013-18 we got Battlefront games far more interested in re-skinning and keeping EA’s Battlefield series in annual competition with rival Call of Duty than actually doing something smart or interesting with the Star Wars license.
In 2019 Fallen Order came along and started changing things. It’s far from perfect, being incredibly repetitive, featuring simplistic combat, a stupid way of unlocking force powers, and an overall willingness to copy the design tenets of the Souls series without actually implementing the narrative or systems to provide context.
But here’s the thing with licensed games. They don’t have to be perfect. They don’t even have to be great. They just need to be good, and let the license take care of the rest.
EA, of all companies, should know this! Before the licensed game gravy train died out in the late ‘00s they were the masters of it, most notably for their Lord of the Rings work (Return of the King, Battle for Middle Earth), but also with properties as varied as James Bond (From Russia With Love) and The Godfather, all of which were OK-to-good games elevated not just by their license but the lavish way EA would implement it, like getting film actors to reprise their roles.
While it’s always nice when they do, those titles didn’t have to excel as video games because they were serving as interactive versions of things we loved elsewhere, and for over a decade now, that’s all many fans have wanted from the Star Wars license. Not everything had to be a new Tie Fighter or Dark Forces. A new Republic Commando or Rogue Leader would have been just fine.
With Fallen Order, we got that. And now, with Squadrons, we have a lot more of it.
This is exactly what EA should have been doing from day one. Squadrons is a small game with limited ambitions. It wasn’t full-priced, it won’t have DLC, its single-player mode is little more than an overblown tutorial and its multiplayer is limited as well.
But by God is it Star Wars. With the possible exception of Battlefront II’s brief and surprisingly enjoyable single-player, Squadrons is maybe the best Star Wars experience since Dark Forces; not the best game set in the Star Wars universe, but one of the best, most authentic depictions of the universe in a game.
The music, the character design, the visuals, the environments, the sound effects, from start to finish Squadrons is like someone shook the last 40 minutes of Return of the Jedi and a video game fell out, only now instead of just watching it, we get to play it.
Like Fallen Order, Squadrons has its problems. For a game set in the depths of space it feels weirdly claustrophobic, and its engagements are all stage-managed in the very worst ways. Compared to the vast sandbox carnage of its spiritual predecessors X-Wing and Tie Fighter it pales in comparison, and even by modern multiplayer combat standards it feels undercooked.
As a Star Wars experience though it’s incredible, and that’s what’s more important here. I’ve had people over to my house just to sit down and play the game, which is something I can’t remember happening since I got a Switch at launch. The spectacle of soaring underneath a Star Destroyer, X-Wing cannons blazing as a Tie Fighter explodes in front of you, its debris raining against your cockpit while Star Wars music blares in the background is just, ungh, holy shit it’s so good.
Sure, I’d have loved this to be as good as LucasArts’ classics, an all-time great in its own right, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m handing developers a free pass here so long as their game has a license. Yet I’m also pragmatic enough to know that in this economy, at this point in video game history, at this juncture in EA’s deal, from this publisher, Squadrons is about as much as we could have hoped for from a space combat simulator.
It’d be great if the success of Squadrons compared to the investment put into it and the expectations it set can establish a precedent, particularly when it comes to EA and Star Wars. That publishers, for years now scared off by the supposed development risks of developing a AAA modern licensed game, can realise we’re happy with smaller projects.
I know in some ways this sounds like a crazy ultra fan-type thing to say, maybe even craven, but it’s fine to love licensed games! They played a huge role in my formative gaming years, simply by taking the things I like on the movie screen or comic pages and turning them into video games. From LucasArts’ own Star Wars games to EA’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, quality Transformers games like War For Cybertron, Konami’s TMNT arcade game, Simpsons Hit & Run, Goldeneye through to Shadow of Mordor, and countless LEGO titles, there are very good times to be had in licensed games, and there should be no shame in wanting more of them.
And Squadrons shows that not everything carrying the Star Wars logo has to be the biggest game of the year. My hope is that EA have looked at people’s love for a low-spec space combat game, a genre left for dead decades ago, and seen that hey, maybe we can do more of this, only with adventure games, or even strategy games.
Or—and this is my official cry for help, and maaaybe the only reason I wrote this post in the first place—Imperial Assault, only with cutscenes.