Back in 2017, Star Wars: Battlefront 2 left me bitterly disappointed. After the first game lacked a story mode, the sequel not only flaunted such a campaign but also promised to deliver a narrative from the imperial perspective. I even read the prequel novel following the prior exploits of Inferno Squadron and was prepared for the continuing adventures of the Empire’s elite unit. Then, early on in Battlefront 2’s short campaign, our imperial protagonist defects to the New Republic and the game fails to commit to highlighting the intriguing viewpoint of those who decide to stay loyal to the Empire after the Battle of Endor. The story was ultimately nothing more than okay following the traditional rebel perspective because the missed opportunity cast a large shadow over the rest of the game.
The beginning of Star Wars: Squadrons, the first-person space combat game released last year, similarly annoyed me. We begin as a TIE fighter pilot whose commander, Lindon Javes, defects to the Rebel Alliance and then we skip forward a couple of years to Javes being a notable member of the New Republic where we play as a pilot of Vanguard Squadron under his command. Not again! The prospect of focusing on the Empire had flown through our fingers like the Millennium Falcon through an Exogorth’s mouth. The New Republic missions are decent enough with the usual band of quirky aliens and legacy characters but soon they become repetitive. There’re just no personal stakes for me or the pilot I’m controlling. And then, thankfully, the game returns to the Empire. The campaign is rejuvenated by the secondary storyline of Titan Squadron; the less often seen people who believe and stand by the Empire. People, like me, pissed at Javes’ defection.
These Titan Squadron missions, striking back at the New Republic for both a higher cause and personal vengeance, truly let you be the bad guy. You wipe out squadrons of X-Wings, Y-Wings, A-Wings and every-other-letter-under-the-twin-suns Wings. Except for B-Wings annoyingly. Where are the B-Wings?! You can destroy civilian transports and feel your eyes turn yellow as you submerge yourself in the dark side. There are no penalties, it’s all embraced. Encouraged, even. The game fully commits to the imperial point-of-view. It reminds me more of the old Battlefront campaigns more than the reboots ever did. And it’s worth noting that this joy at evil deeds I experience is with the healthy distance of space fantasy fiction where I can play the cackling pantomime baddie with unashamed glee. This isn’t supporting the despicable fascist regimes that the Empire is inspired by. This is Star Wars.
But Titan Squadron aren’t just evil for evil’s sake. Each member has their own understandable reasons for staying steadfast with the Empire after the Emperor’s death. Varko Grey was a ParSec police officer on Parkella who wanted to end corruption and the local slave trade but got caught up in red tape and Brazil-esque bureaucracy, a notable flaw of the old Republic, and joined the Empire. Sol is critical of the Emperor’s decision to dissolve the senate and aspires to be a senator. She thinks the Empire can do better with a government rather than a dictatorship but that it still needs to remain a mighty network of control, not the shambles of the New Republic. Shen has been brutally injured at the hands of the Rebellion many times and so wants to hunt down and stop the terrorists responsible. Kerrill was a Coruscant street orphan and the Empire gave her everything. The only member played as a straight-up classic, cold imperial is Vonreg who wants revenge for Palpatine’s death, and is likely connected to Elrik Vonreg from Resistance.
The game’s campaign juggles two squadrons on either side of the war, shuffling between Vanguard Squadron and Titan Squadron every few missions until the climatic battle for the Starhawk, a prototype New Republic vessel built from scrapped Star Destroyers. Throughout Squadrons, I was constantly wondering just how the game was going to end. Who would be the victor when the player is an active participant in both sides of the war? To my shock and delight, it’s the Empire who fly off into the sunset having achieved their mission. The Starhawk is destroyed (from the inside in classic Star Wars fashion) and Javes is shot down after a lengthy dogfight with the strongest X-Wing ever. Vanguard Squadron is off defending civilians while Titan Squadron successfully complete their official mission and quench their personal revenge. It’s a bold move for the game.
But sadly, that’s not the end. One New Republic mission remains, even if I try to ignore its existence. Javes somehow survives (yawn) and Vanguard Squadron turn a defeat into a little victory by flying the battered Starhawk into a nearby moon, decimating the remaining imperials who didn’t fly off to party like Titan Squadron did. Javes lives and promises to build more Starhawks in an ending that wants to offer that Star Wars-branded sense of hope to an otherwise enjoyably dour ending. It does feel like something of a compromise. And the canon fate of Titan squadron? Either death at Jakku in the very near future or they could be some of the lucky few that flee to the Unknown Regions to create what will become the First Order because yes, the sequel trilogy is canon, haters.
In truth, overall, I didn’t much care for most of what Squadrons had to offer, which ultimately was very little. It felt cheap and half-arsed in a way EA excel at. The company have cancelled grander, more expansive games to instead focused on smaller and less interesting games they can rush to market like this. I’m not a flight simulator fan, and the gameplay was often frustrating and repetitive. The game has two silent protagonists who can’t move outside of their cockpit and the fact that you pick a name and unseen face for them places them in the nether realm of not being a proper character but not a blank player surrogate either. The one saving grace – the element that kept me playing – is that Squadrons isn’t afraid to commit to the Empire’s point-of-view. It gave us proper, engaging imperial characters who never wavered and were treated more as protagonists than antagonists. They were truly the heroes of this story.
Have you played Star Wars: Squadrons? Did you prefer Titan Squadron over Vanguard Squadron? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.