A long time in a go in a galaxy not so far away, space simulators such as the Elite, Wing Commander, and Descent series were all the rage on primitive computers that were limited in just about every category that we take for granted today. Even so, these games often pushed the limits of these machines, simulating a galaxy-wide economy, or the navigational systems of a believable spaceship, often using most of the keys on the keyboard with their myriad controls. Sadly these games fell from prominence in the early naughts, but they have been making a resurgence over the last several years. One of the latest to join this new guard is EA and Motive's Star Wars: Squadrons, which purports itself to be a re-imagining of the classic X-wing and TIE Fighter games of the 1990's. But with so many new features, a focus on team-based multiplayer, and the need for compatibility with game controllers on console, one has to wonder how much of the older sims is still there, and what new ideas have been brought to the table.
The core of Star Wars: Squadrons is, well, your squadron. Conventional wisdom holds that a squadron is a group of fighters all of the same class, but this game focuses on small teams of different kinds of fighters, reminiscent of the teams of mercenaries in Team Fortress 2. They can be customized with weapons loadouts, engines, shields, and cosmetics as you progress. In the Fleet Battle game mode each team tries to destroy as many enemy fighters and capital ships as possible to boost their "morale" and diminish that of the enemy. I really don't like just how wantonly Imperial Star Destroyers, the invincible symbols of Imperial might and power, are taken down like younglings in the Jedi Temple, but this is a problem across a lot of the new Star Wars media so it wouldn't be fair to single out Squadrons for this.
As for the navigation mechanics, maybe it's just the layout of the maps, but movement often seems to take place in more of a 2D plane than 3D space. It almost feels more like a vehicular combat game than an arcade flight sim. Most of the maps are centered around giant space stations, so players feel like they're going fast as they zip past which would be more difficult to convey in just the blackness of space. There's also "drifting", which can be done immediately after using the speed boost to let you quickly change direction, and then you boost again to go. It's really more of a hard-coded gimmick than a natural consequence of the game's flight engine - a very important gimmick mind you, but not as flexible or physically realistic as a 2003 game called Freelancer. In that game when you kill your engines, your ship coasts along until you fire your thrusters pointing in the direction you want to go. There's also an odd mechanic that arbitrarily makes 50% the optimal speed for turning; I have no idea why this was done other than to make things more complicated.
Speaking of the speed boost though, it's part of a significant change to the Engines/Lasers/Shields power management from the classic games. In the 1993 X-Wing sim (and virtually every space game since) your engines also generate power, which is limited so you have to be smart about how you distribute it. In the old games F9 would toggle through the five settings for lasers, and F10 would toggle through the shield settings, while engines would just keep whatever was left. Lasers and shields would discharge over time if unpowered but could be overcharged to increase their capacity. Well, in Squadrons the engines are treated as a separate system, and when you shunt more power to them it will also fill your boost meter. (Shunting it to lasers will do more damage, though I'm not sure if shields do anything.) I guess the idea was so you could quickly max out one system or equalize them all with the four D-pad buttons on a controller. Also by default there's only three or four settings per system, but you can get the classic five settings in the options.
All in all Squadrons is a fun game and I look forward to playing the local multiplayer, but it seems like the developers opted for more mechanics which add a lot of complexity to the game, rather than a few simple ones which lead to gameplay depth. This is somewhat true of many space sims, but I feel that this is especially so for Squadrons. As for how it compares to the older sims, it definitely was not striving for realism or tactics but instead went with a flight system with an emphasis on going fast and unleashing absolute destruction on the enemy. It may not have the more tactical engagements or the refined targeting systems of TIE Fighter or Freespace 2, but it certainly makes up for this in providing a fun, fast-paced experience to enjoy with family and friends, whether on the living room couch or across the globe via the Internet.
EDIT: Darn it, there is no local multiplayer. Just the online, so if you wanted to play it with family you’d have to buy another copy. I’m sure there are ways around that...