Star Wars Squadrons prequel movie and the future of Star Wars video games

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GameCentral speaks to the people behind the new Star Wars Squadrons movie short and how Lucasfilm approaches modern video games.

We distinctly remember talking to DICE’s Patrick Bach, just prior to the release of the first Star Wars: Battlefront, when he described space combat simulator games as ‘niche’ and implied that there was not a big enough audience for any kind of modern day equivalent to the classic X-Wing PC games of the early 90s. Since they’re amongst our favourite games ever you can imagine how pleased we were to see the announcements for Star Wars Squadrons and the refutation of that stance.

Surprisingly, Squadrons is not an extension of the excellent Starfighter Assault mode from Battlefront 2 and nothing to do with developer Criterion. Instead it’s an all-new creation by the newly established Motive Studios in Canada, whose only credited work so far is the, surprisingly decent, story mode for Battlefront 2.

The game has obvious nods to both the X-Wing series and the less complex Rogue Squadron franchise but it’s not directly connected to either, and takes place some time after the events of Return of the Jedi when the Empire has been defeated at Endor and the New Republic established – but enough Imperial remnants are left for the two sides to still be at war.

You’ll play as both sides during the game – which is entirely viewed from a first person perspective so that the whole thing can also be played in VR on the PlayStation 4 and PC. That makes traditional cut scenes difficult and so, in conjunction with Lucasfilm, EA has produced a short prequel film to set the tone for the game. And we’ve got say, even though it’s only seven minutes long, we enjoyed it more than the last three theatrical movies. But then we have always loved the space combat side of Star Wars more than any other.

Thanks to the coronavirus EA hasn’t been able to go on the kind of preview tour they’d normally do, so we haven’t been able to play the game ourselves or talk to the developers. But we were given the chance to have a brief chat with EA’s video creative director Neel Updahye and Lucasfilm vice president of franchise content & strategy James Waugh.

‘We wanted to create a short that can help to introduce people to the setting of the game and the kind of experiences you’ll be having in gameplay‘, said Updahye. ‘It was very important for us to get the look and feel exactly right but also to show things that haven necessarily been in the movies before. The cockpit of the TIEs, especially, but also some of the manoeuvres of the X-wing that you see, which are things you can actually do in the game’.

The short certainly passed our authenticity test as fans. We particularly liked the wonderfully old school dials and switches on the TIE Fighter controls, which, as Updahye points out, gives an in-universe explanation for what Darth Vader was doing when he was twiddling those same knobs in A New Hope.

But what interested us the most is simply the fact that the game exists at all, given that, as much as we hate to admit, Bach was right when he described space combat simulators as a niche genre. And while Squadrons is unlikely to be quite as complex as the old PC games it has a number of features that we wouldn’t have expected, including HOTAS joystick support for both PC and consoles and a variation of the ELS (engines, lasers, and shields) gameplay mechanic that has, until now, been deemed too complicated for console starfighter games.

‘At Lucasfilm we want to explore whatever kind of game makes sense for a particular concept’, says Waugh. ‘People watch Star Wars and they want to be a starfighter pilot, so creating a game that fulfils that fantasy makes sense and it make sense to ensure that game has the depth and authenticity to keep players interested’.

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Of course, video games and Star Wars have always worked well together but it’s the fact that Squadrons interprets minor details or lines of dialogue into fully fledged gameplay mechanics, just as X-wing did 27 years ago, that we particularly appreciate.

‘Those games were great’, agrees Waugh. ‘Squadrons isn’t the same thing, but we wanted to work with EA to create something that would be able to appeal to fans and to players in the same way’.

The obvious question then is whether Lucasfilm will encourage other new games in unexpected genres, if they fit one of Star Wars’ other settings. Given the success of The Mandalorian a bounty hunter themed game is looking pretty good right now, for example. ‘We’re always looking at ways to bring new experiences to games’, is Waugh’s typically diplomatic response. Although he’s not lying when you consider things like Vader Immortal – a VR game that was made, not by EA but by Lucasfilm’s own special effects house ILM.

ILM helped out with the Squadrons short film too, with movie veteran (and co-creator of Photoshop) John Knoll also lending a hand to ensure authenticity. ‘He had a lot of fun working on the short’, says Updahye. ‘You couldn’t ask for a bigger expert on Star Wars spaceships’.

We also took the opportunity to badger Waugh about reintroducing all the many interesting ship designs created by the X-wing series, such as the beloved Assault Gunboat, which is technically in canon again but only thanks to a few throwaway mentions in the new expanded universe.

Apart from agreeing it’s a cool looking ship Waugh wouldn’t be drawn on its reappearance but while that was just us being fanboys it’s also an illustration that video games have introduced a lot of unique concepts, characters, and vehicles to Star Wars over the years – rather than just adapting what already exists.

Although EA has been criticised for its handling of the Star Wars licence, especially in terms of the speed of new releases and the early focus on Battlefront, there’s never been any indication that Lucasfilm are upset. That said, the success of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and the imminent release of Squadrons, does seem to indicate a new phase for the relationship and we can only hope that the new game plays as well as the new short makes it look.

Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation, and PC
Publisher: EA
Developer: Motive Studios
Release Date: 2nd October 2020

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