It’s becoming increasingly clear that Disney’s ultimate vision of “a galaxy far, far away” looks more like a cozy cul de sac. Sooner or later, everybody’s going to bump into everybody else.
I knew Star Wars: Squadrons was going to end up on my personal Game of the Year list well before we reached the second season finale of The Mandalorian (yes, this article will contain Mandalorian spoilers), which roughly coincided with Disney announcing several more live-action Star Wars shows. Many of them will take place at around the same time as The Mandalorian, which not only means crossovers between shows are virtually guaranteed but that we could even see bits of Squadrons lore work their way on-screen.
There are plenty of Star Wars fans looking at this vast array of “content” who’re feasting, just having the time of their lives. Then there’s me, who thinks a Patty Jenkins Rogue Squadron movie could probably be pretty good but also has little hope after that Mandalorian finale for anything but a continual TV fan service jamboree; Star Wars made for people who are moved most by seeing a thing they know on-screen, a legion of Rick Daltons forever pointing in astonishment.
Squadrons makes my Top 10 of 2020 for more than just the strengths of its multiplayer (which I am laughably bad at). While it’s got great support, it’s also not on there mainly because of its VR strengths. Really, aside from one Wedge Antilles cameo and with some reservations about whether it’s being intentional in the messages it sends with a more diverse Galactic Empire, Squadrons’ modest side-story ambitions are what I want out of Star Wars. Not only that, I think it’s the model that EA should follow with future Star Wars titles, especially if Disney won’t rein in its approach to “expanding” the universe with tightly interlocked shows.
B-wings and B-games
Now, to give respect where it’s due to EA, Squadrons is its second Star Wars homerun in recent memory. Respawn’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order did a lot of things right as a triple-A story-driven Star Wars experience, especially as one that actually focused on a Force user. Yes, you get an obligatory appearance from a big Star Wars character at the end, but most of the journey concerns new people, fresh lore, and new or seldom-seen locales. I still feel right about what I said last year: it deserved a spot on my 2019 Top 10 because it told a better Star Wars story than either The Mandalorian in its first season or Rise of Skywalker… which I just won’t go into here. No thanks, moving on.
Budget pricing aside, Squadrons aims to achieve less than Fallen Order, which I believe is, more often than not, a good thing for Star Wars. As you would hope for a game following the old Star Wars flight sim legacy, it’s very focused on its pilots first and foremost. You get a bit of post-Return of the Jedi factionalism within the busted Empire, but the power struggle here never really escalates to a point where a character from the classic movies comes in and threatens our heroes or saves the day.
The characterization with Vanguard Squadron and their Empire counterparts leaves plenty to be desired, but the overall structure of the story is what it should be: almost entirely self-contained, smaller stakes, and free from the mythos of the Jedi and Sith. The more we see lightsabers and Force users in Star Wars fiction, the harder it is to believe that any Imperial would ever insult Darth Vader or that people wouldn’t know Jedi are real after the Empire’s fall, but stories like Squadrons serve to reinforce that the battle for the galaxy largely plays out free of Force heroics.
By focusing purely on the limited scope of being a fun flight sim, Squadrons can get away with being a less ambitious and extravagant title in other regards. That’s exactly what you’d hope with Disney’s slate of Star Wars shows, too, but it’s a model EA could definitely keep following for Star Wars.
Where Respawn’s Fallen Order eventually made its way to the public, Visceral’s Project Ragtag did not. Just within Star Wars we can see multiple examples of how triple-A development ambitions are especially susceptible to outside circumstances or can end up delivered in a half-baked state. Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of inspiration in Star Wars that could be taken for projects that are smaller in scope. Give us the Squadrons-sized take on a podracing game, or a bounty hunter game with Hitman-like replayability instead of chasing an expensive open-world concept. Take bigger risks that can be offset by the simultaneous production of other equally interesting concepts.
Disney Finds Your Lack of Fandom Disturbing
Until a few weeks ago, I would’ve gladly pointed to The Mandalorian alongside Squadrons for what I think the future of Star Wars games should look like. While the first season was struggling to find its footing, it felt like the second had become more comfortable with forging its own identity. Yes, there were appearances from a couple established Clone Wars characters, but these were by and large handled with grace. Far more endearing were inclusions like Mando’s amphibian passenger or Timothy Olyphant’s rootin-tootin’ Tatooine sheriff with a Tremors problem. These filled out the Star Wars universe in adventurous ways. Instead of serving mainly to build more connective tissue between known entities, they got to be their own little stories.
It looked like the biggest and most questionably necessary insertion of this season would be Boba Fett. In all honesty, I really liked his introductory episode: sure, it gave longtime Fett fans a gratuitous chance to see that character actually do something cool in live-action, but it did so without stealing too much focus from our leading Mando. Boba was also a welcome and unobtrusive presence in the next episode, which somehow managed to make me like Bill Burr’s ex-Imperial Masshole.
Then, Luke Skywalker rolled up in his X-wing and basically destroyed the goodwill I had toward the show.
The people in charge of Star Wars film and TV projects seem incapable of not succumbing to the same three mistakes sooner or later. First, there’s a tendency to make too many connections in short order—when Boba Fett and Ahsoka Tano already got their own backdoor pilots in a season, you don’t need yet another big name popping up. Second, the insistence on bringing back characters with CGI or reused footage keeps getting more and more embarrassing (it boggles my mind that there are people who think Luke’s pasted-on, puppet-mouthed face looked good). Lastly, there’s an over reliance on effects-heavy shows of Force power that look silly compared to the best-choreographed duels of old, even counting the hyperactive glow stick dances of the prequels.
I believe Luke’s deus ex machina moment in The Mandalorian fumbles on all three points, but I also think people who loved it should realize that it’s an example of what these other upcoming shows absolutely can’t keep doing. To date, Disney has proven itself ultimately incapable of supporting on-screen additions to Star Wars that make the universe truly feel bigger. Instead of just stopping at little cameos, familiar props, and giving us new angles on old planets, everything always ends up building toward something predictably familiar. By straining to make everything fit together, you start to overshadow what makes each part interesting on its own.
Vader, Leia, Darth Maul, Palpatine, and now Luke—all of them have been used purely in service of putting a bow on other people’s stories while making a certain kind of fan go wild. This trend needs to stop, at least until Disney either works up the courage to start recasting roles or actually invests in building CGI faces that are better than Uncanny Valley Jeff Bridges was over a decade ago.
Star Wars is not better when it follows a tightly wound Marvel Cinematic Universe model where everything is crammed into an increasingly dense canon. Instead, it’s at its best when it gives us new heroes to admire and new legends to be in awe of. I’m still fond of ol’ Din Djarin and I’ll sooner give another Mandalorian season a shot than The Book of Boba Fett, but I’m more hopeful for a Star Wars future where Squadrons is the blueprint moving forward in games. Let us explore fantasies that exist apart from the ones we’ve grown beyond.