Like any kid obsessed with Star Wars, I daydreamed about hopping in an X-wing and flying around doing cool stuff. Battlefront II, from way back in ’05, scratched some of that itch. The newer Battlefront II did too, although its starfighter mode got precious little attention. I’ve toyed with checking out the X-wing games from the 90s, but never got around to doing so. The Star Wars Squadrons was announced over the summer and I got really excited: here was this game all about piloting space ships and getting in dogfights. It promised an immersive experience, one that involved managing power while darting around debris; a game where an X-wing, Y-wing, and A-wing all handled differently. Anyway. Game came out yesterday, and let me tell you, the game feels so darn good.
Game feel is that secret spice of game design. It’s not always easy to quantify, but it’s absolutely intrinsic to any action-based game. It’s not going to be much fun if the simple act of moving your digital avatar through space is a slog. One reason I stand by Balloon Fight as being a quintessential game is that it’s odd flight mechanic (tapping A bobs you a little in the air, controlling your altitude is a matter of directing your falling) is so well executed that just bopping around the map is a simple pleasure. It feels good to play.
Gamasutra has a really good article about game feel, and what components usually make it up. Super Mario 64 is held up as one of the best feeling games to play. Moving Mario around the world is inherently fun, owing in a large part to how seamlessly the players’ controller inputs translate to action on screen. Jumping doesn’t feel like a gamble every time you hit the button, rather you know how far he’ll jump when you hold down the button a certain amount of time.
Interestingly, the design process for Super Mario 64 involved creating a small ‘garden’ where Shigeru Miyamoto and the team fine-tuned Mario’s controls. They hadn’t made any levels yet, because most important was getting Mario right. And not just the controls either: part of good game feel involves making sure all parts of the game line up. It’s not just that the avatar on the screen moves in relation, but that the noises the game makes as Mario jumps around and the animation of movement all fits together. Going back to Balloon Fight for a moment, the character’s arm-waving and bloop sound matches tapping A perfectly. One reason game feel is so hard to pin down sometimes is because it’s a culmination of every system coming together.
Star Wars Squadrons capitalizes on game feel. It’s entirely in first person, with most of the game information being given to you not through a HUD, but via the instruments in the cockpit. I’m still getting the hang of flying and fighting, which is a delicate ballet involving shifting between to engines, weapons, and shields all while weaving through space trying to get a bead on that enemy fighter ahead of you. Each ship handles differently, a TIE Interceptor isn’t just faster than a standard TIE Fighter, it’s also much more delicate. A Y-wing can soak up more damage than an X-wing, but it’s not as useful in a head-on dogfight. More than anything, though, the game just feels so right. Staring out the octagonal window of a TIE an upping the throttle, hearing the telltale whine around you and then the lasers firing.
It’s clear that so much work went into making the starfighters feel right, into making sure that they flew the way you expected them. Sure, Star Wars is fiction so it’s not like we’re trying to mimic the handling of an F-15, but trying to match a collective imagination created by a multitude of movies, tv shows, and books. Star Wars Squadrons delivers, and it’s a game I’m slowly getting a hang on even if I keep getting outmaneuvered in online play. Maybe one day I’ll be really good at it, maybe I won’t. But hey, in the meantime, I get to be a starfighter pilot.