After years of being a virtual reality sceptic, playing Star Wars: Squadron has almost single handily changed my mind. Glancing through the cockpit of an X-Wing while stirring music played and a hectic space battle waged in front of me, I realized that this was the VR experience I’d been waiting for.
Sure, I’ve been waiting a long time. As anyone who has read some of my other articles on virtual reality will know, when VR first seemed likely to break through with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, I was incredibly excited to see what virtual reality had to offer… and I was disappointed.
It wasn’t that VR back then was bad, and in many cases it was mind blowing and exciting. But there were too many caveats to my enjoyment of VR which meant I never felt it really reached its potential, and I soon fell out of love with it.
I’ve banged on enough times about my issues with VR – the faff of setting it up, the expense, the anti-social aspect of it. But one of the key things for me was a lack of a killer app. There were no games that I felt rivalled what traditional games were doing on PC and console.
Joining the fight
With Star Wars: Squadrons, there’s now a (reasonably) big budget game which almost single handily justifies virtual reality. It’s a rare beast; a large gaming company (EA) has created a game that can be played in virtual reality, and that VR support doesn’t feel like a gimmick or afterthought. Instead, it’s integral to the game, and while it can be played without VR, I simply wouldn’t want to.
Thanks to VR, you see, I was transported into iconic Star Wars vehicles, like X-Wings and Tie Fighters. I was able to look around the cockpits, peer behind me to see an R2 unit in my X-Wing, and quickly glance at instrument panels while trying not to end up a ball of flames while an enemy Tie Fighter tried to take me down. All while iconic Star Wars music swelled around me.
It was pretty much a dream come true. I felt completely immersed, and whisked off to a galaxy far, far away. Also, I didn’t want to puke after playing it, which was a nice surprise considering how erratically I was flying around.
A huge part of this immersion was due to the obvious care and attention the developers Motive Studios have lavished on the game. There are little touches found in the cockpit that really make you feel like you’re there, and the graphics are fantastic.
This is all helped by the Vive Cosmos I was using, which did a great job of beaming those visuals into my eyes. The high resolution of the screen has really helped eliminate the ‘screen door’ effect that older headsets suffered from, where you could see the gaps between pixels, which rather spoiled the immersion.
I also used the Thrustmaster T.16000M FCS Flight pack, which is a bundle that includes a T.16000M joystick, throttle and rudder pedals. While I didn’t use the pedals, the joystick and throttle were absolute game changers for me. It allowed me to use physical controllers that were similar to the one my character was using in the game. This made the immersion even more extraordinary, and really helped me get lost in the fantasy that I was helping the Rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire. It was a taste of escapism that was all too needed – and all-too rare – these days.
It was an absolute blast, in short, and it was one of those mind blowing experiences I’d been waiting for with VR. Crucially, I can’t wait to strap myself back in and have another go. In the past I’ve found that even if I enjoyed a VR game or experience, I rarely felt inclined to play again.
So, is that it? Has my VR skepticism cured thanks to Star Wars: Squadrons? Not entirely.
A big commitment
First of all, I am under no illusions that the setup I used to experience Star Wars: Squadrons is a complex and expensive one. Not only do you need to invest in a VR headset and flight stick and throttle (plus the game), which is hundreds of dollars if you don’t have them, but I’m also powering the game with an expensive gaming PC (with an RTX 3090 GPU), which allowed me to whack up all the graphical settings to high while also maintaining high frame rates.
This is a setup that won’t be available to a lot of people, and without it, I’m not sure if I’d have been as impressed. One of my biggest gripes with virtual reality is that its best experiences aren’t accessible to a lot of people, and that remains the case here.
I also have to say that getting Star Wars: Squadrons set up was a major faff as well. Not because of the VR headset, that was all ready to go, and it’s easy to switch VR support on, though sometimes SteamVR crashed. Also, if you launch Star Wars: Squadrons in VR before doing so normally after installing the game, you may end up with a tiny log in box floating in front of you, asking to sign in to your EA account. This was so small and hard to read in VR, I ended up having to lean in to read it, while craning my neck to get the best angle, which would have been a weird sight for anyone watching me in the real world.
When you’re playing in VR you can’t see the outside world, I also needed to do some tweaking to the control scheme so that all the buttons on the joystick and throttle were easily accessible while I was in VR. This took a while – and meant switching between VR and normal mode – until I had it all set up perfectly. Many people may have given up in frustration before then, but it really was worth it, trust me.
Also, I should point out that while the graphics often looked spectacular, it did sometimes seem a little blurred, as if I was playing without my contact lenses in. Feeling like you’re the only short sighted X-Wing pilot in the galaxy, squinting your way through space battles, wasn’t quite the power fantasy I had in mind.
But, despite all that, when everything was set up, it all clicked. It was a remarkable experience that I can’t wait to try again. It was like having a theme park ride in my own home, and as a boy I used to dream of helping Luke and co take down the Empire. Star Wars: Squadrons in virtual reality did just that. And I loved it.