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Star Wars: Squadrons is the great VR game you've been waiting for

Dust off that Rift, Vive or Quest for a not-too-expensive ride in an X-wing or TIE fighter.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
3 min read

As an early adopter of PC-based VR, I've been led down the road of that one must-play, high-gloss VR game before. But despite a handful of real winners, from Rec Room to Beat Saber, my first-gen Rift and Vive , and newer Oculus Quest, all spend more time collecting dust than anything else. 

My big problem has always been that the games people really want to play -- based on big franchises and popular characters -- are few and far between. Even when a company like EA or Activision dips a toe in, it's usually a one-off experience, like the single VR levels found in Star Wars: Battlefront or Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, both of which were quickly abandoned. 

But now, my forehead is sweating and my head strap is pulled tight, because this season's only big new Star Wars game is a full VR-first experience hiding in plain sight. Star Wars: Squadrons is, as far as I can tell, primarily meant for virtual reality play, it's just that no one bothered to write VR-only on the front cover (perhaps because a VR-only Star Wars game couldn't sell enough copies to justify its costs). 

For example, the entirety of the playable parts of the game are played from a seated cockpit view across different spacecraft. When you're in a hangar or other common area, the protagonist is literally rooted in place like a tree (or like a VR game avatar), able to point and click on a few things from a distance, triggering cutscenes. 

Frankly, it's not that much of a game, which is probably why it costs less than most new game releases. But once you strap on a VR headset, either on a PC or PS4, suddenly someone has made a very expensive looking Star Wars dogfighting simulator for the underappreciated audience of VR gamers. 

Read more: Best VR headset for 2020

The experience reminded me, in the best ways, of countless hours spent in classic space-fighting games like Freespace 2 or even the original Wing Commander games (yes, I'm that old). Now, that generally means trying to line up a blip on a radar display in front of you, shooting past it, then cutting the throttle to half and executing a tight turn to try it again, but that's dogfighting games. At least the way I fly, which is poorly.

On a more practical level, here's what I found:

Getting VR headsets to talk to your PC and a specific game correctly remains a moving target. In this case, I used an Oculus Rift in PC mode (which means connecting it via a USB-C Thunderbolt cable). But the correct order in which one would launch Steam, Steam VR, the inescapable Oculus software and finally the Star Wars: Squadrons VR version never seems to work exactly the same way twice. 

Better put a flight stick on your holiday wish list... for 2021. Every decent flight stick is sold out, between this game and the recent decade-in-the-making Microsoft Flight Simulator update. GameSpot has a good list here, but good luck finding any. Most are $150-$300, but I know the Rebellion is on a tight budget, so you might try and find the $40 Logitech 3D Pro, but again, it's sold out everywhere I've looked. 

You'll end up using a gamepad... and that's OK. Like many players, I ended up using a standard Xbox gamepad. It actually worked fine, using the left stick for throttle and rolling and the right stick for pitch and yaw (that's up and down and left and right, for the rest of us). 

I'd personally love to see more $40-ish standalone VR-first games based on big movie or game series. Especially with the Oculus Quest and Quest 2 making VR more affordable and easy to use (and providing a bridge to PC-based VR, too), VR gaming seems to have more lives than a cat. If you're considering Star Wars: Squadrons as a non-VR game, I wouldn't necessarily go out of my way for it. But if you're looking for an excuse to break out that headset, then this is good as you're going to get this holiday season.

Read more at GameSpot: Star Wars: Squadrons early review impressions