It’s more Rogue Squadron than X-Wing, but Star Wars: Battlefront’s aerial assault Fighter Squadron mode is a hell of a lot of fun. At Gamescom, we partook in 40 ship battles over a dusty Sullust, as two groups of 10 players and 20 AI scrapped it out for supremacy of the skies. Each life begans about 10 seconds above and away from the fracas, the action partially obscured by clouds. All participants were visible as blue or red dots though, so it was possible to set course for a target early, or to drop low and attempt something of a sneak attack using the clouds and canyons of Sullust as cover.

In our demo, the Empire and Rebels each took turns attacking and defending troop transports that periodically appeared, the destruction of which signalled the end of the round (although total kills was still the metric by which a victor was calculated). First and third-person views were available, and while the former provided nicely detailed cockpits to admire, it also dramatically cut down our field of view, making only the latter really useful unless everyone is locked in first-person.

On the Empire side of things, only TIE fighters were available to us. Extremely agile, they were the perfect ship in which to quickly dive down into Sullust’s crevasses and nab pickups that repair damage, boost speed, reset cooldowns on weapons, and the like. The left analogue stick controls a TIE fighter’s power.

Push forward and juice flows into the engine, sending the craft surging ahead; pull back and power is diverted to its lasers, slowing the ship but increasing its damage potential, its lasers turning from yellow to red in the process. Meanwhile, the right stick controls all movement, slower speeds mean tighter corners, and a boost is available on a cooldown for quick evades.

Hands-on with Star Wars: Battlefront's Fighter Squadron and Survival modes

Quasi-homing rockets are also available on a cooldown, and these along with lasers can be locked on using the left trigger – provided the enemy is in sight, of course. The game would be extremely difficult without this feature, but targets are warned when you have a lock, which usually sends them into a suicidal death spiral or a graceful loop depending on the skill of the pilot.

As Rebels, we could only fly X-wings, unless the Millennium Falcon pickup was located. As is to be expected, X-wings are less manoeuvrable than TIE fighters, and thus have to approach pickups at a much flatter angle or risk exploding messily upon contact with the planet. The iconic ships pack a shield boost ability alongside lasers and proton torpedoes, but the Millennium Falcon is the true Rebel beast: it’s fast, with heavy armour, homing missiles, a shield, a speed boost, and cannons that can rotate and thus keep their lock for a second when an enemy passes you by.

Speaking of turrets, there were a few anti-aircraft guns on Sullust’s surface that seemed to shoot down whatever came close. Fortunately they can be destroyed, and there was plenty of cover down there as well, in trenches or behind and around a large satellite dish, which also collected its fair share of overeager pilots. Weirdly, you can’t collide with teammates, though.

Hands-on with Star Wars: Battlefront's Fighter Squadron and Survival modes

I preferred playing Empire despite the lack of a special hero ship (Boba Fett’s Slave I will be in the game’s final build, and so will TIE Interceptors, A-Wings and Y-wings), and found the extra zippiness a real asset – particular when getting back into the fray after being shot down. Either side is exhilarating to battle for though, and my only concern is with the mode’s longevity.

After all, DICE is still silent on the game’s progression systems, and even with more ships to try out, it’s a somewhat shallow experience that is unlikely to hold up as long as the game’s more expansive modes – if it’s even meant to. Whatever the case, it’s pretty as all hell, sounds great, and its simplicity makes it great for a quick blast, so I’ll certainly jam it across all its maps. Besides, tearing through the clouds and lighting up rebel scum certainly has me pumped for doing the same in Battlefront's wide-ranging Conquest mode.

The other Battlefront mode I played through felt much more like a shallow diversion. Missions is the game’s wave survival challenge, and is played co-op either in splitscreen or online. Four weapon load outs were available, combining special abilities like a personal shield, a torpedo, and a grenade barrage with varying sizes of blaster.

Hands-on with Star Wars: Battlefront's Fighter Squadron and Survival modes
Hands-on with Star Wars: Battlefront's Fighter Squadron and Survival modes

Despite their stats differentials, the blasters felt very similar – all were semi-automatic, and had Stormtroopers sparking and keeling over in a similar number of hits. The mode's jetpack was a lot of fun to use though, and an is an extremely handy quick getaway device.

Enemies were Stormtroopers of varying toughness and mobility, and the third and sixth levels threw in an easily-outsmarted AT-ST as well, but it was all a bit much like a training mode.

The play area was rocky and plain, and even the presence of drop pods containing special weapons did little to liven things up. It all felt too small scale, and my reward for soloing was a brief cutscene of an X-wing flyover.

Here’s hoping the finished product contains more enemy and environmental variety, because at the moment there’s little replay value here compared to most horde-style modes.

While neither mode covered here grabbed me the way Walker Assault did a couple of months back, I can see a lot of potential in both – Fighter Squadron in particular. And honestly, both feel like an entrée rather than the main course anyway – something to dip into when the prospect of all-out war is overwhelming.

There is something else to consider as well: not every player wants or needs the level of progression and depth present in DICE’s Battlefield series, something proved by the simple yet satisfying levelling up in Battlefront stablemate Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare.

I want to add that I played Walker Assault again too, and it’s still great, but I’ll leave the last word to DICE GM Patrick Bach, who off camera said something to me I found very encouraging: “We created Battlefront as a good game first without Star Wars, and then have the IP boost it.” Rebel Assault this will not be.

Matt traveled to Gamescom courtesy of EA