Originally I was to post this a couple of weeks ago but then felt I couldn’t give the game its due unless Star Raiders, the granddaddy of the genre, was mentioned first. Hopefully that extra time was well spent!
After the huge success of 1993’s X-Wing which finally brought the Star Wars franchise to space combat simulations, the safe bet would be for LucasArts to make more of the same. However, developer Totally Games decided on a radically different approach that showed playing the bad guys might turn out to be a very, very good thing.
Instead of putting the player into the shoes of the Rebels fighting against the Galactic Empire, Star Wars: TIE Fighter reversed the roles and placed the player into unusual situation of a rookie TIE Fighter pilot helping to defend the Empire. The game did a great job of highlighting the change in perspective right from the start with the game’s opening cinematics and mission briefings all playing the part of saying “hey, we’re the good guys!”.
With multiple campaigns, there was plenty to keep players occupied and if one mission was proving too tough there was always the option to jump to one of the other campaigns and move that storyline along. Admittedly I didn’t do that too often because I was so keen to see each campaign through to their conclusion and achieve my goals. And make the Emperor proud… 😉
Like X-Wing, the game started you at the bottom of the mission ladder with routine patrols and engagements with weaker ships such as the Z95 Headhunter which was a kind of proto-X-Wing mentioned in the Expanded Universe canon. It’s a useful place to begin because your own ship being a stock TIE Fighter was like a flying ball of tinfoil that was extremely vulnerable. Collisions would rarely work in your favour so you needed to practise being as nimble as possible in that ship.
As you progressed further though additional ships from the movies would become available allowing you see for yourself the differences between TIE Bombers, TIE Interceptors as well as a model based off Darth Vader’s own death dealing machine the TIE Advanced. In addition, new ships would also become available: the “shuttle with guns” Assault Gunboat and the insane looking TIE Defender which was clearly designed to be this game’s equivalent to the Rebel’s B-Wing starfighter.
Working through the campaign missions (and there’s a lot of them) will quickly earn you the opportunity to fly the biggest and best ships in the Imperial Navy and it’s a good payoff as you’d quickly feel like a serious butt kicking TIE pilot despite the odds usually being against you.
For fans of the franchise’s Expanded Universe, references to Timothy Zahn’s “Thrawn Trilogy” (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command) were abundant which went a long way to validating the books as an extension of the Star Wars universe as well as giving the game a foundation to build on. Seeing Thrawn in the opening cinematic was just the beginning as the player could also have the chance to become “The Emperor’s Hand”…
So not only does the game let you side with the bad guys but as you progress further down the rabbit hole additional side objectives open up through the Emperor’s own channels; these can sometimes contradict orders by the Imperial Fleet so it is up to you to decide which path to take. The additional shades of grey do much to build out the world and predict what George Lucas had tried to accomplish later with the prequel trilogy. And with the stakes set quite high at the end, you get a similar feeling of accomplishment that you got from X-Wing… even if you’re on the opposite side of the conflict.
Technically, the game is looking a little dated now in comparison to modern space sims but the ship designs hold up really well. Everything is easy to identify and the cockpit view still gets the job done. Running the game at higher resolutions really helps and with modern systems able to handle the game with ease, it’s running with a smoothness I definitely wasn’t seeing back in the day I first played the game. Thanks to the use of digital audio, the game shines with authentic sound effects that are unmistakeable from the movies. Where the graphics may date the game, the sound effects help bring you back and keep it relevant.
The DOS versions of the game made use of LucasArt’s iMUSE (Interactive MUsic Streaming Engine) that allowed the music to synchronise with the action in the game and was one of the few times the technology was used in a non-adventure title. As the music was MIDI based, there was a reliance on the player having a decent card to enjoy the best quality as a tinny sounding card could ruin it. My trusty SoundBlaster AWE32 did the trick here and I was sorry to see it go when games moved away from MIDI. Anyone wanting to get the best out of classic games using MIDI music should check out VirtualMIDISynth.
Gameplay keeps the simulation aspects to a minimum to allow players to focus on the action but that wasn’t to say the games lacked any innovation. The ability to allocate power to weapons, engine and shields as well as redirect shield focus to the front or rear of a ship added an element of strategy as you had to manage those systems to best achieve goals. Even the option for linking your weapons to all fire at once and cause greater damage had an impact on power; so in a tight situation players could also rapidly transfer power between shields and weapons that could save you in a tight situation.
Becoming familiar with the controls, especially those involving your wingmen, are key to your success in missions as timing is often critical to the outcome. Ships can often jump in or attempt escape when events are triggered, so being able to set your priorities and allocate targets for your fellow TIE pilots is a skill that will take time to develop. Expect many mission failures as you get your space legs but perseverance will pay off with a game that will keep you entertained for a long time.
Which is great because Darth Vader doesn’t make house calls in the game when you screw up…
Star Wars: TIE Fighter is available now from GOG.com where all three versions of the game are included in the purchase: the original DOS disc version, the DOS CD-ROM version and finally the Windows CD-ROM version. The Windows version is the graphically superior version (the only one to use texture mapping, based on the X-Wing vs TIE Fighter engine) but uses Redbook audio instead of the iMUSE system of the DOS versions. The DOS CD-ROM version tends to be chosen as the best of the three as it supports both iMUSE and higher resolution displays.
Greatest Games is a feature where we highlight our favourite games from the past and try to explain what we think makes them great and worth searching out to play again. If you’ve got your own thoughts on the subject, please feel free to share them in the comments below.