Gaming

Space Combat with: X-Wing Alliance (1999, PC)

It’s amazing to think that it’s been 20 years since LucasArts last released a Star Wars themed flight sim. Lawrence Holland and Totally Games, who were also responsible for both X-Wing and TIE Fighter, seemed determined to close out the series on a high note by giving players what they always wanted to do: fly the Millennium Falcon. Despite the packaging making it all to clear what the main attraction of X-Wing Alliance is the game didn’t let you fly Han Solo’s hunk of junk until the very end of the game’s campaign. It did however give players got a good taste of what it’d be like during its campaign before that big moment finally arrives and it turns out that is a lot of fun too.

The Otana – the Azzameen family’s YT-2000 freighter.

The story starts you off as Ace, a member of the Azzameen family who are a group of traders in the midst of heated competition with the Viraxo. The Azzameens have an impressive home base plus a fleet of ships at their disposal, including many familiar YT-1300 freighters (ie. just like the Millennium Falcon). The early missions act as both a prologue to the main story and also a tutorial. The story takes place after the first Death Star has been destroyed and the Empire are on the hunt for Rebels and their sympathizers. Soon enough you’re in some serious strife and find yourself joining the Rebellion.

My original copy of the game which I bought at launch included the game (on 2 CDs), the manual, reference card and a cutaway poster of the Millennium Falcon. The days of reference cards which showed you the controls for the game minus the flavour text seem long gone now despite games remaining being as complex beasts at times. GOG.com’s digital version doesn’t include it unfortunately but they do make up for it with a digital copy of the strategy guide that runs to well of 200 pages.

The game needs all that documentation too as this is by far the most complicated of the games in the series and the keyboard reference card is a great indicator of that. Beyond just ship controls there are commands for docking, cargo pickups, squadron commands and for managing the new HUD. No matter how many buttons you might have on a joystick it might still be easier to keep the keyboard close by… and a print out of the reference card! And when I say joystick I mean it because this game simply won’t let you play unless you have a valid controller it can identify. Thankfully I could plug in my Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS One and carry on but it still required me to install the driver and switch it to PC mode (I forgot about that part).

Knowledge of everything you can do in your ship is needed from the start as even though the early missions offer some guidance they still throw you into the deep end when it comes to mastering what’s important. Keeping the manual close by is VERY important even if it is just to act as a reminder. I printed out a few pages of the manual to sit next to me for that very reason as I might remember (most of) what’s needed to play the game but had completely forgotten the keyboard commands. ๐Ÿ˜‰

The key to success in these Star Wars sims has always been about managing your ship’s power levels. It’s all down to weapons, shields and engines and allocating power to them as necessary. Maybe you need to scan a fleet quickly so you divert all power from weapons or you are in a furious firefight so you put everything into weapons and shields at the expense of a slower ship – the choice is yours. There’s still one more trick up it’s sleeve in that the game also lets you transfer power already assigned to one system over to another. This only applies to weapons and shields but if you’re in a pinch and need one boosted at the expense of the other it’s very useful.

Though the game tries its best to explain the basics to you during missions it misses out on the fine details such as this. A good example is an early mission has you arrive just in time to see a pirate vessel trying to steal your property. You need to get your ship over there fast to prevent it but you have to be aware that you can direct all power from weapons and shields to engines to get the speed boost you need. There’s a lot of trial and error and I’m finding the early missions are still challenge and I played this before! I also refuse to turn down the difficulty… just seems wrong to admit defeat so easily. The game does offer its own built in hints which is a nice touch – it’s not a lot of information but enough to point you in the right direction.

The gameplay loop for missions follows this typical path:

  • Launch your ship. It’s automated but gives you an opportunity for some nice exterior shots during take off.
  • Navigate to a beacon for a hyperspace jump. Many missions have stages requiring you to go to multiple locations.
  • Complete the current objectives whether they be handling cargo, scanning vessels or engaging other ships. Sometimes this can change as you’re playing. The HUD will give you feedback on your progress.
  • Return to your base to finish the mission though it’s worth noting this part isn’t always necessary as the game will let you quit at any time so you can cut this part short if you prefer. Just check your HUD to confirm you’ve met your objectives. ๐Ÿ˜‰
  • Check your personal quarters (that acts as an in game menu) to view your latest trophies as well as in game messages that help push the story forward. From here you also move onto the next mission.

Where the game succeeds is in giving players a Star Wars experience that feels genuine and with a story that sits just on the periphery of the films. Many of the ships you fly are familiar to fans of not only the films but also to past games and even the Expanded Universe fiction. The Azzameen’s ship Otana is a product of that too – being a YT-2000 freighter it fits neatly between the Millenium Falcon and Dash Rendar’s YT-2400 ship Outrider (from Shadows of the Empire). But in the end it’s all about letting you know what flying the Millennium Falcon would be like compared to X-Wings and TIE Fighters. The final battle in Return of the Jedi pretty much confirms that the Falcon is a formidable vessel and that’s what you get. Players can not only fly these ships but also take manual control of the turrets too and it’s a challenge shooting anyone from one of those. Pilots have the option to also link the turrets to the forward weapons for extra firepower when needed.

All games in the series have been polygon based with improvements to the technologies behind them as the years progressed. X-Wing had flat shaded polygons, TIE Fighter introduced gouraud shading and X-Wing Alliance takes a lot of steps forward with its texture mapped polygons but also with the bold step of replacing the cockpit with a fully 3D version that the user can manually “look around”. Though impressive in execution the low texture detail in the cockpit does mean that the consoles are no longer useful so a virtual HUD is used instead to display everything from the radar to the mission objectives to your targets. At first it seems fine until you get into an X-Wing and find it’s not at all like the movies or the original game. One thing that the original X-Wing got right was that the HUD did it’s best to mimic the displays seen in the movie. Though this version might be more practical in play it loses a little bit of authenticity in the process as it was an aspect of the ship that would be familiar to fans of the original movie’s Death Star battle.

Ship models do a really impressive job of matching players expectations and it helps a lot that the original ships had designs that would lend themselves well to being represented in simpler forms. Whether it was intentional by the original artists and designers of the ships to make their silhouettes so iconic it translates perfectly to the game with TIE Fighters and Star Destroyers easy to pick the moment they flash up on your screen. Other ships from the movies benefit from this too from Y-Wings to Imperial Shuttles to Corellian Corvettes all being easy to identify.

Though X-Wing vs TIE Fighter was the first of the Star Wars sims to launch out of the box with digital audio, Alliance probably made the best use of John Williams’ soundtrack by leveraging a greater variety of themes not commonly used in games past. The opening cinematic was a good example of this combining a few pieces throughout the whole sequence. Sound effects has always been a strong point for LucasArts own Star Wars games with samples that seem like they’re straight out of the LucasFilm archives. The sounds of TIE Fighters screaming past is unmistakable so getting this right does wonders for immersion. The graphics would take their time to catch up to the movies but the sound almost got it down right from the start which is an impressive achievement.

I haven’t even spent any time in the Combat Simulator which lets you replay completed missions and also set up skirmish scenarios against AI. You’re supposed to be able to play the skirmishes in multiplayer too but I’m yet to test it out – old games and networking don’t always work too well – but it’s cool to have the chance to create your own little scenarios to test out your skills. Judging from the number of ships I’ve lost so far I could do with more of it. ๐Ÿ™‚

This looks familiar…

Being a sequel to a game regarded as one of the best in the genre (TIE Fighter) was always going to be a hard act to follow but X-Wing Alliance goes all-in and gives players a fun and challenging game that will keep you occupied for a long time. It holds up really well on modern PCs and is a great reason to clear some space on your desk for a controller and a print out of the manual. With so many Star Wars movies having been released recently it’s tragic to think that the opportunity for a new X-Wing game might pass by and that’s a real shame. #BringBackXWing

Note: The version of X-Wing Alliance that I played in relation to this post is currently available from GOG.com and can be found here. Though the site doesn’t guarantee the game will run on Windows 10 I’ve been playing it without issues.

References

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