Sunday 16 November 2014

Star Wars: X-Wing

The Galactic Civil War is at its height. The Sullustans are negotiating to join the Rebel Alliance, but the Empire is rumoured to be constructing a weapon of incredible power. Into this chaos steps Keyan Farlander, a fresh recruit for the Alliance. He is assigned to the cruiser Independence as an X-wing fighter pilot.

Way back in 1993 - improbable as it seems now - Star Wars merchandise was thin on the ground. Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy of novels had just started a renaissance in the popularity of the franchise and West End Games had been producing a successful pen-and-paper roleplaying game for several years, but there was still a gap in the market for an iconic Star Wars video game.

X-Wing proved to be that game. Riffing off both the starfighter dogfights in the movies and the then-extremely popular Wing Commander series of games (which later upped the ante by recruiting Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, to appear in later titles in that series), X-Wing hit a sweet spot of game design. It didn't just put the player in the seat of a fighter and let them get on with it, it also gave them control over the various ships' weapons and power systems. This was a vital move as it moved the game from being an arcade shoot 'em up and instead more towards the realm of serious simulation, or at least as serious as it could be when it came to simulating fictional spaceships.

The game is played from the cockpit of one of the Rebel Alliance's iconic fighters: the X-wing superiority fighter, the A-wing fast interceptor and the Y-wing medium bomber. The B-Wing expansion (included in most editions of the game) adds the B-wing heavy bomber to the roster as well. Each ship has a different role. The A-wing is lightly-armed and armoured, is relatively fragile and has a small missile load-out but is also lightning fast and highly manoeuvrable. The Y-wing is slow and lumbering, but has hardier shields and armour, a large warhead magazine and has a secondary ion cannon which can disable enemy ships rather than destroying them. The X-wing falls between, being fairly fast and having a reasonable torpedo payload, but is also quite manoeuvrable and its four laser cannons make it an excellent dogfighter.

Each fighter has three energy systems that the player needs to manage: engines, weapons and shields. Keeping your weapons charged is necessary if you want to fire them, shields need to be kept up (or recharged after being hit) if you don't want to explode and the engines need to be charged to allow you to move fast. This sounds complicated but in practice all that is needed is two buttons which control how much power is diverted from the engines to the other systems (along with a third for rapidly dumping power from one system to another). This adds a more tactical element to the game, since you can retreat from nasty fights (by dumping all power to the engines and speeding clear), recharge your shields and weapons and then rejoin the fray. As the game continues and you gain additional ranks, you also gain the ability to give commands to wingmen in battle. Some later, complex engagements depend on your forces engaging several enemies at once. This is all handled through some pretty logical and instinctive keyboard commands.

The latest version of the game allows you to play in two flavours. The original 1993 version of the game has much more primitive graphics but better music which adapts to the changing fortunes of the battle. It also allows you to play with a mouse. The 1998 version has vastly superior graphics but a simple looping music track. It is also only playable with a joystick or gamepad. I prefer the latter for the stronger visuals, but some swear by the original.

Almost twenty-two years on from its original release, X-Wing holds up remarkably well. The gameplay is fast, enjoyable and surprisingly deep. The game's systems are relatively primitive - the energy balancing and wingman mechanics are handled through just a few button presses each - but in combination with one another provide a variety of different responses to dire situations. Dogfights are fast and furious, but the game does a good job of providing you the information you need to manage even complicated situation effectively. All in all, the game has withstood the test of time very well.

There are, however, several problems. One of these is that it's simply not as good as its sequels. X-Wing feels like a prototype for a style of game only perfected in the later TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance, particularly mission structure and in-mission story events. The storyline is fairly bare-bones (all of the character stuff is handled in the manual and strategy guide) and missions tend to become fairly predictable, especially towards the end of the game. Although there is a reasonable variety of craft on hand to both control and fight, X-Wing has the smallest roster of ships in any of the games and it won't be long before you have seen all the game has to offer on that front. The game also arguably fails to live up to its billing of allowing you to recreate the iconic X-wing vs TIE Fighter battles from the first film: all too often you are controlling a fragile A-wing or lumbering Y-wing and fighting Imperial Gunboats (which are more durable than TIEs due to their shields). Enemy AI is also not fantastic in this game, with the computer only having a small number of manoeuvres it can pull off which rapidly become predictable. Most irritatingly, whilst the game unleashes the main Star Wars fanfare when you've fulfilled your objectives, it doesn't provide any such notification for a mission failure. Concluding a half-hour mission only to find the ship you were escorting got blown up ten minutes ago and you need to start again is not fun.

That isn't to condemn the game fully. It's shorter and more focused than its sequels, and its opening tour of duty serves as a reasonable introduction to the series and its mechanics. It's also surprising how fully-formed the compelling gameplay of the series is in this first title

X-Wing (***½) is available now on PC from GoG. The GoG release includes both the 1993 and 1998 versions of the game, along with the game manual and strategy guide. Both expansions, Imperial Pursuit and B-Wing, are also included. Its immediate sequel, TIE Fighter, is also available now with the multiplayer-focused X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and the much more epic conclusion to the series, X-Wing Alliance, due to follow soon.

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