LucasArts made Star Wars fans’ dreams come true when space combat sim X-Wing came out, but does the 1994 CD-ROM edition still hold up today?
X-Wing: Collector’s CD-ROM Edition (PC)
(USA 1994, developer: LucasArts (defunct), publishers: LucasArts (defunct)/Disney), platform: PC)
As a pilot fighter of the Rebel Alliance, the evil Empire has to be attacked from the cockpit in various dangerous missions.
Epic flight stories
The story of the main campaign divided into three tours of duty takes place before the destruction of the first Death Star, but continues with the expansion packs Imperial Pursuit and B-Wing (respectively tours of duty IV and V). While they don’t necessarily tell anything new in the Star Wars universe, all the missions evoke a feeling of playing an important part in the Alliance’s cause. This can also be said about Rogue Squadron 3D, but the plot is better developed and works without the unintentionally funny bravado of one’s flight comrades. Even if The Farlander Papers, an accompanying novella included in the original boxed release, gives the pilot a name and one sees him from behind during ceremonies, there aren’t any memorable dialogues, not even during flights.
Of course this isn’t such a bad thing, as it gives the impression that one starts out as a nobody, completes increasingly more difficult missions and rises in ranks and esteem. X-Wing is certainly no character-driven game. It’s more about the Alliance’s struggle to hit and run when it comes to sabotaging the Empire whenever they can. Despite not having the most complicated plot, it’s engaging enough to continue playing. The sense of an overwhelmingly powerful enemy is felt throughout with the original game doing a good job of retelling George Lucas’ first movie complete with the trench run to fire missiles into the Death Star’s core (even if this means one suddenly plays as Luke Skywalker). Imperial Pursuit may not have the same emotional impact, but it shows a realistic part of the Alliance’s survival, i.e. finding food and allies while constantly escaping the Emperor’s and Darth Vader’s clutches. B-Wing doesn’t change the narrative formula much, even if flying missions with a new starfighter is nice for a change.
Mission design is varied to a certain degree, with escorting, destroying or disabling targets being the order of the day. In addition to the campaigns and starfighter-specific training missions, there are also various historical missions. However, these should only be tackled if one spent some time in the proving grounds which teach how to navigate the ships through goal-like posts while getting familiar with speed and destroying targets in a strict time limit. With training missions for each ship, there are over 120 to complete. While this sounds like much and playtime is at least 30-40 hours, one quickly sees a recurring pattern of the missions and things can get a bit repetitive, as engaging enemy fighters, containers and big ships can only entertain for so long. However, in the add-ons one can choose between alternative missions. Even if these don’t have an impact on the overall campaigns, it’s nice to be given some options.
Use the Force or keyboard/joystick combinations
Being a flight simulator means that it’s not as easy to control the various ships as in an arcade game. It’s actually quite difficult at first to get one’s head around all the different keys and how the cockpit works. Shield, speed and laser systems have to be handled with care. Transferring energy from one to the other, preferably from lasers to shields is a good way to start, but one has to keep a constant eye on recharge levels and speed. Otherwise one can easily become a sitting duck in the eyes of enemy crafts, especially bigger ones with more fire power.
Switching to missiles, doing evasive maneuvers and even disabling ships to prevent oncoming reinforcements are the most essential strategies for surviving in addition to fly around targets without colliding with them. This is actually a major concern, as one can either be hit by flying parts when destroying an enemy in close range or by them doing a suicide attempt. If this is planned or not doesn’t matter, but it’s annoying at times, especially with wingmen acting the same way. Even if one can assign copies of one’s advanced pilot data to them, their A.I. still isn’t the best. This is too bad, because giving orders like attacking certain targets or calling for assistance makes the combat even more immersive.
The handling of the ships requires different strategies and is best done with a joystick. The A-Wing is very fast, the Y-Wing slow, but carries disabling weapons, while the X-Wing is an somewhere in between these crafts. The B-Wing is extremely slow in maneuvering, but it can shoot lots of missiles and has additional layers of shields to protect it. The way these starfighters are used in the campaigns shows that they’re not simply for fan service, but that they serve a purpose. Fortunately one doesn’t have to relearn all the controls, as all keys are the same, making the learning process easier.
Nerve wrecking problems
While story and missions are engaging, there are still issues that make the game unnecessarily difficult. The biggest concern is that one doesn’t get notified if a mission is failed. In the heat of the battle, reading all the messages of various crafts being destroyed isn’t easy, and if a mission-critical ship suddenly becomes history, one wonders what happened, especially with no option to read past notifications. Not being able to abort and restart a mission during flight is one inconvenience, but leaving the player clueless why the “mission complete” message doesn’t show up is an annoyance. So is the downtime when waiting for docking operations or certain ships to arrive, as time can’t be fast forwarded. At least the add-ons have optional hints which are very useful, as they show which ships to go after first and what the best strategy of completing a mission is, something that is a major problem of the game when one spends so much time in battle and misses newly arrived ships which destroy an important allied ship.
Preserving pilot data is another problem of the game. When one’s ship is destroyed, one can restore the pilot, but with all his merits and points gone, while being captured by enemies isn’t any better. Only with Rebel forces nearby who can rescue the pilot is it possible to retain the same score and rank. While this is certainly realistic, it’s still an unfair system, considering that some of the missions are devilishly difficult and colliding with enemies can be a constant issue. Even if the Collector’s Edition made some levels easier and collision can be switched off, it seems like a cheap trick to punish the player. The only way to get around this is to manually create backup copies, which means quitting the game every time one dies and replacing the current data file with the old one.
Looks and sounds from the olden days
Graphically, the game shows its age with low-res textures (at least in the original and 1994 CD-ROM edition) and unspectacular backgrounds. While it’s nice to have a planet in sight or small space particles fly by, these distract more than they add atmosphere. With multiple ships on screen some slowdown can occur as well. Cutscenes still look nice and serve as rewards after completing certain missions, moving the plot foward.
Unfortunately, the voice acting isn’t up to scratch. With only Admiral Ackbar being voiced by the original actor, the rest of the cast isn’t so great. They’re not terrible, but with low audio quality making them sound disconnected from the scenes they play in with the additional problem of texts in briefings sometimes different, the atmosphere suffers. Fortunately, John Williams’ soundtrack is left intact, making the fights a pleasure, especially with the iMuse technology adjusting to current events and the iconic blasting sounds and the surround sound of TIE-Fighters flying by offering even more reason to be immersed. However, this is only possible in the original release and Collector’s Edition, as the 1998 version simply plays the same track in a loop, therefore making the game less engaging (so make sure to get the GOG version that includes all releases).
A classic simulation piece of Star Wars gaming history
X-Wing is an easy game to love if one is a fan of the Star Wars saga, as it perfectly captures the sense of thrilling space combat. It’s also great for those who want to try their hands on a simulation that offers enough action with strategic elements. Unfortunately, graphically it doesn’t stand a chance today and while the story is good, it’s not the best in the universe. More problematic are the high difficulty and some user interface-unfriendly design decisions. Still as a space combat sim in the Star Wars universe where it all began, it’s still a blast to play and especially listen to.
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