After Totally Games already proved being capable of translating LucasArts’ X-Wing: Collector’s Edition CD-ROM and TIE Fighter Collector’s CD-ROM mechanics into their own vision with X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, the company now delivers a true single-player space combat action-simulation with X-Wing Alliance.
X-Wing Alliance (PC)
(USA 1999, developer: Totally Games (defunct), publishers: LucasArts (defunct)/Disney, platform: PC)
Ace Azzameen, the youngest of a galactic trader family, finds himself in a feud with the Viraxo family, but soon has to join the Rebel Alliance to fight against the Empire that builds the second Death Star.
Space combat sim battles
The X-Wing series has always been good at immersing the player with their story-driven campaigns, but the main problem, compared to games like Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom, and Wing Commander: Prophecy – Gold Edition, was that the main character didn’t have much of a background story or personality. It might be a bit unfair to compare it to these FMV titles, but even the old Wing Commander and Wing Commander: Vengeance of the Kilrathi did a better job of characterization by given the opportunity to talk to other crew members in between missions. However, with X-Wing Alliance, this has finally been achieved.
While it’s only possible to talk to the maintenance droid Emkay (or MK-09) who does the mission (de)briefings in person, one receives regular emails from lots of people, too. These might be about the last mission or current events, but these personal messages can range from chit-chat between the family to advertisements or other topics one usually finds in emails, including spam and all sorts of weird or funny stuff. These texts are optional, but reading them helps a lot to learn about the characters and people one works for, creating a small universe of characters one doesn’t necessarily see in cut-scenes. One should definitely take the time to go through these emails and additional briefing background information, as the writing is witty, the characters likable and memorable. Another great way to make the setting more believable is the inclusion of all sorts of memorabilia Ace puts into his room, e.g. medals, flags, a free-drinks card of a planet, parts of destroyed ships, etc.. With Emkay commenting on the last trophies or emails to remind the player of past achievements, one doesn’t simply collect medals as in past games, but personal memories of the people one helped or fought against.
The story is much more personal, as playing someone who isn’t first affected by the war between the Empire and Rebels is a refreshing take on the saga. Being in the trading business and trying to outwit the competition simply makes for a much different experience than what other Star Wars games have delivered before. Of course the family feud is less exciting than what happens when joining the Alliance, but the way how the story slowly unfolds and how it presents many surprising turns of events is unparalleled in the space combat sim series. It might not be as epic as the Wing Commander games, but the plot isn’t so overblown, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few touching moments. The story isn’t only told by a well-done cut-scenes, but also by the in-game engine. Cockpit talk has been present in previous games, too, but now fully voided dialogues move the story forward. At times it can feel a bit too text-heavy, especially since missions go through various stages, and during hectic battle scenes it’s easy to miss vital information. Not being able to skip these cut-scenes during difficult missions can also become tedious.
Many missions to complete
The missions are just as varied as the story. Primary and secondary objectives make a comeback, and completing all of these grants points that are needed to rise in rank. So far, so X-Wing. Still, as most mission goals can change rather quickly, the levels aren’t as predictable. Being long and requiring different approaches, like stealth, few missions are alike. Of course with over 50 (not even counting the training missions), the quality isn’t always top-notch. However, being drawn into battle for the Rebellion and often called by family members to help them out makes for variety all the same. The campaign comprises six main battles or chapters with six to seven individual missions and does a great job of building up an engaging story-line. Even the first few missions in which one transports cargo and escorts other ships don’t simply make the player completing one task after another, as there is always something important for the story or character development. There are references to well-known characters like Luke Skywalker, Lando Calrissian, Han Solo, and even Dash Rendar who was the hero in Shadows of the Empire, but the main focus is on the Azzameen family, making it an interesting addition to the timeline of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
Many ways to fail
Despite offering three difficulties, the game is still no cakewalk. Even with the option to send for reinforcements or to skip up to three campaign missions, the levels are littered with difficulty spikes. Quite a few trial and error missions can only be completed with background knowledge, and it’s not always clear how to achieve bonus points. Friendly fire and collisions with neutral or enemy craft is too common as well, making it an exercise in perseverance to survive. Waiting for docking operations or other ships to arrive can also become a big problem on modern PCs, as the engine can’t handle multi-core CPUs, so some missions are made almost impossible to complete, as it takes ages for some events to happen or the A.I. doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. Of course this problem can be solved with a bit of software tweaking, e.g. only using one CPU core, but it’s still annoying to play missions again and again because of modern technology.
However, the flight controls are as responsive as ever, and while it’s again a steep learning curve for the uninitiated with so many keys to remember, it’s worth the effort, especially when flying the Azzameen cargo transporter that is similar to the Millennium Falcon. Unlike the various other Rebel Alliance space craft one is able to fly here as well, the transporter uses an auto-targeting system, making it almost too easy to get rid of all the fast enemies or evading big ships. Being able to change the cockpit perspective and using lasers in the back of the ship is also a fun experience and essential during docking procedures when one can’t use other weapon systems or when having an enemy hard on one’s tail. In the final part of the game one even flies the Millennium Falcon through the Death Star, a dream come true for Star Wars fans, even if it’s easy to get lost in the maze-like structure and the A.I. of friendly and enemy ships leading to unintentional crashes against walls.
Past and future tech
Even after almost 20 years, the game looks and sounds pretty good with its lens and lighting effects, explosions and detailed ships that literally fall apart after being destroyed. Cut-scenes are nicely done as well, even if they’re not mind-blowing. Voice acting is of a very high standard, which is no easy feat, considering how many lines are spoken and how diverse the character roster is. The typical Star Wars sound effects and score don’t even have to be mentioned, as they’re just as great as ever.
One of the best in the galaxy
X-Wing Alliance is the last game in the long-standing space combat sim series, and it’s one of the best. A much more personal story that also succeeds to tell the war between the Rebels and Imperials from a different perspective, memorable characters one can relate to, missions that are as varied as they’re difficult, a great flight model, nice graphics and music that hold up well even today. If it weren’t for some annoying A.I. problems, a few unfair missions, and less exposition in dialogues and briefings, then this would have been a perfect 10. As it is, it sits comfortably somewhere between the original X-Wing: Collector’s CD-ROM and TIE Fighter Collector’s CD-ROM.
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