Rebel Assault, on paper, seems like a fine idea. As the literally faceless (you only see the back of your helmet) “Rookie One,” you’ll fly multiple Star Wars craft through multiple Star Wars setpieces. The whole show is put together using the finest computer graphics 1993 consumer money can buy, with a focus on keeping the camera in the cockpit so you feel that You Are There. And it probably works okay on the PC original, with more graphical capabilities and better control schemes than you’ll find here. On the Sega CD, it’s a rough experience.
You’ll play through 16 levels based directly on the first two films. They come completely out of order, so you’ll be fighting the walkers on Hoth toward the middle, and doing the Death Star Trench Run™ at the end, but if this doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t bother me. All of the fan service highlights get checked off here. Dodge TIE Fighters through an asteroid field? Fly through Beggar’s Canyon on Tatooine? Pilot an X-Wing against a Star Destroyer? Shoot stormtroopers in a short on-foot section? Rebel Assault gives the people what they want.
Unfortunately, we’re talking about the Sega CD here, so much of the work gets lost in heavy compression and limited colors. The CG renders that form the sprites and backgrounds look the part, with starships especially looking instantly recognizable. There’s even some good work with animated characters, as the camera cuts through pre and post mission chatter in a reasonable replication of the films’ style. But it’s those backgrounds that are the killer. Walls in trench levels often resolve into just one or two colors. A level where you have to fly through a crystal field loses a lot of the edges that define those crystals – it’s a good thing you have an instructor ahead to follow. Black starfields and a particularly monochrome section of Mos Eisley have you shooting enemies entirely because they’re bracketed by green target markers, and not because you can see what you’re shooting at.
When it’s not directly affecting the gameplay, it’s bringing down the presentation. Pixel noise is everywhere, constantly shifting around and blurring the screen. Cutscenes and occasional clips from the movies are marred by compression, with the effect of watching them through a mesh screen. Maybe in an attempt to reduce this, some cutscenes are completely static except for animated mouths moving, or Darth Vader’s head bobbling around on his shoulders – the less motion there is, the less compression artifacts, but it looks damned unnatural. An early clip of Vader moving through Leia’s ship at the start of the first film looks worse than any VHS tape you could find.
As far as gameplay goes, you must be the only pilot on the clock. The other members of your squad show up in beginning and ending cutscenes, but fortuitously go on various, lengthy union breaks during the actual combat of the missions. This means you’ll be taking on fleets of TIE fighters, armies of walkers, a Star Destroyer, even the Death Star, all by yourself. The rest of your squad then comes back together to congratulate the team on a job well done. The sole exception is the part where you must shoot three TIE fighters off a buddy’s tail. Fail to do it and you must restart the mission because he died, and he alone is apparently the most important pilot in the fleet.
Every level, regardless of ship or view, is an on-rails shooting gallery. You have extremely limited control of your ship and are never truly flying it. At best, you can nudge the screen to the edges – required to keep track of some targets or to dodge oncoming objects every once in awhile. Meanwhile, the blurry video plays around you, while animated enemies dance across the screen, blissfully unaware of any turns or twists the video (and thus, your ship) is making in the background. It’s a real disconnect in the canyon levels, where it’s almost impossible to tell how close you are to the edges until you start taking damage by banging against them.
The worst part of the game has to be the controls, even more so than the video, because they are painfully sluggish. It will take about two to three seconds to drag your crosshairs from one side of the screen to the other, so tracking any enemy is impossible. You’ll have to either see them in the center of the screen, know where they are ahead of time, or let them pass right by – which of course causes damage to you. I’m assuming on the PC you have the benefit of the mouse, and it certainly seems like a lot of the later challenges and difficulty levels are based around that. Flying toward the Death Star, you’ll never be able to whip around and hit all the TIE fighters with gamepad controls.
You can define “pad” or “flight” controls at any time, which determines whether Up tilts the nose down or not. The ability to pause and redefine this per level is appreciated, though I admit I’m lazy and preferred to just try and relearn the direction. What’s not appreciated is that you’re expected to press the “fire” button every time you want to shoot. You can’t simply hold the button down to keep dumping lasers, and there’s no skill or strategy reason for this. With the amount of enemies on the screen, especially in the later levels, you will beat the A button like it owes you money.
Except for a few early training missions, where you’re tasked with dodging walls or asteroids, most of the missions in the game revolve around shooting multiple objects. These run from a large group of turrets, to waves of fighters, to many parts of a single object, such as the armor plating off of a walker (I guess it’s not too strong for blasters). This means that you’ll speed around on an “attack run” and try and shoot at anything marked with a green bracket. If you don’t get them all in the first pass, the CD will take a quick breather, audibly skip the music tracks, and then reload the beginning of your run. With the sluggish crosshairs, you might have to play through your attack loop three or four times before you shoot everything, and the game drags on endlessly until you do. The result is that each mission has maybe three minutes worth of actual content, but may take ten minutes to actually finish.
There are passwords available after each section, but the game seems meant to beat in one session. This is the only way to max out your high score, as it resets if you use a password. Doing this means you’re in for about two hours of content. The reasons to replay are limited – a few levels have inconsequential branching pathways, there are three difficulty levels (with the gamepad making the hardest a joke), and as said, there’s the high score leaderboard. Missions score you on accuracy and give a bonus based on completing an objective (hitting the final shot on a Star Destroyer, clearing out all enemies, etc), and you could go for these again if you missed the first time. Otherwise, there’s not a lot of value to see here. I guess if you’re thinking of it as a grand Star Wars amusement park ride, it’s cheaper than buying multiple days to re-ride Star Tours at MGM, but that’s about all I can say for it.
The audio is – get this – CD quality, and consists of loops of the music from the films. Just like every fucking other Star Wars game! It feels like games in the 90s played these tracks to death, and the only advantage here is that it’s not MIDI. As usual, levels will play only one to two minute loops of “actiony” sections from the music. If you haven’t finished your mission before that point, the audio will awkwardly start over again. After three or four times, it makes it seem as if even the music is unsure as to how long these sequences will last.
I recognize a lot of the voice actors from other Star Wars games of the era. “Lucasarts Darth Vader” makes the expected appearance, and the narrator here is the same one from Dark Forces. Your wingmen sound in the same plucky style as the ones in the films, even throwing in the one yokel really hamming up a farmboy accent. Your pilot in particular sounds snot-nosed and enthusiastic. Though at the very end of the game, the kid actually says “Yahoo!” Not a whooping cheer, he deadpans it like it was a word.
Ultimately, everything in here was done much better once actual 3-D gameplay, which is ultimately what all the computer renders here are trying to simulate, comes around. Rogue Squadron for the N64 is a good example of this, and seemingly rips off a few missions from this game, but with much better results. The PC original is probably going to offer a much better experience than here, but if the Sega CD was what you could afford, the heavy compression and miserable gamepad controls aren’t going to leave you with a good impression.
Playable highlights of the first two films. Pretty good variety in missions and craft/viewpoints.
Sega CD colors, compression, and gamepad cursor controls make some areas almost unplayable.