No one can really deny that the Rebellion picked the tough road when they decided to rise up against the numbers and might of the Empire, unless of course you argue that good always triumphs over evil. Unfortunately, unless you’re Luke Skywalker himself, X-Wing will quickly prove this to be a rare case. It’s one of the hardest flight combat sims ever made, and it’s filled with odds and situations that will make you wonder more than once if you’re playing for the wrong team (and should the call of the Dark Side become too strong, you can even defect, by purchasing TIE Fighter).
But as difficult as it may be, X-Wing is also one of the most addictive and beloved combat sims you can hope to find. Confirmed Star Wars fan status is not required. Provided you have even a passing tolerance for playing what is essentially a combat flight sim in space, you should find something to enjoy here.
This version of X-Wing is a graphical update of the LucasArts/Totally Games DOS original. Aside from tweaking the game to make it run on Windows 95/98, the game also uses the X-Wing vs TIE Fighter engine. This replaces the DOS version’s flat, monochrome polygons with textured ships and greater detail. The content remains exactly the same however, and XvT’s gameplay and control improvements are, for the most part, left out. Purists can rest comfortably, knowing that – in terms of gameplay – this version is a true port. However, if you’ve played any of the other Totally Games Star Wars flight sims, you will sorely miss the improved multifunction display and plethora of advanced targeting options.
X-Wing takes place before and during the events in the first movie, casting you as a young Rebel pilot running a cornucopia of missions against the Empire. You’ll fly three different craft inside three campaigns, each consisting of between 15 and 20 missions. These run in linear order, and culminate in flying the famed Death Star trench run. The Collector’s Edition includes two additional campaigns, released as add-ons for the DOS version. The first is basically a continuation of the story from the first three campaigns, and the second introduces a fourth ship – the B-Wing bomber – which you’ll spend most of your time piloting. Altogether, there are over 120 missions offered by this one game, which seems, and I can confirm, feels, gargantuan. I personally played the game for about two months before finally giving up in the middle of the add-on B-Wing campaign. It’s all generally enjoyable, but if you insist on finishing every game you start, you’d better clear your schedule.
If you’ve ever played Wing Commander, the other big space fighter series in the early 90s, then you’ll be quite at home here. Both games offer linear, story-driven campaigns, and missions involving insane amounts of combat. Targeting options, wingmen interaction and orders, and even the controls for piloting the ships, are quite similar. The major difference, other than the Star Wars license, is that X-Wing introduces an on-the-fly power management system. Your fighters have three major systems: lasers, shields, and engines. Every one of them is important, and they all require a baseline amount of power to operate efficiently. However, you can shuffle power around between the systems as needed, though at the cost of energy going to the other systems.
This system is complicated to describe, but quite easy to understand in the game. It basically forces you to make tactical decisions about where your power is best used at a given time. In combat, you’ll want to give extra power to your cannons to keep them recharging, and maybe even your shields to replace the drain from taking hits. However, this means you will be moving more slowly, and can be an easier target to hit. Conversely, there may be time-sensitive situations where you want to chance shutting down your lasers and shields to send that power to your engines for maximum speed.
I’ll say it again, X-Wing is a bitch of a game to beat. Presumably because the Rebellion is outnumbered and undersupported, you will be given grandiose operations to fly with minimal backup. It doesn’t help that friendly AI isn’t all that great, and you rarely will be able to rely upon your wingmen to complete a mission, much less stay alive through one. This results in situations where you alone have to destroy a space complex, or defend a convoy against waves of 30 or 40 total fighters.
The engine limitations keep the number of ships on-screen at one time down to a more manageable level, but this doesn’t prevent replacements for enemies you just destroyed from coming in, one after the other. The nature of the missions, which usually involve some “surprises” that deviate from the plan, as well as the harsh odds you’re almost always put up against, ensure that you will have to play missions multiple times to beat them. This may put off some, but the game makes restarting missions as painless as possible, and the advanced knowledge you gain from dying the first few times almost always allows you to make changes to help you pass.
Of course, there are plenty of missions that are just double tough. The worst of these by far are the larger bombing/raiding missions (generally anything that puts you in a Y-Wing). The Y-Wing is slow by nature and poor against other fighters, so the missions usually give a cover of friendly X-Wings – the idea being that they keep the fighters off you, while you bomb whatever needs bombing. Unfortunately for you, the AI prevents this coordination from ever happening on two counts – one, friendlies are so inefficient that they can spend three minutes locked in a dogfight with one enemy. Two, you can’t contact ships outside of your squadron for help, or request cover. So when you give the order to “cover me”, your one or two other Y-Wings will valiantly try to protect you, while the X-Wings actually supposed to cover you get jerked off 40 km away. This is definitely one of those games where you are the most intelligent and skilled pilot on the battlefield, and this results in most everything resting on your shoulders.
Yet despite its flaws, X-Wing has a knack for pulling you back. Its flight and combat systems are excellent and fun. For the most part, the ships handle as well as you do, and though it may dog you sometimes, every mission is definitely beatable. Aside from gaining the requisite medals and ranks as you go along, you also uncover a pretty interesting and cohesive story. I presume these are based off of some novels or other extended universe stuff. My Star Wars experience ends with the films, but I still found this interesting enough without being a rabid fan. If you are, you might get something even more out of this.
The XvsT engine is able to do much more than the original’s, and as such, the game looks pretty good. Unlike Wing Commander, ship models are true 3D, which is a big plus. The game also takes advantage of a simple pass-through option on 3D accelerator cards, sharpening up the graphics. However, the game was built for Win95, and doesn’t allow for 3D card support in WinXP. If the game will run at all, it will do so in the software mode. Models lose their crispness, and the game runs slightly slower as well. Ship explosions are made of simple sprites, and the game doesn’t allow you to target specific systems (though the engine does allow it, the option is disabled to remain true to the original). When ships explode, however, they break apart into component pieces and spinning, sparking engines. The engine allows for craft to be reasonably detailed, but the environment is bland. You’ll never see a lot of astounding moments. Save for a few asteroid fields, and some rather large spaceships and stations, X-Wing’s version of space is vast and empty.
Sounds are a high point, with music and effects pulled from the films’ archive. Laser blasts and TIE engines rushing past sound just as they did in the pics. Voice work isn’t bad either. There’s a lot of cockpit chatter, and every briefing is narrated. They’re not exactly taxing roles, but the actors give their performances competently. Controls are responsive, and aplenty. Every key on the board is mapped to something, with some being more important than others. Fortunately, you can map any keyboard assignment to any button on your joystick, allowing the important stuff to be at hand, and more minor things like power adjustment to stay on the board. An important note, a joystick is REQUIRED to play the Windows version. Let’s make that clear, you must own a joystick to play the game. You cannot use the mouse or keyboard, as you could in the original DOS release. This may put off some – it kept me away from the game when it first came out, but the game is worth buying a cheap one if you’re seriously interested in playing. It’s that good.
X-Wing is about as detailed and enjoyable as they come, despite being the toughest of the tough. Star Wars fan or no, there’s some great combat to be had here. And though this first game was a strong start, the series has plenty of room for improvement.
NOTE: This is the stand-alone jewel case release of the updated version originally created for the X-Wing Collector Series. Released in 1998, the executable is called X-wing 95. The original DOS version also has its own Collector’s CD-ROM – gameplay will be the same, but will not feature the new graphics updates. Make sure you know which one you’re buying.
Classic space sim, genre-defining, highly recommended, etc, etc.
Joystick required, awfully difficult, 120+ missions means your friends will miss you.