X-Wing vs TIE Fighter was a natural extension of Totally Games’ venerable Star Wars space combat titles. Exclusively focused on multiplayer, it gave players the option to take their dogfighting skills to the Internet and face off in a customizable array of battles, sorties, and similar arena challenges. What it did not do was include a single-player campaign like the ones that had made the series famous in the first place. Balance of Power, allegedly, was created to rectify this. However, you’ll quickly find that’s not exactly the case.
Balance of Power adds a 15-mission campaign for both the Imperial and Rebel sides. Both campaigns roughly revolve around the Rebels’ attempt to build a base in the Airam Sector, but the missions themselves are unique – you will not be playing the same fifteen from opposite sides. Overall, the campaign is equivalent to what we’ve seen in the previous games and their expansions, with a fair amount of objectives (inspecting containers, disabling ships, etc) giving you more to do than simply dogfight. Cutscenes every six or so missions tell an ongoing story, while the missions themselves follow the overall tone of your progress, or sometimes even tie into each other in sequential stages. You can also fly both sides under one profile. Your progress is kept separate, but your overall stats and pilot rank carries over.
The most interesting feature of Balance of Power, hands down, is the ability to pick your flight group. As with all missions in the previous games, there is some sort of strategic goal spread across multiple groups and ships – for example, as A-Wings screen enemy fighters, a second group of Y-Wings bombs the target, and a third group of X-Wings protects the capital ship. Previously, you were locked to one of those groups and expected to protect the AI while it tries to accomplish its particular job. Here, you can pick which group you want to be a part of, and by extension, which role you want to take on. Don’t feel like dogfighting? Shake things up by leading the bombing run.
On the one hand, it makes missions extremely replayable. Your in-mission orders and radio chatter reflects the group you’re a part of, even including orders from the leader if you picked a wingman’s slot. Scripting doesn’t get broken without you playing as “the hero,” and it’s also a nice way to let you get some time flying ships you wouldn’t normally get a crack at (like the TIE Bomber). Also, while you can’t customize your fighter’s weapon loadouts in the campaign missions (unless you have cheats on), different groups often carry different weapons. If you’d rather have missiles instead of torpedoes, you can fly with the group carrying that gear.
This also introduces the new concept of “waves.” Each mission has a predefined number of craft standing in reserve, with the Empire usually having more tender TIEs per mission. When you die, you simply spawn into a new craft ejected from its mothership for as long as you have extras available. Proper cheats from the previous games (invulnerability, unlimited ammo) don’t appear to be available here, but you can set your backup waves to “unlimited” and cheese missions with a series of infinite lives. Just about anything becomes surmountable when you can keep banging out new ships with fully-stocked torpedoes in seconds. You’ll take a career points hit, of course, and purists can even disable the waves feature altogether.
However, the obvious problem with this system is that the AI fills in the empty slots. Not much progress in this department has been made. Your fellow pilots are generally capable, and certainly seem to understand their roles, but are not that great at handling advanced tactics. It’s even odds as to whether the AI group intended to protect the bomber group will actually be effective, and while some members of that group might launch some torpedoes, you should expect to have to finish up for them. The AI will never be as good at its respective roles as you will be, which has the unfortunate effect of trending you toward the more open, “area superiority” flight groups so you can easily step in when the dedicated ones fail their tasks.
Which brings us to why Balance of Power isn’t exactly a single-player game. The campaign is readily playable in online co-op, and those multiple slots are pretty clearly meant to host other human players. I have absolutely no doubt that a full team of eight players, all split across the dedicated mission roles, could wipe the floor with any of these missions and have a ton of fun doing it. I love the idea that a game exists with clearly dedicated roles – where, for example, you can cover your buddies as they move in to disable a freighter – but it obviously doesn’t address the single-player aspect this pack was supposed to fix in the first place.
Three difficulty levels and the unlimited waves option mean that a reasonably skilled player can absolutely complete the pack’s missions solo – just don’t expect to do it at the hardest difficulty. Maybe not even on Medium. Likewise, many sorties will become overly difficult on default when you’re the only one to shoulder the burden. One Rebel mission tasks you with quickly inspecting a field of cargo vessels and freighters before they all escape – the mission ends if just one slips through unsearched. AI ships can’t inspect, so it’s up to you to fly like a madman and tag every single ship. This mission would be nothing with two or three human pilots splitting up the work, but in solo it becomes a puzzle full of multiple replays and trying to figure out the order the ships jump out, so you can prioritize them accordingly. Similar story on the Imperial side, when you have 15 minutes to destroy an entire minefield basically by yourself, or any time you’re expected to destroy a capital ship.
Graphically, the XvT engine is lovely, with textured ships, decent lighting, and crucial speed no matter what’s on screen. It was a bit of a resource hog at the time, as battles can get crowded and hectic, but that won’t be a problem for a modern player. Balance of Power also includes some changes to the engine, including improved 3Dfx (snort) and Direct3D support, as well as including some ships that weren’t playable in the original XvT, and some redesigned (larger) Star Destroyers. The Super Star Destroyer also makes appearances here, and is appropriately massive.
Balance also features the gameplay improvements introduced by XvT, making it far more playable than the DOS versions of the two originals. Key, in my opinion, is that maps and objective screens are now opened as overlays with no need to drop out of the flight engine. The minor delay to load up info screens in the originals meant that I kept use of them to a minimum – here, everything is a clean button toggle away. Further targeting improvements from even TIE Fighter make it much easier to track every ship and target who you need to, though at the cost of having pages of buttons to remember (or just a few favorites). Mission feedback is also improved, with audio chatter for key events, and text radio messages keeping you abreast of new developments.
Balance of Power is an excellent expansion, serving up extended campaigns for both factions that are on par with those offered in the series prior. It’s unquestionably a better single-player experience than X-Wing vs TIE Fighter’s skirmish and battle modes, though Totally Games hasn’t given up on its multiplayer aspirations just yet. Many missions seem explicitly designed for co-op, and while a solo pilot can hold their own, they might need to do so at a lower difficulty or with handicaps turned on. If you want another excellent X-Wing/TIE Fighter campaign, it’s here. If you happen to have a squadron of buddies to plow through it with, you’ll have a blast. If you want something more focused on the single player, you’ll still need to skip ahead to X-Wing: Alliance.
It’s a legitimate new X-Wing/TIE Fighter campaign! The ability to pick your flight group is super cool, and makes you feel like a part of a larger fighting force.
AI is still just “okay,” so you’ll be handling most of the heavy lifting. That heavy lifting can be split among buddies in online co-op – an amazing feature if you have said buddies always standing by, a hindrance if you don’t.