Finally re-released after years of long waiting, X-Wing is a challenging, addictive and authentic feeling Star Wars experience that more than lives up to extensive hype.
The mission seems to start off well.
The Empire, using corrupted R2 units, has hijacked a trio of X-Wings and my squadron’s been sent to disable them so the pilots can be rescued and their flight data can be kept out of enemy hands. Disabling them winds up being easy; the ion cannons on our Y-Wings leave them helpless and ripe for recapture. Unfortunately, we’re not alone. An Imperial Star Destroyer is already in the area and doesn’t take kindly to our snatching its prize away.
The Destroyer launches a squadron of TIE Interceptors to attack us. Our shuttles, in turn, arrive to retake the X-Wings, but they’ll need more time than the TIEs are going to give them. Setting my shields to double front, I turn to take them on. The TIEs come right at me and for a moment it’s just me charging headlong into an oncoming torrent of green lasers, praying my deflectors will hold. I take down one fighter with a proton torpedo, followed quickly by a second and third. It’s only when the fourth comes into range that my shields finally give away.
I veer out of its path, but it’s too late. A laser tears through my armor, knocking out my torpedo launcher. Undaunted, I turn around to give chase, firing at the TIE with my laser cannons. He isn’t interested in me anymore, though. The shuttles I’ve been fighting to protect are a much more appealing target. He speeds toward them and I follow, rerouting power from my shields into my engines. Even with this boost however, his Interceptor is leagues faster than my sluggish Y-Wing. For every inch I gain he seems to moves ahead two more.
It’s at this point that things take a turn for the worse. The Star Destroyer launches a second squadron of TIEs. They quickly overtake me and, while I turn to fight them, it’s a lopsided battle from the start. They fly circles around my damaged fighter, using their speed to stay out of my crosshairs and their numbers to keep me off-balance. I hold on for final few paltry moments until, finally, my Y-Wing explodes unceremoniously into a cloud of debris, leaving the shuttles defenseless and my mission a failure.
Freshly defeated, I sit for a moment staring at my computer screen. I’ve spent the better part of two hours trying to beat this mission and every fiber of my being wants to try again. As I gear up for another attempt however, my eyes drift to the clock glowing faintly on the other side of my darkened bedroom. It reads 1:07. I want to beat this sucker, but I have to work tomorrow and I know that I’m already pushing my limits. With a sigh, I click out of Star Wars: X-Wing, brush my teeth and lay down next to my wife to go to sleep.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had a late night with this game. It’s funny because I hadn’t expected to be this enthralled with it. After all, I’d already played more than a few space flight sims in my time and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron had long ago done the job of letting me explore my childhood dreams of being an X-Wing pilot. I wouldn’t say I approached X-Wing with a negative attitude, but I honesty wasn’t sure what else it could offer me that other games hadn’t already delivered. So of course it would wind up being one of the most addictive damn games I’ve ever played.
Opening in the period just prior to the events of A New Hope, X-Wing puts you in the shoes of a starfighter pilot fighting with the Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire. The story begins with the Empire launching a new campaign to root out and destroy the Rebel Alliance.
I’ll say that the plot wasn’t all that engaging. That said, this isn’t Wing Commander where the game’s almost more interested in delivering a gripping space opera than it is with its actual gameplay. The story in X-Wing is used more to provide context and direction for its various missions. And while, in the past, I’ve often been a ceaseless proponent for games having strong stories, I have to admit that the way the game employs its narrative is downright masterful. You don’t just patrol nav point after identical nav point in X-Wing. Whether you’re attacking a Star Destroyer or defending a medical convoy, the missions are designed to reflect events as they unfolds.
The game also does a fantastic job of making these missions feel unique even when they’re cut from the same basic cloth. In its earliest stages, for instance, you’ll play through a lot of levels that could be summed up as “hold off the Empire until (insert ship) can (insert objective).” Despite these similarities, however, I never felt like I was suffering through repetition.
Much of this variety comes from X-Wing‘s implementation of its different fighter types. Throughout your time with it, you’ll be given access to four ships: the X-Wing, Y-Wing, A-Wing and B-Wing. And, while they obviously share identical control schemes, each fighter feels and flies like its own, wholly unique war machine. The A-Wing is fast and maneuverable, but has paper thin shields and a weak weapons array. The Y-Wing, comparatively, comes packaged with a ton of guns and strong defenses, but is about as nimble as a beached whale. The dogfight I described in this review’s opening? The one that I so embarrassingly lost? If I’d been piloting an A-Wing, it probably would have been a piece of cake. That said, the objectives of the level demanded the use of the Y-Wing and the rest of it was clearly tailored toward exploiting its weaknesses and challenging the player to overcome them. Simply put, while the game might recycle mission types at times, it does so in a way that makes good use of them.
This isn’t to say the mission design is perfect. As much as I enjoyed most of them, there were definitely a few levels that crossed the border into unnecessary frustration. Moreover, even with the more manageable stages, there’s often a strong element of trial and error to victory. Winning can require little more than just learning where and when your enemies spawn and using that to counter them in advance. This didn’t bother me too much. Having to replay certain sections over and over again when I failed wasn’t something that made me happy, but I also never felt frustrated enough for it to be a deal breaker. That said, I could definitely see it being an issue for players who would rather win based on sheer skill as opposed to practice.
I also found the controls to be a tad convoluted. Granted, they’re like that because there are a lot of different commands that you can use during the combat. Throttle controls, energy management controls, weapon options, wingman orders; the game does a lot to make sure that the keyboard is put to thorough use. It can just take a bit of work to learn how to use them all. GOG does provide a reference PDF that lists off what everything does, but it’s not always easy to consult when you’re caught up in the heat of the moment trying to dodge some TIE Fighter that’s locked onto your tail. Even at its worst though, the learning process shouldn’t take most gamers too long and once you get the controls down they feel like second nature.
The only caveat to that is that you really want to be sure you’re playing with a flight stick. I’m a remarkably cheap person most of the time and so, when playing flight sims, I’ve generally just used the mouse and keyboard options rather than springing for a joystick. Unfortunately, they’re kind of rubbish in X-Wing and by the third or fourth mission I got so tired of dying due to inadequate controls that I finally broke down and rush ordered a flight stick from Amazon. My experience after plugging it in couldn’t have been more night and day. Maneuvering became smoother, my laser fire more accurate and, most importantly, the game itself became a lot of more fun.
Which brings us to X-Wing‘s presentation. I suppose you could criticize its aging visuals, but those were never personally an issue for me. When I was in combat, I was too involved in trying not to die to care about whether or not the Star Destroyers were hyper detailed. I also just like pixel art too much to say anything bad about the graphics in-between missions. Not to mention that if the visuals really bother you, you can just play the updated 1998 edition that comes packaged with the GOG re-release. The same advice could be given if you dislike the 1993 edition’s MIDI music, something I could sympathize with a bit more. It’s not the worst I’ve ever heard, but it still gets pretty repetitious after awhile and I eventually had to turn it down.
In the end, X-Wing‘s problems pale in comparison to what it accomplishes. I’ve played plenty of Star Wars games in my life and X-Wing is probably one of the most authentic feeling ones I’ve ever experienced. The sights, the sounds, the action; when I was a kid rewinding my VHS of A New Hope to watch the Battle of Yavin over and over again, this is what I thought it would be like. While some elements are obviously a bit dated at this point, the overall package has stood the test of time. To repeat that most blatant of Star Wars cliches: the Force is strong with this one. Pick it up at GOG if you haven’t already.
Next week the esteemed Marshall Lemon will continue our parade of Star Wars with X-Wing’s follow-up, the villainous Tie Fighter. In the mean time feel free to email me any comments or review suggestions you might have.