In Retrospect: Star Wars - TIE Fighter
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Is TIE Fighter the greatest game of all time? This year it turns twenty years old if you can believe it. That means that anybody under the age of 25 probably hasn't played it, and anybody under the age of 20 probably hasn't even heard of it (a strange phenomenon within the world of video games; unlike films, books and music, once they are more than ten years old they're generally forgotten about). It's a game from a genre you would be nuts to try and play without a joystick, and let's face it, who owns one these days? (Okay, I do!)
In the mid '90s, LucasArts were arguably the best PC game developer in the world. It seemed like they could do no wrong with every game they released being the product of love, creativity and genius. Their games would regularly score high marks across the board, jump in at the top of the bestseller charts and leave the gaming world changed. They were mostly known for point-&-click adventure games such as Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, adventures which still hold a special place of reverence for many gamers today. But LucasArts were also quite successful in other genres. Lawrence Holland had created a trilogy of World War II flight simulator games for the company, namely Battlehawks 1942 (1988), Their Finest Hour (1989) and Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe (1991). The games were all noted for their attention to detail and innovative use of technology pushing the capability of the PC as a gaming system.
Throughout this time, LucasArts (up until 1990, known as Lucasfilm Games) did not have access to the Star Wars license. At this point the last major Star Wars release had been Return of the Jedi in 1983, and while the classic film trilogy was loved and highly regarded it was now just something that most people remembered from when they were younger. It's hard to pinpoint what exactly caused the re-ignition of the Star Wars craze but many attribute it to a mixture of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game released in 1987 and Timothy Zahn's 1991 novel Heir to the Empire which became a major bestseller. Whatever it was, LucasArts noted that it was happening and got hold of the license in 1992. Realising that one of the most exciting parts of the movies were the World War II-inspired space dogfights, and also realising that they had a bunch of well-received World War II dogfighting games already released, it was a no-brainer that their first game be based on what they already did well. Thus, in February 1993 appeared X-Wing, designed by Lawrence Holland and Edward Kilham.
X-Wing was a space combat simulator which placed you in the role of a pilot for the Rebel Alliance. To put it mildly, it was good. Holland and Kilham managed to create a 3D environment which felt fluid and used 3D models rather than 2D sprites (as Wing Commander did) while integrating a narrative that ran parallel to the first film. The sense of spatial awareness was fantastic and the game was highly detailed, requiring you to control many aspects of your fighter craft. While engaged in dogfights you had to manage your weapons and shields, and these would both affect how much engine power you had available. Unsurprisingly the game was a massive hit and extremely well-received. You were able to fly missions fighting against the Empire in X-wings, Y-wings and A-wings and each ship had it's own unique feel. And for many players it really felt like you were experiencing authentic moments from the movies for which you were in complete control. The game received two expansion packs and these were later all bundled together in an upgraded CD-ROM release.
Despite all this, X-Wing was only a blueprint of what was to come. Even by 1993's standards the game provided little guidance in getting to grips with the multitude of controls and it was difficult to know what you were supposed to be doing during missions if you didn't pay close attention to the briefings. X-Wing was a learning experience for the development team and given the game's success a sequel was inevitable. Holland and Kilham would again head the project, and early on they knew that they would be looking to the dark side for inspiration. TIE Fighter would place you on the opposing team and have you fight for the bad guys. What they would create used X-Wing as a base and proceeded to improve, expand upon and add to every single element of it to create a far more complete gaming experience.
TIE Fighter, released in July 1994, looked better than its predecessor. The box boasted that the engine now used Gouraud shading, allowing for the 3D models to have more realistic lighting. However, the game's real strength lay in the many subtle improvements made to the way you play it. In-game tutorials eased you into the complex flight system while also merging with the game's narrative as you took on the role of a rookie pilot learning from his flight instructors. Yes, this time around your superiors and fellow pilots actually spoke to you during missions, giving you orders, offering advice or just commenting on the situations. Immediately this added to the sense of immersion. In a very sensible move you also now had access to a list of mission goals, both primary and secondary, which you needed to fulfill each time you set out. You were able to check out the status of other craft to figure out what they were up to (very important in figuring out which flight group would attack a craft you were trying to protect), and you could match speed with your target (sounds silly, but it turned out to be a major lifesaver). You could also speed up the course of time so you didn’t wait ages for other ships to finish what they were doing. The game introduced many more ships, both friendly and hostile, as well as a wider assortment of weapons and craft at your disposal.
Despite using the exact same engine as X-Wing this game required you to play quite differently. This time you were flying Imperial craft such as the TIE fighter, TIE interceptor and TIE bomber and these were all unshielded meaning that you couldn’t afford to take more than two or three hits from enemies. Self-preservation became high on your priority list and you often ended up thinking twice before engaging the enemy without some kind of strategy. There is strength in numbers and you wanted to make sure your wingmen stayed alive to help you out. Each craft was suited to a different kind of purpose so there was good variety between the missions: the TIE fighter was a basic quick, maneuverable craft but lacking in firepower, while the interceptor was faster and could carry missiles. The bomber was far more suited to attacking capital ships as you were loaded up with heavy weapons and had a stronger hull, but the craft was slow and sluggish so you didn’t want to end up tangling with enemy fighters without support. You also got access to a shielded craft called the assault gunboat, and later missions had you flying much more advanced fighters.
The game had a pretty non-linear flow to it and allowed you to tackle things much in the order you wanted, but a sensible progression would have you starting in the training simulator wherein you flew around an obstacle course to get a feel for each of the different ships. You then progressed to simulated historical missions which taught you the wide variety of controls and gave you a taste of what life in the Imperial Navy is like while not placing you in any real danger. Completing both of these rewarded you with medals you could admire in your trophy case. When you felt ready you could proceed to the main campaign. This is where the game excelled, as you began as a rookie pilot tasked with unimportant assignments but got caught up in a story involving smugglers, Rebels and traitors within the Empire.
Now, let's be clear. TIE Fighter was not a cinematic narrative full of emotion and strong characters like the Wing Commander games tried to be. TIE Fighter was much more subtle and used intrigue to draw you in. At the start of each mission you speak to your commander and he gives you your basic primary goals, info about your ship and what opposition you can expect to face. But after completing a mission or two you notice another figure hiding in the shadows. If you go over to speak with him he informs you that he is an envoy for the Emperor and will give you some secondary goals to complete as well as some secret ones.. These secret goals add a huge amount to your mission playthroughs as many of them need to be discovered as you play (additionally, higher difficulty levels mean there are more secret goals to find). These goals often tie into the story as you begin to become a spy within your own ranks. Completing these goals granted you entry to the Emperor's secret order and climbing up the ranks became fun. The envoy may ask you to inspect certain craft to determine the contents of their cargo bays, require you to destroy extra ships or to ensure that a particular ship survives. In some cases these goals may slightly contradict orders given to you by your commander. This situation doesn't take too long to come to a head as before the halfway point of the game you take part in a mission which is firmly lodged in many people's memories due to its twisty nature.
Something feels slightly off as you are ordered to give a demonstration of your skills to some rookie pilots by clearing a minefield. In the middle of this task your instructor begins mocking you, eventually letting his ships begin to attack you. You're completely outnumbered and need to call for reinforcements. Doing this calls in a ton of ships to help and you are quickly caught in the middle of a huge battle between opposing capital ships as well as a number of starfighters. There is a traitorous offshoot of the Empire and they have finally revealed themselves. By today's standards this may not sound particularly exciting or revolutionary, but this was 1994. Storytelling up to this point seemed to be confined mostly to adventure games and RPGs, so to have a compelling, evolving narrative present in a different genre felt quite special - plus, it wasn't just being told through cutscenes. You were actually there in the middle of it all happening. TIE Fighter's strength was its focus on immersion.
An interesting subject of note here is that although you were flying for the Empire, perceived as the bad guys of the Star Wars universe, at no point in the game did you ever feel evil. TIE Fighter did a wonderful job of justifying the Empire’s actions as peacekeeping efforts and you fly numerous missions in which you are trying to help others. This could have been an intentional device; perhaps LucasArts were worried that gamers weren’t ready to be the villain. Or perhaps it was just damn good writing - bad guys never see their own behaviour as evil.
The game had a fairly abrupt ending (although you did get to fly a cool mission with Darth Vader as your wingman) and was eventually given an expansion pack called Defender of the Empire which continued the story of the traitors. There was some criticism raised against these later missions due to the fact that you spend more time fighting your own ex-comrades than you do the Rebel Alliance. By this point you are using over-powered ships such as the TIE defender which was a near unstoppable beast, both when you're flying it and when you have to fight against them. This was also the transition point between floppy disk media and the birth of CD-ROM technology, so in 1995 the game was upgraded and released as a Collectors' CD-ROM with an exclusive extra expansion pack called Enemies of the Empire which brought the story to a complete close. The game ran in a higher resolution and now had recorded voice work for all cutscenes, briefings and in-mission dialogue.
TIE Fighter was extremely well-received overall and regarded as superior to X-Wing. The official strategy guide was closely integrated with the game and provided an enjoyable novel which gave your pilot a name and backstory and followed his adventures through the game's missions. The game set a benchmark for the space combat sim, and any other releases in the genre would always draw comparisons (as well as the Wing Commander games, the next few years would see the Freespace and Independence War franchises appear). It wasn't to be the last space sim that LucasArts released, as inevitably its success would mean a sequel could be made. In 1997 we were presented with X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter and it would prove to be a divisive release. Although the game's graphics were an enormous improvement and the gameplay still utilised the same principles, many people felt that the soul of what made the previous games great had been stripped away: there was no story. X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter was a multiplayer skirmish game designed for online play. While there were a lot of people who loved this pick-up-and-play approach, an internet connection wasn't something that everybody had access to in 1997, making the game pretty but extremely dull. LucasArts heard the complaints and added a single-player campaign as an expansion pack named Balance of Power (something very cool - this included the Super Star Destroyer as a capital ship). In a move that made many people weep with joy, they also re-released X-Wing and TIE Fighter upgraded to use the new X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter engine, so the original games now looked fantastic (although these versions removed the ability to control your craft with a mouse and replaced the awesome iMuse music system with CD audio). 1999 would see the release of what is - currently - the final game in the franchise: X-Wing Alliance. Using a new engine with graphics even further improved, this cast you in the role of a merchant working for your family's business who gets caught up with the Rebellion. It was pretty good yet somehow not spectacular, feeling a little too far removed from what had come before. And it ended on an annoying cliffhanger.
So what does this mean in 2014? The space sim has been gone for quite a long time apart from the odd indie release and the everlasting Eve Online. Yet people still speak in hushed tones about their memories of playing TIE Fighter and any discussion you stumble upon will include people commenting on how they would kill for a modern day remake. You have to wonder if this game would really fit in today's gaming world - could TIE Fighter ever work on a console? Surely they would have to strip away all of the complex controls and make it more of an arcade experience. Part of the joy was how much you had to manage all of your systems and memorise keyboard commands. Gamepads these days do have a lot more buttons than they used to, but maybe it can only work as a PC game.
Yet in recent times Kickstarter has proven that the space sim is definitely not dead. April has seen the release of Starlight Inception, a space sim worked on by members of the original X-Wing development team. You may not have heard of it though, because its thunder was completely stolen by the announcement of Chris Roberts' Star Citizen coming in 2015, an immensely ambitious space sim which at the time of writing is the highest-raising crowd funded project ever at $43 million. Yes, seriously. It seems that people REALLY want to play another space sim and what better time than now to dig out your old copy of TIE Fighter and relive some memories? Good news, both the 1994 and 1995 releases run very well on modern machines using DOSBox, while the 1998 version can be made to work but is fiddly (have a look at pcgamingwiki.com for help). Buying the game legally is a bit more tricky, it's not currently available anywhere (we live in hope that GOG.com will acquire the LucasArts back catalogue) so you'll need to go exploring on eBay or Amazon Marketplace.
So, is TIE Fighter the greatest game ever? That’s for you to decide, but without a doubt it deserves a place on the shelf of any PC gamer who wants to be taken seriously.