Monday, 29 December 2014

Star Wars: X-Wing - Collectors' CD-ROM (MS-DOS)

X-Wing PC game logo
Today on Super Adventures it is my privilege to bore you with my thoughts about the first hour or two of Star Wars: X-Wing: Space Combat Simulator: Collectors' CD-ROM '94! No, no, come back, I've brought gifs as well.

A few months ago I said I was going to bring back balance to the site this year, and this post should finally pull the Star Wars games even with the Star Trek games (in quantity if not quality). Actually I suppose this one should count three times, as LucasArts kept rereleasing it with a new engine and different graphics throughout the 90s. It only ever came out on PC and Mac though for whatever reason (unlike the rival Wing Commander games which made it everywhere).

This was actually the very first Star Wars game developed in-house at LucasArts, by an independent team that later formed Totally Games and went on to make a bunch more X-Wing space sims (plus a Star Trek one) before kinda dropping off the map. After 1999's Freespace 2 bombed there just wasn't as much demand for space combat games like this any more. I can't help but wonder if the genre might have lived longer though if console gamers had gotten to play the best of them.

X-Wing game intro Star Destroyer
Not actually a real screenshot, sorry.
The game starts with a standard issue LucasArts logo and a typical Star Wars crawl before transitioning into animated intro sequence featuring Star Destroyers and TIE Interceptors and Imperial officers and everything!

But the filesize ended up too big on my animated gif, so I decided to do the next best thing and stitch a couple of the frames together to create this image instead. It's not technically a shot that you'll ever see in the game, but the art's just too good so I had to include it anyway. Bit of a shame though that the 3D rendered fighters don't match the art style of the destroyers.

"We've located a Rebel fleet somehow!"
"Excellent, move our big ships in range and then launch the smaller ships to blow them up."

Not an exact quote, but that's basically the entire plot so far. In case you're not up to date on the story of Star Wars, the triangle ships are run by Space Nazis who speak with a British accent, and the purple ships are run by the noble, freedom loving, tyranny fighting Rebels, who are generally American... uh, Space American. The Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist, forcing the Rebels to stay mobile and gather their forces in secret to survive, so being caught out like this is not a good thing.

Fortunately the Rebellion has a new weapon: The X-wing starfighter!

But I thought that those pointy style TIE Fighters they're using here were brought into service way after the X-wings... though I don't suppose that was ever mentioned in the films. In fact now that I think about it, half of what I *know* about Star Wars originally came from these games, seeing as I probably played them long before I'd really watched the movies.

Anyway the X-wings make short work of the TIE Interceptors, do that flyby of the logo, and that's the end of the intro. I suppose those Star Destroyers featured in almost every shot earlier must have all ran away or something.

Okay okay, I'll enter my name!

The canon hero is called Keyan Farlander, and yes he does have his own action figure. In the expanded universe he also studied to become a Jedi Knight, was retroactively stated to be one of the surviving pilots flying away at the end of Star Wars: Episode IV, and was also considered to have made a live action appearance in Return of the Jedi as one the miscellaneous Rebels in the background of the briefing scene... so fuck that guy, I'm picking my own name.

Flagship Indepenedence spaceport concourse
It's not quite as cosy as Wing Commander is it? That game started me off in a room full of people to chat with, while this has started me off in a room full of doors. I like how they took the effort to add reflections to them though.

Well the 'film room' turned out to be a crushing disappointment as it's just for viewing flight recorder footage, so I'll check out the tech room next.

Aww, I was hoping for rotating models of all the objects in the game. Made up specifications and slightly stretched schematics are cool and all, but they're no replacement for low-polygon spinning things.

Okay I'll go up to the 'new tour' door and get the main campaign started. There's five tours in this version I can pick from (three from the original X-Wing and two from the expansions), and I can switch between them as often as I feel like. And right now I feel like going with tour number... one.


TOUR 1: OPERATION 1.


"Good luck sir," said the droid at the desk as I clicked on the hanger to begin the first tour. I can't tell if he sounds like Droopy doing a robot voice, or a robot trying to do a Droopy voice, but the guy really needs to cheer up.

For some reason it never occurred to me that I'd be leaving the mothership then shipping out to an almost identical mothership somewhere else to carry out this tour of duty. Which means that I'll have to take a shuttle ride back every single time I want to return to the hall of doors... that's a lot of spaceship fuel I'm burning up just screwing around.

X-wing mission briefing screen
Whoa Admiral Ackbar himself has come down here to give me my mission briefings! No seriously, it's the same actor from Return of the Jedi providing the voice. The spoken dialogue in the original 1993 version of the game stopped at the intro, but in this I'm getting full speech all the time... well in mission briefings anyway, as that's the only time anyone ever talks.

How did that guy even manage to squeeze himself into that tiny box? If he's not careful he could end up... trapped in there. Sorry, I'll just go out into the cold vacuum of space now and blow up some freighters now.

X-Wing Pilot assignment screen
Here's an interesting feature: the game lets me bring other user-created pilots with me on missions to fly the other Rebel fighters, even the ones in other wings. The AI's skill is determined by their rank, and each character can earn points in battle towards a promotion... I think. It's been a while since I played it. One thing I do remember though, is that these guys can die in your battle. Yep you can drag your friends' profiles into the fray and get them killed off.

It's a shame this feature was scrapped entirely in the 1998 update, as there's some real mileage in the concept I reckon. Imagine if the pilot management had a bit more Wing Commander or Mass Effect to it, where you'd have a chance to get to know these people outside of battle, hear their comments during missions, and choose to how you want to level them up. It could be a bit like developing a team in XCOM, except without all the dying.

Man, this game really loves its transitions. There's a shot of the fighter sitting in the hanger getting ready to launch, a clip of it flying out from the carrier, and then this unskippable hyperspace jump before it finally lets me take control myself.

Actually before that I need to interrupt with something of my own:

Here's the 1993, 1994 and 1998 versions of X-Wing to show how the graphics were improved each time.
  • The 1993 floppy disk version has flat shaded polygons with no textures. The red stripes are presumably modelled into it.
  • The original 1994 CD version I'm playing now was transferred to the TIE Fighter engine, adding Gouraud shading to soften the edges and make everything look like an inflatable toy
  • The 1998 remake was shifted over to the X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter engine with its high-tech 3D accelerated texture mapping and stuff. It's also in 640x480 resolution, as was the style at the time.
So they had three tries and they still couldn't get it looking like an actual X-wing. Okay okay I'm being really harsh when it comes to X-Wing '93, seeing as it came out the same month as Star Fox, but you know what came out the same year as X-Wing '98?

Rogue Squadron 3D (PC)
Factor 5's PC/N64 smash hit Rogue Squadron! Why couldn't my X-wing look like that? It's only a handful of polygons more complex, but it looks so much more accurate. Also the wings actually lie flat against each other when they're closed!

Damn it's been over three years since I last played one of these games and I still remembered all the keys instantly. You really do need one hand on the keyboard to play the game, either that or a controller with more buttons than the Xbox 360 controller I'm using.

Okay there's no enemies around and I'm meant to be destroying helpless freighters, so here's what I did to start:
  1. I hit F9 and F10 a few times to set my laser and shield energy bars to zero, giving all my energy output to the engines. I only mentioned the keys because F9 and F10, seriously?
  2. I dumped all the power sitting in my laser batteries into the shields instead, because it's just going to leak out anyway without energy going to them and I believe shields discharge slower than guns. Plus I'm dumb and accidentally drive into things sometimes and it'd be nice to not instantly explode.
  3. I targeted the furthest freighter and flipped the fighter to face it, using the radar circles on the top to navigate by. The left one is front view, the right one is rear view, the dots are enemy and friendly targets, and it's the most perfect radar set up in all of space combat gaming history because it's instantly readable and it makes sense.
  4. Then I switched the multi-view display to targeting mode so I could try to figure out where the bloody thing is, as X-Wing doesn't put a targeting box around distant objects like TIE Fighter does (well it didn't until the 1998 release anyway).
It doesn't have time acceleration either, so this might take a while.


LATER.


Image crudely stitched together from three cockpit views.
Hey buddy, you okay back there? Don't worry, we'll be there any time now. I just have to get into photon torpedo range, lock on, and then I can send my payload off to sort the frieghter out for me while I deal with closer problems. Like all the other freighters out here for instance.


HOURS LATER.


I'm exaggerating, it's only been around two and a half minutes really. Two and a half long minutes...

But hey, I've finally reached the bit where I'm very slowly blowing things up! I miss TIE Fighter's shield percentage gauge that gave me an idea how much longer I was going to have to keep shooting at things. At least I'm close enough to the ship to automatically scan it, even thought that's basically only told me that the thing's called 'Nigiro'. There's an 'Arreis' out here too, along with the 'Esorp' and the 'Orcim', and shamefully it's taken me until 2014 to flip the names around to reveal LucasArts' arch rivals hidden in plain sight.

Well I shot a bunch of slow moving cargo ships until they exploded and 'MISSION COMPLETE' appeared on screen, and now I'm free to hit the hyperspace key and head home! If I can remember how.

Dude, it's the future, we have tractor beams and autopilots and robots and shit, you don't have to stand there waving a pair of torches any more.

Hang on, I just complete the whole mission without talking about the dynamic music! It's not quite on TIE Fighter's level, but it's pretty good. It's by the trinity of composers responsible for the Monkey Island 2 soundtrack, so it'd better be. The 1998 release on the other hand scraps the iMUSE midi tunes in combat and replaces them with music from the movies, which is good because it's by John Williams, but bad because it's like there's someone watching Star Wars next to you while you're trying to play a video game! It doesn't matter how good the audio quality of your borrowed movie soundtrack is, it's no substitute for a quality original dynamic soundtrack.


TOUR 1: OPERATION 2.


You know, for a game called X-Wing it sure didn't take long to put me into a different fighter. This time I'm flying an A-wing as yes the Rebel Alliance really does name all their fighters after what letter they resemble. I know names are difficult and everything, and I do empathise, but c'mon that's just Sesame Street level.

Then again I suppose it could be a translation thing, seeing as the Rebels surely aren't using any alphabet you'd find on Earth...

Anyway mission two is all about not shooting. I was specifically ordered to not engage enemies, as I'm a recon scout sent out here to scan an enemy fleet as they jump into the system a few ships at time. This fighter I'm flying is so fast and nimble that they might as well not bother shooting at me either, as it's not going to work. They've accidentally blown up a TIE Fighter and one of their own freighters with their stray shots but they can't make a dint in me.

The thing is, I can't really win this fight here even if I tried, because they just keep coming back! It's rare that you can ever just clear a place out and be done with it in this game, as every time you kill a pair of enemies... SENSORS DETECT 2 NEW TIE FIGHTERS.


TOUR 1: OPERATION 3.


Oh shit, you do not want to see a Star Destroyer appear out of nowhere like that in this game. They live up their first appearance in Star Wars, utterly wrecking anything that gets too close to them, and they can launch waves of TIE Fighters seemingly indefinitely. Though it kind of takes away some of the menace when you know that there's a blind spot behind their engines that you can safely park in,  and then hold the fire button down until they blow up.

That ship over there with the green lasers focused on it is a lost cause now, but fortunately that's not my problem. I'm out here to protect three shuttles, and seeing as I can't do anything clever in this like hit a 'automatically target my target's attacker' button, I'm just going against the nearest threats, and hoping I can keep them all focused on me.

Actually, change of plan, I'm going after the TIE Bombers that just appeared. These things are my nightmare, as their torpedoes have a longer range than my laser cannons, and bullseyeing a stream of tiny blue lines homing in on my mission critical target has never been something I'm good at. TIE Fighters, they'll stick around and make themselves a target for you, but Bombers... let them slip your mind for a few seconds and they're off into the distance somewhere, blowing up all your shit. They're single-minded hateful devices, like twin hull manned torpedoes that shoot out smaller torpedoes, before swinging around and beginning the walk of smug back to their capital ship as everything you were sent to protect explodes behind them in slow motion. Fuck you TIE Bombers!

Though on the plus side, I have shields and they don't. So a few well aimed shots will cut through their paper hull and eject their internal components into outer space. TIE Fighters are even better, as they'll go up with a single well aimed shot if I've got all four blasters linked to blast away simultaneously.


LATER ON IN THE MISSION.


Okay what? I've killed everything around me, all the Rebels have jumped out, there's nothing left here! Oh no don't tell me that someone blew up my shuttles and the game didn't tell me! That means I'd lost ages ago and I had no idea.

Wow, I didn't think I'd ever miss the "Mission critical craft under attack, mission critical craft shields down, mission critical craft hull condition critical, mission critical craft... destroyed. Abort mission, mission a failure." string of updates that constantly tormented me in TIE Fighter, but I actually kinda am. At least when people yell at me I know where (and when) I'm going wrong. Being left in the dark like this is actually really annoying.


A RETRY OR TWO LATER.



Another mission sucessfully completed at last! My reward... a fleet of Star Destroyers coming by and glassing one of our planets from orbit.

Oh and they've sent down some AT-AT walkers too! 

This is starting to remind me of the bad ending cutscenes in Wing Commander, except as far as I know there is no branching story in this game: no success and failure paths. I guess sometimes bad things happen to good pilots.


TOUR 1: OPERATION 10.


Okay I've reached operation 10 now, so I'm very close to finishing the first tour off. I think that would be a sensible place to call it a day.

This mission seems pretty straightforward: I'm flying a lone Y-wing tasked with identifying and disabling a shuttle carrying a planetary leader, while a pair of X-wings takes on the Imperial fighter escort and keeps us both safe.

Oh shit, there's more than one shuttle and they're all trying to kill me! You can see my front shields burn away in seconds there.

Okay... what I'm going to do now is equalise my shields, dump my laser energy into them, and then try to not get hit as I'm waiting for things to recharge. The thing is, I'm much slower while I'm charging weapons, so I have to decide whether I can risk leaving them on full like this while I'm under attack. Ain't no point using weapon power to boost my shield recharge rate if it's just going to get me shot.

Oh, well that's made my choice a lot simpler, as it turns out that they've wrecked my laser cannons, and it's going to take R2 36 seconds to make his way out to the end of the wing and fix 'em.

Still, all the important things are still working...

...like the auto eject system. Bit of a shame though that this shuttle's not on our side. Yes, wave your arms, that might help!

How ironic that the person sent to rescue someone from a shuttle was himself captured and taken away on a shuttle! Wait, not 'ironic', what's that other word... oh yeah, inept.

Well at least I got to visit Darth Vader, or at pretty decent impersonator anyway. Vader wants to know the position of the secret Rebel base and he's not afraid to send a little robot over to torture me for it. What is it with Empire and evil balls anyway? I think Mel Brooks was on to something.

Wow, it's dumped me right back to the giant registration monument, so now I have to go through three doors and a shuttle ride to get back to the mission.

Hang on, it won't let me out because I've been captured. I have to 'modify' my pilot first, by erasing their rank and score! It's not true perma-death as I do keep my progress, but that's still kind of shitty in my opinion. The only way to prevent this is to backup the pilot file manually outside of the game between missions.


A FEW TRIES LATER.


Well... that wasn't the ideal outcome either. Fortunately death is a lot like capture, in that it can be undone with a click of a button. I've been using a homemade batch file outside of the game which restores my old pilot file each time I screw up, and this is all falling into a routine now.

Okay this is the time that I don't fuck this up. I've wasted enough time on this one mission and I've got better things to do.

First things first: I'm going to get rid of the four shuttles that don't currently have Sullustan leaders on board, seeing as my friends in the X-wings are doing a real crappy job of keeping them off my back. There's no 'match speed with target' button in this version (that wasn't added until the '98 release), so I have to keep my speed down manually to dogfight these slower ships. Fortunately sticking lasers and shields on maximum charge sorts that out, and has the happy side effect of charging up my lasers and shields.

Okay the antagonistic shuttles are all dead (even SHUTTLE ???? 4, the shuttle of fourfold mystery), and now I need to catch up to the one with the Sullustan leader on board to disable it before it reaches the safety of the Star Destroyer. The only trouble with that plan is that those X-wings haven't been killing the TIE Fighter escorts! I mean look at all these green lasers coming my way, making me swerve around like a lunatic. Those bloody X-Wings had ONE JOB...

In ten seconds I'll need flip my power back on, dump some of my shield energy into my ion cannons, and try to disable that the shuttle, so I'm a bit concerned about what'll happen when I slow down and stop weaving.


SOME FANCY FLYING LATER.


There you go, the TIE Fighters are dead, the shuttle's disabled, the Rebel team have docked with it in their own shuttle to rescue the Sullustan leader, and now I'm free to swoop around and help out where I can while everyone else gets on with their jobs.

Wait, where are the X-wings going? Those fuckers just disappeared and abandoned me to protect two shuttles all on my own! Don't they know there's a Star Destroyer up there launching infinite enemy fighters at us? I understand they they've got other stuff they want to get on with this afternoon, but we're meant to be rescuing a planetary leader here!

Shit shit shit there's three fighters coming in at once and they're the fast and pointy kind.

I can handle three enemy fighters at once, I'm not that bad of a pilot, but stopping all three of them from attacking another target is a very different kind of problem. I'll just have to destroy all three of them in a row and not let any get away from me.

Aaaaand I didn't hit any of them, total fuck up! I wish I could blame the fact that I'm playing it on an Xbox controller without the deadzone set up right, but I think the real problem is sitting somewhere between the controller and the chair.

Still though, if I want to try again it'll mean waiting another six minutes until the part when the TIE Interceptors show up, and I just don't care enough any more. It's lost me, an hour spent replaying the same mission over and over is apparently my limit. The worst thing about this is... the mission was actually remade to be easier in the version I'm playing!

I could always move on to one of the other four tours, but I think I've seen enough of the campaign for now. But there's still the Pilot Proving Ground and Historical Combat doors to try out.


PILOT PROVING GROUND.


Oh crap, I didn't realise they were going to send me off in a shuttle just for some training! I thought they were going to put me in a simulator pod or something. I feel like a guy who takes his private jet every time he pops out to buy some milk.

Pilot training seems to be mostly/entirely about flying through gates in each of the Rebel fighters, with an 8.5 minute time limit to finish the course in. I'm really hoping they're being overly generous there.

By the way, the first three tours of X-Wing take place before Star Wars: Episode IV, so for all we know doing TV maintenance in the training frigate could've actually been R2D2's job for before becoming Luke Skywalker's sidekick. No wonder he volunteered to be his co-pilot after years spent twiddling his rod and watching that video loop.

Somehow when I heard I was going to be flying through gates, I didn't expect them to be sticking out of a rollercoaster track of floating platforms.

I decided to trust in my superior piloting skills over my inferior patience and turned off my lasers and shields for extra speed. It all went pretty well actually aside from a few missed gates and the occasional collision with the floor, so I continued on to a second lap to see if anything changed. Turns out not a whole lot, except for near the end when I suddenly realised that they'd turned on the track's turbolaser security grid. "ENGINE SYSTEM IS DAMAGED AND INOPERATIVE" is not what you want to see flash up on screen when you're 7 gates from the finish line on a 110 gate course.

Bored now, but what's behind the Historical Combat door? Besides another shuttle ride I mean.


HISTORICAL COMBAT.


Historical Combat features training missions, bonus levels and the option to replay any campaign mission I've already completed, so I figured I'd go straight to the Death Star trench run, because c'mon.

It's times like this though that I realise that I'm not actually Luke Skywalker, I'm the guy standing in the background in Return of the Jedi who has no lines. Darth Vader hasn't even shown up yet and I'm still getting destroyed! I've heard that turning the graphics options down reduces the obstacles and makes this easier, but I think I'll turn the game off now and leave the space-station destruction to the professionals... and by that I mean a moisture farmer, a smuggler and a walking carpet. 


CONCLUSION


I want to like X-Wing more than I do, but it's hard not to respect what LucasArts achieved with it at least. I mean it didn't invent 3D space dogfighting, Elite kind of got there first back in 1984, and 1988's Starglider 2 really doesn't look that much less advanced visually, but X-Wing took what the genre leading Wing Commander series was doing and brought it to the next level.

For one thing, X-Wing's missions involve something more than hitting the autopilot a few times and shooting everything at each destination. Instead of separate islands of activity, you're able to keep track of every ship and every fighter in the entire mission area at once, with distant capital ships as landmarks on the battlefield instead of Wing Commander's isolated nav points. You have to be aware of the whole situation or else you could be in the wrong place when you're needed elsewhere, and this actually works against the game at times because some missions are so challenging that you have to solve them like a puzzle. You have to race from point to point hitting the right targets fast enough to get yourself somewhere else in time for the next bit. A bit more margin for error would've been nice, because it gets really old to fail the same mission over and over again, especially when it's not even my fighter that's doing all the exploding.

The sequel, TIE Fighter, came along a year later and managed to fix this a bit by shifting the more difficult tasks into optional bonus objectives. It also added time acceleration to skip the waiting, mission updates so you know when you've failed, a 'match speed' button, more ship variety, a targeting box so you could see distant ships in space, and target info so you could see who was doing what to who and where. And that's the trouble with X-Wing really, it feels like an alpha version of TIE Fighter, still missing some important features and a lot of tweaking.

But I love the dogfighting, I love the painted cutscenes and low tech graphics, I love the way the dynamic music gives me a victory theme whenever I get a kill, and I love that it hasn't sent me into one bloody asteroid field yet. So I suppose I'll have to say that this one isn't crap.

If you liked what you read here about X-Wing then feel free to share the link on forums, Twitter... maybe even go crazy and put it on Facebook! If you didn't like it, that's fine too, maybe you can explain where I went wrong in the comments box below.

Next time: mecha-neko finally returns after three months to show off the final game of 2014.

1 comment:

  1. Then again I suppose it could be a translation thing, seeing as the Rebels surely aren't using any alphabet you'd find on Earth...

    You know, that hadn't occurred to me until right now. The ships are named after letters that don't exist in the setting. How have I not noticed that in all these years? Lucas, you suck!

    (jokes)

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