Monday, April 25, 2011

Review: Star Wars: Tie Fighter (PC)

Star Wars: Tie Fighter was developed by LucasArts and originally released in 1994 for DOS on floppy. A year later it was rereleased as an enhanced CD edition featuring additional missions and full voice overs, which this review will focus on. The game is the sequel to Star Wars: X-Wing and just like it precesessor it focuses on building a complex simulation of the spaceships of the Star Wars universe instead of just an arcade shooter. The story focuses on the imperial side in this game and is told in the form in the form of some short cutscenes and the missions briefings you get to hear before each missions, but it stays very impersonal overall, neither your own character nor any of the wingmen are established as characters, only a few commanding admirals get that handling in the cutscenes.

The games main menu comes in the form of a space station, after giving your pilot a name you have the choice between either flying one of numerous training missions, watching a few technical details of the spaceships, watching recorded mission playback or starting one of the thirteen battles that form the core of the game. Each of those battles contains around five to seven missions, putting the total mission count, including the training missions, of the Tie Fighter CD edition somewhere at around one hundred.

Before playing a mission the game will show a little briefing of what is about to follow and what the players role in the battle will be. A flight officer will provide additional tips and a member of the Imperators secret orders will provide you with information on bonus objective in the mission. All of those are fully voiced. One weird aspect of the mission briefing is that they loop, without a clear indication of where the end was. The spaceships weapon loadout can be configured before a mission as well. The spaceship itself however is predefined for the given mission. While early in the game focus will be on the unshielded Tie Fighter, Tie Bomber and Tie Interceptor, later on the will switch focus to the faster and better protected Tie Advance, Tie Defender, Gunboat and Missleboat.

Once the mission launches the player will be put into his ship and launched into space. The games controls are quite complex, featuring numerous command to target specific ships or even specific parts of those ship, redirect energy from the change engines to the weapons or shields, switch weapons or change between couple or individual fire, give commands to wingmen and so on. Some missions also include transporters from which you can request resupply and repair of your ship in the mid of the mission.

If the players ship is hit, his shields will reduce, if the shields are completely down, the hull will get damages, this not only can temporally knock out ship systems, but also visually destroy elements of your cockpit, thus making some game tasks substantially harder when for example your radar monitor gets destroyed. This mechanic however doesn't come into play very often, as your ship can only take a few hits without shields, thus you will rarely end in a situation where you survived an attack and be left with a heavily damage ship and instead simply be destroyed in the attack.

The mission design itself focuses on three main goals, either you have to protect specific ships from destruction, inspect the cargo of other ships by flying near them or destroy specific ships. Frequently those goals are combined, so for example a typical mission might have you inspect multiple ships to find the one carrying the valuable cargo and then have a transporter which you have protect dock to that ship to gain control over it. Navigation points to which you have to jump to get to the next sub part of the mission like in Wing Commander, are not present in Tie Fighter, a single mission will focus on a single sector of space, both friend and foe will however jump in and out of hyperspace over the course of the mission and thus either provide valuable support or try to escape. The length of a the individual missions varies from five minutes up to half an hour. Mid-mission checkpoints or the ability to save the game within a mission are not provided. You can however do a full recording of a mission that you can use for later analysis.

Graphics in the game come in good old 320x200 VGA for the menu and cutscenes, when flying a ship one can also chose a hires mode that runs in 640x480, but I found that to slow when running under DOSBox to be usable. Ships are untextured and only have gouraud shading on them, for small ships that is not a practical problem, but for the Stardestroy size ships the lack of texture can make it really hard to judge distance when you are close and as result you might sometimes crash right into them. A later rerelease apparently contains textured ships, but I haven't played that. Cutscenes are presented as a mix of still images with a bit of animation mixed in and voice overs.

The music comes in a form of a MIDI track, while that might not sound so great by todays standards, it is actually a dynamic track that reacts to the arrival of new enemies, completed mission objectives and other events, thus it becomes not just background music, but an actual part of the gameplay that informs you of important events.

The thing that makes Star Wars: Tie Fighter an impressive experience is how all its parts end up working together. Instead of simplistic arcade battles the games tries to portrait large scale space battles and successes at that extremely well. The success in a mission rarely depends on raw reflexes and is most of the time much more dependent on understanding the structure of the mission, whom you have to protect, which enemies you have to attack first and how to make best use of the limited resources you have.

What the game manages like few other is that you actually get to see a lot of what is going on, when an enemy group tries to attack one of the ships you should protect it can happen quite frequently that you actually witness first hand how that group approaches and fires the last devastating torpedo at their target. Even in such a situation last minute rescues is possible, as torpedo can be intercepted by a precise, but difficult to pull of laser shot. Interception of enemy groups also turns regularly into a game of chicken, with both fighters going on a head on collision course, a few well aimed laser beams in that situation can destroy the enemy craft, but just as easily a devastating collision might occur, so its a gamble that should not be taken lightly. When a friendly shuttle is docking with another ship the game also leaves enough time to fly close and wideness the event.

The game also make a good point of letting your wingmen and other flight crews matter, in quite a few missions they not only provide support, but are essential for the completion of the mission, as you might fly support for a few bombers without carrying any bombs yourself. And taking down a larger spaceship without support is basically an exercises in futility. In the later parts of the game however there is a little to much reliance on the players fighting skills, as you will only rarely get wingmens under your command and have to do most of the job yourself.

In terms of difficulty the game falls on the thought side, just randomly shooting won't get you far and trying to figure out the best approach to complete the missions objectives might take a few times. But the game manages to stay completely fair through most of it and you never really end up blaming the game, as when stuff goes wrong, there is almost always a clear mistake done by the player. In case the difficulty gets overwhelming the game allows you to switch between one of three difficulties and additionally enable invulnerability and unlimited ammunition, not via a cheat, but straight from the option menu. While success on the mission requires your survival, it doesn't actually require the survival of your spaceship, so as long as you eject and get not captured by the rebels, you can still complete the mission. Dieing in the game is actually incredible rare, it only happens to me once over the course the 40 hour campaign, all the other times I got auto ejected and most of the time rescued by the Imperial side. Dieing itself doesn't lead to any kind of punishment, your pilot will simply be reset to what he was before the mission.

On the technical side I had quite a few issues with the joystick calibration. The game requires you to recalibrate the joystick on each startup, however when you do that the calibration still ends up completely wrong when actually flying a spaceship, thus you have to recalibrate when actually getting into the ship (Alt-C). I am not sure if that is an issue with Dosbox or with the game itself, but I faintly remember having similar issues with X-Wing on a real DOS PC. I solved the problem with a simple joystick macro that would automatically perform the calibration procedure, that didn't fix the problem, but might quick recalibration possible.

One positive surprise was that the games commands, pretty much all of them, fit nicely on an Xbox360 controller, thus making the game playable without touching the keyboard. A proper configuration however requires mapping most buttons with two layers of shifting, which can be a bit confusing at times, but still allowed a very comfortable play.

There are of course also a few things in the game that could have been improved. The destructible cockpit never really becomes a real part of the game, it happens to rarely and when it happens it is extremely hard to recover from, as your ship doesn't provide secondary instruments, thus damage to your targeting computer makes it almost impossible to actually find out where you need to go. A set of secondary instruments that make the tasks at hand harder instead of pretty much impossible would have been welcome, just as a to damage the cockpit without losing the whole ship in the process.

Targeting of individual ship parts also gets only relevant in a tiny few situations. Destroying the missile launcher of a big ship can be quite an advantage for example, but trying to go after the laser canons is often futile, as they are to hard to hit. Targeting the shield generators also seems to have no noticeable effect, even when done the enemies ships shields stay up.

While the game actually does provide a bit of meaning to the eject function, in that it allows you to succeed a mission even if you ejected, it doesn't go far enough with that mechanic. You will be ejected almost always automatically and almost never have time to eject manually, as destruction will come far to quickly. Shifting the balance and making manual eject more useful, while making the automatic eject less dependable, would have been a nice addition.

Last not least, the final thing I found lacking are landings. You can end a mission via three ways, eject, going into hyperspace or landing on a nearby friendly ship, but landing doesn't actually require any talent, it just means getting close enough to a ship and hitting Space, you do not actual perform the landing. Same goes for hyperspace, triggering it starts an automatic that leaves you with nothing to do. A bit more user interaction would have been welcome.

Overall Star Wars: Tie Fighter still holds up extremely well. The lack of detail on the bigger ships might be a bit annoying, as you essentially end up having just a handful of flat polygons on your screen, but the actual space battles are as thrilling and clever as ever. The brilliance of the mission design is simply that there is always stuff happening and all of that is actually meaningful. When you then fly along and actually see that docking maneuver that you heard about in the mission briefing, it just gives a great sense of immersion, lacking in most more modern flight combat games. The story could certainly be more character driven, as that is an area where it is really lacking, close to the point of being non-existent, but it is good enough to give you plausible reasons for your missions. In the end it is simply an incredible well put together game that really managed to capture the size and thrill of Star Wars space battles, in some sense even batter then the actual movies.

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