It’s been fifteen years since Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance. It’s one of those things that make you feel utterly old. Not as old as a child playing Sonic with fond nostalgia, but of being almost an adult, at the end of adolescence and realising how long ago it was.
For some more perspective, the third Harry Potter book came out at the same time, and both the first Potter movie and Lord of The Rings were released only two years later.
But I digress. X-Wing Alliance was not only a game released by the now defunct LucasArts and Totally Games. It was not only the third single player game in the series following from the critically lauded X-Wing and TIE Fighter, but it was also the last. It was quite possibly the last great licensed dog-fighting game on a PC.
You take the part of Ace Azzameen (or whatever you name him, although you’ll always be called Ace), a young hothead from a family of freighter pilots, who becomes a member of the Rebel Alliance, mostly because the Imperials don’t take kindly to you being sympathetic to the Rebellion.
Your constant companion throughout this is a rather feisty, battle hungry and (after a while) frankly annoying droid called Emkay. You get to fly, pick up missions until battle ensues and get caught up delivering Alliance supplies after the Battle of Hoth. So starts a journey that leads the gap between The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi.
Eventually you get to the obligatory Death Star level, stealing an Imperial Shuttle and collecting all sorts of medals and token souvenirs on the way. Oh, did I mention you spend a lot of time flying a Millennium Falcon class ship? No? That happens. Which is, if I remember rightly, one of the biggest draws of the game.
I mention that because its hard to imagine now, in a world where the Rogue Squadron series came along, how big a thing it was to have that craft as a playable entity. It fulfilled so many dreams that we had been unable to fully satisfy before, and with the newer episodes being released it seemed a bit optimistic to think any games would look back to the original universe.
And as fans, we would have been right. Other than the Rouge Squadron series, there was practically no dog-fighting in the Star Wars games from the original era until Lego Star Wars: The Original Saga. Arguably the ones that followed with the new extension to the universe were never as satisfying as those that came before it.
The game forced a few updates that previous players had to adapt to. Firstly, things became much, much larger. The ships were bigger and more cumbersome, the battles more epic, the detail a lot more intricate and system straining than the previous outings. You couldn’t just zip around and pelt things, you had to properly avoid collisions and look after your craft’s speed and manoeuvrability in flight and combat. Nowadays it does look incredibly dated. Even playing it again recently, I couldn’t find a resolution that would allow the text to display properly or a suitable graphical set up. Suffice to say that up close, it hasn’t aged too well compared to other games of the era that were less graphically dependent.
One of the key improvements though, and one of the great things about the series as a whole, was the enemy AI. It was so good it could fly your ship for you whilst you manned the gunners’ turret in the Falcon-style ship. It certainly made this game challenging and instantly reminded me of the hours I spent furiously throwing my mouse around trying to find a target or violently forcing the joystick to do the same… I realise that’s a very euphemism heavy sentence… You kids and your “joypads” don’t know you’re born.
When we look back at the legacy of the Star Wars games, it was LucasArts who revolutionised gaming using the franchise, and TIE Fighter is still probably the stand out title of the series. There have been a few space dog-fighting games since, including a few Star Trek ones, but none of them, even with their graphical superiority, ever have truly lived up to the standard set by these three games.
Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance was the technically superior of course and is still very playable, which is probably a good thing as this type of game seemingly disappeared after this time. Flight Sims went out of fashion and world events certainly saw them becoming more of a taboo genre. Even warfare itself had changed significantly enough for military based plane games to evolve and lose mainstream appeal, paving the way for the now dominant FPS market.
The final game of this trilogy, if you don’t count the multiplayer X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter game, is certainly a great legacy to leave. It was a series that was the first to simplify space dog-fighting combat in this particular era of gaming. Not since Elite was combat so easy to pick up and in the PC market, it arguably hasn’t been since. EVE of course has it, as did Star Wars Galaxies and Star Trek Online, but the MMO’s of today really don’t capture that ‘cockpit euphoria’ of tracking down a TIE Fighter, getting her in the sights and letting rip with the lasers, draining the power in the most satisfying way possible.
Maybe the upcoming Kickstarter funded sequel of Elite might invoke some nostalgia and requirement for games such as this, but it is a testament to these games that they still stand as the benchmark of how this genre should be made, played and enjoyed.