X-Wing. (space-combat simulator) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Scott A. May
It took some time and a lot of effort, but the Force is finally with us! X-Wing roars onto computer screens as the further realization of a dream that began in 1977, with the introduction of George Lucas's Star Wars. Though initially intended as a campy homage to Hollywood's pulp adventure serials, the film instead carved a permanent niche in popular culture. Ironically while the cinematic effects pioneered by Industrial Light and Magic have moved light-years beyond Lucas's original vision, today's powerful personal computers are only recently catching up. You could say, then, that X-Wing has actually been 16 years in the making. Spend some time with this landmark simulation and you'll agree--it was well worth the wait.
LucasArts' creation invites obvious comparisons to Origin's best-selling Wing Commander series. Both are similarly structured sci-fi epics, enhanced by cinematic segues, explosive sound effects, and in-your-face 3-D action. The two products differ, however, in direction and substance. Wing Commander could best be described as an arcade-style space shoot-'em-up. X-Wing, on the other hand, strives to be the first authentic space-combat simulator. It succeeds brilliantly.
The game draws its greatest inspiration from the original Star Wars saga, charting the formation of the Rebel Alliance against the evil Empire and the construction of the genocidal Death Star. A lengthy animated introduction sets the stage, with additional background information provided in the richly illustrated manual. Movie fans may be disappointed that such mainstays as Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are nowhere to be found. Instead, you become the lead character, fulfilling a destiny written in the stars.
All action is initiated from the space port on the Rebel flagship Independence. After pilot registration--incorporating the game's unobtrusive, manual-based copy protection--you're presented with several paths to follow. Pilot Proving Ground is the logical first stop for rookie space pilots, as this is where you'll learn the fine art of flying the X-Wing, Y-Wing, and A-Wing Rebel ships.
You're run through as series of holographic images that appear as a maze of floating gate platforms, twisting and turning into 3-D space. Each round must be completed within in a set time limit, which becomes shorter the further you progress. This section offers your first taste of the game's realistic 3-D flight model and the remarkable control afforded by zero gravity. Complete all eight courses in a given ship, and receive an honorary flight badge.
The next step in your training leads to the Historical Combat simulator, where you participate in re-creations of actual Rebel missions. Six missions of increasing difficulty are available for each ship type, allowing you to practice various skills in a series of combat, rescue, and reconnaissance scenarios. this is also the best opportunity to familiarize yourself with each ship's tactical strengths and weaknesses. Purely a simulation, with no impact on your pilot status, Historical Combat provides invaluable hands-on experience in almost every imaginable confrontation.
As they say, however, there's nothing quite like the real thing. At the heart of the program are the grueling tours of duty, three in all, for a total of 38 missions. You begin the game with the title of Flight Cadet, with the opportunity to advance five levels to the rank of General of the Alliance Fleet, earning various medals and awards along the way. Mission types range from simple patrols and brief interdictions to full-scale attacks and defensive standoffs. Make it to the final mission, and you'll re-create Luke Skywalker's bone-chilling trench run on the massive Death Star. Completed missions are automatically added to the historical simulator.
Preflight instructions are appropriately futuristic, featuring holographic map displays outlining mission objectives, obstacles, and way points. Missions are timed and must be completed within extraordinarily strict guidelines. Unlike Wing Commander, where the story continues as long as your pilot survives, failure to follow exact rules here results in a failed mission. Unfortunately, these rules are murky at best and are downright enigmatic at higher levels.
This brings up X-wing's most controversial point: instead of being a free-form combat simulation, it is rigidly structured, with only predetermined outcomes. Such restrictions leave no margin for error, thus discouraging spontaneity and creative solutions. On the other hand, the game forces you to stretch the boundaries of skill and imagination beyond what simple arcade shoot-'em-ups can offer. Though this causes X-wing to be often outrageously difficult, the result is replay value far higher than that of previous efforts in the genre.
Gameplay is tight, yet fluid, aided by spectacular graphics and sound effects. Cockpit designs are handsomely rendered in 256-color bitmap overlays, with 17 different view angles. Main features include forward and rear sensors with color-coded identification and quick placement of surrounding craft. The central combat multiview monitor helps you identify enemy ships, as well as scan for shield status, damage, and sections vulnerable to attack.
One of the most useful skills you must learn is how to shift your ship's energy among engines, shields, and weapon regeneration. An R2 Astromech droid serves as your copilot, reporting damage, performing repairs, and providing a communications link with other ships. It also allows in-flight access to sector maps and a review of mission directives.
Weapon systems increase proportionally in power and number with each upgrade in ship design. X-wings are armed with laser cannons and proton torpedoes, while the medium-range Y-wings come equipped with additional icon cannons. The heavy-duty A-wings pack the biggest wallop, boasting an array of devastating concussion missiles. Weapons fire with a satisfying burst of light and sound. Destroyed alien ships ignite in breathtaking bitmap explosions. The fiery destruction of larger ships is particularly well done, starting with a chain reaction of small eruptions and climaxing in a thunderous fireball.
Outside views of all ships are rendered in solid-fill polygons, a design decision that pays off with superb 3-D modeling and a smooth, rapid frame rate, even on slower machines. Although the publisher recommends an 80386-based system, user-defined graphics detail allows the game to run surprisingly well on a fast 80286 machine. In addition to Lucasarts' iMUSE interactive soundtrack, users with Sound Blaster-Compatible sound cards will also enjoy crisp digitized speech. Few sounds are as chilling, however, as the unholy roar of TIE fighters screaming across your path.
Perhaps the game's most dynamic and helpful accessory is the in-flight recorder, identical to one used in Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe. Combat footage can be played from almost any point of view, during missions or afterward in the space port film room. Use it to study unsuccessful missions to learn from your mistakes. Use the highly maneuverable free-floating camera as a sophisticated reconnaissance tool, exploring areas of this virtual reality otherwise unseen from your cockpit view.
Intense combat action and levels that rapidly increase in difficulty may keep X-wing beyond the reach of casual fighter jocks. But for those with the skill and tenacity worthy of a Rebel space pilot, X-wing brings the excitement born in a galaxy far, far away a little closer to home.