Star Wars X-Wing Alliance (PC)
Among the first computer games I ever played were the 1997 “Special” Editions of the classic Totally Games Star Wars space combat simulators X-Wing and TIE Fighter, which originally came out in 1993 and 1994 respectively. As someone who didn’t play the games in their original release, I had a hell of a lot of fun with those games, particularly with their graphics upgraded to the X-Wing vs TIE Fighter engine. Naturally, I eventually got my hands on 1999’s X-Wing Alliance, only I never got to beat the game since around the same time my parents replaced the computer XWA was installed on and then bought me a PlayStation 2 as a convenient way to kick me off the family PC. Of course, now that I have my own PC, I can do whatever I want, and I got XWA as a Steam download.
TIE Fighter set the precedent for being a space combat simulator set in the Star Wars universe with a strong story-driven campaign, casting you as a no-name Imperial pilot who was dutifully flying missions against the Rebel Alliance only to find the Empire crumbling from within. X-Wing Alliance follows a similar route, putting you in the cockpit of Ace Azzameen, a cargo pilot flying for his family business who was forced to join the Rebel Alliance after the Empire seized his family’s assets.
I’ve played a multitude of Star Wars games over the years, and I don’t think I ever played one as complex as X-Wing Alliance. Most of the missions take place across multiple maps connected by hyperspace jumps; previous games had you confined to one location. Each location can involve multiple dozen starfighters on each side with a solid number of large capital ships for good measure.
What you fly depends on the mission. The first chapter, doubling as the game’s tutorial segment, has you flying your family’s Corellian freighters while the game’s climax seats you in the Millennium Falcon at the Battle of Endor, while, in the game’s main technical achievement, you even fly in and out of the Death Star!
Naturally, as the game is called X-Wing Alliance, you fly Rebel starfighters like X-Wings, Y-Wings, A-Wings, and B-Wings for the bulk of the campaign. XWA absolutely nailed giving each ship a unique feel. Y-Wings are sluggish, but they carry large proton torpedo payloads to bring the hurt to an Imperial Star Destroyer and can take a beating in the process. A-Wings blow up if someone sneezes in their general direction, but they’re nimble and an enemy bomber will have a hell of a time trying to shake one off. Of course, X-Wings are kind of good at everything but not ideal for more specialized tasks like bombing or interception.
For the first time in the series, you can even fly Corellian freighters. They’re not the most maneuverable things, but the missions where you fly them typically have you more concerned with using the autofire turrets to destroy multiple waves of enemy fighters rather than making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.
The Corellian freighter is the first symptom of the game being an unfortunate victim of its time. XWA came out in 1999, the same year Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released. One thing that was left over in the final release of the game was the ability to sit in the turret of your freighters, of course leaving no one to actually fly the ship. It’s clear that LucasArts originally intended for two players to be able to tag team, with one firing the turret while the other flies. This, like other features in the game, appears to have been cut because LucasArts wanted to get this game out the door in order to concentrate on Phantom Menace-tie in games. Other things players will notice include Azzameen’s own story arc not having a proper resolution and a film room in the game’s main concourse despite you not having the ability to record films like you could in previous titles.
On top of that, the game was minorly buggy. There was nothing to break the game, but there were issues with scripted events. Each mission depended on very tight scripting, but it was possible to accidentally complete an objective out of sequence, have the dialogue (oh this game has a ton of well-acted in-flight dialogue adding to the atmosphere) sequence trigger, but not have the game recognize you as having completed the objective, thus forcing you to restart the level.
It’s a shame I was able to find anything wrong with the game at all because the rest of it is so beautiful. For a game that came out in 1999, it features some amazing graphics with detailed ship models and dynamic lighting and particle effects. In 1999, it was extra incentive to drop money for a 3D Accelerator card, though now my rig’s Radeon R9 270 could run the game on max settings without breaking a sweat. Even in 2016, the sound is terrific as well with appropriate sound effects for ships’ engine and weapon effects, excellent voice acting, and John Williams’s score lifted from the movies where certain cues play depending on the game’s context.
Despite some of the gripes I had, I would not hesitate for a second before recommending someone drop $10 to buy X-Wing Alliance. From beginning to end, it took me a solid 31 hours to get through, which I think is impressive for any game that isn’t an RPG.