Computer Graphics Memory Disk Space Minimum 386/33 VGA 1Meg EMS 15 Megs Max./Rec. 486 2Megs EMS Control: "Joystick required" (I'd say strongly recommended;mouse control also possible) Sound: SoundBlaster (all models), Pro Audio, Roland MT 32/LAPC-1 General Midi and Compatibles Notes: Speech & Music requires 2Megs EMS, takes 22 megs on a compressed drive, copy protected by document lookup Reviewed version 1.0 on: 386/25, 4MB RAM, original SoundBlaster Reviewer recommends: 386/25 or higher, 4MB RAM, 500k+ disk cache
In the world of computer games, a handful of designers and game companies have given rise to "cults of quality," design-savvy fans who have learned to expect nothing short of excellence from these companies, and will grab new releases off the shelves without heed to advance press or on-line scuttlebutt. Sid Meier, QQP, and perhaps Dynamix come to mind, as producers of games so daring, unique and polished, that imperfections of design are dwarfed by the excellence of the overall product.
LucasArts finds itself in this elite group lately, and possibly leading the pack. It's hard to find a discouraging word about LucasArts on-line, and the space combat game X-WING still tops the popularity charts a year after its release. A widely distributed demo version of TIE FIGHTER (TF), billed as the "sequel" to X-wing, generated lots of excitement and constant release date inquiries on the internet. Was it worth the wait? I can assure you, it was.
Any student of WWII knows that the average Axis soldier was in the war for patriotic reasons, not moral ones. The propaganda machine of any government can be a formidable clouder of men's minds, leading them into terribly foolish actions. The regimentation of a well-ordered military forces the soldier to focus on day-to-day survival in a strict chain of command; larger issues of imperialism, fascism, and genocide are well removed from the soldier in the foxhole, submarine, or TIE fighter.
In TF, LucasArts has done a creditable job of motivating you to fly into battle for your beloved Emperor. The Empire is not an oppressive totalitarian force but a noble crusade under the direction of an enlightened leader intent on securing order in the galaxy. If you're skeptical of the propaganda early on, you will soon be whole-heartedly accepting your role. After just a few missions, I was cursing the rebel scum and gleefully blowing up Calamari cruisers full of idealistic fools.
The installation program decided that my 386/25 is a "Medium" fast computer and adjusted game settings accordingly. This makes TF run well in a dogfight, but decidedly choppy in the training courses and near large objects. After a few missions on highest detail just to take in the fine graphics, I played happily on the lowest detail level. I almost never regretted having a "trailing edge" system while playing the game.
Installation was a breeze; five floppies took about 20 minutes to copy and decompress. During installation, you'll find much in the box to keep you busy, including: the standard Lucas promo-rag "Adventurer" (avoid the Lawrence Holland interview if you don't want TF spoilers); a succinct Starfighter Pilot Manual; a reference card with keystroke commands that are fairly tough to read in a pinch; and The Stele Chronicles, billed as an "exciting novelette" but in fact just a serviceable story to set up your role as Imperial recruit.
The training course is the same for each of six TIE fighters. You must fly through a series of angled tubes peppered with targets to blow up and obstacles to avoid. Unlike X-wing, earning your training patch in each ship is a simple. This is a good thing, because the training grounds are pretty dull, and the frame rate is horrendous on slower computers as targets increase in number. The later levels do, however, provide more of a challenge than the X-wing training grounds.
By way of combat training, you can fly up to four different "historical" missions ship. The first few missions serve as excellent tutorials on the numerous keystrokes you must learn to survive. The later missions can be very challenging. Since these are only training simulators, you needn't worry about losing your pilot. These missions do not add to your overall campaign score, though good scores will lead to promotions.
Tie Fighters and Interceptors have no shields; you are allowed two hits, if you're lucky, before you blow up. Luckily, the Tie is so maneuverable and small that your opponent can't seem to touch you if he's not directly behind you for a second or more. Bombers, also shieldless, are more sluggish but slightly tougher, and usually merit a squadron of fighters flying escort. When you graduate to the Tie Advanced or Assault Gunboat, you gain tremendous maneuverability and enough shields to take a few missile hits. Tie Advanced are still a serious pain to kill though, and you will have your chance to try. The sixth ship is a dream to fly, though I won't spoil the details for you. Let's just say that you can take out a Calamari Cruiser single-handedly in under 5 minutes without missiles, okay?
TF introduces numerous other ships to protect or annihilate, and many different models of ships already seen in X-wing. Where the first game had to call containers and freighters into service to simulate various other constructs, TF lets containers be containers (five different types, in fact) and gives you cargo ferries, heavy lifters, escort shuttles, container transports, and many other items that flesh out the logic of commercial and military space travel. You'll also find a pre-Ywing starfighter favored among pirates, large space platforms, and several different types of mines, which you sometimes must take out in an unshielded fighter!
You'll be able to take advantage of the Empire's considerable R&D budget. One of the characters in the story is a sort of technology czar, whose research pays off with new missiles, torpedoes, and "space bombs." There's a new non-projectile weapon introduced later in the game, and a another development to be unveiled in an expansion module this Fall. You'll often find your basic tie fighter "specially equipped" with some sort of ordnance, which seems like fudging to me, since it has no negative impact on flight performance and questions the need for the easy-to-kill tie bomber.
Mission structure is similar to that of X-wing. Initially, you can choose from five "battles" consisting of about six missions each. You can choose to play any of these battles, and switch to others at will, but the overall plot makes more sense if you play them in numerical order. Finishing a battle always rewards you with a cutscene and a gaudy new medal, and more battles appear as you proceed through the storyline.
Before any mission, you'll view a map to learn about mission goals, then you can talk to your flight officer to get more details and story bits. Sometimes you can talk to a mysterious figure to learn about secondary goals. When you return from combat, you get a detailed debriefing, including advice if you failed. This is a better implementation of the hint system that showed up in the sequels to X-wing.
Going into battle is a typically seat-of-your-pants affair. You'll be asked to destroy things, to protect certain ships and to identify the contents of others, order your wingmen around, and react to the developments that occur during the mission. You can even dock with roving tugs to get missile reloads.
If X-wing players thought the rebellion had pretty sophisticated equipment to work with, they'll be in awe of what the Imperials provide their pilots. The display now lets you know almost everything about a targeted ship except the pilot's shoe size. You can see the level of shields, hull damage, and how close a ship is to being disabled, and a close-up display of the ship as it twists and turns in space. A pop-up display lets you know the target's current orders. If your target flies out of visual range, the targeting computer draws a yellow box around it so you can follow it. The forward/rear scanners use six different colors to determine whether available targets are friendly, enemy, or neutral, and use variable brightness to indicate proximity.
The usual X-wing keystrokes are all there for controlling your fighter and targeting: throttle control, shield and laser power allotment, selecting the nearest enemy craft, cycling through targets in forward or reverse order, toggling different viewpoints, saving certain targets to memory locations, etc. In addition, new keys perform the following functions: select nearest enemy targeting you, select closest attacker of your current target (great for escort missions!), select the newest craft in your area, and match speed with a targeted craft. You can now even abort hyperdrive if you hit the H key accidentally.
In addition, there are new keys for status screens: a log for calling up recent radio messages, a breakdown of mission goals and their completion status, and a nifty new zoomable map that you can toggle between 2D and 3D. You can even use the map to search for new targets, which is useful because there's still no keystroke for cycling through enemy craft only.
One thing that X-wing players may miss is the option to create your own wingmen and watch their skills increase along with yours. On the plus side, the assigned wingmen are a joy to work with, informing you of all kills, accepting your orders immediately, and choosing targets well when left to their own devices. I finished most missions with just under half the kills logged for the entire flight, unlike X-wing where I performed 75% or more of the work even with top aces as wingmen. By the way, those who played the TF demo often found themselves shot up by their own wingmen, but this never happened to me in the final version.
Larry Holland and company have figured out several ways to avoid the linearity that dominated X-wing and left many folks stranded in the middle of the storyline. Each mission has primary and secondary goals. To move on to the next mission, you need only complete the primary goals, which are usually quite easy. Those who need more of a challenge can shoot for the secondary goals, while those who really want to work can try to suss out the "bonus" goals, which don't reveal themselves until after you've accomplished them.
To further aid the unskilled or masochistic player, the difficulty can be set to Easy or Hard from the very playable default of Medium. Also, during most battles, you can request reinforcements at the cost of a lowered score. At the easiest setting you can sit back and watch many a mission complete itself. All these adjustments have a twofold effect: You needn't dread the moment when you'll get marooned in the storyline due to one impossible mission, and the game is given genuine replayability, as you try to play on harder skill levels, or figure out the bonus goals.
Personally, I regret having played most of the game on Medium, because I finished without reaching the top Imperial ranks. I'd advise starting on Hard and trying to complete at least primary and secondary goals for each mission. If you can't finish certain missions, you can downgrade the difficulty or call for reinforcements. A couple of wild fights actually had me cravenly calling for reinforcements on the Easy level to finish just the primary goals.
The storyline picks up in the same time frame as the beginning of the 2nd Star Wars film, with the evacuation of Hoth. Before the game is over, you'll have the chance to stop a civil war between two planets, establish a new Imperial Base, and wipe out pirate activity in a solar system. Plot hints delivered in these missions create the backdrop for later battles. The end of the game wraps up one storyline but leaves another for resolution in expansion disks.
Where TF differs from X-wing is in story implementation. Plot turns can show up in cutscenes and conversations, or even during battle. You may find your original mission profile made moot by events that happen while you're in space. This makes for a rich story and some extraordinarily hair-raising moments in combat. Also, completing the secondary objectives will provide its own rewards, a parallel career track working directly for the Emperor, and a deeper understanding of the story.
As happy as I was with the story, the finale fell flat for me. I won't spoil what little reward there is, but it should have at least been followed up with a cinematic "To be continued..." teaser for the expansion disks.
The Empire is a generous employer, handing out medals like candy, and promotions like new bars of soap. You can work your way to the top rank of General without too much difficulty, (though for some reason, I was promoted directly from Commander to General, skipping two ranks in- between.) Unlike X-wing, you never get to see your uniform, but I can't imagine all those medals fitting on it anyway.
If your ship gets blown up in a mission, you may be returned for medical treatment or captured by the rebels. You can also get killed, but after losing dozens of ships, I've only seen the death sequence once. Ironically, this may be the cutscene that players have to work hardest to see. Those who made a habit of jumping out to DOS to backup your pilots in X-wing needn't bother in TF, you can do it from within the game; the program can even do it for you automatically.
Like most games, TF lacks a system for archiving your pilots so you can take the bulk of the game off the hard drive but not lose your progress. I'm surprised that so many companies expect you to keep a game on your computer for months between expansion disks. As for me, I copied the files with the most recent dates to a backup directory; I'm just hoping for the best when I reinstall.
As should be expected, graphics throughout the game are gorgeous. The cinematic scenes are dramatic and lovingly detailed. After reading the Star Wars novels, it's a pleasure to see Coruscant and to spend a little time in those moody future-gothic interiors.
At the highest level of gameplay graphics, you'll find gourad shading that delivers the best 3-dimensional feel I've yet to see in an action game. Creeping around the edges of a Star Destroyer is a sight to behold, and watching an A-wing run circles around you is as convincing as it is frustrating. I doubt I can describe the sense of speed and freedom that buzzing around this environment in your little Tie offers. It's exhilarating and addictive.
A well-written score blankets the game. I'm happy to report that the battle music is more original and interesting, and less intrusive (if a tad less stirring) than the music in X-wing or Wing Commander. There are some very nice segues throughout, for instance the familiar Star Wars opening fanfare turns into the foreboding Imperial theme, and then into an interpolation of the latter with a patriotic flavor. I'm told the music sounds truly excellent on a wavetable soundcard. Even on my old SoundBlaster it was great.
While sci-fi purists are fond of telling Star Wars fans that sound doesn't exist in space, I can't imagine playing this game without the excellent digital effects turned up loud. There are several more sounds here than in X-wing, and they are smoothly mixed with music and speech. This is very welcome in the chaos of battle, providing cues when you're too busy targeting to look around. My favorite sound is when a capital ship gets struck: a great hollow metal thump.
One complaint I have is that the sound of your own shields getting struck isn't alarming enough to pay much attention to. When playing without the cockpit art (easier and graphically smoother) you can't watch your shields; it's easy to discover that they've been sheared away without your notice due to the somewhat gentle sound of getting hit.
There's LOTS of speech in Tie Fighter, and you don't have to buy an extra disk to get it (paying attention, Origin?). In addition to full speech in the cutscenes, there's constant radio chatter during combat. You're reminded of mission objectives, alerted to sudden threats, and given numerous gratifying pats on the head for good shooting. Much of it sounds cobbled together like the 411 information lady: "Excellent work ... Alpha ... 1!" but it comes across naturally enough. You get compliments even when there's no one around to offer them, leading me to wonder if my victims were gallantly praising me with their dying gasps.
As for the voice acting, it's fair to good. The voices in battle are just right. In cutscenes, Vader, Mon Mothma, and most of the other characters are done well. My only complaints lie with the Emperor, who sounds something like Katherine Hepburn in On Golden Pond, and with Vice Admiral Thrawn, who's a got a lot more peevish machismo than I would have expected from his description in the Timothy Zahn books.
The few minor bugs I ran into barely hinder gameplay. Occasional lockups, lingering digital tones, the sort of thing we find in almost any fast and furious action game can also be found here sporadically. AJD (annoying joystick drift) appears every few missions, but can be fixed with an in- flight recalibration routine. A few continuity problems snuck in as well. In one mission, I purposefully blew up some high-ranking rebels I was supposed to protect. The game carried on as if they had survived. In another mission, I was told that Lord Vader was waiting to see me when I finished. I was eager to see this, but I instead got the usual debriefing sequence.
There's just too much to talk about, so I'll just mention a few of the other things you'll find in TF:
It's no great reach for me to call this my favorite game of 1994 and if you resist the temptation to zoom through at the Easy level, I suspect you'll find it well worth the price.This review is Copyright (C) 1994 by Reed Derleth for GameBytes Magazine. All rights reserved.