By the time 1994 came around, Origin’s Wing Commander series was seen as the ace to beat when it came to depressurizing enemies with a few well placed neutron volleys. Lucasarts came out with X-Wing in ’93, and while it wasn’t bad, it didn’t quite have the kind of edge that Wing Commander did in storytelling and mission excitement. That all changed in ’94 when they came back swinging with a game that many would still consider among the best, if not THE best, space combat sim ever made.
TIE Fighter did something dramatically spectacular by making players fight for one of sci-fi’s biggest bad guys ever to grace the silver screen – the Empire. It also helped that Darth Vader was also a part of that recruitment package. Even though it wasn’t without precedent (i.e. Sir-Tech’s Wizardry IV in 1987 put players into the boots of the evil Werdna, villain of the first game), it was something no one had really expected. Play as a smuggler or a crime lord, maybe. But as a pilot in one of those grey eggs being blown apart en masse by Luke and the rest of his merry band onscreen? The potential was staggering and Lucasarts too full advantage of it even with an extended Imperial March that accompanied the crawl.
The game also came with a copy of the Stele Chronicles. Just as the Farlander Papers put players in the mood from the perspective of a young pilot signing on with the Rebellion, the Stele Chronicles tell the story of Maarek Stele who joins the Empire because it seemed to be the best way to keep order in the galaxy. Not only that, but this wasn’t a frothing-at-the-mouth fanatic cut out of the latest issue of Evil Monthly. It took the daring perspective of an ordinary guy looking to do his part in what he believed was “fighting the good fight”. From where he was sitting, the Empire offered far more than the kind of chaos that the Rebellion seemed to be encouraging.
It was bombshell. Though the game didn’t come right out and say it, the impression was that you were Maarek and saw the game from his vantage which it does a brilliant job with in making it seem every bit as plausible as X-Wing’s approach without careening into twirly mustache territory (although the writing in the Stele Chronicles is intentionally over-the-top propaganda in parts). Although we, as the audience seeing all of this from 30,000 feet up know better, TIE Fighter bravely pushes the characterization envelope in making the case that not everyone who served in the Empire were rhetoric-eating automatons. While Origin’s Privateer gave us a glimpse behind the curtain of the front lines in Wing Commander, TIE Fighter tore down the walls to present a more intimate glimpse of life behind those black flight masks. It made me wish that there was an expansion pack from Wing Commander that saw the war from the Kilrathi side.
TIE Fighter also featured a large number of improvements over X-Wing including the use of Gouraud shading to make the ships look even better. Missions also felt a lot “fairer” as it was easy to get stuck in X-Wing because of its high difficulty in more than just a few missions. This was thanks to a difficulty slider allowing would-be TIE pilots of any skill to do their best for the Empire making replays even more enticing.
Another huge improvement was in the way missions were structured. You were given a set of primary and secondary objectives, though you only need to complete the main ones to move the lengthy campaign forward. However, at one point, you would be introduced to a secret society in direct service to the Emperor and be given special bonus objectives within several missions.
Completing those earns additional marks to a Force inscribed tattoo on your forearm as well as extra story material concerning traitors deep within the Empire’s military hierarchy. Not only was getting a secret society rank a great twist, but I loved the game-within-the-game idea serving story goodness in pursuing these goals in the Emperor’s name. It was all optional making it a flexible part of the gameplay, but I made it a point to hit those secret objectives and would repeat missions just to get them right. For the Emperor!
Players start out in basic TIE fighters – the ones with NO shields – but these are a lot tougher than they look and can maneuver like no one’s business. It was a rush every time I’d hit a mission in one of these things along with the later ships such as the dagger-winged TIE Interceptor and even the double-hulled TIE Bomber. None of those have any shields, either, and armor didn’t repair itself. Getting hit with a fusillade from a Rebel A-Wing hurt. A lot. But it was all part of the game and the missions were careful as to not frustrate you too much from wanting to go back to it.
The story revolves around taking on pirates, a few Rebels, and then later concentrates on a conspiracy that threatens the stability of the Empire. At least in your corner of the galaxy. Thrawn, from the Timothy Zahn Star Wars trilogy featuring the blue skinned and red eyed humanoid Chiss, has also been integrated into the game at an “early” part of his career as a Vice Admiral and you’ll eventually find yourself assigned to his fleet to stop a number of traitors working with the Rebels. That’s also when things get a lot more colorful thanks to having even more ships to fly in ranging from the TIE Advanced (Vader’s fighter class) that actually has shields to the almost-too-powerful and awe inspiring, TIE Defender. It was even better when you suddenly had to turn those guns against your own side when traitors reared their heads.
As the game starts picking up, players can pick out their missile and torpedo loadouts including heavy bombs that are useful for damaging titanic capital ships. Wing men will eventually be assigned allowing you to order them about (and that even includes Vader) and you can even call for ammo reloads in the middle of combat for when you need a few more explosive surprises to down that Nebulon frigate the rebels have hanging around.
And the focus is still glued to the hairy dogfighting between dozens of fighters. Missiles are limited (until the next reload) and most battles continue to come down to how well you can fly and lead your targets into searing fire. Energy management continues to be a staple of the series allowing you to toggle the amount of juice to your shields, engines, or weapons to give you that edge in every fight and often makes the difference between victory or sucking vacuum.
Presentation was also beefed up outside of the engine from the mission briefings and results screen to being awarded a medal for your hard work and then viewing the Empire-appropriate name. When the secret society starts showing up, a shadowy figure awaits your mouse click in the corridor outside the briefing room. Viewing your stats on a personal viewscreen with your forearm tattoo hidden beneath black wraps next to it also kept up the theme of being “in” the universe to a great degree. The story pieces were also fleshed out with even more detailed cuts from the start showing Coruscant’s Imperial Palace to the grand finish filled with dialogue and SFX. When the Collector’s CD-ROM edition showed up in ’95, it beefed a lot of this up with improved visuals and in being able to play the game at higher resolutions.
An expansion disk, Defender of the Empire, came out offering many more missions which tied up a few loose threads from the end of the main game. You got to use the TIE Defender a lot in this expansion along with a countermeasure developed by Thrawn when the plans for the Defender found themselves in the hands of traitors. The Missile Boat sounds unwieldy and at first, I wasn’t all too thrilled to be flying this thing. It only has one laser cannon, but it has banks upon banks of missiles. Basically, it’s meant to spam its enemies to death with ordinance and it’s actually quite effective once I got used to it.
Another expansion also came out but was only made a part of the Collector’s CD-ROM edition which meant that those who only had the 3.5″ disk based DOS version (like me) missed out on it if we didn’t opt to pick that up. I should one of these days just to see what I missed out on, though I’m not sure how much more fun it could cram into TIE Fighter. This was a space combat sim whose formula hit all of the high notes between gameplay and storytelling. Wing Commander I and II were a lot of fun. Privateer was great. X-Wing was neat. But TIE Fighter was just incredible especially in how it flexed the material it worked with.
And that was classic Lucasarts. This was a Lucasarts that wasn’t afraid to tell stories like this and actually seem like they were having fun doing so. Although Totally Games gets the credit for developing the game, Lucasarts allowed them to run with the Stars Wars IP and expand it out without fear. It’s a great, collaborative effort that gave me hours upon hours of excitement. It was also a warning shot across the bow of a space combat sim like Wing Commander whose freshness was increasingly determined by how well told its story was or the visual fireworks that accompanied it. TIE Fighter just seemed to have more fun with its formula, its extra ships, and that all came out in the gameplay.
Darth Vader’s visage invited everyone into the Empire, though you only get to party with the Dark Lord for only a few missions. But as a recruitment push, it’s every bit as encouraging in getting fans to dance on the Dark Side with everything from classic TIEs to experimental stuff like the TIE Defender. This was also the face of the big box that the game came packaged with. Though it didn’t have any multiplayer, it was a fantastic single player epic (as many games were back then) that begged repeat play.
TIE Fighter came out a few months before Wing Commander III raised the bar again while sticking closely to its tried and true space fighter formula. But it was clear that Lucasarts wasn’t going to let Origin have the space fighter crown all to itself.