From the pages of the past! Ads of yesteryear – X-Wing: Alliance

Lucasarts surprised me with this one. After my experience with X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, I wasn’t sure what they were going to do next or if I wanted to give it a shot. And when I finally got this into my hands, I was amazed by what I played. It would also be the last space sim combat game that Lucasarts would put out that would be as detailed. X-Wing: Alliance was Lucasarts’, and developer Totally Games’, final hurrah to the old school space sim genre. The year was 1999.

It was as if both of them had realized what went wrong with X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and that the kludge of releasing an actual story expansion wasn’t the best solution. Alliance took me back to the heady days of their earlier work when it felt as if you were part of something. It really felt designed from the hangar plating up to involve you in the time following the evacuation of Hoth leading on through a huge campaign right up to the epic climax seen onscreen in Return of the Jedi when Admiral Ackbar realizes that “It’s a trap!”. And the story wasn’t the only part of the formula that Totally Games had thrown everything at to create something this good. This was as if they knew that there was going to be no tomorrow for the Star Wars space combat sim series and that this was it, and it shows. Alliance made me forget X-Wing vs TIE Fighter. This was the sequel we needed to see.

You don’t immediately slip into the flight suit of someone fighting with the Rebels. After an exciting intro accompanied by John Williams’ score and taking place during the evacuation of Hoth, you start off as the son of Tomaas Azzameen, the head of your family’s shipping company. Known as Twin Suns Transport, your family runs a respectable business while the Rebels and the Empire have it out far, far away. Life goes on, and the Azzameen’s are doing their best to make ends meet and not everyone sees eye-to-eye on staying neutral in the war. Unfortunately, they also have rivals that would like to see them fail and as the story takes off and you are thrown into the fight on the side of the Rebellion, this sub plot expands itself and intertwines with the galactic struggle as a whole all the way up to the very end in the Millennium Falcon.

The story is really good but unlike X-Wing and TIE Fighter, it didn’t come with a booklet filled with fiction to get you into the atmosphere. But the illustrated manual manages to laying out who the key characters were and where you stood in the scheme of things. Everything else was laid out in-game with the instructions providing only the bare necessities after laying out who you were playing and what characters you could expect to see.

If you forgot how to fly a ship in a Star Wars game, Alliance did a great job in bringing you back up to speed with a huge host of options. The first few missions involving your family (and dealing with problems that don’t necessarily require you to kill everything in sight) introduce you to the basics such as balancing your energy reserves and actually duking it out, but later on, you can fire up a few sessions of your own tailor made to your skill set in a “combat chamber” when you make that leap to the good guys. Want to go up alone against ten TIE Interceptors? Go right ahead. Need to brush up on maneuvers? There’s a suite of obstacle course missions to test yourself against, too. You could spend hours in the combat chamber alone doing what you want and then head back into the story when you felt ready. Or you could take your skills out into multiplayer. It’s as if X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and both X-Wing and TIE Fighter collided together to make this game, bringing all of the ships they have with them and then some. It also helped that the Battle of Endor was a selling point.

Everything else just as if it were retooled from the ground up. Space looked fantastic, the interface was given a facelift with everything at your fingertips, and the ships were massive with Star Destroyers glistening with textures. Cockpits joined the 3D crowd just as they had in Wing Commander Prophecy though the displays didn’t make use of any of the actual panels. Freespace raised the bar on detailed colossi in space and Alliance wisely followed suit with amazing visuals and effects, especially when it came to the final battle at the second Death Star or the menu system masquerading as actual scenes filled with ambient sounds and strong voice acting from everyone. Your own “personal quarters” will also slowly fill with trophies commemorating your progress through the game.

When the Rebel Fleet and the Empire go at it, space fills up with fighters and the backdrop is lined with a wallpaper of Star Destroyers…and a number of very real ones. And yes, that station is operational. Environment-wise, you received “email” from family members and others that added to the story and many set pieces that play out as glorified menus were incredibly well done giving me the same chills as X-Wing and TIE Fighter had done.

You’ll also fly through the guts of the Death Star, just like in the movies, and Totally Games have turned it into more than just a straight shot into the core. There are a number of different objectives inside the Death Star itself that show off just how much imagination has gone into designing the climax to be a high water mark in space combat. Dueling fighters in one of the Death Star’s laser shafts in order to damage it not only brought in the scale of the thing to a new degree from the films, but it created a gripping dogfight enclosed on all sides with a sliver of enough power to destroy a planet just below you.

Most of the campaign’s fifty missions were a lot of fun especially when a few had multiple parts to them, but there were a small handful that were insanely tough “puzzles” that required you to do several specific things in a mission using your ship as a covert tool. One mission that drove me crazy was stealing the shuttle, Tyderium, which would be flown by Han Solo later on to sneak a team of Rebel saboteurs onto Endor in the film. It was great seeing how the Rebels had actually gotten the shuttle (as well as seeing how the Empire covertly used certain shipping concerns to supply the Death Star II), but an absolute pain in the ass in escaping with it. I managed to get through it somehow, but the game does allow you to skip missions three times as long as they’re not the ones for the family storyline.

Alliance, aside from some of the balance issues and the sameness of some of the other missions as filler material between the “important” stuff, capped off Lucasarts’ history with the old school era of space sims in a big and solidly spectacular way. Seeing the Millennium Falcon in the ad and the mention of fighting in the Battle of Endor promised a thrilling closure to the events of the original trilogy as seen from a pilot’s perspective. The ad showed off only a few screens, but the giant shot of the Millennium Falcon looks like it’s from the game to get players even more excited over what was to come. And like Freespace, it came with an editor to build missions with.

In retrospect, Alliance was a solid game and a lot of fun, though I still think TIE Fighter edged it out on my list. Still, Alliance easily stands as one of Totally Games’ shining moments in the Star Wars universe. Starting with X-Wing, Totally Games and Lucasarts joined in the race to the top of the space combat sim pie and raised the bar on a lot of things that its peers would also take advantage of and which players could compare other games against. Years later, the series is still mentioned in any serious talk on space combat sims especially on lists that recall the best from the nineties and its “golden age”. Alliance left the series, and the genre, in grand fashion doing what the series has always done best. The series has had its ups and downs, yet shielded or unshielded, no one can deny that serving up the classic moments of the films from the trench run to shooting up the guts of the second Death Star were the kind of things the space combat sim genre was made for.

X-Wing Alliance 1999

The two pages don’t exactly line up, much like the frame rate in the Battle of Endor with my non-3D accelerated PC at the time. But I managed to get through it! Somehow.

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