X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter was one of the most anxiously anticipated and yet ultimately most disappointing games of 1997. While the addition of multiplayer features was welcome, most players were displeased that Totally Games and LucasArts focused exclusively on providing a multiplayer dogfighting arena and completely abandoned the plot-rich gameplay that made previous games in the series so addictive. The Balance of Power expansion pack responded to most of the complaints that gamers had concerning X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, but by the time it arrived on retail shelves, most players had already moved on to other games. With X-Wing Alliance, Totally Games and LucasArts have at last delivered the game that many players had hoped X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter would be and in the process have created a suitably epic finale to their series of space sims based upon the first trilogy of Star Wars movies.
While the campaigns of the previous games in the series put you in the role of a relatively nondescript fighter pilot and let you participate in some of the key events depicted in the first two Star Wars movies, X-Wing Alliance features a more ambitious campaign. You play as Ace Azzameen, the youngest son in a family of merchant traders who are destined to become embroiled in the growing conflict between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. Just as your character's family and associates have begun to embrace the cause of the Alliance, a rival trading clan, the Viraxo, has sought to ally itself with factions of the Empire. During the 53 heavily scripted missions composing the campaign, Ace Azzameen will heroically progress from being a neophyte pilot of his family's Corellian transports to playing a major role in the culminating Battle of Endor against the Empire's second Death Star. During a prologue lasting several missions, Ace will be limited to flying a couple of Corellian transports, one a kissing cousin of Han Solo's Millenium Falcon. While you'll actually get the opportunity to fly the Millenium Falcon in the game's final missions (one of X-Wing Alliance's favorite marketing jingles), you'll spend far more time in the cockpits of the other transports.
The transports aren't quite lumbering capital ships, but they do handle quite differently from the comparatively nimble Alliance and Imperial fighters, and their formidable rotatable cannons can effectively autotarget and dispatch enemy craft, making them a refreshing addition to the series. After these prelude missions, Azzameen will join the Rebellion and have access to the usual cast of Alliance vessels: X-Wings, A-Wings, Y-Wings, B-Wings, and puny Z-95s. For the remainder of the game, you'll mainly fight military missions similar to those in prior games in the series, but occasionally you'll be called upon to hop back in the family transport to help out your kin. As in previous games in the series, the campaign is completely linear, and some of the missions are quite difficult - although not as frustratingly arduous as some of the missions in X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter were when flown by a single player - and you can get a few often-helpful hints when debriefing after a failed mission. You must successfully complete each of the "family" missions to continue the campaign, but you can skip up to three of the Alliance missions if you want to quickly pass by a few of the more challenging missions. Apparently Admiral Ackbar and crew don't always need your help after all.
During the missions in which you control a transport, you'll be responsible for docking with and transporting various containers, but otherwise mission objectives aren't particularly original, generally requiring you to escort and defend key ships, eliminate all the fighters and other defenses in a target area, inspect all the ships in a convoy, and so on. The mission design is extremely varied and almost uniformly excellent, as almost all of the missions involve a few unique twists, and frequently your objectives will change in response to unforeseen events. Similarly, instead of inundating you with the same three or four repetitive wingmen taunts, most of the dialogue in X-Wing Alliance is uniquely scripted for each mission. Since the quality of wingmen chatter in space sims has only incrementally improved since the concept was introduced in the early Wing Commander games, X-Wing Alliance's comprehensive intramission dialogue makes each sortie a compelling experience that draws you further into the gameworld. During the course of a mission your wingmen and crew may discuss other occurrences in the Star Wars universe, including events depicted or referred to in the movies, evaluate your mission objectives, or just discuss their personal wants and needs, such as your warmongering droid companion's habit of gleefully encouraging your siblings to stomp any potential enemies in the area. Combat can occur in several different hyperspace zones in each mission, each accessible only through hyperbuoys made active in response to scripted events, requiring you to achieve your objectives in a zone in a timely fashion to avoid being overwhelmed in a subsequent mission zone. While the heavily scripted nature of the missions certainly makes them more immersive, it also occasionally causes problems within the game.
Involuntarily triggering a scripted event too soon can render a mission unwinnable, and occasionally the mission dialogue will progress as if you've completed all of your required chores within an area, although you'll subsequently discover (by reading a "mission failure" screen, if you're not keeping a close eye on the status of your mission objectives in your HUD) that you omitted an important task. In spite of these occasional problems, the game's mission design is definitely one of its strengths, and there are some great new little touches that make the gameworld seem more alive than ever, such as the manner in which escape pods blast from heavily damaged ships, spacefaring luxury yachts and similar civilian craft flee for the nearest hyperbuoy after a battle breaks out, or the way pilots occasionally eject from doomed craft and haplessly float through space as amusing targets. Bye-bye, floaty.
X-Wing Alliance uses a modified version of the X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter engine, and core gameplay is substantially similar in both games. Ships are more maneuverable at one-third of their maximum speed, and effectively allocating energy to your craft's weapons, shields, or engine in response to new circumstances is vital to successfully completing most missions. The game's larger battles can now involve dozens of fighters, and since fighters remain quite fragile, situational awareness is more crucial than ever. While charging haphazardly into a wing of five or six TIE fighters could be an effective strategy for accurate marksmen in previous games in the series, in X-Wing Alliance you'll occasionally run into 24 or more TIE fighters, making a direct assault a briefly exhilarating but suicidal ploy.
The game's interface has been modified from the one used by X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, presumably to make more information readily available to you. The horribly cartoonish cockpit artwork used by X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter has been replaced with far less intrusive semitransparent versions, but I suspect that most players will still turn the cockpit off to maximize their view of the gameworld. A padlock view has been added to let you quickly track your target's location relative to your craft, but activating the padlock view also annoyingly automatically turns your cockpit art back on, regardless of your previous setting. While X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter let you pull up a variety of heads-up displays to provide you with the status of friendly or enemy craft, your mission objectives, text of wingmen messages, or similar information, X-Wing Alliance replaces all of those HUDs with two separate multifunctional displays. You can display the same sorts of information in the new multifunctional displays, but obviously you can only use each display for one purpose at a time, which limits the quantity of information immediately accessible. Since each of the new displays is more obtrusive than any of the older versions, the redesigned interface isn't necessarily an improvement. Fortunately, you can turn off those displays you find less useful or obstructive.
Wingmen and enemy artificial intelligence remain excellent, and ships with turrets are now very capable of shooting down missiles heading towards them, forcing you to "dumb-fire" torpedoes and similar weapons to maximize their effectiveness. Wingmen are now capable of identifying objective craft, making inspection missions considerably less troublesome, although you should always independently verify that your wingmen have completed their inspection tasks. You can also specifically direct your wingmen to disable opponents or to attack a capital ship component or a particular type of enemy. Since you'll occasionally be flying with large groups of wingmen, there are also several new formation commands you can use to further organize an assault. Surprisingly, the development team failed to add hotkeys for the new wingmen commands, and the somewhat cumbersome nature of the new multifunctional displays makes the new commands considerably less helpful than they otherwise might be. But it's great to be able to order your wingmen to attack just the bombers, or enemy torpedoes, converging on a friendly task force or to disable fleeing mission-critical craft that are too far away for you to stop.
X-Wing Alliance's 3D-accelerated graphics are impressive, even in a genre in which outstanding visuals are becoming the norm, and resolutions of 1024x768 or even higher are quite playable if you have the necessary hardware. Colored lighting and lens-flare effects have been added to the core X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter engine, and many of the ship models and textures have been redone. Ship explosions are relatively basic, but there are some good new shield and lighting effects, and the disabling effects of ion weapons are now graphically demonstrated in convincing fashion. Some of the new textured models, such as those for the A-Wing and the Y-Wing, are exceptionally well done, while others look far less detailed, making me wonder if the development team prioritized the importance of commonly seen models or just ran out of time when redoing the graphics used in X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter.
Using an external view of a ship, you can zoom right in until you can see the pilots in considerable detail. Overall, the graphics are considerably brighter in tone, and less over the top, than those used in Descent: Freespace or Wing Commander Prophecy. 3D sound effects are also supported but are somewhat buggy in the initial release of the game, and LucasArts has indicated that it is working on a patch to fix various 3D sound issues. Competent force-feedback effects are also included, but they are not as well implemented as they are in Descent Freespace or the current version of Independence War. There are a dozen new and generally well-done animated cutscenes littered throughout the campaign, and in keeping with the more character-oriented nature of this installment in the series, these scenes occasionally depict key individuals from the game (and the movies) as opposed to those in Balance of Power, which just showed spaceships. Unfortunately, the tilted but generally unmoving heads used to portray characters are quite unconvincing, and the characters all look like clones of one another. While the introductory cutscene is particularly good, the final ones essentially just reproduce, less effectively, key scenes from the end of Return of the Jedi. The concluding scene is particularly brief and anticlimactic. Between missions you can enter a simulator to replay previous missions or to create your own skirmish engagements using the built-in mission editor. Once your character joins the Rebellion, you can also review a technical library that displays key information on all known craft, or you can prove your prowess on various training courses designed to test your flying and shooting skills. You'll earn a series of medals and promotions during the course of the campaign, and in many missions you'll also pick up mementos that will be prominently displayed in your quarters, eventually transforming your home into a junkyard of trinkets. In your quarters you can also access e-mail messages, which advance the game's plot and develop some of the characters you'll encounter, although you'll also occasionally receive useless "get rich quick"-type messages, conclusively proving that spam messages were just as popular "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" as they are today.
For this concluding chapter in its series of space sims based upon the initial Star Wars trilogy, the development team has brought back all the ships featured in other games in the series, including the deadly TIE defenders and missile boats (although the latter fail to make an appearance in the campaign), and also created a large number of new ones for the use of the myriad of smugglers and civilians that appear in the game. X-Wing Alliance lets you play skirmish or proving-ground racing missions multiplayer, but the failure to include a cooperative multiplayer mode for the campaign is inexplicable and a major disappointment, especially considering Balance of Power fully supported multiplayer campaigns. The player-ratings system is still extremely punitive for players who prefer to battle AI opponents, even on the hardest difficulty level, instead of less-predictable, but often less-adept, human adversaries. Although the skirmish mode lets you easily create dogfights using any of the ships available in the game, including the massive Super Star destroyers and the Millenium Falcon, there are only a handful of premade multiplayer missions included with the game, and they are considerably less complex than the campaign missions or those included with Balance of Power. Playing X-Wing Alliance multiplayer also lets you fly any of the Imperial fighters featured in the game, and up to four players can play the game together online at Microsoft's Gaming Zone, which is an easy forum to hook up with other would-be Imperials or Rebels.
Unfortunately, while playing many of the missions near the end of the campaign, I couldn't help but feel that the game was rushed out to allow LucasArts adequate time to focus attention on its upcoming games based upon Episode I. Promised features, such as the ability for two players to simultaneously fly in a transport, were ultimately excluded. Similarly, a camera mode that let you replay your missions was taken out, but the concourse graphics weren't redone to remove the door that was supposed to lead to the camera room. Even though the campaign is completely linear, there are several scripting errors that result in your character prematurely receiving awards or e-mail messages for missions that haven't yet been completed. The story-driven campaign ultimately lacks meaningful closure, and even the epic Battle of Endor is somewhat unfulfilling, although the final mission is highly original and well done. In spite of these flaws, most of which are quite minor, X-Wing Alliance's huge story-driven campaign, detailed and varied missions, enhanced graphics and sound, capable mission creator, and multiplayer features collectively make it a very good game and a solid conclusion to the series.