Very few gamers were entirely satisfied with X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter when it was originally released last summer. In fact, to many gamers, it was both one of the most eagerly anticipated and ultimately one of the most disappointing games of 1997. Critics noted the lack of support for 3D accelerator cards; the omission of several of the more powerful fighters from past games in the series, such as the B-Wing and TIE Defender; the cartoonish cockpit graphics; and the visually disproportionate size of the apparently puny Imperial Star Destroyers. But the most frequently expressed complaint of disgruntled purchasers was that Totally Games and LucasArts, by concentrating almost exclusively on providing a multiplayer dogfighting arena, had abandoned the storyline-driven gameplay of previous games in the series. X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter provided no storyline, no campaigns, no dramatic cutscenes, and overall, a poor single-player experience. Fortunately, Balance of Power does an admirable job of addressing almost all the complaints gamers had with the original game.
Balance of Power includes two separate 15-mission campaigns - one for the Imperial forces and one for the Rebel forces. In the Rebel missions you'll be on the defensive from the outset, scrambling to regroup your forces in order to fend off, and ultimately destroy, a large Imperial fleet equipped with a gigantic Super Star Destroyer. Ye of little faith who thought LucasArts could never properly depict the size of a massive ship like the Super Star Destroyer will be suitably humbled the first time you lay your eyes on this beast. Although an epic "attack the Death Star" mission is still missing, challenging the city-sized Super Star Destroyer provides an apt substitute. The Imperial campaign involves chasing down the Rebels and preventing them from establishing a new Starship Shipyard. Every time you manage to complete five missions in a campaign, you are rewarded with a well-produced cutscene (six in total) that advances the campaign storyline in a compelling manner (and in the largely nameless/faceless X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter universe, which usually means a computer-generated sequence with a lot of ships blowing up). Best of all, the campaigns can be played through by a group of players as cooperative multiplayer missions. After you complete a campaign mission, you can replay it as a training mission.
The missions in the campaigns are refreshingly varied in their objectives and design and are, paradoxically, both the best addition to X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter and the cause of the most frustration. A number of the campaign missions are extremely difficult for a single player to successfully complete on the default difficulty level. Since tasks (which are occasionally unintuitive) often have to be carried out in a particular sequence, too many of the missions end up feeling puzzle-like, requiring you to figure out exactly where you have to go at different stages of the mission in order to be successful. Anyone familiar with Lawrence Holland's other games, Like X-Wing, Tie Fighter, and Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe won't be surprised by the occasionally devilishly challenging mission. But it's ironic that the campaigns in Balance of Power were arguably included to provide a better single-player experience, and yet they are extremely difficult for a single player to complete on the default difficulty level. Fortunately there are easier skill levels for frustrated gamers to meekly resort to and even a harder one for gamers who are "one with the force." You can also play each mission from the perspective of different flight groups, which enhances replayability by giving you different (often more challenging) mission objectives, and gives you additional opportunities to experiment with the Rebel B-Wing fighter (which is usually not your default choice).
For an affordably priced expansion pack, Balance of Power provides outstanding value. In addition to the campaigns and cutscenes, Balance of Power also adds eight new separate "combat engagements" (single missions to accomplish specified objectives), one new "battle" in which you can link the combat engagements together, and two melees (free-for-all shoot-em-ups). While the only new ship available to you is the Rebel B-Wing fighter, Balance of Power also adds five new capital ships (including the formidable Super Star Destroyer), two new starship bases, and a new gun emplacement platform. Although a 3D patch for X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter was made available some time ago, Balance of Power does automatically add the latest version of the patch and cleans up a few textures. You can now program your own "taunts" to gleefully mock your hapless foes. Finally, Balance of Power adds the familiar "white streaks of light" hyperspace effect, which was notably absent from the original game. Gamers who have been disappointed by uninspired expansion packs that haphazardly slap together a bunch of single-player missions, throw in a couple of new multiplayer arenas and a handful of units, and call it a day, will be pleasantly surprised with Balance of Power. Balance of Power provides more gameplay than most full games. The only things missing are new sound effects and (Star Wars-fan sacrilege alert!) new music. Don't get me wrong - I love John William's Star Wars music as much as the next guy, but hasn't LucasArts milked the Star Wars theme songs enough? Keep the classic music (what Star Wars game would be complete without the Imperial March), but let's have a few new chords next time.
Minor complaints aside, Totally Games and LucasArts have finally delivered the game that was so anxiously anticipated prior to X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter's release. Balance of Power perhaps arrives a little late, but it is certainly successful in making X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter one of the best games to be released in 1997 - and is still the only multiplayer space sim worth its weight in Jawas.