X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter may be a half-baked, flawed product, but it's one you just can't stop playing. It's as simple as that.
Gamers have been waiting a while to be able to climb into the cockpits of two of the best space combat games ever created for some head-to-head gaming. Though excellent games, neither X-Wing nor TIE Fighter included multi-player support, so a long time ago LucasArts announced a head-to-head version to rectify this. Things have changed a lot since that announcement. The Internet was not the major gaming arena it is now; 3-D cards weren't standard equipment; and TEN, MPlayer, and Kali were barely blips on the horizon. Unfortunately, LucasArts and designer Larry Holland's company Totally Games didn't quite keep pace with the last two years of developments.
XvT is a single- and multi-player game of space combat in the Star Wars universe. Gamers can jump into any one of nine crafts: the imperial TIE Fighter, TIE Interceptor, TIE Advanced, TIE Bomber or Assault Gunboat, or the Rebel X-Wing, A-Wing, Headhunter, or Y-Wing. Where are the B-Wing and the TIE Defender? Good question. This is not the old TIE Fighter or X-Wing games: It's been redesigned from the ground up, with a new front end and an entirely new combat graphics engine. The front end isn't the slickest thing on earth, with a few too many buttons adding to the general confusion of simply picking a mission.
The new combat graphics are sharp, however, with detailed ships and explosions. This is both a blessing and a curse. It's a bear on low-end systems, and in online play you can get some fair chop and poor frame rates. Options allow detail to be scaled down, which will boost frame rate, but frame rate online often seems tied to the detail level of the game host, so if he's on full detail, you could get chop anyway. Mission design and presentation is the first area in which XvT falls flat. The single-player mode is a joke, with very few satisfactory missions, no true campaign mode, and no cut scenes or narrative elements at all. This is sloppy and totally unacceptable. Granted, XvT is primarily targeted at the multi-player community, but the box clearly states Single and Multi-Player Space Combat Simulation. What long-suffering fans deserved was the best of both of the original games, with linked, narrative campaigns, dozens of missions, and some cutscenes. There are only eight true, stand-alone combat missions for each side. (This doesn't count the furballs or tournament play, which are not structured missions and are geared toward multi-player play.) Three, five, or seven of these combat missions can be linked and played in order as a battle, with the winner being whoever has the most wins. This is what passes for a campaign game. The missions are also staggeringly difficult in many cases. Someone please tell us this is a joke.
Melee and tournament missions are also included, but these are mostly dogfighting engagements geared toward multi-player play. You can pick your ship type, armament, and the number of ships in a melee, but only for your side: There is no custom mission creator a la ATF of US Navy Fighters. Plus, as you change ship types and armament, the AI opponents change to match forces, so you can't really set the engagement you want.
Of course, the real deal with XvT is the multiplay, and this is where it really comes alive. At the same time, it's the second area where it falls down. Multiplay is via LAN, direct connection, or Internet. There are a number of multiplay types, and most are simply a blast to play. One-on-one dogfights can be a bit boring since they quickly decay into turning battles, but there's even room for strategy here. XvT has a new flight model that puts more emphasis on the relation of turn radius to speed: Going slower allows for tighter turns. One issue is that you better make sure your ships are evenly matched and ground rules are clear (such as guns only), because the differences and ships and loadouts can lead to some pretty one-sided fights.
You can also flight co-op combat missions and team versus team, with a wing of X-Wings squaring off against a wing of TIEs. This is the finest part of XvT, and there are no complaints here. Four Rebel pilots can take on a mission to eliminate a destroyer, with different players engaging fighters and others doing bombing runs. Up to eight can get into the mix, and the result is great gaming. This is heady stuff, and you simply won't be able to get enough of it... ... when it works, that is. XvT is pretty stable, but there are many problems. The primary area for playing is Microsoft's Internet Gaming Zone, and despite the ill-informed carping, IGZ is a strong, stable, fast gaming system, second only to MPlayer and light years ahead of TEN. Play time is free, opponents are plentiful, and though the interface for IGZ is a clunker, you can work with it. XvT is designed so that you must assemble everyone before launch: no joining games in progress, as you can in Quake. For some, this is a major failing, but it is little cause for fuss, since you can set up a game in minutes.
Stability is another major issue with XvT. If your startup connection is not working, it takes over two minutes to figure it out, and then only because you finally realized that the game has crashed. Completed games also frequently lock up. Since it's a pretty high-bandwidth engine, frame rates can drop down so low as to make the game unplayable. It's a flawed system, and one that needs a patch. Despite all these negatives, there is no escaping the fundamental fun factor of this game. Multi-player co-op furballs and head-on dogfights are incredible fun, and dozens of groups sprung up overnight to rank players and form squadrons for competitive play. There's a sloppy, unfinished feel to the way LucasArts handled single-player play and some elements of connection technology: they simply didn't do justice to their reputation. But in the end it comes down to this simple fact: You can complain all you want, but you won't be able to stop playing.