Review: STAR WARS: X-Wing Special Edition

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Before we get into it, I need you to know exactly where I’m coming from on this game. X-Wing was a formative part of my gaming life, a huge influence on the kinds of games I would grow to love. In the mid-nineties this was the dream for young Star Wars fanatics like myself, a technical simulator that put you in the cockpit of your favorite Alliance starships right from the films. It was also brutally hard and absolutely unforgiving at times, something that didn’t feel entirely out of place with our Nintendo-hard console games. But the world has come a long way since then, and the X-Wing Special Edition has not, in terms of both gameplay and technical issues, which leaves me with a game I love dearly that I would not recommend to anyone else.

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Welcome to the Rebel Alliance! You have been accepted as a fresh rookie pilot into this rag-tag fleet of good troublemakers, just as they’re starting to pull their forces together and make some serious moves. The original three tours of duty in X-Wing start prior to Episode IV and follow their own story through the destruction of the first Death Star. Two expansion tours are included in this release of the game, the first covering the escape from Yavin and the second detailing development of the B-wing. Along with these expansive campaigns are dozens of historical and training missions for the different fighters you can pilot, and loads of cutscenes and briefings between to really flesh out that feeling of being right in the Star Wars universe.

What truly made X-Wing such a landmark game, besides the sheer novelty of piloting ships from the movies, is the detail apparent in the simulation. This game hails from the long-lost heydays of flight simulators, when technical complexity and accuracy made a title a top seller across all genres. X-Wing strikes an excellent balance between simulator proficiency and fun by leaving your ship’s power management up to you, giving you ways to divert power between weapons, shields, and engines to best handle the situation at hand. Beyond that you’ve got the vastness of space and loads of TIE fighters and capital ships to blast in battles that make the most of the era’s limited ability to render detailed vessels or large fleets. You’ll be escorting diplomats, locating and recovering prisoner transports, and dogfighting plenty of fighters to make your way through each campaign.

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Like I said, it’s a dream come true for a Star Wars fan, until you start reaching the game’s more infamous missions. Some are perfectly fine, sending you in coordinated attacks with wingmen and mixed fighters against diverse threats in multi-stage engagements. Then, all of a sudden, you’ll be sent to disable transports, destroy their escorts, and dogfight the reinforcements while covering allied ships, all in a lone Y-wing. The gulf between thrilling and infuriating missions is so wide, I almost have to believe different people designed them with no feedback between each other. It doesn’t help that a single laser blast breaking through your shields can cripple your entire shield system or knock out your flight controls, all but guaranteeing your demise. Missiles are also intensely difficult to avoid, and entire wings of TIE bombers or gunboats will have no qualms about launching an entire salvo at you at once, when only two or three mean instant death. And unlike later games in the series, dying or being captured by the Empire is a game over for your character, unless you feel like wiping your score and progress toward medals to continue.

X-Wing’s difficulty was always a bitter pill to swallow for the sake of satisfying space battles, and time has only made it harder to stomach. Here in the hell year of 2020, the rough graphics and lack of basic quality-of-life features like matching throttle speed to targets or even being able to see them more than two clicks out are a tough sell when you have modern space sims to choose from. Worse still are the many technical issues that plague the different versions of the game. Ignoring Classic which is just Collector’s CD-ROM edition with fewer features, you have a tough choice between the Collector’s and Special editions. Special obviously looks better with actual 3D-accelerated graphics, but the controls are intensely fiddly (sometimes refusing to even acknowledge my keyboard exists), the 2D graphics have been redone in a darker, fuzzy style, and nearly all the music is missing. Collector’s edition is a more charming, robust experience but is painfully behind the curve graphically and suffers from crashes and scripting errors during missions.

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Even if time had been kinder to X-Wing, the game itself is simply no saint. It breaks my heart to say it, after dozens of happy hours in it during both my childhood and recent times, but I really can’t recommend it to newcomers. Veterans who already learned to adjust to unfair missions and technical messes know what they’re getting into, and are surely ready to recapture that nostalgia. For everyone else, though, it’s going to be a long, tough road to glimpse what was so great about this game a full 25 years ago. If ever there was a Star Wars game deserving of a full remake, it’s this one, because even for me it’s hard to stick with it now. Here’s hoping TIE Fighter and the later games aged better, at least.

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