The team that created WWII-based flight sims such as Secret Weapons Of The Luftwaffe made X-Wing and TIE Fighter, an interesting parallel with George Lucas having based the dogfights in A New Hope on those of WWII movies. But because Star Wars space battles lack such real-world inconveniences as the ground and stalling, TIE Fighter’s battles are much closer to the filmic ideal. Without the need to emulate proper space physics, they are close-up and intense, quarry and hunter twisting and turning against a starfield shot through with green and orange laser bolts.
But the great attraction of TIE Fighter is that it is, at heart, a simulation, even if it’s a simulation of something that doesn’t exist. Its depiction of how a starfighter works is coherent and far-reaching, a design based on the fantastical but rooted in logic and game design. Just as the films formed a rich fictional universe through consistency and subtlety in every element onscreen, so too does TIE Fighter build a reality of space combat in the details of how the ships work, how other craft behave, and the strategy behind the way the missions are planned.
The premier example is the TIE’s power system, a design identical to that in X-Wing because, well, it couldn’t really be bettered. It supposes that each starfighter produces a certain amount of energy that can be routed to the engine, shields, lasers and other energy guns that may be present. The balance can be shifted – increasing laser or shield recharge rate takes power from the engines and therefore slows you down, while going top speed means draining energy from your shield or laser reserves. Each battle demands careful strategy: if shields are depleted, laser energy can be desperately piled into them to restock, but you may be left without the ability to fire. Shield energy can also be shifted between the front and rear of the ship – attacking a capital ship bristling with turrets might require all power forward, for instance, but don’t neglect your rear when you’re powering away again. During battles, therefore, your right hand will be keying in power configurations while your left flies the TIE Fighter, a feat of co-ordination that takes time to learn but is thoroughly satisfying to master.
Such intricacies would mean little without the canvas of TIE Fighter’s mission scripting to play against, however. Briefings are soberly diagrammatic, describing carefully planned waves of attacks: Assault Gunboat Tau will destroy the minefield so that Imperial transports can take out the Calamari Cruiser; TIE group Alpha will take out the enemy fighters before a TIE Bomber group comes in to destroy the freighters. They imply a grander strategy, further contextualising your actions, such as a mission in which you are ordered not to kill all of the enemy ships; your aggression is considered enough to give their commanders a message.
The tight pacing of these choreographed encounters makes their design feel more closely related to the halls and corridors of an FPS than empty space. And yet they come with emergent complexity that sees plans go awry, with you the centrepiece of getting things back on track, and clear orders obscured by the density of action around you. Juggling your shields and jinking your ship around to avoid the shots of the A-Wings on your tail while lining up your reticule on your target, all the while making sure you’re aware of what’s happening throughout the whole skirmish – that your capital ship isn’t under fire, that a group of enemy shuttles isn’t getting away. It gets intense.
So why is it better than X-Wing? It isn’t just the smoothed 3D graphics, improved map, targeting systems and AI – it’s the danger of piloting an unshielded TIE Bomber against an assault transport, which features a rear-mounted turret. It’s about getting your hands on the military hardware that the Empire can bring to bear on its enemies. It’s about the storytelling woven around and through the missions. It’s about being a cog in the Imperial machine. Your masters are hard to please and you’ll be rescued from countless sparking fighter wrecks, but they sure give out some great jobs.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in E194.
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