It was a dream come true when LucasArts announced X-wing vs. TIE Fighter back in 1996. It had been a dream among fans of the series to face off against each other online since at least the debut of TIE Fighter in 1994, and finally it was going to happen. X-wing vs. TIE Fighter immediately became one of the most anticipated games of the year.
The pressure was on for Totally Games, headed by veteran designer Lawrence Holland, to make good on that promise. He responded with a game that was in retrospect quite ambitious: eight-player missions in which pilots could play as either the Empire or the Rebel Alliance, plus a variety of dogfights and skill challenges, all with completely revamped graphics. And this in an age when most people were still playing on 28k modems.
That ambition, to a degree, was X-wing vs. TIE Fighter's undoing. The new graphics engine meant tremendous slowdown on all but the best machines. And the heavy focus on multiplayer meant having to largely drop single-player—a controversial decision that made it akin to Left 4 Dead and other multiplayer-centric games; again, in an era when most people didn't have 56k modems, let alone broadband. Latency was even an issue for those with high-quality connections. In the end, the best way to play X-wing vs. TIE Fighter was over LAN.
And yet, while X-wing vs. TIE Fighter was met with an overall lukewarm reception in its day, it's still beloved by a certain segment of PC gamers to this day, many of whom will pick it up now that it's finally on Good Old Games. I'm one of them.
In the Zone
In its heyday, playing X-wing vs TIE Fighter online was an exercise in compromise. With connections being what they were, graphics had to be turned down to the minimum settings. Machmaking was handled via the browser-based Internet Gaming Zone, which only served to worsen the lag. Co-op was a total non-starter, and most of the dogfights were one-on-one battles. The experience was almost entirely crippled from the beginning, and yet I played hundreds of hours of it anyway, because it was the only thing like it.
Boring on their face, I soon came to appreciate the skill involved in a one-on-one dogfight. This is how it would work: When the match began, two players would fly at one another and begin firing while weaving about in lazy loops, doing their best to avoid enemy fire while landing their own shots. The best of them were crack shots, able to land a quad blast at range while dancing around their foe's ripostes, all while compensating for lag.
Upon exposure to this world, I became determined to reach that elite level, as is my wont when I get into a competitive game. X-wing vs. TIE Fighter's single-player component, such it is, includes the ability to set up custom dogfights, so I began putting myself into 16-player battles against top ace-level CPU TIE Fighters, forcing me to dodge and weave lest I die instantly. My poor flightstick, a basic right that I had found for less than $50 at an office discount store, took a beating from X-wing vs. TIE Fighter.
Along with the furballs, I spent a lot of time in the single-player missions, which were really a series of insanely hard one-off missions. Balanced with co-op in mind, the enemy A.I. was much nastier than it had been in TIE Fighter, making it exceedingly easy to get swarmed and destroyed at the higher difficulty levels. I wouldn't call them masterpieces of design, but they did force me to get a lot better in a hurry.
Eventually, I came to regard X-wing vs. TIE Fighter as a kind of challenge pack for the X-wing series—a series of expert-level missions for hardcore fans of the original games. As time went on, I also began to appreciate its more balanced flight mechanics, in which turning fasters means having to cut your throttle, its faster rate of fire, and its more intelligent artificial intelligence. Even after the release of the superior X-wing Alliance, I still preferred X-wing vs. TIE Fighter to some extent for the way that its engine felt heavier and more substantial.
X-wing vs. TIE Fighter ended up dominating most of my summer in 1997, the end of which saw a good chunk of the community break off and move on to Ultima Online and other ventures. The release of the Balance of Power expansion the following year brought with it the much-desired story-based campaign and a variety of gameplay fixes, including slightly better 3D accelerated graphics and less laggy multiplayer, and the community experienced a resurgence.
Though ultimately kind of limited, X-wing vs. TIE Fighter's multiplayer proved surprisingly resilient, in part because there wasn't anything really like it aside from Freespace, which suffered even more from lag than XvT. As late as 2006, fans who preferred XvT to X-wing Alliance—which featured basic melees and not much else—were still playing each other on custom-built matchmaking services, all the while hoping for a legitimate successor. It never really came; but in the end, X-wing vs. TIE Fighter was just enough.
Ahead of its Time
Looking back, its crazy that LucasArts released what amounted to a multiplayer-only sequel to TIE Fighter in an age when the Internet was still in its infancy. The online infrastructure simply wasn't ready, and it showed.
But though the world wasn't really ready for full-blown eight-player online co-op in 1997, it's tough to call X-wing vs. TIE Fighter a failure. It proved to be a hit with LAN parties, where lag fell by the wayside and it became possible to enjoy the 4v4 missions with complicated objectives and dozens of CPU-controlled fighters. It was there that Holland's vision for the game was ultimately realized.
It's a shame that it was never remade for XBLA, PSN, or any other online service, because with actual online infrastructure and minimal lag, X-wing vs. TIE Fighter would be a blast to play. It would be great fun to get together eight friends to play through the Balance of Power campaigns, say, or just engage in a big team-based dogfight. There are other multiplayer space combat games out there, but none with X-wing vs. TIE Fighter's beautiful mix of arcade and sim design. It's a pity it will never happen.
Funnily enough though, when I look back on my own experience with X-wing vs. TIE Fighter, most of my best memories revolve around the single-player. I spent a lot of time online—and got quite good, if I do say so myself—but I spent even more time earning ribbons and playing against the computer in massive dogfights. And when I grab XvT from Good Old Games later today, I expect that will be the case once again. For all the criticism heaped on the single-player, the challenge is engaging as ever.
But you know, I'm still a pretty mean X-wing pilot. If you ever want to find out for yourself, drop me a line on Twitter, and we'll find a way to set up a game via the oldest and greatest of methods—direct IP connection. As a character from another great sci-fi series once said, "I'll see you... out there."