I've played some air combat games in my time, from, well, Air Combat on the PlayStation 1 to Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter on the PlayStation 2 to... uhm... does Battlefield 4's Air Superiority mode count? The point is, I'm familiar enough with these kinds of games to know I like them - some more than others, of course - but I'm not a massive fan of them.
Enter the wonderful world of PC gaming, a cheap flight stick and the special edition of Star Wars: TIE Fighter and that opinion might just change.
Instead of playing as the Rebel scum from the first title, Star Wars: X-Wing, you are a proud rookie pilot for the Imperial Navy, serving the Emperor on his quest for peace in a galaxy full of chaotic dissidents.
Not only was I never in the position to get this game for a long time, I wasn't even a Star Wars fan when it was released back in the mid-1990s, but TIE Fighter is now firmly on my radar and those X-Wings will soon be falling from the skies.
From the very first moment you have control over your TIE Fighter, delicately nudging the flight stick to find just how it responds to you, you know you're going to be in for a damn good experience. It does help if you're still relatively unaware of flight sticks, and are still consumed by the kind of wonder you get from playing with any new toy, but even if you aren't, there's something special about being the bad guy.
Only you're not really portrayed as the bad guy. TIE Fighter has you maintaining the peace, with dialogue and mission structure as one-sided and biased as you can imagine.
There are a number of tutorials and practice areas for you to get to grips with your ship, and you will need to do so. Even with a flight stick, you'll be switching targets with a few keys, saving them as important targets to come back to with a few more, assigning ships orders with even more keys, changing views with yet more... It does remind me of the odd shot in the movies where pilots' hands are off the stick and fiddling with switches and buttons all over the place.
Each mission has a clear primary goal or two, but will also come with plenty of secondary missions that come about depending on what goes on as the mission progresses. New ships will appear and need to be dealt with, or an alternate strategy needs to be enacted instead, so what looks simple on paper (or on the flashy view screen in the mission hub) can turn into a right mess once you're in the cockpit.
Speaking of right mess, TIE Fighter is hard. I was on Medium difficulty and couldn't make it through the tutorial missions without blowing up. Sometimes that's alright, I read, so long as you've completed all the necessary objectives to finish the mission. I often didn't.
In the actual story mode, on both Medium and Easy, the very first mission usually ended with me getting captured by the Rebels or needing urgent attention in the sick bay, both resulting in the entire mission having to be done again.
Now that sucks. I want to make that clear. There came a point where failure after failure just sapped the joy out of the game, and while there's bound to be cases of pilot error playing its part, there were cases of bullshit going on too - blowing up a ship only to crash into it kind of bullshit, or drifting towards a ship in the distance to see what it is, only to find a few bolts of laser fire coming from it smacking me square in the face.
Alright, some of that bullshit is probably pilot error.
The very first mission has you and two other ships (whom I rarely saw) patrolling a space station where incoming transport ships are approaching, looking for clearance. You need to inspect these ships for what cargo they have, find the one(s) with Rebels hiding in them, deal with said transport ships by capturing them while evading incoming attacks from more Rebels disguised in friendly Imperial ships. In the first mission.
I mean, that's awesome, don't get me wrong - minding my own business, doing my job, serving in the Imperial Navy when those bastard Rebels show up and ruin everything - but a little overwhelming for new players maybe?
Star Wars: TIE Fighter feels incredible. We were all harking on about how great the recent Battlefront reboot looked, and how authentic and detailed it was. TIE Fighter and X-Wing before it have just as much of an argument because the game captures the feeling of being in a space dogfight like nothing else I can remember (and I say that having definitely been in an actual space dogfight).
Sure, it has to get creative about its presentation and uses the kinds of ships that were probably left as concept art for a reason, but you can't just fight endless waves of Alphabeti-Spaghetti-Wings until the credits roll.
I don't know what you do for the entirety of the game, thanks to constant failures in the first mission, but if the structure of that opening mission is anything to go by, then it'll be all kinds of fun. And frustration. But also fun.
I wish I was better. After playing, I read that your shields, lasers and thrusters are all kind of connected so that you need to balance when to be aggressive and when to hold back. If that's the case, then a) that might explain the deaths, but more importantly b) shouldn't that have been one of the earliest things introduced in the tutorial? You know, the one that I failed to get through more than once?
Star Wars: TIE Fighter is better than I expected it to be, and I am far worse at it than I assumed I would be. I can only hope I find the time to invest into playing it again and again so that I can crush the Rebellion in the name of the Emperor.
Until then, though, all I can is recommend you get in the cockpit yourselves - preferably as a TIE pilot, but I'm sure Star Wars: X-Wing and other titles in the series are just as good.
A demo given away with Computer Gaming World magazine was sponsored by Dodge, and included an advert for the Dodge Neon.
Star Wars: TIE Fighter, developed by Totally Games, first released in 1994.
Version played: Special Edition, PC, 1998.