Now that I've got a massive and over-complicated joystick, the only games I'm interested in playing are games which are best-suited to a massive and over-complicated joystick. Yes, yes, I'll get to Freespace and its total conversions, but first I had some unfinished business to take care of. TIE Fighter was my last substantial experience with Totally Games and Lucasarts' revered series of Star Wars-themed space combat sims, and I had only a dim sense of how the flighty-fighty games had progressed afterwards. I elected to skip X-Wing vs TIE Fighter and go straight to the end, 1999's full 3D X-Wing Alliance.
Pre-dating the dread age of the prequel movies by a whisker, it's one of the last artifacts of a Star Wars universe centred purely around the original trilogy. As a result, flashing back to X-Wing Alliance hits the appropriate nostalgia buttons not just in terms of relatively rudimentary 3D games, but also in terms of recapturing a degree of the nerdly naviety and excitement so many of us were going through in 1999. A prequel movie! A new hope! Childhood revisited! How wrong we were. I wonder how those who still tie themselves to a Lucasian mast will be feeling come next Christmas: I myself am almost completely unthered from it now, so it is bittersweet to return to a time when I cared so deeply.
Ah, let's move on from my own personal long time ago and far, far away. Point is that X-Wing Alliance was the last great Star Wars space combat game, and a morning's tinkering reveals it holds up fairly well today. It supports my X52 Pro, analogue throttle and all, and there are assorted fan projects to make look it a little better and play nice with our fancy modern PCs and their messy modern operating systems.
Let's do this step-by-step before I chat more about the game itself.
1) Hurdle the first: installing the thing, especially if you're running 64-bit Windows. Follow this guide, basically. It's a lot quicker and less involved than it looks like, promise.
2) Run the game's launcher from its icon - you should be presented with a launcher. Dive into Hardware settings to set your control method (in my case, the X52 pro) and then create a new Pilot (which is your game profile). It's very important to do this at this stage because you probably won't be able to get the launcher to load at the end of this process. Play, grumble at olden graphics and possible display issues.
3) Go to this site, click downloads, grab the XWAU Craft Pack. Install it, see it grumble that you don't have the 2.02 patch install, agree to let it install it for you, then run the XWAU Craft Pack installer again.
4) Now the slightly more complicated and risk-strewn bit. First, make a backup of XWINGALLIANCE.EXE and keep it somewhere safe.
Then you'll be after the widescreen hack (which also sorts out a couple of other issues). Extract its contents somewhere, then make another copy of XWINGALLIANCE.EXE and drop it into the same folder as the widescreen hack files. Run 32bitmode.bat first, though please be aware that these will make in-flight menu and briefing screens all but unreadable. Not much of an issue in practice, though. Then run fixedclear.bat, which sorts out some display issues. Then the fiddlier one, changeres.bat. Pick one of the listed resolutions to change to your desired resolution - I found that changing the 640x480 entry to 2560x1440 or 1920x1080 didn't work, but all was fine and dandy when I replaced 1600x1200.
Copy the now-altered XWINGALLIANCE.EXE back into the game's install directory, overwriting the old one (which you remembered to take a backup of, right?) Then give 'er a whirl by running XWINGALLIANCE.EXE - you might want to create a desktop shortcut for it too, as the official ones may not work now.
All good? No? Well, try different resolutions. There are also undo BATs for the other stuff, so try a process of elimination. For further issues I can only point you at wise old Mr Google, I'm afraid.
Finally, if you're playing on an NVIDIA card you're probably going to want this font patch too.
Oh, and to make it look even nicer you'll need to manually fiddle with anisotropic and antialiasing in your graphics card driver settings. For the record Vsync and triple buffering stopped the game from working for me.
An additional step for me and my ridiculous flight stick was to create a profile that had its assorted buttons emulate most of XWA's keyboard commands. A few did work straight out of the box, as it were, but my poor hands had to stray back to the keyboard constantly and rebinding with the in-game menu still left the majority of buttons unrecognised and unused. So using the original keyboard layouts here for reference, I got everything programmed and running just dandy, though it was a long-winded process with Saitek's not-great profile editing program. If your joystick/gamepad/HOTAS/whatever doesn't have a profile too, I believe joy2key is the way to go, though I haven't used it myself.
There you go. It looks... okay. Certainly a lot better than it did, but it's not exactly a glorious modern rebirth. I also found that a lot of the ships' cockpits occluded far too much of the screen, but as Alice pointed out to me, you can't screw with Lucas lore if want to make a Star Wars game, and Lucas lore is that you can't see shit when you're sat in A TIE Fighter.
As for how it plays, how it feels, it's a completely different animal from the seat of the pants space japes of Elite Dangerous. Not that I'm claiming the two should be compared, but the dividing line between the space fantasies of the past and those of the near future is very plain to see. The starkness and emptiness of the skies is part of it for sure, but it's the incidental stuff that keeps it feeling overtly like a simulation rather than reality - not much ambient noise, no sense of shaking and rumbling, complete reliance on meters rather than any other visual clues to show damage or danger...
Not that it's sterile - not by a long shot. Familiar theme tunes play, familiar ships streak across the screen, cockpit controls look familiarly retro, lasers familiarly, reassuring, go pew-pew, and hyperspace contains all the iconic, elongating white lines it needs to. There's a cleanness to the visual design too, none of the fussiness which blighted later space games. It's Star Wars, y'know? As abused a brand as it is, those familiar elements still mean something, still reach something, even to one as jaded by it all as I am. Consider it an itch scratched, satisfyingly.
Next up, that Battlestar mod for Freespace, I think.