Hardspace Shipbreaker: The Beginning

I love this game. I absolutely love it.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker puts you in the suit of a blue-collar salvager working to dismantle spaceships and reclaim their valuable elements. Working in low earth orbit, you can look down on the Earth you left behind to seek your future among the stars. Earth, at this point in time is kind of messed up. Global warming is a past event. The ice caps have melted and flooded many continents. The tropical rain forests are gone, turned into barren desert. The only habitable areas left are in the polar extremes. You left behind everything you knew in search of a better existence.

The game opens with you looking at a datapad, presumably in the cramped confines of your Earth habitat. A mess lies in front of you. The ambient soundtrack is one of cramped urban chaos. Through the walls of your apartment you hear scuffling, thumping, screaming, crying, sirens in the distance; everything you’d expect from an overpopulated and nightmarish city. It’s a moment that plays perfectly to your motivation to knowingly sign a horrible contract with Lynx Corporation.

It’s an absolutely ingenious way to set up a game about clawing your way out of debt to an evil corporation. Sure the game is about salvaging spaceships, but the fact that they set up why you’re doing it pulls the feel of the game together in a way that might not otherwise work. It explains why you’re starting from square zero, why you have to pay for your tools and the workspace, as well as how you can keep working after accidentally floating into the processor (which I did, embarrassingly early on).

The opening cinematic sets the tone for the game. It has the reason for leaving Earth, the new civilization in low orbit, what gets left behind, and how your new life looks. It’s just fantastic!

The little girl in the video is reciting a version of an old miner’s prayer:

Each day he steps into the yard
to earn his way just working hard
I pray to the stars and heaven above
to return my daddy to those he loves
If there comes a time when he and death meet
Bless the next cutter to take his seat

This is what happens when you accidentally process yourself…

Kerbal Space Rescue

There’s a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the good news. There’s only a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the bad news. It’s bad because the crew capsule is no longer attached to an engine. Or maneuvering thrusters. Or any other spaceship parts that allow it to move under its own power. So it’s stuck in orbit above the planet with no way to move. How did it happen? I blame it on my love of pushing buttons.

Things rarely go according to plan in Kerbal Space Program. And that’s kind of sad since my plan was so simple there was almost no room for anything to go wrong. It’s been a while since I’ve spent quality time with the game, so I wanted to get reacquainted. Build a rocket, launch it into orbit, and bring it back. No fancy maneuvers, no tricks, just a simple up and down. Easy stuff we humans mastered back in the 1960s. But Kerbal space program doesn’t have humans, it has tiny green people called Kerbals. And it doesn’t take place in the 1960s, it’s all happening in the here and now. Anything goes, since you’re the one responsible for everything. My plan to get reacquainted had three simple parts. Part one, building a rocket, was easier than ever. Part two, launching it into a stable orbit above Kerbin, went off without a hitch. Part three, returning my brave Kerbalnauts back to the planet, is where things got a little complicated. How complicated? Well, have a look for yourself:
KSP 2016-09-03 20-39-27-21There’s a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the good news. There’s only a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the bad news. It’s bad because the crew capsule is no longer attached to an engine. Or maneuvering thrusters. Or any other spaceship parts that allow it to move under its own power. So it’s stuck in orbit around the planet with no way to move. How did it happen? I blame it on my love of pushing buttons. In this wonderful game the space bar, which I would like to remind you is the largest key on your keyboard, is bound to a command called simply ‘next stage’. You see, each craft in Kerbal Space Program can be broken into different sections or stages that are activated in sequence. One stage may activate solid-rocket boosters, while the next fires a liquid-fuel engine, and the next one jettisons spent fuel tanks, and so on. Having a firm grasp of staging is essential to building and controlling a rocket that does what you want it to. As long as you press the button at the right time. In this case, I accidentally pressed the button to separate my crew capsule from its method of propulsion at the worst possible time.

Having three brave explorers trapped in permanent orbit isn’t the way I wanted to return to a game I love dearly, so I decided to mount a rescue mission. No Kerbals left behind! If a rescue mission is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing! A boring old rocket isn’t good enough here. No, I created a Gigantic Recovery Plane with a cargo bay large enough to contain the stranded space capsule. This vehicle would dock with the drifting capsule and then capture it and keep it safely contained within the cargo bay. Say hello to the GRV: 
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The design required a few test flights and subsequent modifications before it was powerful enough and maneuverable enough to fly easily. Once it got to a point where it handled fairly well in the air I had to do something I’ve never done in Kerbal Space Program: land a plane.

It went better than I expected.

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The cockpit is all that survived my first landing attempt. The key word there is “survived”. Before you write that off as a failure, please observe that the ever-brave Jebediah Kerman is still alive and smiling. Any day where your Kerbonauts are alive and on the ground after a flight is a good day. A second test flight proved that I did have what it takes to safely land the plane. At this point, I’m confident that as long as the GRV makes it back into the atmosphere I can get it landed safely. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Before I can return it to the surface I need to get it up into space to start with. And for that, I need a rocket. A really, really big rocket. With eighteen solid-rocket boosters. Say hello to the Giant Recovery Vehicle Launch Rocket:

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My drifting crew capsule is in orbit. The GRV is in orbit with plenty of fuel to spare. At the moment, nothing is in danger of exploding. Now I can relax and think through other problems. Problems like the fact that I’ve never successfully pulled off a docking maneuver. It sounds like it’s simple enough to do. relatively speaking, spacecraft in a higher or larger orbit move slower than craft in lower, faster orbits. I needed to keep the GRV in a lower orbit than the drifting capsule, and then make a series of carefully timed engine burns to match orbits with the drifter. It sounds deceptively simple, but it’s difficult to get the timing just right so that you’re not way far away from your intended target. It will suffice to say that after quite a bit of trial and error, I got close to the drifters. Excruciatingly close.

RescueNotToday

3 kilometers away with a relative velocity difference of only 10.5 meters per second. Keep in mind that both craft are more than 300,000 kilometers above the surface of the planet and traveling at 2,300 kilometers per hour. They’re effectively two speeding bullets traveling in the same direction and I’m trying to nudge one of them to piggyback onto the other one. Coming within 3 kilometers with a small velocity difference like that is pretty impressive to me. Did I mention yet that I have no idea what I’m doing? It turns out that the first 300,000 kilometers of the journey is easy, and closing the gap of the last 3 kilometers is the hard part. The very hard part. I thought I understood what to do but my grasp of orbital mechanics failed me here. No matter what I did the drifters floated farther and farther away from the GRV. I tried a short burn from my engines to bring me closer; it pushed me farther away. I tried long bursts from my maneuvering thrusters; they pushed me in the wrong direction. With each attempted course correction my orbit skewed even more in the wrong direction.

After a few mistake-filled minutes I took a deep breath and looked at my orbital trajectory. It was a lopsided egg totally off track compared to the gentle oval of the drifter. To add insult to injury I was now running low on fuel. With my limited resources there was no possible way for me to rescue the drifters and return back to the planet. Rather than have two craft stranded in orbit in two separate orbits I decided to return an empty GRV back to Kerbin. At least I know I can land it. I nudged the GRV back into the atmosphere and begin my descent.

worried-jeb

Jeb looks worried. That’s not a good sign. Ever. Why is he worried?

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Well that wasn’t supposed to happen. Yes, the GRV blew up. It was torn apart by aerodynamic stresses. There is such a thing as coming into a planet’s atmosphere the wrong way. My speed of 2,500 meters per second probably wouldn’t have been an issue if I’d approached from a shallower angle. As it was I ran into too much atmospheric density too soon and it ripped my spaceplane apart. If I had a shallower approach then the thinner atmosphere would have slowed down the GRV a bit more, allowing for a more gradual and less explodey descent to the planet’s surface. I suppose it’s for the best. If I had successfully retrieved the drifters only to disintegrate upon reentry then I would have been quite peeved.

That’s the thing about Kerbal Space Program: even when an untimely explosion reduces your best plan to bits of flaming rubble, it’s never unfair. Punishing and rarely forgiving, yes; but never unfair.  Every time I’ve failed, and I’ve failed a lot, it’s been the result of something I did. Either my vehicle design was a flying trash heap or I just didn’t know how to fly it properly. It’s a game that’s easy to get into, but difficult to master. There’s no need for a story mode since the best stories will write themselves if you play long enough. That’s the real draw of Kerbal Space Program. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and write the best rescue and recovery story since Apollo 13!

Star Wars: Battlefront – Beauty Without Soul?

After mulling it over for several hours I finally made the realization that the real failure of Battlefront isn’t how it looks, or how it plays: it’s how much I care about what’s going on. Yes, these are spectacular battles rendered with craftsmanship and fidelity never before seen in a Star Wars game, but I just have no reason to care about any of it. […] Having said all that, I’ll buy the game the next time it’s on sale for $20 or less.

I wanted to totally fall in love the new iteration of Star Wars Battlefront, I really did. Considering it combines two things I absolutely adore, Star Wars and action games, by any rights this game should be a perfect fit for me! And yet, in spite of having spent an entire weekend with the prerelease beta and another four hours with the full game this past weekend, it just hasn’t hooked me yet. After feeling somewhat disappointed by the beta I had hoped the newly-released skirmish mode for offline play would be enough to win me over. And yet, all the free trial managed to accomplish was to cement my sense of indecision. It comes down to the simple reality that Battlefront has no soul. And that makes me sad.

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It looks like this moisture farm on Tatooine would have a lot of great stories to tell… but it doesn’t. It tells nothing.

On the surface, it has all the things that fans of Star Wars and of action games could ever want: dazzling graphics, phenomenal sound engineering, the rousing orchestral score from John Williams, all some of the planets, characters, vehicles, and weapons we know and love, and exquisitely detailed game environments. Make no mistake, Star Wars: Battlefront is the Star Wars-iest Star Wars game I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot of Star Wars games. The miracle workers at DICE are to be commended for creating what is, quite frankly, the most beautiful and most complete rendering of the Star Wars universe in a video game. Every pixel, every sound, every movement, every object, every environment is 100% certified Star Wars. But considering the cinematic inspiration for the game distinguished itself by imagining an imperfect and dirty universe, the perfect rendering of that world in a video game somehow feels shallow. The end result is that the game feels more like an impression of an experience than the genuine article.

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Piloting speeder bikes is all fun and games until you crash into a tree. Which happens. A lot.

In spite of the beautiful and immersive environment, there’s something that just doesn’t feel right. Oddly enough, it’s not the gameplay – even though it is simplistic to a fault. The actual mechanics of the game are more than fine. Shooting feels good, navigation and movement is spot-on, the game modes feel like they’re taking place in a galaxy far, far away, and all of the different parts contribute to an escapist whole. After mulling it over for several hours I finally made the realization that the real failure of Battlefront isn’t how it looks, or how it plays: it’s how much I care about what’s going on. Yes, these are spectacular battles rendered with craftsmanship and fidelity never before seen in a Star Wars game, but I just have no reason to care about any of it.

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Thermal Detonator makes stormtroopers go boom.

Battlefront puts you squarely into the shoes of a no-name soldier to show you a ground-level view of the war between the Rebellion and the Empire. From such a low perspective the morals and motives of either faction don’t matter. Survival is the name of the game. The Rebels are always ill-prepared and fighting against the odds, and the Empire is always a military superpower trying to quash dissent. There’s no real motivation to fight for either side other than the fact that this is the way it’s always been. In a sense this might be considered one of the game’s successes, that it replicates the experience of being a pawn in a large-scale galactic war; but I believe it’s also why the game feels so empty. For a franchise that was the catalyst for millions of people to imagine themselves as a hero in a galaxy far, far away, spending hours in a game as an ordinary foot soldier is a bit of a letdown. Focusing on the little guys and giving them repetitive and relatively small-scale objectives removes the context from the fight and turns what should be an epic clash into just another day on the battlefield. Star Wars has always been a grand space opera about ordinary people becoming extraordinary and then doing heroic things. Even though Battlefront allows players to “be the hero” with powerups, there’s no real justification for their presence on the battlefield and they end up feeling like nothing more than a fancy costume for the ordinary soldiers. In spite of how much you want your role to have a sense of significance to it, the game never gives you that empowerment. No matter what you do you’ll be just another pawn fighting in a war against other pawns. At the risk of mixing up my metaphors, Battlefront ends up feeling like playing checkers when you want to play chess.

Having said all that, I’ll buy the game the next time it’s on sale for $20 or less.

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Wait, what? Yes, I’m going buy the game when it goes back on sale. There are two reasons why. The first of which is that, for all its shallowness, it is still genuinely fun to shoot at wave upon wave of stormtroopers. The second reason being that Star Wars Battlefront may be the proof that EA DICE has what it takes to do some incredible things with Star Wars games, and that’s something I want to support. The developers obviously care a great deal about the source material, packing the game full of details most players will miss. A prime example is on a map for Supremacy on Endor, which is set at nighttime. A few minutes into the game I approached the outer border of the map which happened to be the bed of a lake. As I turned my character to pan the camera around my jaw dropped slightly. Sprawled out before me was a tranquil lake with a cluster of teepee-like dwellings perched over the water. Looming ominously overhead was a pair of Star Destroyers while the uncompleted Death Star dominated the twilight sky. This in-game scene is obviously directly inspired by Ralph McQuarrie’s original concept paintings for The Return of the Jedi. This glimpse of the real Endor displays how much attention the development team paid attention to the details that make the Star Wars universe special, even if those details are subservient to a grander and more boring big picture. If DICE can do this as icing on the cake in a multiplayer shooter, I’d love to see what they’re capable of in a dedicated single-player experience!

In the meantime, I’m learning that even shallow games have their beautiful moments. It took me four hours before I noticed one on Endor, maybe Battlefront has more to discover?

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I’m still trying to figure out why the Empire built those hangar bays into such a shallow rock face instead of just putting them aboveground.

Star Wars: X-Wing

If I’m completely honest, I’ll say that I have mixed feelings about X-Wing. On one hand, it was a landmark moment for Star Wars gaming. For the first time, gamers were given an experience that both included moments lifted directly from the Star Wars movies and added interesting background stories to what we already knew about. […] On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to play X-Wing without without noticing just how much its sequels improved upon the game’s basic design. The basic framework and various parts are there, but without the details and more complex mechanics to tie everything together the experience feels a little too hollow.

If I’m completely honest, I’ll say that I have mixed feelings about X-Wing. On one hand, it was a landmark moment for Star Wars gaming. For the first time, gamers were given an experience that both included moments lifted directly from the Star Wars movies and added interesting background stories to what we already knew about. This is the first time gamers had the ability to freely pilot the iconic starfighters we all know and love without the “on-rails” limitations of arcade cabinets. It’s hard not to have fun when you’re blasting TIEs left and right and waging war against the bad guys! On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to play X-Wing without without noticing just how much its sequels improved upon the game’s basic design. The basic framework and various parts are there, but without the details and more complex mechanics to tie everything together the experience feels a little too hollow. Those missing elements accumulate in your mind over long play sessions to create an experience that is ultimately one of frustration with moments of bliss scattered about.

In terms of gameplay, X-Wing is something of a “lite” simulator. It’s not as daunting as the fully fledged flight simulators of the late 90s, but it’s decidedly more complex than the Star Wars arcade shooters from the 1980s. Simulation aspects are present in the function of your starship as well as the mission design. Your fighter has a limited amount of energy which must be used to run three vital components: engines, shields, and lasers. A certain amount of skill and tactical awareness is required in order to make sure your ship can do everything it needs to do in the heat of battle. For example, increasing your laser recharge rate and leaving your shields at the default maintenance level will reduce your speed by about 12%. This means you have to make some tactical decisions when approaching a dogfight. It’s somewhat safe to sacrifice some speed to charge your lasers while piloting the nimble A-Wing or the X-wing, but this slowness can be a death sentence in the Y-Wing. These limitations placed upon your starfighter always make sense in the world of X-Wing and never feel like a frustrating game handicap.

Ludicrous Speed! Er, wait...
The “E L S” indicators near the center-right of your cockpit show your energy settings.

The missions also introduce some variety that goes beyond just blowing up every Imperial in sight. You might be tasked with assisting in the capture of an Imperial transport, but before you can do that you need to fly close and inspect multiple starships to figure out which one holds the quarry you’re after. Other missions have goals that are tailored to the ship you’re piloting. A number of capture missions see you pilot the Y-Wing so you can use the ion cannons to disable the appropriate craft. One of my favorites requires you to pilot the nimble A-Wing through an Imperial convoy to identify all the enemy ships present. Sure, you could try to be a hotshot and blow up some of the TIEs that launch and pursue you, but that means slowing down enough so as to be vulnerable to turbolaser fire from capital ships. It’s a risk that’s demonstrably not worth taking. Missions where you’re allowed to play a specific part in a battle, and not perform every action on your own, are the ones that are most fun (and memorable).

Unfortunately for you, the game consistently requires you to fly missions and complete objectives almost singlehandedly. You do have wingmates and other friendly allies, but most of them lack any discernible sign of intelligence and are about as useful in combat as a pet rock. Perhaps the scripting language of 1993 wasn’t detailed enough to write complex AI routines, or maybe this was an intentional design decision to reinforce the feeling of the Rebel Alliance fighting as the underdog against the Galactic Empire. Whatever the reason, the effect is still the same: your allies rarely do more than the design of the mission requires them to do. If your mission as a Y-Wing pilot is to disable a shuttle, you may have X-Wings to cover you while that happens. But the moment the shuttle is disabled and the mission scripting moves on to the next event those X-Wings will be gone, leaving you to deal with squadrons of TIE Interceptors and Assault Gunboats all by your lonesome. Occurrences like this would be fine if they could rationally be explained within the context of the game, but as things are your continual abandonment makes no sense. Why wouldn’t faster, sturdier fighters; X-Wings; stick around to escort the entire capture operation instead of leaving a sluggish bomber; Y-Wings; to singlehandedly protect a target of interest?

Abandonment
Red Leader leaves you hanging again. How typical. Be prepared to see this message. A lot. 

The other major frustration is that since you have to complete most of the objectives yourself, many missions will feel more like puzzles than combat simulations. Frequently, you’ll be assigned with flying a long way downrange of your starting position to take out a squadron of bombers, then be required to hightail it back past your start position to protect some other helpless craft. Everything seems to be going well except… Oh wait, there was another squadron of bombers you missed in your first engagement and they destroyed a mission critical craft. Time to start the mission over and play through 12 minutes to do it again in a different sequence. The missions in the original campaigns aren’t totally horrible; it’s a fair mix of puzzle missions and straightforward assignments. However, the difficulty is significantly ramped up in the B-Wing expansion. So much so that hints for each mission are available during the briefing before the mission starts, should you choose to see them.

The most frustrating puzzle for me was the final mission of the original game: the Death Star trench run. What was supposed to be the crowning moment of the game turned into repeated frustration. Starting above the surface of the Death Star, your first goal is to make it to the trench. Once you get there R2-D2 does his job and increases the power output to your engines, almost tripling your speed.  This helps you evade enemy fire and lessens your time in the trench, but it’s not enough. No matter what I tried; shooting turbolaser batteries, charging everything on full, hiding behind pillars to preserve my shields; I got blown up every time. I’m ashamed to admit that I had to look up what turned out to be, to me, a completely counterintuitive solution: Once you’re in the trench you need to set shields and laser recharge to zero and put all energy to the engines. That’s right, run the Death Star trench with no lasers and no shields. If you furrow your brow and look at it from an angle it might make sense from a story perspective: How else could Vader pick off Rebel fighters with two laser blasts in A New Hope? Because they had no shields! But from a gameplay perspective, it’s totally counterintuitive. After playing three dozen missions where managing your fighter to have sufficient shields and laser power at all times is essential to your survival, having the final and most dangerous mission force you to abandon them completely is mind boggling.

And that’s the thing about X-Wing: For every moment of sheer joy, there’s an equal moment of raw frustration.

Successful trench run
Darn it Jim! I’m a spaceship pilot, not a puzzle-solver! Also: Look, no shields! At all!

Note: There are officially three versions of the game, all of which can be found and played today: 

  1. 1993 – Original release – 320 x 240 native resolution, iMuse soundtrack, limited voiceovers
  2. 1994 – Rerelease – 320 x 240 native resolution, runs in upgraded TIE Fighter engine, iMuse soundtrack, many voice parts
  3. 1998 – Collector’s CD-ROM – 640 x 480 native resolution, certain menus and cutscenes redone in higher resolution, polygons (ships and other objects) have textures instead of plain shading, music taken from the soundtrack of the movies plus quality audio

The 1994 version of the game might be worth a quick install just for an understanding of how the iMuse score works; it’s a system that dynamically matches the background music to match the action happening within the game. Not much going on? Slow, relaxing themes abound. Sudden appearance by an Imperial Start Destroyer? The score seamlessly shifts to the Imperial March. It’s quite effective at evoking the feel of Star Wars. However, the super-low resolution visuals and detailess models make for a somewhat painful playing experience. It’s just too “chunky” and jagged to flow right. When flying the Death Star trench run to grab some screenshots I crashed into the surface more than once because I couldn’t tell how close I was to the single shade of solid gray beneath me. Unless you have a nostalgic urge to experience the ’93 or ’94 versions, stay away from them. This retrospective was written about the 1998 version of the game, and is the one I recommend playing.

Regardless of what version you play the game’s menus, cutscenes, and transitions are beautifully rendered in a style that’s barely aged over 23 years. Yes they are a bit “chunky” and you can tell they were done a long time ago, but that doesn’t diminish their appeal. Personally, I don’t think I’d ever get tired of these even after the game ages another two decades. .

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Pixelated, yes; but still beautiful!

The Final Raving – Qualified Endorsement OR Don’t Bother

If you like Wing Commander, TIE Fighter or Descent: Freespace, then this might be worth your time. However, be prepared for some experiences that can’t help but feel primitive. X-Wing might be best left in your – or someone else’s – memories.

This one is a tough call. If you love Star Wars or space combat games in general, you have to play X-Wing if for no other reason than to experience a slice of gaming history. However, if you’ve only ever played the later games in the series or other more modern space games it’s going to be very hard to enjoy X-Wing for what it is. If you’ve never played any Star Wars space sims and wanted to get started with one, I’d have to suggest you skip ahead to TIE Fighter.

Good:

  • Nails the desperation of fighting for the underdog
  • Distinct gameplay differences between the available ships
  • Moments of theatricality hint at the greatness later games will achieve

Bad:

  • You’re not fighting for the Rebel Alliance, you are the only Rebel alive
  • Mission design gets repetitive about 2/3 through the game
  • The game doesn’t give you enough feedback during missions to let you know exactly what you need to be doing

Ugly:

  • Visuals of ’93 and ’94 versions are just too difficult to adjust to today

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • I own these through GOG.com, and they work flawlessly in Windows 10. You can play the ’93 and ’94 versions using a mouse, but a joystick is required for the ’98 edition. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend playing any edition of the game without a joystick.

Tips for New Players:

  1. Your shields will recharge at an impossibly slow rate, so it’s not usually worth it to increase the power to them. Instead, give your lasers maximum power and shunt energy from them to your shields. It’s always faster to do it this way.
  2. You will be required to blow up a Star Destroyer on more than one occasion. The shield generator towers really do supply deflector shields. Take them out with three torpedoes each and your job becomes much easier
    BwingShields
  3. Once a ship’s shields are down, disable it! This buys you some time to deal with the other interference that will undoubtedly be surrounding you.
  4. Disable what you can, and then leave it there. A lot of missions are scripted to send new waves of ships into battle after one wave is destroyed. In the case of Assault Gunboats in particular, disabling one wave may prevent a new wave from joining the battle.

Details

Release Date:

  • Original Game: 1993
  • Expansion #1 – Imperial Pursuit: 1994
  • Expansion #2 – B-Wing: 1994

Developer: Totally Games

Publisher: Lucasarts

Where to buy: Steam & GOG.com – $9.99

Screenshot Gallery