The greatest game of all time

At the battle of Yavin
Rebel terrorists, aided by
spies and traitors within the
Empire, struck a cowardly
blow at the new symbol of
Imperial power… The Death Star!
Darth Vader brought swift justice
to the Rebels by destroying their
main base on Hoth. The pitiful
remnants of the Alliance have
now scattered to the Outer Rim.
In the days ahead, the Emperor
will call upon the Imperial Navy
to eradicate the last vestiges
of rebellion and restore law
and order to the galaxy!

Always wanted to be a part of the Star Wars universe and fight for the forces of law and order against the rebellion? In Lucasarts 1994 flight sim TIE Fighter, you will get your chance.

It would have been around ’94 or ’95 that I was introduced to TIE Fighter by a friend. In my post about my Top three movies I discussed my affinity for the Empire:

The Empire Strikes Back appeals to me in many respects because I always loved the ethos and aesthetic of the Galactic Empire. I always – and in no way secretly – cheer for the bad guy. This perhaps speaks volumes about my character!

Being able to jump into the seat of the iconic TIE Fighter and blast away at X-Wings, A-Wings and Y-Wings was a dream come true.

It’s important to note this is a simulator and not an arcade-action game. Using a joystick and the full keyboard there is a hugely steep learning curve when you first start playing TIE Fighter. Its not a game you can just pick up and play. There are training missions and tutorials to assist you in understanding the controls; they really should be mandatory. Without them you’ll have a tough time understanding what you need to do to use a TIE in anger against traitors and rebels. To give you some idea of the complexity, this is the keyboard reference card.

Point and shoot, it is not.

TIE Fighter runs alongside the events of Empire Strikes Back, starting in the aftermath of the Battle of Yavin (when the first Death Star was destroyed). You play as a new recruit, green and inexperienced TIE Fighter pilot and your first mission objective is fairly underwhelming; inspect freighters passing through the sector to check for rebels fleeing from Hoth. You soon learn that you’re a small part of a larger effort, a small cog in a giant imperial war machine. From small beginnings flying the basic TIE Fighter with laser cannons and nothing much between you and the void, you quickly advance onto more powerful ships with advanced technology such as shields and hyperdrives. In total there are seven different ships to fly from the Fighter, Interceptor and Bomber basic models to the TIE Advanced and super-sleek TIE Defender. Throw in Gunships and Missile Boats and you have a veritable arsenal to unleash against the enemies of the empire.

What I love most about TIE Fighter is the immersion into the Star Wars universe. I had never known anything like it before. Characters such as Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine from the movies crop up frequently; you can even fly a mission with the Dark Lord of the Sith. But the main OH MY GOD appearance was that of Vice Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn made his first appearance in the 1991 Timothy Zahn novel Heir to the Empire. He is a badass military genius who takes command of the Imperial Navy after the events of Return of the Jedi where he is Grand Admiral Thrawn. In TIE Fighter he the overall commander of the fleet you are a part of for most of the game. This inclusion of Expanded Universe characters shoved TIE Fighter into my consciousness. It felt like you were truly a part of the Imperial Navy. There was no sympathy for the rebels. In TIE Fighter, the heroic Rebel Alliance is the enemy.

TIE Fighter has so many features to explore you can spend hours and hours playing around on the concourse before finally starting your first mission.

Here there is a training simulator – the first step for a novice pilot, a combat trainer where you can take part in simulated (simulations inside simulations!) combat missions, a tech room where you can check out the technical specifications of both Imperial and enemy craft, and the film room where you can watch back recordings of previous engagements. So much to do before finally embarking on your first mission.

That first battle can be over incredibly quickly if you’re not careful. TIEs are fragile craft and it only takes a few stray laser shots before you’re either dead or floating in space. You have to choose your targets carefully and work as part of a team in order to bring down larger enemy ships. If you stick at it you’ll soon become a master pilot; the best the Imperial Navy has to offer, and late game the missions increase in complexity and difficulty. Engaging fast, manoeuvrable A-Wing fighters with a TIE Advanced is one of the best experiences in the game – a true dog fight. Taking down large capital ships with rockets and bombs dropped from an unshielded, slow and sluggish TIE Bomber, wonderfully exciting.

As you progress the game charts your progress. It is a statisticians dream. You will get stats on number of kills, shots on target, craft lost. You will be promoted all the way up to General and, if you can complete bonus and secret missions, be inducted into the Secret Order of the Empire. Completing a mission and missing an objective is excruciating. It’s so tempting to go back and play it again to hit all the objectives to advance outside of the battles.

TIE Fighter occupied me for months in the nineties and, in researching this post, I’ve ordered a new joystick to be able to play as the forces of the Empire once again…

“This Rebel stronghold has no hope of escape. Commence the attack!”

The second greatest game of all time

Released on 22 Sep, 2004, Rome: Total War is the God of all strategy games. I have clocked up 600 hours on the Steam version of the game but I estimate I’ve probably played closer to 2000 hours overall since buying the original boxed game on release way back in 2004. I still remember going through a three disc install and then patching before being able to play. I remember absorbing the included campaign map whilst exchanging discs before loading up the game and starting my first campaign. Just look at this map! (click it to load a huge version)

Rome was the first Total War game to feature a 3D map and 3D units (the units in Medieval and Shogun were sprite-based). Gameplay was a combination of turn-based on the campaign map and real time battles when two armies met. The number of units available numbered in the dozens with infantry, cavalry, missile troops and siege engines all featuring. As you moved up the tech-tree the units improved. Seeing a battle line formed by hard-hitting Roman Legionnaires with archers arrayed behind them and cavalry ready to flank unsuspecting enemies was a joy to behold. The number of tactical options on the battlefield simply never got old or boring.

In Rome you play as one of three Roman families. Each has a similar unit make up with minor differences in unique units appearing later in the game. At the start you’re allied with the other families despite them being rivals. The ultimate goal is to see to it that your family rules in Rome so it’s a judgement call whether you should support the other Roman families against mutual enemies. If they grow strong the inevitable civil war will be more difficult but having their support early game is useful.

The real joy on Rome though was the option to play as one of Rome’s enemies. In total there were twenty-one factions, four Roman (including the Roman Senate) and a number of others which became playable if you destroyed them in a campaign. Many of the other factions could be unlocked by playing about with the game files and there are mods allowing you to play all including the rebel/barbarians. For me it was mighty Carthage which took prime of place. Defending against Rome as they attempted to invade Sardinia and Sicily was always a pleasure, and turning the table and invading the Italian peninsula made for some impressive adventures.

But Rome was not just battles. Each faction had a family tree featuring elite general units. These could turn the tables in a battle but also proved to be effective managers offering boosts to production as well as siring more offspring to further and strengthen the family line. Do you commit your faction leader to a battle knowing his battle prowess will be welcome against the enemy or keep him safe so that more generals can be born and grow to lead future generations? The number of times a high-ranking general being killed in battle has changed your fortunes in the game are numerous.

Diplomats could form alliances and trade deals or bribe armies to join your side, spies could gather information on enemy cities and armies or create revolt within cities, whilst assassins could kill of characters before they got to fight or could destroy key structures weakening the enemy behind the lines. There are so many different ways to play Rome that each play through was different.

Rome was the third game in the Total War series. Since then eleven more games have been released each technically superior to the previous iteration, but there is nothing like Rome. Complex yet simple enough to pick up it could take many hours to master. I have tried many of the later Total War titles but always return to Rome.

You can do whatever you want to do

I’m currently reading (amongst others) a book called Masters of Doom by David Kushner. Subtitled, “How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture”. It tells the story of John Carmack and John Romero. Of Doom, Quake, and id Software. I’m about half way through. In book terms, Doom had just been released, and I’m eager to find out what happens next.

But reading it has given me pause for thought. When I was younger, when I was in my first couple of years at secondary school, I was a huge fan of arcade games. These aren’t the same arcades as you would expect to see in America, but I used to go to the local arcade after school and battle my way through Golden Axe and other total classics such as Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. I’d take trips to the seaside and pump pounds worth of 10p pieces into the machines. Always action, side scrolling ‘beat ’em ups’ or shooters. I was hooked.

This all came to a stop when I was seen by my mother and forbidden from using the arcade machines. Then I was forbidden from even entering the arcade. We never had much money. She saw me putting money into an arcade machine as throwing it away, but I loved the escapism from my life. I loved to venture into fantasy to escape reality. The reality of not fitting in, or being apart from my family, from being the black sheep. I never felt wanted when I was in my early teens. Games gaves me a method of denying the destructive feelings of isolation. Things finally came to a head when I was attacked from behind by my mother when I was playing the aforementioned Golden Axe. I remember it so well, even though it was so many years ago. The year would have been 1991 or 1992. Eighteen years have passed but I still remember the humiliation I felt being dragged out of there by my mother in front of the kids from school. I still remember the hot tears and the stinging shock of that slap. I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted to do.

I think back to that and I wonder what damage it did to my aspirations. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not going to sit here and proclaim to have missed my calling, or to be the next Sid Meier yet discovered and undeveloped. But games is something I wanted to do. I have always loved games. Who knows what I could have done had I been encouraged and not slapped down all those year ago. Who fucking knows….?

He may not yet be three. But I told Thomas today, I promised him, that he can do anything he wants to do. I promised him that if he wants to be a sportsman, or a writer, artist, musician, dancer, game designer (!) then I would support and encourage him in his dream. I promised him that I would never hold him back from pursuing his path or try and coerce him down a route that I want for him. It’s his life, and I will be there to help him in any way that I am physically, mentally, emotionally or financially able. Of course, he had no idea what I was talking about, but the words were for my benefit not just for his. I want him to have the life I never had. Christ that sounds fucking shit, doesn’t it? I haven’t had a bad life. Far from it. But with Tom I want only the best. That was my promise today. Tom can make his own choices, and I’ll be right behind him, supporting him on his way.