Thursday, 25 May 2017

Star Wars: Rebel Assault II - The Hidden Empire (MS-DOS)

Developer:LucasArts|Release Date:1995|Systems:PC, Mac, PlayStation

It's Star Wars' 40th birthday today and I'm celebrating by playing a Star Wars video game! I was tempted to play the game for Star Wars Day a few weeks ago on May the 4th, but the 40th seems like a bigger deal (plus I'm fond of putting things off as late as I can).

So this week on Super Adventures I'm playing Star Wars: Rebel Assault II - The Hidden Empire, by Vincent Lee. I didn't really notice at the time, but LucasArts were really fond of putting the creator's name on the box back in the 90s.

To give you an idea of where this fits on the Star Wars video game timeline, it came out the same year as Dark Forces, a year after TIE Fighter and Super Return of the Jedi, and two years after the original Rebel Assault. So it was made in the finale years of the pre-Special Edition, pre-Phantom Menace era. I didn't get to play it for a long while though due to my PC being ass. In fact I still remember the shame I felt having to take it back to the shop and buy the first game instead. But hey how I was I supposed to know what the difference between a 486SX and 486DX was before the internet!

You might be wondering why it just says "Rebel Assault" up there without a "II" on it. There is a good explanation for that which I'll reveal if you scroll down to the next picture. Though before you do, I should warn you that there'll be SPOILERS for the original trilogy of Star Wars films down there too.



It's Rebel Assault Episode II!

To the surprise of absolute no one the game starts with the Star Wars theme and an opening crawl, though I didn't expect the music to sound so crap. It's the actual John Williams score, not MIDI, but it's not exactly CD quality. Plus there's no LucasArts gold guy skit, so that's disappointing too.

Here's what the crawl says, if you're curious:


Episode II
THE HIDDEN EMPIRE

By destroying the Death Star, Rebel Forces proved themselves a serious threat to the GALACTIC EMPIRE.

Darth Vader, enraged by his defeat, became obsessed with the Alliance's elimination.

Toward this end, his forces have scoured the Galaxy for a new weapon; a weapon Vader hopes can catch the Alliance off guard and give the Empire undisputed rule of the Galaxy...

Wow, there's no need to yell 'Galactic Empire' at me, especially as it's always been lower case in the movies. Also 'galaxy' shouldn't be capitalised.

The Rebel Assault games take place in an alternate universe where a guy called 'Rookie One' took Luke Skywalker's place in history and blew up the Death Star, so instead of hunting for his son, Vader's just hunting for a new super weapon now. Because he's genre savvy enough to know that the Empire's military superiority means shit when they're fighting plucky underdogs.

This is the part where the camera should pan down to reveal a spaceship, but instead it zooms out to reveal a grey wall.

We're getting a first person view from one of those tiny mouse droids that drive around people's feet! Right now it seems to be driving around an Imperial outpost to give me something to look at while the credits come up. Man, credits at the start of a Star Wars story, that's just wrong.

Hang on, Mechadeus? Isn't that what the robots are called in The Big O? Or was that Megadeus?

The tiny droid eventually stops at the feet of an Imperial officer about to go chat with his boss Darth Vader, who's currently enjoying his second favourite past time of staring out of a window at the stars. Hey that's a Star Destroyer bridge out there!

Hey that's a live action Darth Vader! There's no way they got James Earl Jones to the voice, but their substitute Vader sounds fantastic. Well, he would've done if the sound quality was better anyway.

It's great that they went to the trouble of recording live action footage to chroma key into the pre-rendered sets, but the effect isn't exactly convincing. They were doomed from the start using mid 90s CGI, but the lighting doesn't match and they've neglected to add film grain to the backgrounds.

Here's a shot of the DOS version on the left compared to the PlayStation version on the right. All my other shots are in 640x400 res but I lowered the PC game to 320x200 to make it a fair test. Fair for the DOS version I mean, seeing as playing it in the higher res just seems to upscale the video.

The PlayStation's got an obvious advantage here in that it's outputting in the correct aspect ratio, so no stretching required, and the video's in a higher colour depth too. It's not a flawless victory though as there's obvious compression artefacts in the PSX version's FMV clips.

This admiral has come to report that a group of Rebel fighters are in range and Sigma squadron stands ready. So Darth Vader says 'fine, go kill them then,' and that's that sorted out

Cut to a group of Rebel fighters getting wiped out by a surprise attack out of nowhere, with two of them dying because a pilot was too dumb to move his X-Wing out of the way. Look how long he has to react!

We never get to see the TIE Fighters that shot them though, so clearly they're a secret project. Vader's not impressed by the results though, as he wants nothing less than the power to crush the Rebel Alliance. Dude, have you even tried just blowing them up with your Star Destroyers? I've heard that if you get half the Starfleet together the ships would have enough firepower to destroy a planet.

And then after the expensive cinematic intro the game cuts straight to a high score table! Very arcade.

I love these random backgrounds by the way, especially as they're actually relevant to the story this time. The first game had a photo of C-3PO lying in pieces back there for some reason.

Hey it's the secret prototype TIE Fighters that we're not supposed to know about yet! They couldn't resist sticking one on the box art either.

There's options here to enable subtitles, invert controls and toggle rapid fire, but if I want to set the graphics detail or switch to joystick control I'll have to quit right back to the game's launcher. It seems unnecessarily awkward.

The launcher also lets me change the frame rate, and it goes all the way up to 20 this time! But I don't want to push my luck so I'm leaving it at 15.

This is what I like: saves, passwords and a level select! It's even got animated previews of the chapters!

The game's also given me a choice of difficulty: Beginner, Novice, Standard, Expert... Custom1, Custom2. It's been a while since I've seen something genuinely original (or at least really unusual) in a video game, but there you go. There's no obvious way to customise the Custom modes though and I can't pick them anyway as I always play a game on Normal if I'm writing about it. Even if I've played it before and I know that I'm going to regret it.


CHAPTER 1: THE DREIGHTON TRIANGLE.


B-Wings! The most under-appreciated of Star Wars original trilogy starfighters. And also the ugliest. Though it's cool that I'm getting to see here what Star Wars would've looked like if it had Babylon 5's visual effects.

The first level begins with our hero and his buddy on patrol in the spooky Dreighton Triangle, the same place those X-Wings were destroyed in the intro. Why they're patrolling in a bomber I've no idea; probably because it's something different.

I wish sci-fi stories wouldn't name creepy regions of space like this, like 'triangle' is a suffix meaning 'notorious zone where shit goes missing'. It comes off as goofy as... uh... naming a planet Romulus and then giving them a senate! Though then again we do have that Dragon's Triangle near Japan as well, so maybe labelling stuff with 'triangle' really is a thing!

Hey Rebel Assault protagonist Rookie One is back! And they're played by a real life actor now instead of being illustrated! The trade-off for this is that the game's pulled a Star Trek: Elite Force II and flushed the female version of Rookie One out of the canon. Not that a character who blew up the Death Star instead of Luke Skywalker was ever canon to begin with.

Right now he's sitting in his B-Wing trying to make out a garbled distress call sent from a freighter under attack. Apparently the Empire has a hidden... something and is making a new weapon for Darth Vader. Unfortunately he's too late to save them as they've just been boarded and killed. Though it's never too late to kill some TIE fighters!

Wow, look how red this part of space is. It really is like Babylon 5! Also the game's given me 6 points just for turning it on.

Alright, this is pretty much just more of Rebel Assault 1 so far as I'm basically watching a video with TIE fighters superimposed onto it, and I want to make the TIE fighters go away by putting the crosshairs over them and shooting them. I've got a bit of freedom to slide across the video by moving the reticle but only barely; this isn't dogfighting it's target shooting.

In fact it's a lot like an FMV Star Fox, except not as good because I can't do a barrel roll. Also the Star Wars soundtrack's great and all, but it would've been nice if the game had some original music. Something I haven't already heard to death.

Here's the game in action. Imagine this over and over again, and that's what this level is. All the while the other pilot is yelling stuff out like "Watch out, there's one on you!" and "Take the leader, I'll handle his friend," like we're actually dogfighting, while being absolutely no help in blowing them up.

The enemies all explode in one hit, but it seems that I've got a regenerating damage meter, so I can take on a hundred of these assholes and still win. Which is good because it seems like I actually will need to shoot a hundred to get through this.


MEANWHILE, ON THE PLAYSTATION...


PlayStation
Whoa, what the hell? The PlayStation version's put me outside a real time model of my B-Wing and has me shooting real time TIE fighters (all made by notable 3D bloke Tobias Richter apparently).

The PlayStation port has gone maximum Star Fox, I can even do a barrel roll, but I'm really starting to miss those crosshairs I used to have. Fortunately it takes a mere button press to leave the vacuum of space and switch back to sensible mode inside the cockpit.

Man that level took forever to end, except not really. It felt like 20 minutes but it was actually just under 2. It's a shame that they don't tell me my completion time and number of kills, but then I suppose it was a video clip so it was always going to take the same amount of time whatever I did.

I did well enough to get a promotion at least, to whatever three triangles means, plus I even got a password! I had to beat several stages in a row to get a password out of the first Rebel Assault.

Meanwhile on the PlayStation version I completed the level with just 53% accuracy, mostly because it's much easier to point at moving objects with a pointing device than with a controller.

Our heroes manage to get a fix on the freighter's emergency distress beacon, but it doesn't do them much good when a prototype TIE fighter gets a fix on them and starts filling them full of green bolts of light. Seems that the regenerating damage meter only works outside of cutscenes as one B-Wing explodes and the other crashes down to the planet... and explodes.


CHAPTER 2: THE CORELLIA STAR.


Fortunately Rookie One ejected in time, so now we've got a very Star Wars 'escape pod in the desert' situation going on. I like how he leaves footprints in the sand as he walks off, that's a nice touch.

Star Wars Rebel Assault hand scanner
He also landed within walking distance of the freighter, which is way beyond fortunate. But then in the movie R2-D2 landed within walking distance of Obi-Wan Kenobi so I guess they can either steer their escape pods a bit, or the Force did it.

It's not long before he gets inside the Imperial base where they've stashed the freighter, which means I get to do some Time Crisis-style cover shooting! I don't remember the original Rebel Assault ever letting me out of my starfighter so this is new. It's also kicking my ass.

What happens is that a couple of Stormtroopers hang out behind their own walls and pop out occasionally to take a shot at me, so I have to do the same to them. The trouble is that if we're both out at the same time they're going to shoot me, and they're way faster at aiming their shots than I am because the game won't give me my crosshair back until I'm out in the open.


So what I'm doing is popping out while it's empty and then moving my crosshair over a place that I know they'll be coming out from. Then I wait for them to appear so I can hopefully get a shot off before they do. Though if one of their friends comes out to shoot me I quickly duck back into to cover and wait until it's clear again.

I'm probably making it sound a bit boring and repetitive, but that's just because it is. It doesn't help that there's no checkpoints or health kits so if I lose I'm kicked back to the first room again.

Here's another comparison between the two PC (left) and PSX (right) versions. There's no real time Stormtroopers around, it's all video clips on either system, but the PSX port still feels different due to the slicker animation when I come out of cover.


LATER.


Oh come on!

I guess it could be worse though. It could've had a time limit.

It's funny how this cutscene is probably my most vivid memory of the game, aside from crashing a freighter into a cave wall over and over. I think it's because of how Rookie One is so nonchalant as he hops around cables that could instantly vaporise a man, and how he stops in front of a speeding train to check his scanner. I keep wanting to yell "Move out of the way you dumb asshole!" Not because I care about him, I just don't want to have to do that level again.

But I'm done now and it turns out that the whole Stormtrooper shooting section only took 7 minutes to complete! Felt more like 30.

The cutscene continues to show him finding and boarding the freighter and the thing sure looks familiar. It's a CGI duplicate of the Millennium Falcon, featuring the smaller Episode IV version of the cockpit with the misaligned light strip at the back. Man, ever since I noticed that light strip I can't unsee it.

The Imperials have the bright idea of yelling at him to stop, but Rookie One just ignores their pleas (or more likely couldn't hear them). So they try plan B: shutting the hangar door. So now Rookie One is totally trapped in this hangar... or he would be if there wasn't another exit in the back leading to a treacherous path through some caves.

Star Wars Rebel Assault 2 stormtrooper we're dead
So long, suckers!

Rookie One did well to get the not-Falcon through that tiny gap with the dish intact, though it did get knocked backwards a bit.

You can tell how much harder that level was as I only got 19% accuracy on it. But that was nothing compared to what's coming up next.


CHAPTER 3: MINING TUNNELS.


Oh fuck, this is exactly as hard as I remember it being. This is all Return of the Jedi's fault! That and Star Fox. Though unlike Star Fox in this my ship steers like a twitchy piece of shit and unlike Freelancer there's no reticle to use for mouse control. Plus the ship's fat ass is blocking my view.

It doesn't help that my ship seems to throw itself towards a wall whenever a turn comes up. So I'm not just reacting to the background, I'm having to react to whatever my ship's doing as well.

PlayStation
Here's another shot of the PlayStation version, which is thankfully less of a challenge to control. Plus the pre-rendered ship's been replaced with a real time 3D model, which means that I have a better idea where it's facing and what I'm doing with it.

Okay the PC version of this level isn't obviously isn't going to work out with the mouse, so I'm going to have to switch to my joystick instead. Well my Xbox 360 controller to be specific, as I kind of broke my joystick when I took it apart to clean off the rubberised surface when it melted.

First though I have to quit, because the controller options are in the game launcher.

The joystick's even worse somehow!

So I quit again and tried the keyboard and somehow that was even more worse. This game just has terrible control whatever you're using. It's a Rebel Assault tradition.

A suspicious man might wonder if they deliberately cranked up the difficulty here to make sure that people got to see all the death scenes they spent ages rendering, but that doesn't seem very plausible. Because I keep blowing up right near the start so I never get to see the others! Every time I screw up I have to start again from the beginning again.

Oh... except for this time, because I've just ran out of lives. Still, if I hadn't failed so completely I never would've gotten this cutscene showing two Stormtroopers being completely disinterested in my explosive demise. Do they not know that I broke into their base and stole a freighter? There was an intruder alarm and everything.

Alright, I have a plan. I'm going to quit and put the difficulty down a bit, because that level is a difficulty brick wall that I've smashed my head against enough times already. Though switching it to easy mode does mean that I'll have to replay the game from the beginning.

Oh right, there's also Custom1 and Custom2, the most mysterious of difficult settings. I wonder what their deal is.

Ah, if I quit back to the launcher I can use the Custom Difficulty Editor to fine tune every aspect of the game on every chapter individually! You don't see one of these in many games.

Huh, I can turn explosions off? Why would I ever want to do that? In fact this whole thing seems like it'd take a lot of trial and error to figure out so I think I'm going to just stick with Beginner mode and see if I can at least get out of these mining tunnels.


SOON.


I got out of the mining tunnels!

Well I completed the first section of them anyway. Now I'm flying the freighter from inside the cockpit, which is much easier, and not just because the only steering I get to do is leaning away from obstacles when I get to them. The trouble is that the ship turns towards the crosshairs, the ones I use to shoot things. So when I get in a situation like this where the arrow's saying 'pull left' and there's enemies shooting at me just to the right, I get a bit conflicted about where to put the crosshairs and typically make the wrong choice.

Fortunately that doesn't matter so much on easy mode because I'm taking far less damage. And yet I'm enjoying it much more.

Escaping the tunnels entirely earned me another cutscene, this one a redubbed scruffy looking clip from Empire Strikes Back! Man look at all that ghosting, it's like they got the footage from a VHS tape someone recorded off the TV.

I remember this scene showing up in Rebel Assault 1 as well, only this time it's an actual video instead of screencap. Plus they've filmed new footage of an Imperial officer coming to bother Vader while he's enjoying some helmet-off time in his egg, instead of doing this...

Star Wars: Rebel Assault (MS-DOS)
Man Rebel Assault can be a cruel son of a bitch during gameplay, but it has its moments.

Here's the Rebel Assault 2 officer chatting with Vader for comparison, to remind you what a human looks like:

Hey he's lit exactly the same as when he was talking to Vader on the bridge! Though the lighting makes more sense down here.

Oh also I put theater mode on for a second, which has Darth Vader and the droids appear in MST3K-style silhouettes and redub all the cutscenes with their own lines. Though sadly it's text only in this mode, no voices, and it seems like they forgot to run it through a spell checker.

Their first joke is a line about boots and it seems to get lodged in their heads as it becomes a running theme through half the cutscenes I've seen. I'm not sure they're ever that funny, but at least they're consistent. Plus Rookie One and his wingman have an interesting exchange while running tech support over the video phone:

Wow guys, wow.


CHAPTER 4: THE ASTEROID FIELD.


With the freighter recovered the Rebels were able to play back the distress call and get the location of an Imperial asteroid mining facility that needs blowing up, so that's what we're doing now.

Those cunning bastard developers have tricked me into liking the game again by putting me in the cockpit and letting me fly out in the open, with the asteroid chase music from Empire Strikes Back playing. I know I complain about hearing the same Star Wars tracks over and over again, but this one's so good.

Plus it helps that the level is so much more dramatic than the asteroids in Rebel Assault.

Star Wars: Rebel Assault (MS-DOS)
See how dull this is by comparison. Plus Rebel Assault 2 has its own cockpit art instead of borrowing one from the space sim X-Wing.


CHAPTER 6: THE MINING FACILITY.


Level 6 now. Hey, I'm a third of the way through the game!

My buddies and I figured that the best way to blow up a mining facility was to fly right into it, so that's what I'm doing now. But those wacky miners have set up forcefields on the inside so now I have to quickly shoot out shield generators, Revenge of the Sith-style, before I slam right into a one. But the thing's spinning and I don't know which one Rookie One will choose to fly through!

The trouble with these scenes is that I'm not really piloting the fighter, I'm just aiming the guns and giving it a very slightly nudge to avoid the scenery. You can tell by my damage meter how well that's been going.

But I eventually blew the place up and made it out again, and... oh no, prototype TIE fighters! Wait, the story's not going to wipe out a whole wing of Rebel pilots again is it? Man, this thing takes more joy in killing off its heroes than a Call of Duty game.

Plus it's asking me to swap discs so I think this is a good time to quit.


CONCLUSION

Okay here's what I think about Star Wars: Rebel Assault II - The Hidden Empire... or is that Star Wars: Rebel Assault - Episode II: The Hidden Empire? Whatever it's called, I feel like I could copy and paste lines from my Rebel Assault conclusion, maybe grab a few my Star Fox post as well, because both games follow the same playbook when it comes to making me suffer.

There's more variety here but the gameplay's pretty much the same deal as before: get the red crosshair pointed at the green boxes without touching anything coming at you in the fuzzy pre-rendered videos you're flying through. The game is entirely on rails, except for the bits where you stand behind a wall and don't go anywhere. It's certainly more spectacular to watch than the original game, if you're into mid-90s CGI, but you can only fly straight forwards for so long before you start to miss all those other directions you used to take for granted. Also I've played games where it's a joy to swoop around obstacles in narrow spaces and this really isn't one of them.

But there is one big difference between this and Rebel Assault and that's that is isn't just an alternate universe retelling of A New Hope. It has a brand new story of its own, with FMV cutscenes all over the place! In fact I believe this is actually the first live action Star Wars story filmed since Return of the Jedi 12 years earlier, and they were able to make use of some of their movie costumes and props to make it look pretty good for an official fan film. They did a decent job of capturing the look and style of the original trilogy here and the acting is as good as any other live action LucasArts game I can think of. Though I can only think of Jedi Knight right now. It's just a shame that they had to squeeze all the footage into 1.4GB of space with mid 90s compression tech. It didn't come out so pretty on the other side. The game was a technical marvel in its time but it hasn't aged well.

I mentioned in my Rebel Assault post that it wasn't even worth watching a Long Play of it because the game didn't have much of a plot, but it might not be a bad idea this time. Watching it on YouTube would certainly be less frustrating than playing the third person flying levels yourself. Though the way it saves and gives out passwords after ever level does make it less of a nightmare than the first game, plus there's a difficulty editor.

If you absolutely have to play it yourself, I get the feeling that the PlayStation version's the one to go for. It seems technically superior, with better visual and sound quality, plus it uses 3D models during gameplay. But if you go down that path then you lose the option for mouse control, which makes space shooting a lot harder.

In conclusion: I think the world's a better place for having Rebel Assault II in it and I think my day's gotten better now that I don't have to play it any more.

If you're not sick of Star Wars yet, you can go and read my thoughts on the movie Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope: Special Edition (2004 DVD version) on Super Adventures' sister site Sci-Fi Adventures by clicking this link.


Coming up next week on Super Adventures: a guest post by mecha-neko! Remember to tell him how awesome it is, I need to sucker him into writing about more games so that I get to take a break every once in a while.

Plus leave me some comments too, they're always appreciated.

2 comments:

  1. The trouble with retroactively playing the not-so-amazing Star Wars games is that there are SO MANY phenomenonally good ones at this point. I didn't have a PC in the early days of FMV madness so never got around to these myself - now I don't have to, you've done the hard work for me!

    Always a fun read, I'm a pro lurker but just wanted to say keep it coming! Your reviews are way more enjoyable and accessible than watching a half hour+ video on Youtube as is all the rage for da yoof.

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    1. Phenomenonally, brain? Really? This is why I shouldn't post when sleepy.

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