This article first appeared in PC Gamer magazine issue 362 in October 2021, as part of our 'Mod Spotlight' series. Every month we explore cool new mods that breathe new life – or just inject a bit of chaos – into our favourite games.
It can be hard going back to play a game you loved years ago. Sometimes nostalgia is strong enough to overlook things like ageing graphics, tinny sound and fewer of the features we've become accustomed to with modern games. But sometimes no matter how much you enjoyed a game in the past, it's just too difficult to get back into it again when so many years, or even decades, have gone by.
And it can be especially hard convincing other people to play a game from a couple decades ago. I can tell people until I'm blue in the face that LucasArts' 1994 dogfighting simulator TIE Fighter isn't just the one of the best Star Wars games ever, but that it's one of the best games ever, full stop. It's a true classic. Unfortunately, these days, it looks like a classic, too. It's just really, really old. I think if you didn't play it then, you'd be pretty unlikely to play it now.
So to my mind, TIE Fighter: Total Conversion is just about as close as you can get to a perfect mod. Not only does it do a fantastic job of porting the original TIE Fighter into Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance, it comes with updated visuals, sports a remastered soundtrack, and adds to the original campaign with new and more expansive missions.
It even supports VR, thanks to the X-Wing Alliance Upgrade Project, which is another hefty mod that you'll need to get this one running. All told, TIE Fighter: Total Conversion and X-Wing Alliance Upgrade Project are two of the most impressive and essential mods I've ever seen. They really reach into the past and pull TIE Fighter into the present, staying true to the original but updating it so it feels new and modern. It's been a real joy booting up the mod, climbing into my ship, and doing battle with the Rebel Alliance.
Ties that bind
When the original TIE Fighter came out, it was a pretty remarkable game because it let you play as the bad guys, the Empire, which wasn't a perspective we'd had before or even knew we wanted. And that perspective didn't even make you feel like that bad of a guy, really. Through TIE: Fighter's lens, the Empire was just trying to keep the galaxy in order and the Rebellion were a bunch of chaotic, grubby space bandits who were stirring up trouble. Sometimes if you want to embrace peace you have to catch it in your black-gloved hands and crush it. TIE Fighter's story, amazingly, made you feel like you were doing the right thing.
Not only was playing as the Empire unusual enough, but it put you in at the ground floor. You weren't some badass evil Jedi like Darth Vader or some combat veteran like Han Solo, you were just an entry-level pilot in the Imperial Starfleet, cannon fodder, a rank-and-file recruit. And it's been a lot of fun re-experiencing all that in TIE Fighter: Total Conversion, starting with the early tutorial missions.
I still love the structure of the game. You begin on an Imperial space station, then click to open a door to the briefing room, where you're told dispassionately what is expected of you. This isn't the Rebellion, where rousing speeches are given to inspire the underdogs. You have a job to do and you're going to do it well because the Empire doesn't tolerate failure.
You begin in a fighter, not even using your engines, just swivelling around to shoot a few cargo containers while following the instructions given to you. After each mission there's a debriefing before you accept your next task. Gradually you take on more complex missions and eventually begin to see a bit of real combat, made all the more harrowing when you realise you're basically flying in the cheapest ship the Empire can produce. No shields, no hyperdrive, just a mass-produced tin can that can only take a tiny bit of damage before it explodes. That's what you fly until you can prove you're worthy of something faster, sturdier and with more power.
And you can forget about seeing an X-Wing in your crosshairs for a while. You'd expect a TIE Fighter game to immediately plop you into a massive, exciting battle with the Rebels, but you take on a few pirates at first, that nondescript faction that's hated by both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Many of the missions have surprises along the way, as a simple job scanning cargo ships uncovers some contraband or a quick escort mission for an Imperial freighter becomes a pitched battle. Eventually you'll see a ship you recognise on your screen, a real Rebel ship, like maybe some Y-Wings and B-Wings, and eventually you'll really be going toe-to-toe with a genuine X-Wing. Hey, maybe that's Luke Skywalker himself!
Even in the mod it's easy to admire just how cool the original flight sim was. Balancing your ship's power between weapons and engine (and shields, on the rare occasions you have them) is still exciting and fun, and there's never a session that goes by that I don't silently thank the developers for the ‘match speed to target' button so I can easily settle in behind an enemy and pepper them with laser blasts while tailing them. You get to fly a number of different Imperial craft, too, from TIE Bombers to ultra-cool Interceptors and even Imperial shuttles. And you'll recognise plenty of ships out your window, too, from Corellian corvettes to Mon Calamari cruisers.
The pragmatism (some might call it ruthlessness) of the Empire is pretty apparent, too, as in some missions you're basically thrown into battle like a handful of gravel, just one of lots and lots of expendable fighters the Imperial Navy sends out to overwhelm their enemies by sheer numbers. And there's a really excellent campaign and story to progress through, working your way from a lowly disposable pilot to someone who catches the attention of the Empire's upper echelons. In later story missions, you'll even hunt down and exterminate Imperial traitors, along with various other space criminals. Again, it's a neat way to expand our view of the Empire and the Star Wars universe. In the movies the Imperial pilots are always going up against the Rebel heroes, but TIE Fighter fills in the blanks, showing everything else the Empire has to deal with when they're not chasing down the Millennium Falcon.
And between missions you can chill in the crew quarters, where your personal room will slowly be filled with the medals and honours you've earned. You can review your flight stats and kills on a terminal, admire some Imperial propaganda posters and ship models, fondly gaze at your astromech droid (who is probably way cooler than R2D2, so suck it, Luke), and reflect on how you're helping the Empire establish control over an unruly galaxy.
I've been playing the mod with a keyboard and mouse, which is not terribly ideal but I don't have a flight stick or even an Xbox controller at the moment. But TIE Fighter: Total Conversion does support a number of controllers, and the community has been putting together additional controller profiles for others to use. And like I said, the mod is even playable in VR, pretty amazing for a game that was built more than 20 years before VR became something we could get our hands on.
If you've never played the original Star Wars: TIE Fighter, you should give this mod a try. The game holds up magnificently and it's all perfectly captured in the mod, it just looks and sounds much better. I'm certain any Star Wars fan or flight sim enthusiast would have a blast. And if you did play and love TIE Fighter back in the day, the mod is the perfect way to revisit it again. It incorporates all of the original and expansion missions, plus new and enhanced versions of a number of campaign missions. In total, there's nearly 150 missions to play. All you need is a copy of Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance, which you can buy on Steam or GoG for about ten bucks. That's a small price to relive this classic.