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Just how good a pilot is Vader? Our “Siege of Lothal” sim on X-Wing Alliance

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So, most folks who’ve seen the TV movie “Siege of Lothal” that opened the second season of Star Wars Rebels were astonished by Darth Vader’s piloting skills. What people disagreed on is whether Vader’s performance finally showed him as the greatest pilot in the galaxy, or if he was over-powered to the point of incredulity. Then some people took the middle line: Vader should’ve been shown as the best pilot in the galaxy, but the faceless “redshirt” opposition he faced robbed the moment of the impact it needed (unlike his saber skirmish with the Ghost crew). Those are legitimate differences of opinion, and we think that there are good criticisms raised despite our view that this was the best Rebels episode to date.

Our thought when we first saw that sequence? “…you know, I wonder if I [we] could pull off that stunt in TIE Fighter.” After all, we’re a veteran player of those flight sims and know all the tricks to the game. So – we decided to do it! We decided to use X-wing Alliance because of the ease of its in-game skirmish generator. Though it would have been a relatively simple matter to use tools like “TIE Fighter Workshop” to generate new missions in TIE Fighter, XWA has a better game engine with a more challenging AI. More helpfully, it also has Vader’s TIE Advanced x-1 available thanks to the “XWA Upgrade” craft patches.

So we set up a skirmish fitting the parameters of the show as best we could. We set a TIE Advanced x1 for ourself, no missiles or special bonuses. The enemy had eight A-wings, five Corellian Corvettes, and a bulk cruiser (to approximate the converted freighter/frigate used as the Rebel command ship). We didn’t have enough craft slots to add in a ship approximating the Ghost, or we would’ve chosen a YT-2000 like the Otana. We figured it if were too easy, we could add the ship in later using a more sophisticated mission editor like “AlliED” and have it launch on a timer (update: we did that very thing after drafting most of this article, see the end of this article for how the Ghost affects things).

Oh, and by the way: click the screenshots to view them at full-size, using AlliED let us add some details you might not want to miss. We had perhaps a little too much fun with the mission editor. 🙂

First attempt: without Ghost

So we jumped into the seat of our TIE Advanced x1 and let the mission start. It began promisingly enough, with a head to head with eight A-wings. The XWA Upgrade craft pack adds movie-style cockpits to the TIEs, including the weird screen that blocks half of the viewports and a pilot yoke, so it felt really authentic to gear ourselves for action as two whole flight groups of Rebel fighters approached.

Those of you who’ve read the X-Wing series of novels know that the pilots often mention head-to-head engagements as the most dangerous part of starfighter combat. It’s very true. As the Rebel fighters closed into the extreme range, we began to open fire and then began to dance and juke as soon as they opened fire. We did manage to take down a single A-wing in the first pass without getting hit, but we couldn’t manage Vader’s feat of taking down two in the first pass. (Perhaps we should have tried spinning – we hear that’s a good trick) We made a few runs on the bulk cruiser like Vader had, easily dodging A-wing fire, before proceeding to attack the A-wings in earnest.

The A-wings stood little change against the Lord of the Sith.
The A-wings stood little change against the Lord of the Sith.

Here is where things began to take some time. Vader was able to take down A-wings in a matter of moments, using a few shots. In the flight sims, that’s not really possible: especially not in XWA, where shields climb up to 200% pretty quickly. We wouldn’t be repeating the feat of destroying an A-wing in a single pass any time soon. Nor would we be able to turn on a dime and blast A-wings chasing us as Vader did, because these games don’t feature Newtonian physics: Vader could flip his ship and continue coasting in the opposite direction in the show, but in XWA, we would just turn around because there was no momentum to keep us going in the same direction.

Instead, we would cut our throttle to 33% whenever an A-wing was behind us or not immediately in our sights so as to maximize maneuverability and keep landing shots on them as they moved. If they ever got too far, we throttled back to full, and then continued firing. We’d cut to 33% each time the A-wings tried to maneuver away, and as such the A-wings didn’t last very long. It doesn’t sound as exciting as the show or even the X-Wing novels because it was basically the same thing repeated: using throttle control to make up for the A-wings’ superior maneuverability and hammering at them with lasers to force them to give up their superior speed to maintain shields. The A-wings didn’t last long once we adopted that tactic.

It took a few more runs to take out the bulk cruiser. The ship fired back and had pretty capable point-defense guns since the XWA anti-fighter AI is the most sophisticated in this series of flight sims, but we’re pretty experienced with taking ships out and were able to methodically wear down its shields and avoid fire. Unlike Vader, our shots couldn’t immediately disable the cruiser. Our reasoning for Vader’s success against the cruiser is that Vader knows that design from the Clone Wars, and is a precise enough shot to aim at all its weak points. As for the A-wings, they went down quickly in the show because that’s consistent with the films (where starfighter shields never seem as tough as they do in the games or books).

Not quite a bulk cruiser here...
Not quite a bulk cruiser here…

We managed to destroy the cruiser, because there was no Ghost (and no Ahsoka) to divert our attention. So because we had less challenge than Vader, we decided to go for the corvettes next and see if we could push our luck. Here’s where things became dicey: while it was pretty easy to dodge the corvettes’ fire when we were targeting the other ships (Vader didn’t have to contend with any of them firing at him in the show), focusing fire on a small target is harder. The trick to taking out capital ships in XWA is to focus your fire on areas where they’re not shooting at you, as it’s harder to hit an oblique target. When guns from that area begin to shoot at you, aim at another. Because guns fire so fast, it’s a sort of a dance as you strafe across the ship. Corvettes are too small for that tactic, and basically covered in gun turrets. The first corvette we focused on blew us out of the sky in pretty much an instant: turns out that the XWAUpgrade folks fit the TIE Advanced x-1 with weaker shields and hull armor than a Z-95 Headhunter (ouch). There’s no really useful statblock on Vader’s TIE except the observation that it was tough enough to survive a hit from another TIE Fighter, so it’s hard to say if a tougher ship would’ve let us adjust my tactics accordingly. Notably, this would’ve been much easier in TIE Fighter because we could’ve just parked right behind the corvette’s thrusters and blasted away at it while it was unable to hit us. XWA, sensibly, damages your ship with engine exhaust if you try that stunt.

A Real Challenge: Vader v. Hera

Just before publishing, we decided to do this again properly. Partly because the XWA skirmish generator wouldn’t let us use blue A-wings for our screenshots, and partly because it felt too easy without the Ghost, we booted up AlliED and did some tweaking to our initial scenario.

First, we made Phoenix Squad fly blue-painted A-wings. Easy enough. Second, we used the YT-2000 to represent the Ghost. We had two reasons for choosing that ship: first, the freighter’s central cockpit resembled the design of the Ghost and second, the freighter is far superior to a standard YT-1300 without approaching the greatness of the Millennium Falcon. It’s the perfect analog for the Ghost.

The mission began much as previously, except the keyboard targeting system was refusing to operate because we were repeatedly pressing print screen to generate images and that mucked up inputs somehow. So as an extra challenge, we could no longer simply fix our sensors on the nearest enemy and had to use the scanners to fix an enemy in the middle of the viewscreen and use the joystick to target the enemy directly in front. To make it more fun, we also could no longer match speed with the target automatically and had to rely on the throttle switch on the joystick. That was fine though, the A-wings needed all the help they could get.

This time, the Ghost launched when there were two A-wings remaining. During our dogfighting, one of the corvettes had spontaneously killed itself. Freebie! We killed one of the remaining A-wings, then targeted the Ghost. Due to a bug in the XWAUpgrade version of the YT-2000 model, the ship was able to spit out concussion missiles as if they were lasers… this was a little awkward, and we blasted as many as we could on the head-to-head. Then we went to pursue Ghost Vader go boomand got pummeled by missiles while getting hammered by highly accurate lasers (we assigned a high-level AI to the Ghost to represent Hera, which meant the poor fragile TIE Advanced x-1 basically had no chance). So like the Corellian Corvette from earlier, the well-defended Ghost had little difficulty shooting us into bits… with a little help from unlimited missiles. Switching to the Falcon or a YT-1300 might’ve made it a bit more fair, but this scenario was never meant to be fair. It’s possible that we still would’ve been blown up due to the need to fix on a small target, the superior AI we gave the Ghost, and the sheer fragility of the TIE Advanced x1 in this game. We’ve taken down freighters (or heck, Imperial Star Destroyers!) in XWA before using better-shielded Rebel craft, but the added agility of Vader’s TIE is not helpful unless the pilot has Vader’s ability to avoid any and all hits. A good pilot can avoid most hits, but the odds are that one will hit at some point — and it’s better to be able to avoid the occasional hit than to be ruined by a glancing shot.

Final Analysis

Despite the hideously unfair odds, Vader’s feat was not all that unreasonable. He should have had more of a challenge with better pilots and starships that actually fired back but if an experienced flight sim player can basically replicate what he did then it’s certainly plausible for the “greatest star pilot in the galaxy” to do it. The biggest difference between our performance and Vader’s was that our corvettes fired on us and our Ghost had a manic missile supply: without those or with Vader’s ridiculously preternatural reflects, Vader’s success might’ve been within our grasp. As it stood, the A-wings were wiped out with ease but the other ships presented more of a challenge to our fragile craft. Using a Rebel craft might’ve helped against the Ghost or the corvettes, but it would have made the A-wings more challenging.

It’s little surprise that the developers of TIE Fighter decided to simply make Lord Vader invincible when you fly alongside him because nobody could conceivably manage to land a hit on him. We did manage to avoid any hits up until we blew up (both times), though Lord Vader’s ability to simply dance around laser fire is significantly better than any computer game player’s. So: give due respect to Lord Vader, he is indeed as awesome a pilot as he appears and his skills were not exaggerated beyond belief.

9 thoughts to “Just how good a pilot is Vader? Our “Siege of Lothal” sim on X-Wing Alliance”

    1. Yeah I was shocked at how easy it was to get back into AlliED. I took a shortcut by modifying the skirmish scenario and setting it to read-only, instead of messing with campaign files. But my shortcut lets me create one-off missions at will, which is super handy if this becomes a continuing series.

      Scripting waypoints and orders is always the hardest part. This was a simple dogfight but balancing real missions is, like you say, a huge pain.

      1. Hey it’s not exactly a picnic. I feel obligated to keep consistent with the pluralis majestatis because it’s sort of my calling card now, and I use it in all my solo pieces. Life would be easier if I could just use first person. :p

        ‘Sides, the combination of nerdery and pompousness — as Bria notes — is just so me.

  1. Haha great article, makes me want to play X-Wing Alliance. I just beat TIE Fighter in May so I think it’s time…

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