My roommate's upward-inflecting R2D2 whistle tells me it's time to quit being so evasive.
Using my left hand to steady the joystick on my desk, I cut hard to starboard and roll around to harry the last TIE Fighter. I have to go on the offensive — R2 has made the executive decision to drain my shields, diverting the power to my lasers for a few more shots. The joystick creaks from repeated direction changes (you can't make me say jerked) as the TIE fighter evades my reticule with its tighter turning circle. My next two shots are impatient and spray wide. I've got maybe one more chance. Wrestling the crosshairs forward of the TIE fighter's flight path, I hold my breath, like a biathlete, and fire. A hit. A victorious MIDI refrain sounds, and I resume breathing as I enter hyperspace.
A cheer erupts around the room, which is suddenly strangled when we remember it's 1am on a Tuesday and we're in a crowded college dorm. We settle for some fist pumps instead (stop sniggering up the back).
To think that when I left for my freshman year at college a few months ago, I was of two minds whether or not to pack, let alone wear, my self-printed Luke Skywalker T-shirt with the cheesy womprats quote. Lucky I did, otherwise I may not have the 4 solid buddies I have now. Wearing the shirt to the pub proved to be a conversational icebreaker that brought us together, which led to enthusiastic chatter about how inevitably awesome the rumored 3 upcoming movies will be, as well as the re-mastered trilogy — they're adding in DELETED SCENES, JERRY! That conversation in turn prompted Ricky to later produce something from his luggage that was way more rewarding than anticipated movie awesomeness, something to give us an immediate Star Wars fix: X-Wing by LucasArts.
I say "immediate," but let's fast-forward a couple of days while we source the required soundcard and joystick, an early bonding metagame in itself. Once we started the game, we were hooked from the opening sequence, probably as early as the patented scrolling Star Wars text. It felt like we were entering our own chapter of Star Wars lore.
X-Wing has an original story that plugs into the canon of the films, intersecting at key battles. We have become part of the broader Rebel struggle, the bigger picture happening in the background to the silver-screen Skywalker bizzo. We are treating it like a Rosencrantz-and-Guildensternification of the story of our favourite side character, Wedge: the only ancillary pilot who participates in, and survives, all 3 movies. We all agree that Wedge was totally sharked by Lando on that second Death Star run. Wedge shoulda got that killshot, man. He'd earned it.
X-Wing feels like Star Wars, all right. We even get our own personal soundtrack, which changes depending on how the mission is going. It's as if John Williams has joined our party with a Casio keyboard.
Although I probably would have been happy with a starship dogfighting game with a Star Wars skin, the special way our plucky group has played X-Wing has turned it into something more: a crucible for forging new friendships. Firstly, there’s an unspoken rule that all 5 of us have to be in my room to play. Also, we each take turns being pilot. That's not to say that everyone else in the room is a mere spectator, for there is a crucial support role that must be played: being the R2 unit.
The pilot flies and shoots with the joystick. The R2 unit is responsible for all the other ship’s functions, which are mapped to the keyboard, including the ones that make it feel specifically Star Wars: allocating power between lasers, shields and engine, focusing shield power fore or aft, changing the firing settings. Each of us has our preferred configurations and each of us knows these preferences. I probably shouldn't even be typing this out loud, but Matt's nickname, “George Foreman Grill,” which has spread beyond our circle and through the college, is borne from his stubborn insistence on having the 4-lasers-at-once firing setting in all circumstances, even when (as the rest of us keep saying) it drains energy too fast against multiple bogies. Everyone else thinks it means he has ripped abs or something. Suffice it to say, it's an origin story we’re not game to share.
One guy, Phelo, loves just being R2. He will take a turn being R2, then go back into the waiting pool. The rest of us won't say no to that; we're too itchy to get back into the pilot’s seat. He likes to remove the cockpit HUD for you when you’re in a dogfight, to give you greater field of view.
The R2's role is not entirely passive either (I said stop sniggering!). In the heat of a dogfight, there is not always time for the pilot to bark orders and the R2 to respond. R2s anticipate, sometimes preparing the pilot for a move even the pilot did not know to make. Jacko's favourite R2 trick when you're piloting an A-Wing is to switch to concussion missiles when you're really close behind a bogey, so you take it out in one hit rather than merely depleting its hull and continuing the chase. It's called the Rear-Ender (last warning, you).
I've never had this feeling of camaraderie from a computer game before. The co-operative dynamic between pilot and R2 unit means every victory is shared. Even a duo that flies and fails a mission, but learns a new move or crucial tactic, contributes to the group's success. Previously, games were solitary experiences that separated me from others. With X-Wing, it's been the exact opposite. It's helped me make friends in a potentially daunting new environment.
So, we've finished the campaigns. We've taken down countless TIE craft, a couple of Star Destroyers and it all culminated in — what else? — the Death Star trench run (disclosure: in our case, we DID use the targeting computer, just like Wedge would have), and now we're going through the historical missions. Once that's done, there's the B-Wing expansion campaign. Apparently, there's also a TIE fighter game out. Sounds good, although I can't see how LucasArts can top X-Wing. How fun could it really be to play the baddies?