Written by: Rik
Date posted: March 2, 2017
The first Rebel Assault had aged rather better than I expected. Despite ultimately being undermined by too many rubbish levels, it still managed to stir some authentic Star Wars related feelings, and I was sort of on board with what it was trying to do. Its huge commercial success at the time provided an opportunity for a sequel, and with it, a chance for LucasArts to produce a more polished and satisfying slice of video-centred Star Wars action.
While Rebel Assault II – The Hidden Empire is based around a similar template, they wisely opted against another slightly uncomfortable rehashing of the original film using repurposed clips and footage while erasing some key characters from existence. Instead, we have a new story, shot with real actors, specifically for the game, set in that nebulous but fertile area for spin-offs (possibly to be rendered non-canon by future official Disney products) between the events of the original trilogy.
The Empire is developing a new secret weapon (aren’t they always?) and this one appears to be a pet project of Lord Vader himself. (I was confidently expecting it to be the Dark Trooper until I remembered that was the top secret weapon from Dark Forces). This time, we have some stealth TIE Fighters appearing from nowhere to blast unsuspecting X-Wings from the sky, under the cover of an old space tale about ships entering an area known as the Dreighton Triangle never to be seen again. Reprising the role of Rookie One, except this time portrayed by a genuine, in-the-flesh, human actor (which makes the retention of the character name a little odd if you ask me), you become involved in the action when you pick up a distress call, and become further embroiled as the game develops until you ultimately become the big hero who saves the day (if you’re any good at the game, that is).
Your basic hopes for a sequel are generally that they keep what was good about the original and add more of it, while improving or removing what was bad. Thankfully, that seems to have been the approach taken here. So while Rebel Assault II is still an on-rails shooter with lots of video, it’s an altogether better one than its predecessor. Early levels are a sign that things have improved: the first is a cockpit-based shooter (in a B-Wing!) reminiscent of the best bits from the first game. There are TIE Fighters galore coming at you thick and fast (some may say they’re coming in too fast) and it’s a case of point and shoot while some Star Wars music plays in the background. It’s a simple, but highly effective, formula.
This is followed by a new and improved version of the single on-foot section from Rebel Assault, except this time you can make use of cover to avoid enemy blasts, instead of standing prone in a corridor and occasionally jigging from side to side while inept Stormtroopers somehow failed to hit you, as was the case in the original. Another solid improvement. Mission 3 then gives us a return to the dreaded behind-ship obstacle dodging missions that were among the first game’s toughest. Thankfully, these have been improved considerably, with higher quality video making it easier to see what’s coming up ahead, while the controls and collision handling have also been tightened up. (It’s still a tough bastard though!)
There are again cockpit sections that involve both shooting and dodging. In the first game it was tricky to establish which way it wanted you to move in order to successfully avoid hazardous collisions, as these were frequently tied up with some erratic on-rails piloting over which you had no control. This has now been addressed, in part, by the inclusion of a symbol that flashes whenever you have to take evasive action, and the design of these sections also makes the direction in which you need to move a lot more obvious. At times in the first game it seemed that trying to shoot certain targets meant that you also moved your ship into danger, because the same cursor controls both shooting and movement, and this problem also now appears to be a lot less prevalent.
As we mentioned, visually it’s a lot sharper, with graphics rendered at 640×400. The additional clarity does mean that enemy ships occasionally appear a bit flat, but in general the overall lack of soupiness in the video more than makes up for it: in fact, it remains a rather fine-looking game. The film footage is quite obviously done on blue screen but it all still looks authentic enough – and apparently many of the real costumes and props used are left over from the original film trilogy.
At the time, there was moderate excitement about the fact that this was the first official live action Star Wars footage shot since the films (Hark! George Lucas has allowed us to touch His Hallowed Properties and create more Great Works in His Name!) but to be honest not much has been made of the opportunity. The characters are all fairly one-dimensional, including Rookie One, who doesn’t seem any more fleshed out as a character than in the last game. It’s functional mission-based dialogue all the way, with bland earnestness a common feature, although to be fair this is sort of in keeping with the Rebel Alliance characters seen in the original films.
Ru Murleen also returns, but seemingly only so Rookie One can have someone to get off with at the end (seriously: there is little hint of any kind of relationship developing over the course of the game so it genuinely came as a shock to me). It’s also not really clear if as Rookie One you really did blow up the Death Star in the last game, in which case, you imagine you’d get a promotion of some kind and people would be kissing your arse a bit more instead of constantly calling you ‘kid’.
Elsewhere, Darth Vader is fairly prominent from the Imperial side, although he seems to be doing a bit of a one man stage show of his greatest hits – I trust the operation is proceeding as planned, there will be no-one to stop us this time, oh dear Mr British Admiral, I seem to have choked you to death (and so on). Stepping away from the films certainly has its advantages, but while the cut-scenes here all feel acceptably Star Wars enough, there are times when a small part of your brain might start pining for the feeling of actually being in the movies themselves that the first game occasionally provided.
The stingy password system has been relaxed, with your progress being saved at the end of each mission. There are also more difficulty levels on offer this time, and you can even create custom ones if you like getting uncomfortably close to the nuts and bolts of how the game works. Having failed to be anything more than adequate at the first game on the lowest difficulty setting, I was a bit of a coward and chose the second easiest difficulty this time around. Spared the chore of repeating previously beaten levels, it was still challenging enough, with plenty of moments where “just one more go” (copyright: all 1980s games reviews) turned into several more.
Still, I’m not sure it’s quite the kind of thing where you’d be willing to have hundreds of attempts at the same sequence: I guess the more hardcore settings made sense in 1995 when people paid £35 for the game and probably wanted more than a few hours’ entertainment, but these days it’s a little more affordable, and even then you’re likely to get it in a sale or a bundle. There are some slight differences in the ending depending on the difficulty level chosen, but they represent slim pickings for anyone who’s battled through the tougher end of them in the hope of seeing something exciting. In any case, I’d say the action is altogether better-suited to a relatively short running time. The controls are still a bit on the twitchy side, and I wouldn’t recommend the mouse, but the trusty thumbstick of an Xbox 360 pad again did the trick for me.
Overall, Rebel Assault II takes the best bits of Rebel Assault and spreads them across a new game with improved presentation and a better structure. I appreciate that I’ve spent most of my time here comparing the two games (possibly because I played them in quick succession) so, to take it on its own merits for a second: this is a decent FMV shooter, and for a genre that time has generally judged pretty harshly, that’s certainly saying something.
Star Wars branding helps, of course but, for all of my previous thoughts and words about silly video-based action games from the 90s, and despite the fact I was playing in a DOSBox window, I still found myself ducking and flinching through the various asteroid fields and tunnels as I progressed through the game. If you know what it’s all about and what you’re getting into, and don’t mind some lightweight arcade blasting (the kind where one shot kills your enemies and you never run out of ammo) then there’s a good few hours of fun to be had here.