Long before X-Wing or TIE Fighter made epic battles in space possible, Origin Systems’ Wing Commander laid the cinematic groundwork for the space combat sim genre.
Wing Commander (PC)
(USA 1990, developer: Origin Systems (defunct), publishers: Origin Systems (defunct)/ Electronic Arts, platforms: PC, Amiga, Amiga CD32, Sega CD, SNES, 3DO, PS1, GBA, FM Towns)
Making a name for himself, a pilot aboard the strike carrier TCS Tiger’s Claw goes against the feline Kilrathi race who rage war against the human Confederation.
A long time ago in a galaxy very similar to…
If Star Wars is the romanticized version of war for a good cause, then Wing Commander takes a much more militaristic and realistic approach. While it’s cat-like warmongers the player fights against, there’s a lot of big talk in front of superiors and camaraderie among the pilots. As designer Chris Roberts has stated, the World War II comparison of having different nations standing up against one enemy who wants to rule over all as the supreme race isn’t far fetched. What this results in story-wise is that one goes from one mission to the next with the only notion of fighting in a great war, slowly driving back the forces of the Kilrathi, or actually being driven back, depending on the outcome of each mission. It’s not really literature material, as the enemy remains rather faceless throughout the campaign.
Personal flight stories
Not so faceless are the other pilots who don’t only function as wingmen helping out during missions, but who have their own personalities. One can find out more about them during conversations in a bar where the barman also provides some background info on the various star systems. While these dialogues can become quite repetitive with characters talking about combat tactics and ship details, there are always some personal stories they share with the player which add to the illusion of actually being on the battleship and knowing each individual with their strengths and weaknesses. Fighting alongside them turns out to be a much more personal experience than if one fights with nameless rookies in other space sims, as their deaths mean that they’re not part of the ongoing story anymore.
It’s only too bad that the player character himself remains rather uninteresting throughout the adventure. This might have to do with his attitude to follow every order and reprimand characters like the chaotically flying Maniac, or it might have to do with him not having a real name and background story, as the player can decide how he’s called. However, choosing a name and a call sign still serves to give the journey one takes through the ranks of military service a more personal touch. After each mission one can also see the number of kills the player character achieved on a board in the recreation room. Being compared to other wingmen, this makes for a competitive if only rather superficial experience.
High military ranks and different mission branches
Just as in the Star Wars space sims, one receives medals, is promoted after completing missions or achieving certain goals, usually by eliminating a number of enemy fighters and battle ships. This makes the player feel rewarded, even if it doesn’t change the gameplay or story in any meaningful way. What changes though is the mission structure, as failure in a particular assignment doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the game or a forced restart. One can lose in some parts of a star system and go to a different one, fighting one’s way back through tougher missions. Losing the war can simply turn into an alternative ending, resulting in a much more replayable title than other space sims.
Hard-earned glory in battle
Despite this non-linearity, the missions are rather uninspired, usually consisting of search and destroy or escort assignments. While going from one navigation point to the next creates the illusion of fighting in a wider environment than the simple hyperspace-in-and-out of the later LucasArts space sims, there isn’t much variety in the star systems, although one can get into an asteroid field that doesn’t just serve as graphical decoration, but requires more flying skills when evading the space rocks. Unfortunately, it also means decreasing the ship’s speed and therefore resulting in time-consuming travels between NAV points, as it’s not possible to quick jump if dangers are present, including enemy fighters.
The game is already difficult enough without these realistic touches (even requiring to position one’s ship correctly in order to land on the home carrier), especially if the asteroids are so unpredictable to hit the player (sometimes even right at the beginning of a mission meaning instant death) after having endured a long fight with constantly moving Kilrathi fighters or heavily armored capital ships. The latter require a rather short targeting range of missiles, while the former ask the player to manage the ship’s speed and afterburners of which there is only a limited supply. In the heat of battle it’s quite challenging to switch between the appropriate weapons, evade enemy fire with missiles and simultaneously keep one’s wingman alive.
More missions to die in
Special mention has to be made about the the mission packs, namely Wing Commander: The Secret Missions and Wing Commander: The Secret Missions 2: Crusade. The former spins the space opera yarn further with the Tiger’s Claw chasing after a superweapon of the Kilrathi that destroyed a whole colony planet, a concept not too far removed from the Star Wars Death Star concept. The latter gives a better understanding of the inner workings of the Kilrathi race when it goes on a holy war against a new ally of the human Confederation. It also introduces more interesting characters like Hobbes, a Kilrathi defecting from his people in order to fight side by side with the humans. The general difficulty of these missions is very high, but the gameplay adds more variety in the form of new ships to control and further improves the wingmen’s A.I., making it easier to keep them alive. The story elements are also much better elaborated, as it can be seen in the closer connection to individual crew members and fighter pilots, so that the second add-on already hints at a much deeper experience the true sequel would provide.
Technology from the past with enough blast
Graphically, the in-game battles haven’t aged particularly well with pixelated ships and explosions that look rather ugly when being up close. Even more problematic is the speed in which the game has to be run. Either it’s too fast on modern PCs or one watches a slide show in order to have a chance hitting fast-moving targets. Of course this is a general problem of DOS games run in DOSBox, but it’s a shame that one has to make such compromises with this outdated graphics engine. Still, the hand-drawn characters during conversations and cutscenes have a certain charm, while some of the animations of people standing up during briefings and then running to their ships are fluid and life-like, comparable to the smooth animations of the original Prince of Persia hero. The soundtrack, while mostly composed of military drums, is excellent and varied, with some exhilarating flight tunes to dynamically enhance the action on screen, but also with some jazz interludes which fit the bar atmosphere on board perfectly.
The beginning of something very special
Wing Commander is a game that hasn’t aged well in graphics, although the soundtrack is still quite captivating in the battle sequences. While the mission design isn’t varied enough, the way how the story branches into different versions is quite impressive, considering how arcade-like the action on screen is and how simple the plot and character development turn out to be. It might not leave the same everlasting impression as the Star Wars saga, as it takes itself too serious at times, but as a starting point for a series that would be innovative in technology and game design, it’s definitely a classic worth revisiting. While the GOG version isn’t perfect with its slowdowns, it’s still amazing value for money, considering one gets to play both Wing Commander I+II plus all the add-ons, especially with the retail boxes fetching high prices on the market.
Buy the digital version for PC on
GOG (including Wing Commander II)
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