Origin Systems’ Wing Commander was just the beginning of a space opera that would push cinematic space-sim action to its limits, so does Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi improve on the formula with just one year after the former release?
The TCS Tiger’s Claw is attacked by a group of Kilrathi stealth fighters, but due to a damaged flight data recorder and no evidence, one pilot is blamed for its destruction, demoted and has to clear his name from treason when joining the crew of the flagship Concordia.
Space opera stories of war and no peace
The story is much more suspenseful and engaging than in the first game. This is in no small part due to the various locations the player visits, i.e. different battle stations, breaking the formula of fly-mission-talk-to-people-in-the-same-bar. While military bravado is still present, the personal stories the individual crew members tell are better written, as they depict a bleak war with many losses and touching tragedies. The gung-ho attitude still shines through in some characters like the suicidal pilot Maniac, but there are enough quiet moments of contemplating the meaning of the Kilrathi war in particular and all its victims. Even if the main character is given the name and callsign the player chooses, he’s easier to relate to, being presented as someone who may still follow orders, but questions them as well, something that was absent from the orderly behavior of the past. Being confronted with a general animosity by various crew members he seems less like the war superhero of the first game and more like a human being with all his flaws, as he tries to earn his wingmen’s trust.
The former Kilrathi pilot Hobbes, introduced in the second add-on of the first Wing Commander, also plays a bigger role, and the way mistrust turns into friendship with the player is another memorable moment. At times the story tries a bit too much melodrama, though, as a former co-pilot serves as a love interest for the player. Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn of the Concordia is the typical high-rank official who stands in the way of the player’s career whenever he can, being a stark contrast to Peter Halcyon, the commander of the player character’s fighter squadron on the TCS Tiger’s Claw who always took a personal liking to him, but remained rather shallow, only serving as a promoter for military service. All these small stories draw a much bigger picture that goes even so far that the Kilrathi’s side is constantly shown with their motivations and culture, something that was only hinted at before, turning them into more than just evil opponents.
Same old game with some improvements
The way the story develops at a more convincing and engaging pace is also reflected in the gameplay. Despite the mission objectives being of the generic patrol-the-area, search-and-destroy, escort variety, there are often some surprising turns in missions, presented in cinematic cutscenes that challenge the player with new orders to follow and a few decisions during missions even altering the course of narrative events. The gameplay remains largely the same with branching missions leading to different star systems.
Even if the problematic evasion of asteroids is still part of the game, at least landing one’s ship doesn’t depend on approaching the platform from the right side, as one lands automatically when being close enough. Other than this, the control scheme and dogfighting is as much fast-paced fun and unfairly frustrating as ever, requiring all the flying skills and knowledge of enemy flight patterns with using the right weapon or missiles for bigger vessels to destroy one can muster. At least the wingmen’s A.I. is improved, or maybe it has more to do with them being used for critical story segments, i.e. they’re simply invulnerable or eject at the right time.
Special Ops for the hardcore
Just as with the original Wing Commander, there are two add-ons included, at least in the GOG release, with Special Operations 1 telling the story of more Kilrathis rebelling against their Empire and Special Operations 1 dealing with Mandarin traitors who work together with the Kilrathi to bring down the Confederation. If one has nerves of steel and advanced joystick skills, then these mission packs provide hours of blasting fun and frustration. They also take up certain narrative threads from the standalone product, fleshing out well-known characters and villains while bringing light to their unexplained fates, making them an essential play regardless of the quality of the same-y missions.
Looks and sounds of the past with much blast
Technically, the game looks and sounds better than its predecessor, mainly because cutscenes deliver even smoother animations and (for the time it was released) impressive CGI set-pieces when the various fighters take off or land, while the voice acting contributes to the atmosphere. It might be clumsily spoken and of low recording quality, but it adds to the cinematic experience as much as the great soundtrack. In-game graphics might not be a big step up from the pixelated original, but at least it runs a bit more stable with fewer slowdowns.
Everything a sequel has to be
Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi might look and play exactly the same as the original game with all its frustrations. But if one looks closely at how the story is presented and how characters and world-building are handled, one is in for a surprise, as it’s an amazingly involved experience. There might still be some military bad aftertaste left in conversations, but the tale of revenge, redemption, love and camaraderie is the stuff space combat sims dreams are made of. Even if the missions aren’t varied enough and the combat could do with tighter controls, one still wants to know in what directions the branching narrative goes and to find out all about the different characters’ backgrounds, even the ones of the opposing Kilrathi race.
Buy the digital version for PC on
GOG (including Wing Commander I)
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