Chris Roberts’ space saga had always tried to mix arcade-like gameplay with a cinematic presentation, but with Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, the era of full motion video games brought the series even closer to Hollywood productions.
Colonel Christopher Blair’s lover Colonel Jeannette “Angel” Devereaux is kept prisoner by the Kilrathi after a failed secret ops mission, but while being reassigned by Admiral Tolwyn to the carrier TCS Victory under the command of Captain Eisen and looking for her, he also finds out that the cat race threatens humanity with a genetically-engineered bioweapon.
Even if one shouldn’t expect the high production values of a new Star Wars flick, the CGI cutscenes, special effects and blue screen technology create the illusion of watching/playing a big budget movie. There’s obviously a certain B-movie charm to it with the Kilrathis looking similar to Jim Henson’s puppets, making them appear less frightening. The overall story about the ongoing war between Kilrathi and Terrans is a continuation of the previous games, i.e. the player experiences battles on the frontline first-hand and learns about pilots’ personal war stories, while some interesting topics like genocide are touched upon as well. So the game feels less like military propaganda despite the general bravado of wingmen blasting the cats’ ships to pieces. With a traitor in the midst who sabotages humanity’s attempts to get the upper hand, suspense is kept at a high level, although one can’t shake the feeling of having already seen this in Wing Commander II. The difference is of course that this time one doesn’t watch hand-drawn 2D characters, but real actors perform.
It’s strange how one can get used to subpar acting in games, having experienced so many bad examples in the FMV genre, even with great storytelling titles like The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery. While Wing Commander III certainly has its fair share of serious actors like Malcolm McDowell (Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange) as Admiral Tolwyn or John Rhys-Davies (Sallah Mohammed Faisel el-Kahir in Indiana Jones) as James “Paladin” Taggart, it also has those who became best-known in blockbusters and then only appeared in minor roles, like Tom Wilson (Biff Tannen in Back to the Future) as Major Todd “Maniac” Marshall and probably the most prominent one-hit-wonder Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker in Star Wars) as Colonel Christopher “Maverick” Blair. The quality of their acting performances range from convincing and touching to exaggerated and unintentionally funny. Fortunately some lighthearted humor is present as well, usually at the expense of pilot Maniac who doesn’t realize how his grandeur talk and dangerous flying skills don’t make him a hero, but actually someone people avoid.
Unfortunately cinematic immersion is often broken with a recycling of video sequences, e.g. when choosing a wingman during briefings, watching Blair enter familiar locations or ship technician Rachel comment on the status of his ship depending on the damage taken during a mission, although the first and third part can easily be regarded as an homage to previous games. More problematic is the fact that it’s possible to have the same conversation with a character if one doesn’t leave the room they’re in and that one doesn’t meet certain characters if one doesn’t visit each place during missions. It’s a questionable design decision, because one misses out on a lot of background information about the crew members and even story parts if one doesn’t look for them.
Having finally a name attached to the main character adds much-needed personality to the rather blank canvas of the previous games, even if the second title somewhat rectified this with a more involving narrative. While one can still play Blair as an obedient flight pilot who follows orders and reprimand crew members who express concern about high command decisions, it’s great to be given the opportunity to turn him into a less by-the-rules man for officials and a more sympathetic colleague for the wingmen. Being on good terms with the latter is especially important, because raising their morale also improves the chance that they perform well in battle, i.e. that they don’t dismiss orders and don’t give up the ghost too quickly.
It soon becomes clear that getting to know the crew members and wingmen on board of the TCS Victory is where the more interesting story segments can be found. Moving around the ship to find different people to talk to gives a great sense of place, as the carrier is a much livelier environment compared to confined spaces like a bar or an office seen in Wing Commander. Of course one can simply jump right into battle and never talk to the NPCs outside the briefing room and thus simply focus on the cockpit action. But this would be missing the point of playing through an interactive movie in which one doesn’t only meet memorable characters who’re part of a greater story, but in which one actively changes their attitudes depending on specific dialogue choices.
Even when ignoring crew members on deck, one has to get to grips with a light RPG mechanic working in the background, as choosing one specific pilot before each mission only turns him or her into a good wingman, while neglecting the others results in a lower level of flight efficiency. With deaths in war being daily business, an ever decreasing number of available pilots (except for some story-relevant characters) is the last thing one needs, so one should keep an eye on their in-battle training so that they survive the missions when one doesn’t have the luxury to pick favorites. This commitment to NPCs goes even so far that Blair can choose between two love interests, the repercussions felt only later when he either can’t pick different ships and weapons before launch or that one particular wingwoman doesn’t follow orders anymore. However, as one can simply disregard most of the conversations on board and go straight to the briefing room, it’s up to the player in how far one wants these dialogue options to have an impact on the way how missions play out.
Classic but refined gameplay
As far as gameplay and mission structure are concerned, the third part of the saga delivers what its predecessors already did before, i.e. intense dogfights which require fast reflexes, a keen eye on distributing energy to speed, weapons and shields while giving orders to wingmen. Again losing a mission doesn’t necessarily mean losing the game, but simply fighting one’s way back or going into a defensive mission branch. There are a few ground-based missions (one being very similar to the trench run sequence of Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope) and some optional missions depending on dialogue choices. But the rest of the game stays true to the formula of search-and-destroy and escort missions, i.e. one flies from one checkpoint to another after clearing it from enemy ships or cruisers.
Fortunately one can adjust the difficulty levels and with asteroids being less of an evasion problem and an auto-pilot reserved for immediate landing and taking-off from the TCS Victory, navigating through the NAV points becomes less time-consuming, although it doesn’t mean that the standard difficulty level is a walk in the space park. Being able to choose different types of ships and missiles also adds a more strategic element to proceedings, even if by the time one can fly an Excalibur with auto-aiming function, it’s clear that this is the one to pick, as keeping an enemy in sight and taking care of all the fire around one’s own ship is too much to handle at times.
Looking and sounding like a good flick
Technically, the game is a two-sided sword. On the one hand, the orchestral soundtrack is amazing and adds much to the cinematic flair, although the repetitive one-liners of the pilots’ communication channel can get annoying quite fast. The ship designs are detailed even up close with explosions looking particularly cool, while the game runs much smoother on modern systems thanks to DOSBox, compared to the slideshow or blink-of-an-eye-and-your-dead experience of the first two games. On the other hand, the low resolution of the full motion videos makes them a pain for the eyes to watch at times.
A very different but also familiar experience
Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger might not look as impressive graphically today as when it was released and people upgraded their PC systems for it, and the mission design is far from imaginative. But the ambitious project still delivers an epic space saga atmosphere with exciting and memorable sci-fi setpieces few games or even movies can match. The acting isn’t the best, and some melodramatic moments consequently suffer from this, but it doesn’t distract from the fact that one can get easily lost on the deck of the TCS Victory with interesting characters to listen to and, even more importantly, interact with in a way no other space combat game has done since (except for Wing Commander IV). How dialogues can have an effect on missions and wingmen behavior is also a great way to make the player believe his or her choices matter, even if one can skip most of these altogether if one so chooses.
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