Without series creator Chris Roberts’ involvement, does Wing Commander: Prophecy in its Gold Edition still thrill and impress as much as the former space combat games?
2nd Lieutenant Lance Casey, son of former ace pilot Major Michael “Iceman” Casey who flew with Christopher “Maverick” Blair and tragically died in a mission, is transferred to the TCS Midway to prove himself in the Diamondback Squadron, but soon has to fight against an unstoppable force of an alien race who comes through a worm hole to fulfill a dark prophecy dooming mankind to extinction.
A new beginning or the end?
The fifth game in the series (not counting the spin-off titles) tries to establish a darker atmosphere with the mysterious prophecy and intimidating alien ships, but it also adds a hipper attitude to the military theme that permeates the space saga with the younger crew of pilots. Unfortunately it fails in both cases. While it’s refreshing to see a new enemy arrive, one actually learns very little about the aliens until the disappointing cliffhanger ending, which just highlights how much faith to bring fresh ideas to the table was put into this title. Most problematic are Casey and his gung-ho friends who are an annoying bunch of teenage kids. They might have been planned as an image of youthful innocence, inexperience and subsequent spiritual growth in a time of war, but they end up as simply shallow and forgettable. Even well-known characters like Blair and Maniac come across as unlikable know-it-all instructors with not enough room and time to develop.
Not only the forced humor with cringe-worthy bad puns indicates that there’s something wrong with the script, but emotional moments don’t work particularly well either, because there are too few conversations on deck of the ship to make the characters memorable. While previous WC games gave access to various parts of the main ships to discover and therefore created a feeling of camaraderie, the new installment has only one location, namely the bar (as in the original Wing Commander) and a bunch of pilots one rarely cares for. Even here the options to actually talk to an NPC are limited, with most being in deep conversation and only serving as visual background decoration rather than narrative opportunities to learn more about them, making the ship as lifeless and uninteresting as its protagonists.
Acting is acceptable for such a young cast, but it’s nothing to get excited about. If this wasn’t disappointing enough, then the lack of alternative dialogue options make the plot even less engaging, as one can’t change Casey’s arrogant behavior and therefore influence character and story development. Except for very few missions which pose moral dilemmas and have an effect on certain characters’ attitudes towards the protagonist, storytelling isn’t nearly as complex as in Wing Commander IV.
Back to the arcade roots without freedom
This limited scope is also found in the briefings which often start with the same video sequences in which the pilots are asked to look at their tablets for further instructions. Then it’s reading or listening and straight into the cockpit time. Choosing one’s wingman and selecting ships or missile load-outs are another thing of the past, making the game more accessible and arcade-like but also less strategic. This isn’t helped by the mission design which relies too much on destroying overwhelming waves of enemies. While they require different strategies to blast away, their erratic movements make dogfighting not a lot of fun with targeting being so exhausting. However, there are some interesting additions to the flying mechanics, as it’s now possible to target specific parts of bigger ships. This actually becomes a mandatory function, because sometimes one is ordered to destroy gun and missile turrets or shields and engines in order to progress.
Just as in LucasArts’ TIE-Fighter, there are secondary and bonus objectives. While the former makes later missions easier, the latter only adds more points to the mission complete percentage score and doesn’t have an impact on the outcome of story or mission branches. It’s still possible to lose some missions and continue in an alternative path, but they’re simply not varied enough to warrant replaying the game.
A new look and sound
Technically, the game has some great-looking explosions, organic-looking ship designs akin to H.R. Giger art, very smooth animations in addition to smaller space details like flying debris, nebula lighting or star lens flare effects. It’s only too bad that the cutscenes are presented with interlaced video. They’re a step up from some of the blurry low-res videos of Wing Commander III (although one can choose this video quality in the settings as well), but the quality is inferior to those of the fourth title in its DVD version. The soundtrack needs some getting used to with instrumental rock pieces and lacks variety, but in the heat of battle one hasn’t much time to listen to it anyway. More disappointing is the voice acting of the female mission briefing computer which grates on the ears with its monotone delivery of lines.
Not everything that’s gold glitters
The Gold Edition (already in the GOG version) also includes the Secret Operations add-on which was initially distributed free of charge back in the days. It continues Casey’s and his wingmen’s struggle against the alien race, this time on board of the TCS Cerberus, a strike cruiser designed to operate behind enemy lines. Unfortunately it doesn’t tie up loose ends, although the story is a bit more engaging with its various interconnected chapters. While the FMV sequences are replaced by text-based emails and in-game cutscenes to progress the story, it holds a few surprises, even if the characters remain as annoying and uninteresting as before with even more eye-rolling bad dialogue. Mission design is characterized by more enemy craft and therefore a higher difficulty level, but doesn’t do much in terms of originality, especially with its linear structure that does away with alternative missions.
Restarting a franchise for all the wrong reasons
Wing Commander: Prophecy is a disappointing entry to the WC saga with unlikable characters and a story that may have interesting ideas, but it’s not fully developed to stand on its own. While the gameplay still provides some nice arcade-like space combat action with cool graphical effects, the mission design is as uninspired as the lack of narrative choices which kept the player interested throughout each new installment. The CGI special effects in the FMVs are quite good when it comes to showing the impressively big alien ships, but the few locations one can visit make for a rather dull experience, again highlighting the fact that this is a WC title in name only, with few of the things which made the series so exciting in the first place, namely an epic tale, convincing world-building and characters one can relate to. It might have tried to establish all of these, but ultimately failed to deliver on any of them.
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