Digital Antiquarian Explores WC4 (May 18, 2023)


Super Soaker Collector / Administrator
The Digital Antiquarian has completed his long-awaited analysis of Wing Commander 4. He started digging into the series way back in 2017 and covered the first couple of games in a series of articles. His WC3 review dropped in 2021 and now he's dug into WC4. It's a long article that's far more thorough than most overviews in print, although it doubles down quite a bit on the somewhat overplayed criticism than too much money went into the film shoots compared to the spaceflight engine. I would argue that there was little more to iterate gameplay-wise given the very short production time. WC4 was slated to arrive just one year following WC3 - right after Origin had spent a considerable amount of time (starting with Strike Commander and then forking into Armada) making the leap into proper 3D. Until the arrival of 3D accelerator hardware later in the '90s, there just wasn't much more they were going to be doing in space. There were a few cut ideas such as commanding multiple wings in multi-prong missions, but it's pretty minor gimmicky stuff that didn't make it. The game is what the game is, but all these decades later, the cinematic portions are still absolutely legendary. They're the undisputed high watermark of interactive movies of the '90s. Each Wing Commander title pushes the envelope in its own way, and WC4 did so in Hollywood. You can find the full piece here!

Origin Systems and Chris Roberts, the Wing Commander franchise’s development studio and mastermind respectively, wasted very little time embarking on the fourth numbered game in the series after finishing up the third one in the fall of 1994. Within two weeks, Roberts was hard at work on his next story outline. Not long after the holiday season was over and it was clear that Wing Commander III had done very well indeed for itself, his managers gave him the green light to start production in earnest, on a scale of which even a dreamer like him could hardly have imagined a few years earlier.

Original update published on May 18, 2023
I agree with your sentiment; pushing an area like FMV was absolutely on brand, and that choice is why it's my favourite game of all time.

I don't think it's right to say they *should* have, but there was definitely more to do in 3D if they wanted to, especially for a franchise known for pushing boundaries - 1996 was the year of Quake which made use of the FPU; the benefits are less in your face than a GPU but there. There is certainly an alternate dimension where they beat them to the punch. I wonder if Privateer 2 used floating point; looking at BRender's code it had defines to select either or.

Even then WC3 had some easily solvable early 3D issues that wouldn't have required a new engine to fix - there's no momentum in the physics and there's clearly massive precision errors in the rotation which could make it feel very twitchy with analogue input; by 1996 I remember that standing out to me even at the time.
Truly annoyingly is the 3DO version of WC3 had momentum (just as WC1/2 did), and it feels so much better for it (I also didn't notice any precision issues but at 320*240 and having a little less joystick control balancing on my leg they would be less noticeable - still I feel like it was better).
The missile balancing is also a fair criticism I think, as I move from working on the demo to the full game I'm really feeling it.

But I can complain about aspects about any game in the franchise; as each time a different element got extra attention and raised the bar. Just as WC4 gets criticism for not pushing the tech in the way its predecessors did so does WCP get criticised for not matching IV's FMV quality. Infact I'd say WCP is a great example of what a focus on the gameplay and engine over the FMV results in; for both better and worse.