Gamespot - Dec 30, 1998 - Movie preview and game retrospective

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This series of articles was first published on Gamespot's website shortly before the film's March 1999 premiere, though a search of Gamespot has them listing it as December 30th, 1998.


WING COMMANDER

Designed by James Cheung


The Kilrathi. The Tiger's Claw. Admiral Tolwyn. Colonel Blair. These are the players in one of the most storied series in gaming history, Wing Commander. Spanning almost a decade, the Wing Commander series has won millions of fans the world over, consistently delivering a unique blend of realistic space combat, intense action, and masterful storytelling. Now, in a first for the PC game industry, Wing Commander is making the leap from the computer screen to the silver screen.


To celebrate the release of the Wing Commander movie, GameSpot has created a multifaceted retrospective on the series. Here's what's inside:


The Movie

Geoff Keighley explores the story behind the Wing Commander movie - where the idea originated, how it developed, and the obstacles that had to be overcome to make it a reality. His account includes comments by Wing Commander creator/director Chris Roberts, star Freddie Prinze Jr., and Origin System general manager Neil Young.


The Games

Greg Kasavin takes a look back at every Wing Commander game ever made. They're all here: Wing Commander I-IV, Prophecy, Privateer, Armada, Secret Ops, and more. And as an added bonus, we've included complete reviews of each game from the only magazine that's been around to see them all - Computer Gaming World.


The Trivia

Think you know everything there is to know about Wing Commander? This is your chance to prove it.


WING COMMANDER - THE MOVIE

By Geoffrey Keighley


Picture Captions:

  • Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts.
  • Inside the cockpit of a Wing Commander game.
  • Mark Hamill starred as Blair in Wing Commanders III and IV.
  • Freddie Prinze Jr. (left) and Matthew Lillard star in the Wing Commander feature film.
  • Wing Commander producer Todd Moyer.
  • The flight deck of the Diligent Ship from the film.
  • Malcolm McDowell starred as Admiral Tolwyn in the games.
  • A visual effect from the film as the Diligent prepares for a space jump.
  • The Confederation attacks a Kilrathi destroyer.
  • Matthew Lillard as Maniac on the set of Wing Commander.
  • Freddie Prize, Jr. plays Blair in the film.
  • Saffron Burrows suits up as Wing Commander Devereaux.
  • A rapier fighter jet on the set of Wing Commander.
  • Chris Roberts (center) directs David Suchet and Jurgen Prochnow in Luxembourg.
  • The flight crew gets its orders from Devereaux.
  • A Kilrathi lies dormant after the Confederation attack.
  • Matthew Lillard (Maniac) jokes around with the Kilrathi aliens when not shooting.


The Movie

During the opening montage of the Wing Commander movie, a static-filled and hollow voice booms out from the screen, explaining that the reason we explore space is the same as the reason George Mallory first attempted to climb Mount Everest in 1921: Because it's there. This aphorism also captures the way Chris Roberts, the 30-year-old Manchester, England, expatriate cum game designer cum feature film director views life. If asked why he wanted to direct a 27 million-dollar film, he'd be steadfastly Mallory-ian in his response: he did it because he likes movies and wanted to direct one.


But Roberts took a roundabout way of achieving this goal. For most of his life, Roberts was too busy learning computer programming to worry about making movies. Fortunately, he was very good with computers - so good, in fact, that he become one of the most successful computer game designers ever, thanks in large part to his Wing Commander space-sim series, which has been certified as platinum five times over.


But even as his game design career took off, Robert's attention was turning toward film - specifically, toward the idea of bringing Wing Commander to the big screen. Initially, it seemed a stretch. After all, a game designer and programmer - no matter how successful - had little credibility in Hollywood, and Roberts himself knew he lacked the skills necessary to pursue a film-making career. So he decided to learn and would use his games as the platform for his education.


"Doing Wing Commander III and IV with video was like going to a film school for me," explains Roberts, referring to the full-motion video sequences he directed for his final Wing Commander games, which starred Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell. And that experience, along with Robert's dogged perseverance and raw tenacity to make things happen would eventually let him realize his dream. This weekend, the Wing Commander movie, starring Freddie Prinze, Jr., will be seen on some 2,000 screens across North America.


The results will be interesting to watch. Wing Commander marks the first time a game designer has become a film director, but it certainly isn't the first time a game has been turned into a movie. Not that the previous results have been particularly encouraging, with duds like Super Mario Brothers, Street Fighter, and Double Dragon all tanking at the box office.


"Games are just another great place to find great stories to make into movies," says Larry Kasanoff, the president of Threshold Entertainment who produced the only successful game-inspired movie, Mortal Kombat, and is now in preproduction on the Duke Nukem and Zork films. He states a simple axiom: "We don't make movies out of games, we make movies out of stories."


"People say that Mario Brothers bombed," adds Todd Moyer, the producer of Wing Commander who has previously co-produced films like The Mask. "Well, you tell me how you make a good story about a plumber jumping over some mushrooms?"


Fortunately, Roberts had a lot more than mushrooms to work with.

The Concept Takes Wing

Over the years, Roberts had built up a believable and intricate backstory for the Wing Commander games, which were created at Origin Systems, best-known as the makers of another great story-driven game series, Ultima. Always heralded for their intricate plots, the Wing Commander games detailed the exploits of a young fighter pilot named Blair, his maniacal sidekick Maniac, and a host of other Confederation pilots and Admirals that would square off against the feline Kilrathi with their pew-yellow vertical pupils. Limited by technology, the first two games in the series would use conventional hand-drawn animation, but full-motion video was introduced in Wing Commander III, and its use greatly expanded in Wing Commander IV.


After finishing Wing Commander IV, Roberts was determined to make a full-length feature film. His initial idea was to make a movie and a game simultaneously, shooting the footage for both at the same time. But Origin wasn't interested in his proposal, opting instead to stay focused on games (and after having spent some $10 million shooting footage for Wing Commander IV, who can blame it?). But Roberts' mind was made up, and his desire to move into other mediums propelled him to leave Origin and start his own company, dubbed Digital Anvil. At the same time, he was starting to work on a Wing Commander film script with writer Kevin Droney.


"I wanted the film to start at the point where Blair and Maniac were just getting out of the academy," he says, which meant Mark Hamill, who had portrayed Blair in the games, would be out in favor of a younger pilot. The challenge in writing the script was to be faithful to the series, yet make the plot and characters approachable for the masses. After months of work, Roberts approved a script that begins with a Kilrathi attack on a mobile Confederation naval base named Pegasus. During the attack, the Kilrathi steal a NavCom, a device used for interstellar navigation, which would provide the Kilrathi a direct path to Earth.


Admiral Tolywn of the Confederation responds to the theft by sending an encrypted message to the spacecraft Diligent, which must in turn deliver it to the Tiger Claw, the only Confederation ship with a chance of saving Earth from a Kilrathi attack. On board the Diligent are two young and brazen fighter pilots, Blair (Prinze, Jr.) and Maniac (Matthew Lillard), who deliver the message to the Tiger Claw, meet their wing commander Angel Devereaux (Saffron Burrows) and fight the Kilrathi head-on attempting to retrieve the NavCom.


With a basic story structure in space, Roberts flew out to Los Angeles to start pitching producers on his movie. Todd Moyer fondly remembers the first day he met Roberts. "Chris came up to my house one day in 1997, driving insanely fast in a Lotus with a script under his arm for a film named Wing Commander that he wanted to direct," he remembers. The two instantly hit it off, and Moyer saw potential in the script, wanting to further flesh out the characters and story. However, there was one caveat with a Wing Commander movie: With Roberts having left Origin, he no longer had the rights to make a movie about the game series he created. No matter how stunning the script or how bold the vision, Roberts would have to convince Origin he was the right guy to make the feature film.


A Doomed Vision?

Moyer went into negotiations with Origin to get the Wing Commander movie rights, a process that would take some nine months to complete. "Origin doesn't know anything about making movies," admits general manager Neil Young. "My philosophy is that we just want to set up a situation where a property can be as successful as possible."



"For a while, we actually toyed with Chris directing the Doom movie."

- Todd Moyer



To protect the Wing Commander property, Origin insisted on a minimum budget commitment and was initially concerned whether Roberts was really the right person to direct the feature due to his relative inexperience.


The negotiations were tough and, as Moyer remembers, "There was one point during the negotiations when Origin said they'd give us the rights, but only if Chris wasn't allowed to direct the movie." (Origin denies this claim). "There was some bad blood there, and for a while, we actually toyed with Chris directing the Doom movie and bringing in another director for Wing Commander," he admits. For Roberts, not directing Wing Commander would have been "heartbreaking." Fortunately, Roberts wouldn't be forced down that path. Moyer and Origin would come to terms and clear the way for Wing Commander to be made, and Roberts would be in charge.


With the rights in place, next up was obtaining financing for the film - no easy task considering its sci-fi plot, 250 digital effect shots, and first-time director. And the amounts involved were not trivial. "As a studio picture, this would have been budgeted at more than $50 million," says Moyer. In addition, Hollywood was still reserved about doing another game-themed movie. "The reality is that Hollywood doesn't go home and play games at night, and that makes these kinds of movies tough to sell," explains Threshold's Kasanoff.


Instead of going to studio route, Moyer and his production team would end up independently financing the film for $27 million, which would give them more freedom and the ability to shave costs wherever possible by doing their own visual effects and shooting in Luxembourg for tax purposes. They didn't have much time to spare because out there, looming in the distance was every sci-fi film's greatest enemy: Star Wars: Episode One. "I was always very aware of getting this film out before Star Wars," admits Roberts. "So we really rushed into production on the film because no one wants to be the sci-fi film coming out a few months after Star Wars."

Exposing the Film

With the film being a prequel of sorts to the first game, Roberts would be forced to recast the roles of Blair and Maniac, played by Mark Hamill and Tom Wilson respectively in the computer games. (Hamill is rumored to have some involvement with the film as the voice of Merlin, Blair's on-deck computer.) The one actor expected to return from the games was Malcolm McDowell as Admiral Tolwyn, but a scheduling conflict would prevent McDowell from accepting the role.


Looking for a young actor to play the role of Blair, Roberts met with Freddie Prinze, Jr., known for films such as I Know What You Did Last Summer and the recent She's All That. "Freddie and I just really hit it off," explains Roberts. "At the casting session, we were exchanging tips for Command and Conquer and Total Annihilation. Freddie's a huge gamer."



"I bought my first Wing Commander game when I was a sophomore in high school."

- Freddie Prinze, Jr.



It might have also helped that he was also a huge Wing Commander fan, too. "I bought my first Wing Commander game when I was a sophomore in high school," explains Prinze on his Birthday at home in Los Angeles. "Today I'm really into StarCraft and the Brood War Expansion pack, but in its day the first three Wing Commanders were awesome. I just loved the action and the storyline." Ever the consummate gamer, Prinze is appreciative of what Roberts did for gaming. "Chris really revolutionized the way games were made. His games weren't just about high scores but rather you had to worry about not letting down your team."


Prinze's friend Matthew Lillard (Scream), also an avid gamer - although Prinze claims he beats Lillard most of the time - would fit the bill as Blair's maniacal sidekick, and relative newcomer Saffron Burrows (Circle of Friends) would assume the role of the demure-yet-headstrong Angel Devereaux. A multinational group of other stars, including David Warner (Titanic) as Admiral Tolwyn and Tcheky Karyo (Goldeneye) as Paladin, would all assemble in Luxembourg along with a 200-strong crew in early February 1998 for the start of principal photography under the direction of Chris Roberts.


"Because Chris was a first-time director, I wanted to have A-level people around him," explains Moyer, who recruited cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (Fifth Element) and production designer Peter Lamont (Titanic) to help create the retro-future look of the 27th century. Inside of a set of cavernous warehouses that used to contain a munitions factory, Lamont and his team built the deck of the Tiger Claw with stunning detail. "We took an English Electric Lighting cockpit," explains Lamont, "and converted it into the Rapier fighter of the year 2665."


For the next eight weeks, Roberts and the entire Wing Commander production team would spend day and night in Luxembourg and take over the entire Hotel Intercontinental, spending their spare time at a sushi restaurant owned by a Japanese American from Hawaii, in part because there wasn't much else to do. "Let me just say this: I wasn't crazy about Luxembourg," admits Prinze. "It's about as big as Delaware and you can see the whole place in about an hour." The production would go relatively smoothly, although the budget was tight. "Since I've made the equivalent of a box office blockbuster in the game arena, I have a lot of freedom with my games," says Roberts. "I can spend my way out of problems. But for the movie, especially since it's my first film, I don't have that freedom."


Despite the limited budget, Roberts recruited a team of talented visual effects artists to bring the space battles of Wing Commander to life. "We're used to doing this type of movie with twice the budget and twice the crew," explains visual effects producer Chris Brown, known as C.B. to everyone on the crew. After shooting was completed in April 1998, Roberts would bring the visual effects team to Austin, TX, to work for the rest of 1998 on the computer rendered images that would make up the heart of the film's climactic battle sequences.


Some of the visual effects included a myriad of hologram displays for mission briefings that had to be significantly simplified for the film. "Chris wanted these hugely complicated maps like he had in the game mission briefings," explains Erik Strauss, visual effects producer. "And those worked great for a game player who could always pull up a map in the game, but for a movie audience, you just want to see where you are and where you're going." With some coaxing on the part of the effects team, Roberts eventually relented and let them simplify the maps.


The entire team would turn Digital Anvil upside down with its computers in the hallways and impromptu meetings in front of workstations as they pushed to get the effects finished in late 1998. And they would make the deadline - though not everyone was completely satisfied with the results.


Surprisingly Sincere

All the elements for Wing Commander, including the visual effects and score were finally completed by mid-December 1998. Was Roberts happy with the final result? In a manner that is not de rigueur for Hollywood, Roberts is candid and admits the movie isn't perfect. "I have an incredibly high standard for things I do," admits Roberts. "If I were to go see Wing Commander, I'd probably give it a seven out of ten. It's a lot of fun and a good movie, but there is room for improvement."


Roberts admits his direction of the action in the film could have been better, in part because the footage he directed for the CD-ROM games was all dialogue-driven. But his largest gripe involves how the Kilrathi antagonists are represented on screen. "I always envisioned them as these big cats with movement and grace, but when you put a guy in an eight-foot-high suit, it's hard to get him to move with any agility," he admits. "Sci-fi movies really need good bad guys, and I'll admit I'm disappointed in the Kilrathi."


Roberts thinks that the movie will satisfy fans of the game, but also realizes that to be a successful film, it must reach far beyond the core gaming demographic. "Let's face it, fans of any franchise, whether it be Mortal Kombat or Wing Commander, get you Friday at 7:00 in a theatre, and that's about it," explains Kasanoff. "To be really successful, a movie must have wide appeal, and the fans must keep coming back again and again."


Just what is Wing Commander's potential? Early reviews have been decidedly mixed, but Roberts hopes the film makes US$30 to 40 million, which would put a sequel within reach. "I'd be happy with US$12 million opening weekend," explains Moyer inside his Santa Monica, CA, office, as he tosses a bean ball up in the air.


Paul Dergarabedian, President of Exhibitor Relations, had a chance to see the film at a trade screening, and was impressed with the final product. "I was impressed with the Top Gun type of storyline and the strong character development," he says. "I really think it's going to do quite well."


No matter what the box office receipts are, Moyer has his next project already mapped out, that being a Battlestar Galactica movie with more than 450 effects shots to be filmed once again in Luxembourg. The auteur in Roberts has his eye on a new swashbuckling high-adventure film he'd like to direct, but he's also hard at work on his new game franchise, Freelancer, which Microsoft will publish next year.



"The movie business is just so competitive, instant, and brutal."

- Chris Roberts



Today, Chris Roberts is nervous about how his movie is going to perform at the box office. He plans to sneak into a theatre on opening night in Austin to see the audience reaction. "It's just so nerve wracking," he explains, "because a movie's success is determined overnight. With a game, you have a pretty good idea what the sales are going to be ahead of time, but the movie business is just so competitive, instant, and brutal. Fortunes are literally made or lost in just a few hours."


For Roberts, no matter what is made or lost on Wing Commander, it has been a learning experience initiated by a breezy whim nine years ago, when he first thought of making a movie out of his 256-color computer game. "I just really like movies," he says, "and I thought Wing Commander would make a great film."


Time will tell whether Roberts was right, but either way, you must admire him for trying.

WING COMMANDER - THE GAMES

By Greg Kasavin


The Wing Commander universe has spawned a multitude of excellent games over the past decade. GameSpot's Greg Kasavin has played them all, and in this section, he shares his thoughts on each entry in the series. In addition, for each title, you'll find a link to an original review as it appeared in Computer Gaming World magazine. Without further ado, let's look at the games:


Wing Commander (1990)

It's no surprise that the original Wing Commander box included a logo that stated, "From the Creators of Ultima." Origin was well-known and respected for its long-running Ultima series, which was at its prime with the recent advent of Ultima VI. And so, Wing Commander demanded attention if only because of its tangential relationship to Lord British's role-playing games. Little did anybody know that Wing Commander would rapidly escalate to a status right alongside Ultima and share the spotlight forever after. No Wing Commander game has required a reference to Ultima on its packaging since.


Wing Commander was huge because it was unprecedented. At a time when 16-color EGA graphics were reluctantly giving way to a 256-color standard, Wing Commander made the difference in quality perfectly obvious and made those gamers with 16-color graphics cards make the switch. Likewise, because of its stunning dynamic soundtrack, Wing Commander helped establish the Creative Labs Sound Blaster audio standard. Few games merited owning a digital audio board until its release. The Wing Commander series would go on to earn a reputation for being so good and so cutting-edge that each new game in the series would make gamers go out and upgrade their machines with the newest hardware to achieve optimal performance.


Of course Wing Commander wasn't just pretty graphics; it succeeded because it was a good game wrapped up in a good story. You played a pilot fresh from the academy pitted in a future war against the vicious cat-like Kilrathi. Fans came to refer to this persona as Blue Hair, thanks to his bluish-black hairdo. As Blue Hair, you'd fly sorties from the TCS Tiger's Claw, a carrier on the front lines of the war, dedicated to defending humankind from its new enemies. Wing Commander's fast, arcade-style flight dynamics didn't feel simplistic; the Kilrathi were tough and unpredictable - and difficult to defeat even with your wingman's assistance. But staying alive was only half the problem. You had to complete your mission objectives successfully to win the war. Your performance during a mission - whether you successfully escorted a defenseless transport, for example - would sway the course of the war.


Origin later published two supplements to Wing Commander, called Secret Missions 1 and 2. The first dealt with the threat of a Kilrathi super weapon, while the second had you fighting for the salvation of the bird-like Firekkan race. The Secret Missions introduced characters like self-proclaimed hotshot Maniac and the Kilrathi expatriate Hobbes, who became key in future Wing Commander episodes.

Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi (1991)

Whenever there's a breakthrough game like Wing Commander, it begs a two-part question, "When's the sequel, and will it measure up?" Wing Commander II was released about a year after the original and quelled any sneaking suspicions that Chris Roberts' space combat simulation was just a lucky break. Indeed, Wing Commander II remained true to its predecessor but improved upon it drastically, not only with faster, more exciting gameplay, but with an even more involving story.


Wing Commander II opens with the cataclysmic destruction of the Tiger's Claw, the carrier you called home all through the original campaign. You witness the fatal strike, delivered courtesy of cloaked Kilrathi bombers and are left to relate the story to your skeptical superiors. You're promptly court-martialed and reduced to running security patrols for the next ten years. Then, as fortune would have it, you're reunited with a few Tiger's Claw survivors aboard the TCS Concordia, who vouch for your integrity and get you your wings back. Soon enough you're climbing the ranks all over again, except with Admiral Tolwyn, the man who demoted you in the first place, trying to make your life hell every step of the way. The Wing Commander II story was much more dramatic than the original, with surprise twists and scripted sequences within the missions themselves.


Ten years was plenty of time for both the Terran Confederation and the Kilrathi to soupe up their military arsenals. The Rapier, the powerful secret starfighter in the original Wing Commander, is an aging tin can on its way out. Thanks to Tolwyn, you'll fly it for just that reason. But soon enough you'll find yourself heading up mighty starfighters like the Broadsword heavy bomber, complete with side- and rear-mounted turrets that automatically fire on your enemies and devastating torpedoes that can eliminate enemy capital ships. Good thing the Broadsword and its sleeker cousin the Sabre are so tough; you'll eventually face those cloaked Kilrathi starships you swore you saw, which turn out to have an unfortunate propensity for kamikaze attacks. But perseverance, and maybe a little luck, would see old Blue Hair through to a stunning victory against the powerful Kilrathi space station K'tithrak Mang.


Wing Commander II was more streamlined than the original, perhaps more so than some preferred. In the original, your performance influenced the plot. There was an entire branch of the game that was only accessible if you didn't satisfy your mission objectives. But since most gamers kept playing the missions until they got them right, in Wing Commander II the designers opted to focus on the story and eliminate the losing branch. Furthermore, because of further emphasis on its story, if your wingmen got knocked out in battle, they would typically eject rather than perish like they did in the first game.


Like the Secret Missions for Wing Commander, Origin produced two add-ons for the sequel called the Special Operations. These introduced the Crossbow and Morningstar super fighters and played out the drama involving a particular traitor. Wing Commander II was also the first of several Origin games to ship with a supplemental speech accessory pack, which added full digital speech for most of the in-game dialogue and the key cutscenes. The top-notch voice acting made the sequel feel much more cinematic than the original.

Wing Commander Academy (1993)

This humble Wing Commander game cast aside the series' sweeping space opera setting and presented itself as a customizable dogfight simulator. Thinly disguised as a sort of hands-on training exercise for Confederation pilots, Academy was instant action without any of the fuss. You'd choose a ship, choose your enemy, and have at it. You could take a wingman along for the ride, and you could even design a mission around a series of waypoints, but when you got right down to it, the best thing about Academy was setting up the kind of large-scale dogfights that made Wing Commander II so exciting. And since it ran on Wing Commander II's technology, Academy offered a mostly familiar set of spacecraft to fly and fight against. Of course, new additions like the Kilrathi Jrathek medium fighter made it a must-have for serious fans determined to fly every Wing Commander ship they could.


Academy was the sort of thing we wish were included free of charge with most games. Its instant action mode and its mission editor let you get a quick fix of dogfighting - or custom-make your own personal Kilrathi nightmare - depending on how you felt. Because its gameplay was identical to Wing Commander II, it was a lot of fun. But because it lacked the context of its predecessors, Academy remains one of the most obscure games in the series.

Wing Commander: Privateer (1993)

The offshoot Privateer was a significant departure from the Wing Commander series. It met with mixed reactions if only for this reason, but in retrospect, most fans have nothing but kind words to say about it. Privateer cast you not as a pilot fighting the good fight against the evil Kilrathi, but as a shady mercenary looking to profit from the conflict. The game looked and played somewhat like Wing Commander II, with space dogfights interjected by animated story sequences. But beyond that superficial resemblance, Privateer was very different from its predecessors.


The structure of the game was much more open-ended. In the interest of earning money to soupe up your ship (or rather, to buy a better one as soon as you could), you could elect to take on all kinds of different assignments, from transport to routine patrols to surgical strikes. You'd earn your keep if you succeeded, but part of it you'd invariably spend on repairs. Eventually, you'd pick up a more lucrative assignment, and this would eventually lead into a plot surrounding an enigmatic alien intelligence. Along the way, you'd face the Kilrathi, and if you got on the bad side of the law, you might find yourself up against Confed pilots as well. Privateer, with emphasis both on space combat and on economics and role-playing, added a further element of depth to the Wing Commander series, even as it expanded the universe to show the seamier side of things running parallel to Confed's war effort.


Privateer shipped with a supplemental speech accessory pack. Origin later published the add-on Righteous Fire, in which the hero had to get to the bottom of a fanatical conspiracy, if only to recover his ship's stolen alien weapon. Righteous Fire also added powerful new technologies, which made it a must for privateers not satisfied that their ship was the best in the galaxy.

Wing Commander Armada (1994)

Armada was quite possibly ahead of its time. In any event, it never took off. It was a multiplayer Wing Commander game (and the precedent for Wing Commander III), primarily designed for head-to-head network and modem combat. With an all-new graphics engine and a new host of spacecraft, Armada looked much different from its predecessors. Further, the introduction of a strategic element, demanding would-be admirals to mine planets for resources with which to build their fleets, felt inaccessible to those accustomed to taking orders rather than issuing them.


Although it was destined for obscurity much like Wing Commander Academy, Armada was more ambitious. Its new spacecraft, some of which made it into the much more popular Wing Commander III, and its multiplayer features made Armada popular within closed circles, but drowned most of its mainstream appeal. Ironically, no Wing Commander game since has included a multiplayer component, even after multiplayer became mainstream.

Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger (1994)

With Wing Commander II touted as an interactive movie, it seemed like a logical transition for Wing Commander III to make the leap from animated storytelling to big- budget full-motion video. Blue Hair was no more, replaced by Star Wars' Mark Hamill in the leading role of Christopher Blair. Supporting actors included John Rhys-Davies as Paladin and Malcolm McDowell as Admiral Tolwyn. The game spanned four CDs, with the live-action video set against 3D-rendered backgrounds for impressive results. Still, with FMV still a relatively new technology, digital compression schemes were still being optimized, which led to the video having a grainy look. And in any event, the live actors were a jarring transition for fans that were seeing familiar characters in the flesh all of a sudden - a transition that some fans of series maintain was for the worse. Nevertheless, Wing Commander III was an ambitious game that upped the ante both in terms of gameplay and technology; once again, fans were compelled to upgrade their machines, this time not with sound cards but with CD-ROMs and 486 processors.


The faster processor helped, since the low-resolution 2D scaling sprite graphics of Wing Commander IV's predecessors were replaced with texture-mapped polygons. In the first two games, each space object was rendered at particular angles - but with its polygonal super VGA graphics engine, the ships in Wing Commander III looked strikingly real and rotated smoothly. In spite of the surprising new look, though, Wing Commander III stayed true to its roots as far as gameplay was concerned. Its story also tied in directly with the second game, and while some players found its surprise twists a little heavy-handed, others found the multiple endings and the branching dialogue - all of which added up to around three hours of video - to be more cinematic than ever before. The plot culminates in a last-ditch, albeit Star Wars-like, assault upon the Kilrathi homeworld in an effort to end the war once and for all. Of further interest, Wing Commander III's steep system requirements and subsequently long loading times earned it the not-so-affectionate nickname of Wait Commander among its detractors.

Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom (1996)

Wing Commander IV confirmed that designer Chris Roberts was at least as interested in telling a story as he was in creating a game. The fourth installment didn't make much of a technological leap; indeed, some went so far as to call it a step backward, since Wing Commander IV used the same engine as its predecessor, but eliminated the distinctive spacecraft cockpit graphics to accommodate faster framerates and better visibility. In fact, the most significant technological enhancement in IV was in its FMV, which looked much cleaner and smoother than before. Hamill, Rhys-Davies, and McDowell reprised their roles, and the movie segmented were filmed on live sets on a multimillion-dollar budget that foreshadowed Chris Roberts' eventual attempt at feature-film direction.

What with the further emphasis on FMV, it's no surprise that the fourth game was even more story-driven than its predecessors were, with even more branching plot points, not to mention more serious subject matter involving civil unrest. The Kilrathi, having been defeated for good since the events of the third game, retain only a peripheral role in the fourth installment.

Wing Commander: The Kilrathi Saga (1996)

The seemingly inevitable widespread appropriation of Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system caused the Wing Commander games, optimized for DOS, to go obsolete. And even if you could figure out how to get them to work under Windows 95, the first two games would run way too quickly because they weren't designed to be backward-compatible with faster systems. Hence the Kilrathi Saga, Origin's compilation of the first three games (including the secret missions and special operations add-ons), optimized for Windows 95. All three games were identical under rerelease, with the exception that the first two featured reorchestrated music scores.

Privateer 2: The Darkening (1997)

Observant players quickly noticed that the words "Wing Commander" weren't anywhere on the packaging of Privateer's sequel. Fair enough, because Privateer 2 doesn't actually take place in the Wing Commander universe and is a sequel to the original in theme only. This confusing relationship precluded any widespread success the game otherwise might have enjoyed. Developed in England by Chris' brother Erin Roberts, The Darkening was later marketed as a sequel to Privateer because the gameplay was so similar. With big-budget FMV starring John Hurt and Christopher Walken, not to mention an all-new space combat engine that made Wing Commander IV pale in comparison, Privateer 2 certainly looked slick. But a buggy first release as well as questionable enemy artificial intelligence and flight dynamics led Privateer 2 to earn mixed reviews among critics and Wing Commander fans alike. Although its bugs were eventually fixed and its incompatibilities with Windows 95 resolved, Privateer 2 never quite recovered from the initial hit to its reputation.

Wing Commander: Prophecy (1997)

In reaction to criticism that the series became more FMV than game, Prophecy - conspicuously not called Wing Commander V - was light on plot and heavy on graphics and gameplay. With Chris Roberts having left to form Digital Anvil, Origin retained the Wing Commander property and saw fit to return to its grass roots or otherwise to start from scratch. And what better way to do that than with a brand-new alien menace. The unidentified fish-like aggressors of Prophecy lacked that certain Kilrathi charisma, but they were tougher than ever to bring down in a dogfight. Fortunately, blowing them up was a reward in itself. That's because Prophecy took full advantage of 3D graphics accelerators and looked far superior to any space combat simulation before it. Colored lighting, full 3D cockpits that jolted and shook during battle, and truly spectacular explosions all helped make Prophecy the most stunning-looking game in the entire series. The plot, however, was a little thin - although Christopher Blair appeared in the story, you assumed the role of raw recruit Lance Casey, son of the ace pilot Iceman from the original Wing Commander. Neither Casey nor the new alien species succeeded to captivate players quite like Blue Hair and the Kilrathi.


Origin later released an entirely free standalone add-on to Prophecy called Secret Ops that understandably didn't have any FMV at all. Origin rereleased Prophecy together with the Secret Ops missions for the winter of 1998 as Wing Commander Prophecy Gold.

WING COMMANDER - THE TRIVIA TEST

Do you think you know everything there is to know about Wing Commander? Well, here's your chance to prove it. What follows are 15 trivia questions about the Wing Commander series, in multiple choice format. If you can score 12 or above, consider yourself a real fan of the series.


One last thing: It is very important to note that you should use the "back" and "continue" links at the bottom of each page when taking the test. This will let you move back and forth freely without losing your answers.


Ready to go? Then on with the test! (TEST MISSING)


ORIGINAL COMPUTER GAMING WORLD REVIEWS

Wing Commander

The Claws of the Tiger
Origin's Wing Commander
By Dennis Owens
Original publish date: Dec. 1990


  • Title: Wing Commander
  • System: IBM with 640K; hard drive recommended
  • Sound: AdLib, Roland, or Sound Blaster
  • Price: $69.95
  • Designer: Chris Roberts
  • Publisher: Origin Systems (Austin, TX)


From the opening scene with the conductor tapping his podium for the attention of his orchestra to the closing moments of the final mission's dynamic battle, Wing Commander offers a stirring display of stylish pacing, stunning graphics, inspiring sound and exhilarating space combat action. Pushing the envelope to the very edges of the galaxy, the latest in a long tradition of space combat simulations - stretching back before even Rainbird's Elite - is a swirling, zero-G dash through blazing space cannons, dazzling plasma blasts and missiles going "zing."


Beautifully designed graphics, a storyline almost cinematic in scope, and a musical score alternately inspirational and laden with the angst of being far from home and isolated in deep space all combine to create a stellar warfare adventure in every sense of the word.


Wing Commander shares characteristics of Star Fleet I and Deep Space, but surpasses both - and indeed, all space flight warfare simulators - in every way imaginable, from variable views of the inside of different starfighters, to the explosions of enemy targets, the handling of space flight, and the amazingly poignant comments from the NPCs as the player's character advances or ends up being demoted.


The soundtrack shifts from location to location, event to event and even intensifies or lessens during battle, according to the circumstances or how the solar winds blow.


Wing Commander's fiction seems simple and fairly standard; the player's character begins as a rookie starfighter assigned to the most decorated spacecraft carrier in the Terran fleet. However, after the player names his character, assigns his "pilot" callsign, and finds himself in the bar, everything standard about the fiction falls away. Familiar gaming devices such as the save game (to be discussed later in the article) are so neatly tucked in the gameplay that, instead of interrupting the suspension of disbelief, they frequently add to it.


For instance, training in handling a starfighter, in which the character is already supposed to be, at least, minimally proficient, is afforded to the player through the use of a flight training simulator. Essentially, a video game within the larger fiction of Wing Commander (set up in the bar, no less, a la The Last Starfighter), the trainsim does serve a valuable purpose. It is here where, for a bargain price (free!), the character can ostensibly bone up on the latest tricks and moves of the enemy he will be facing (while the player is, in actuality, familiarizing himself with the basics of starfighter flight). But Wing Commander supports that fiction, because it is, after all, better to learn in the trainsim than fly unshielded and unarmored into the teeth of the Gratha.


In other areas, as well, the game ingeniously combines the needs of the player with the fiction of the character. The barracks area, for instance, is the only location in the game where the player's game can be saved. Wing Commander allows the player to access any of the game's eight save positions by pointing and clicking on any of the eight beds arranged in the room. Clicking on the foot of the bed indicates that the player want to sleep/save and clicking on the head of the bed indicates that the player wants to awaken/restore. Wing Commander is loaded with such inspired and player-friendly touches.


These, however, are just the peripheral characteristics of Wing Commander. At its heart, of course, is the spaceflight and combat. It is when the starfighter leaves the carrier that the game really begins.


The enemy cat-like creatures called Kilrathi are good, shifty fliers, determined, maniacal and hostile. In fact, there can be no questions of politics in Wing Commander. The enemy is the enemy. They will destroy a character's starfighter without a moment's hesitation, given the opportunity. Their starships are powerful - in some instances, more powerful than any in the Terran fleet - and their pilots are generally skilled and well-disciplined.


In combat, combat in that cold, deep, dark and unforgiving space, ships' engines keen and wail as they pass. Thrusters hiss. Electrical systems spit as they burn out. Missiles and incoming laser blasts do, indeed, flash as they hit. Weapons have their signature noises as they are fired and Kilrathi ships (alas, unfortunately, Terran ships as well) explode in huge balloons of fire and shrapnel. The action is all bit-mapped and, at least at 16MHz and higher, is smooth and responsive.


The starfighter screen, variable between front, back, left and right, features all the necessary information: speed, weapons systems, enemy targets, a type of radar, communications videos (for machines with expanded memory) and, interestingly enough (again, almost an intuitive design decision), a display of the pilot's hand on the joystick which moves in conjunction with navigation and firing instructions (another "expanded memory"-only feature).


Although combat is frequent, it is not always desirable, especially when a distant transport needs an escort. Lest Wing Commander be perceived as little more than the video game disguised in the training simulator, it should be pointed out that the valued officer also displays good judgement. That is, he knows when to fight and when not to. So Wing Commander is, in some ways, a strategy game, as well.


After-Action Report Both George Sanger and Dave Govett must be commended for their moving musical score. Further, this is the first of many games to be released by Origin which makes use of branching musical phrases dependent upon game performance, a truly innovative feature. [Ed. - We call it "subliminal interfacing."]


Thus, Wing Commander is an innovative, intense, graphically lovely, and aesthetically pleasing game with enough action and variety to please almost every gamer.


Secret Missions

There's a Saga Born Every Minute
Secrets of the Wing Commander Secret Missions
By Alan Emrich and Mike Weksler
Orinal publish date: Jul. 1991


  • Title: The Secret Missions and The Secret Missions 2: Crusade
  • System: IBM
  • Price: $29.95 each
  • Copy Protect: Document check
  • Designer: Aaron Aliston, Steve Cantrell, Ellen Guon and John Watson
  • Publisher: Origin Systems (Austin TX)


All good things must come to an end, but putting that end off as long as possible is certainly the way to go. To that end, players of Origin's highly popular Wing Commander (rated #1 on our Top 100 Games Chart) will want to investigate the two "Secret Mission" discs currently available. Prolonging one's tour of duty on the intrepid Tiger's Claw in the Wing Commander universe, players can generate new characters to face the challenges these missions pose or take their heroes out of the original game's Vega system and have them face these daring challenges.


Don't Dream It, Be It


Here lies one of the greatest virtues of Wing Commander: the music and graphics aside (and they are both cutting-edge), this would be just another space arcade shoot-'em-up were it not for the engrossing cinematic storyline and strong protagonists with whom to empathize. Whether through brilliant foresight or dumb luck (inside sources suggest the latter), Origin has hit the lottery with the impassioned characterizations in Wing Commander. The likes of "by the book" Angel, "cold as freon" Iceman, "one with karma" Spirit, "wild man" Hunter and the rest of the crew add a personal role-playing element to the game that can best be explained by the phenomenon of players so strongly identifying with their characters that they almost "become" the role they play.


Therefore, not only does a player get more heart-pounding, joystick-breaking arcade brushes with the simulated slaughter in space in Secret Missions, but one also finds out about the continuing ordeals of the Tiger's Claw, its vaunted and much beloved crew and the ever shifting fate of the Terran-Kilrathi war. Whatever it is that keeps people tuning into soap operas and walking into video arcades, these two supplements deliver plenty of both.


As the World Burns


From any point during the operations in the Vega system, the player's character may be called upon to participate in the Secret Missions. Essentially, no news is bad news when communications ceased from the Goddard colony. The root of this little snafu with the 250,000 Terran colonists there is that the Kilrathi have developed a "Death Star"-like planet-busting weapon and were "just testing it out" at Goddard. Stealthily following the Kilrathi strike force back into their own space, the Tiger's Claw must sneak up on the enemy fleet, cut through it and destroy the new Kilrathi "ultimate weapon." This, the crew bemoans (and the player soon discovers) is just short of a suicide mission.


Little New Under the Sun


Unfortunately, the basic Wing Commander game system was not modified by the addition of this supplement. While still delightful, all a player really gets is MOTS (More Of The Same). Still, the missions are considerably harder (read: the odds, in terms of sheer numbers, are stacked more heavily in the Kilrathi's favor) and, at least, one particularly innovative encounter with a Terran "ghost ship" (and a zillion hostile Rapiers) lends an air of excitement to the mounting climax in store for a player during the final fight into glory.


Those final missions involve disrupting Kilrathi supply lines in order to slow the departure of the dreaded Sival-class dreadnought (which harbors the insidious planet-busting beam stitched within the alloyed sinews of its bulbous catgut). Naturally, the climax requires one to cut through wave after massive wave of Kilrathi defenders and pound relentlessly on this enemy battleship until it exclaims those famous Kilrathi words of defiance "My offspring will avenge me!" (Well, it beats screeching, "You sank my Battleship!")


Interestingly, in spite of playing The Secret Missions straight through to victory, these reviewers did encounter the eight-man Terran Confederation fighters promised on the back of the game box, but didn't even notice that they were any different from any other Terran capital ship needing escort. Oh, there were up-gunned and better protected enemy fighters to face, to be sure, but nothing new for the Terrans.


Holy Crusades, Catman!


After completing operations in the Venice sector of Wing Commander (or the Vigrid sector of Secret Missions), the player may transfer his heroic persona to the perils which await in the Firekka system, Antares sector. While the Terrans have been cultivating this backwater "nowhere" region of space in order to gain an alliance with the sentient avians (or "bird people"), the Kilrathi have noticed and taken the ultimate offense.


Unlike the gameplay in Secret Missions, the second offering has improved AI (with an entirely new executable program). Thus the Kilrathi strength no longer relies strictly upon the traditional computer game fallback of sheer numbers, but now incorporates varied and improved tactics amongst their pilots. The Kilrathi Imperial Guard (the "Drakhai") await at virtually every turn to menace players with a special vengeance. Fortunately, though it might be hard to notice (since everything is relative), the AI for players' wingmen is also improved. One must watch carefully in the heat of battle to really see this new element, but it is there. In effect, the challenge of playing is greater, yet the odds of winning are slightly better due to the decreased numbers of enemy fighters at each encounter.


It is also important to note that while Secret Missions 2 was being designed, the storyline for Wing Commander II was also being developed. Thus, the characters were written in such a way as to connect them between the two Wing Commander games. Prescient players will see foreshadowing in the discovery of the alien race known as the "double helix" in Wing Commander and the derring-do of Maniac. Prince Thrakhath of the Kilrathi (the Emperor's grandson) becomes an important character in the story ahead (is he so reasonable that one could actually negotiate with him?), as does the ever-competent Jeannette Devereaux (Angel)... but we digress.


It is the player's march to glory in the Firekka system which will determine the fate of these avian allies. En route, the player will encounter two new wingmen to fly with (the charming Jazz and a character named Doomsday who is the human equivalent of Marvin the Paranoid Android) and pilot a souped-up, captured enemy [missing word] in undercover assignments. These Drakhai fighters are most interesting, as one gets to read a bit of Kilrathi writing on the instrumentation and tries to get a feel for cat-ergonomics. In the end, though, the odds are too long for the Tiger's Claw to overcome this devastating armada comprising the entire Kilrathi fleet (pulled into the sector to take part in a military/religious ceremony). So, the trick is to support the guerrilla efforts of the Firekka by distracting the Kilrathi as long as possible. In any case, while fleeing, one begins to get the idea that Maniac is definitely slipping big time.


Born-Again Wingmen


At the commencement of either Secret Mission game, all the available wingmen are assumed to have survived any previous funeral ceremonies. Thus, even if the player has managed to kill off half the crew of the Tiger's Claw, they will all be back in the bar, relaxing in their own idiom. One crew member, however, dies rather tragically "off screen" in Secret Missions 2, perhaps an important plot device for the next game in the Wing Commander series. On a slightly more frustrating note, several players have complained that in Secret Missions 2 fellow pilots have been dying - unannounced - "off-screen." In fact, both of these reviewers experienced this bug when it killed off Hunter and Angel during their respective tours of duty (Perhaps they were "bitten by the bug?"). The result of this fatal case of "cat scratch fever" was that both "heroes" were forced to fly solo through several harrowing missions. (Perhaps this is why one of their characters managed to win the Terran Medal of Honor upon completion of the campaign!)


Players should note that they do not have to transfer veteran characters to these Secret Missions in order to succeed at them. Fresh-faced Second Lieutenants are just as likely to triumph as veteran Lieutenant Colonels. Rank has its privileges, but not when campaigning in Wing Commander's Secret Missions.


Narrowing the Plot Lines


One discovery made by players in either Secret Mission package is the "Mission Selector" which allows players to replay any mission in any system found in the original Wing Commander. This is displayed as a map full of circles connected by solid lines (for success in a given system) and dashed lines (indicating the path of failure). Players can tell at a glance that the storyline has a built-in tolerance for failure within the various systems, allowing the player to get "back on track" and still win in the end.


In contrast, however, lie the paths to success in the two Secret Missions. Completely linear, there is no getting back on track after virtually any failed mission. This means there will be a lot of replaying certain difficult missions as players struggle through the inflexible plot line. Some of the more challenging missions might take a dozen or more joystick-strangling, frustration-packed attempts before a player successfully clears all the hurdles. Still, if one is to see the cinematic victory screens, one can never miss a beat in terms of Nav Points and Capital Ships (the criteria for all successful missions).


Narrowing the Odds


Here are a few useful tactics, tips and techniques for those struggling with increased difficulties presented in the two Secret Missions supplements. Against greater odds, straight-on shoot-outs are not as viable as they used to be. A bit of strategy is needed....


Keep formation! This tactic is used to preserve a wingman's heavy-duty firepower for later encounters when it is needed the most. When told to attack, the first thing wingmen tend to do is squirt off their missiles at the earliest opportunity. To preserve those missiles for use against enemy capital ships, keep the wingmen in formation and never let them loose. Husband their precious missiles for the most hazardous parts of the mission.


Attack my target! This tactic is like hurling the ultimate "smart" weapon at a single enemy ship. If one must destroy a large enemy vessel, acquire it on the tracking computer (locking it up is not necessary) and order the wingman to "Attack my target." The wingman will continue to attack that target, unwaveringly, until either it is destroyed or he is forced to break off due to damage. It is important to note that even should the player later acquire another target, the wingman will continue to attack the one which he was ordered to destroy and will not change targets. Protecting one's wingman, at this point, is crucial to his survival. Thus, it is a good idea to unleash the tactic only after enemy fighter cover has been thinned out.


Lock on for relentless pursuit. Except when defending a capital ship, an important object is usually to destroy enemy fighters. Thus, softening ("reddening") one up so that it can run away to recharge its shields and come back is a bad tactic. Instead, once a good hit is scored on an enemy fighter, lock onto it and never let it go until it's destroyed. Pit bulls get the job done against cats (almost) every time.


Thrust past 'er. Enemy heavy fighters with strong guns will usually kill a pilot who attacks head on. The advice is: Don't do that! If one is approaching head on, aim slightly to one side of the oncoming pack, keeping them on the edge of the front screen display and kick on the afterburners. Once past, get behind one, hit it hard, lock it up and do the "dance of death" with him. Even the smartest enemy has problems with deflection shots at combined speeds around 1,500 kilometers per second, so use that to advantage.


Minefields at warp speed. The worst thing about traversing minefields is painstakingly dodging the mines floating in them. To relive the anguish and reduce the chances of mistakenly flying into them in multiples, one should simply haul jets. Aim for the Nav Point and punch the afterburners. Oh, one might hit, but seldom more than that, and often that hit is on the back shield with no damage to the armor. Why risk more?


Joan's Fighting Spacecraft Supplement


In the best traditions of Claw Marks, the facts and figures for some of the new ships and fighters found in the two Secret Missions supplements are presented in this article.


Wing Commander 2

Sequel Sans Equal
Reviewing the World of Wing Commander II
By Alan Emrich
Original publish date: Nov. 1991


  • Titles: Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi and Wing Commander II Speech Accessory Pack
  • System: IBM( 640K; 12MHz minimum)
  • Copy Protect: None
  • Designer: Chris Roberts
  • Publisher: Origin Systems (Austin, TX)


For several months now, Wing Commander has reigned as the number-one game, as rated by this magazine's readers. Clearly, there must be a lot "right" with this game. Even though Wing Commander is, at least at its most basic level, something of a glorified arcade game, there is also something that sets it apart. Perhaps it is the inclusion of a believable, evolving storyline, full of sympathetic comrade characters and vain, vile villains that bring a certain je ne sais pas. Perhaps it is simply the techno-rush of being able to use all of the horsepower one has paid for in that souped-up IBM and showing it off to friends. Certainly, it is a combination of all these attributes and more which landed Wing Commander at CGW's Game Ratings pinnacle. What could Origin possible do for an encore?


The Secret Missions


Even the folks at Origin must have been surprised at the runaway success of Wing Commander. This must have been underscored with the equally successful Secret Missions supplements to the game. Somewhere between the first and second supplement, it became clear that the game's intelligence routines were evolving to improve gameplay and the characters were evolving and expanding in number toward what would eventually become...


Wing Commander II


Subtitled "Vengeance of the Kilrathi," the story takes place ten years after "The Tiger's Claw Incident." Ten years ago, while the Tiger's Claw was launching an attack on the Kilrathi starbase at K'Tithrak Mang, it was destroyed by a new Kilrathi secret weapon: stealth fighters. While our hero was dealing with this new threat, the Tiger's Claw was ambushed and destroyed. Our intrepid protagonist was accused of being a traitor who made possible its destruction. Since his flight disk had disappeared, no evidence of the stealth fighters exists and, consequently, no one believes our hero (either about his innocence or about the Kilrathi stealth fighters).


Since treason could not be proved, a hostile Admiral Tolwyn throws what's left of the book at our hero, flaying him with negligence charges, busting him to captain and packing him off to the armpit of space (a system called Gwynedd), and assigning him to the most boring duty imaginable, service in the Security Forces. Fortunately for our hero, fate takes a hand and brings Kilrathi patrol ships to Gwynedd, along with the Terran carrier Concordia. Before long, he is temporarily assigned to the carrier and must return to exhilarating hazardous duty once again.


Plot Full of Plots


The storyline element of Wing Commander II is mesmerizing. With elements of new camaraderie, friction, dissension, conspiracy and suspense, an excellent mix of human angst is provided. Interestingly, players are allowed to look into the throne room (and the power behind it) of Kilrath. The repartee between the Kilrathi Emperor and the Prince Regent (his grandson) says much about the Empire. One gets a glimpse of Imperial politics and sees the Empire rife with opportunity for the ambitions. (No doubt the beginnings of this subplot will be extended in the Wing Commander II: The Special Operations expansion disks being planned.)


Worst yet, there is a traitor aboard the Concordia and the crew is very edgy. Naturally, suspicion lands squarely on the shoulders of our intrepid pilot, who is, of course, completely innocent. This reviewer was intrigued at the havoc caused by the Concordia's saboteur, and was relieved to find out who it was toward the conclusion of the game. While who the traitor was seemed to make sense, why that person turned on the Confederation in the first place seemed weak. It can be conceded that, while the traitor's motive does stand up, it is thin - particularly when compared to all of the other potential traitors on board and their possible unique motivations. At least one gains some satisfaction in how the traitor is ultimately dealt with.


Conspiracies aside, there are plenty of new friends to meet and some relaxing social interactions to fill in those lonely hours between missions. The classic "bar" transition scene has been completely expunged and characters "hang out" in several different locales: the Rec Room, Flight Deck and Crew Quarters (where crew members gather to play poker). Some crew members still look askance at our beleaguered hero, whole others openly accuse him of treacherously allowing the Tiger's Claw to be destroyed. Still, many old friends are more understanding and a love interest even evolves (!). In summary, the storyline has enough of the right elements (an examination of the human condition plus some philosophical perspective on the complexities of good and evil via characterizations that ring true-to-life) to begin bridging the chasm from "genre pulp fiction" to something that could be more accurately regarded as "art."


What's New, Pussycats?


...[missing lines] Commander are now the "old standbys" and still make an appearance in the game. Every other ship is completely new. For the Terran player, the Ferret patrol fighter is where one starts, but before the 31 missions required to reach the campaign's end are completed, the Epee light attack fighter, Sabre heavy attack fighter and Broadsword heavy bomber will all be subject to player shakedowns.


The greatest change over the past ten years has been the advent of "phase shields," which render capital ships invulnerable to gun and cannon fire. Now, players must launch special torpedoes to finish enemy behemoths off. With a slow lock-on time, launching a torpedo in combat with flak bursting all around and enemy fighters on one's tail is much like the famous "flight through the trench" scene at the end of Star Wars. It can get quite "hairy," indeed.


Other techno-changes include the invention of the particle cannon (which combines the long range of the laser cannon with the hitting power of neutron guns), turrets (which players jump into by hitting the F1-F4 view keys) armed with swivel-mounted twin neutron rapid-fire guns and tractor beams (which are occasionally useful for hauling in an ejected wingman or data pod). The big defensive tech advance is the advent of chaff pods to attract enemy missiles away from one's ship. Using them properly will require some practice in timing, but the lesson is well worth learning.


Of course, the Kilrathis haven't been idle either. Among their four new fighter types are two with turrets. Players will have to develop a whole new school of tactics to deal with these kitties, because having a tiger by the tail now means getting one's face shot off!


Brains and Good Looks One feature touted in the Wing Commander II packaging is "dynamic intelligence" This means that as the player flies better, so does the enemy. In other words, ace Wing Commander veterans who have built a much better mousetrap with their skills and tactics will find the Kilrathi to be smarter mice (er, cats). Perhaps the best way to put this is on a personal, statistical basis. In the 31 missions it took this reviewer to complete the campaign, about half were "holed in one" (successful the first time they were attempted), while the remainder required several replayings and one mission took this reviewer eleven tries). The challenge of the mission scenarios has increased, as has the demand made on a player to innovate new tactics to use and combat new weapons. All in all, Wing Commander II's new "brains" will provide a stimulating challenge to players.


One other important note, here. Should a player inadvertently hit a wingman in combat, they'll ask you to be more careful (and not always politely). Hit them repeatedly, and, suddenly, our hero confirms everyone's suspicions that he is a traitor. This means the computer will hurl a never-ending stream of Terran fighters until the protagonist is transformed into space dust. No more playing space cowboy, pilgrim!


Not only are the "brains" of the game new, but so is the "look." Aside from varying the transition scenes to different settings (including debriefings from the cockpit while in flight), characters communicate from more cinematic angles. Sure, some of the motion is still a little jerky while the characters are communicating ...[missing text]... they are rendered a very noticeable and pleasant addition. Uniforms, facial expressions and background scenery have all been upgraded, giving the graphic background more of the "look" required to help one suspend his disbelief and become fully immersed in the story.


Speech! Speech! Wing commander II isn't exactly to computer games that The Jazz Singer was to the movies (the first "talkie"), but it will certainly make a big splash in the market for more voice features as the standard for a "state-of-the-art" computer games. The digitized voices available in the Speech Accessory Pack are only for the Sound Blaster (or 100 percent compatible) cards, so Roland and AdLib owners won't enjoy the "freedom of speech" that Wing Commander II provides.


As far as speech goes, there are two dramatic transition scenes that are fully speech-supported. The first is the opening of the storyline (a long sequence of three major scenes and the feature of the game's popular demo disk), and the other comes after the 12th mission of the game. All the other elements of speech are the communications responses one receives while in flights. Jazz will coo, "You got it, Maestro." Spirit will exclaim, "Hei, Captain!" Even Doomsday will moan out, "We're in trouble now!" These voice responses become amusing when listening to the taunts of the Kilrathi pilots, and they are useful when a wingman notifies the player of trouble. Whether it's a request for the player's assistance, notification of ejecting or an early departure for home, it really helps to hear a wingman's pleas rather than risk missing them as something read on the HUD during the heat of battle.


Getting Technical Wing Commander II is a big program. Really big. Starting with requiring a minimum of 583K of free RAM (more for those using EGA-level graphics) just to get the game to run, one must add another half a meg of expanded memory to get in all the "optional" goodies like the speech buffer (64K), VCR replay buffer (64K), cockpit animation etc. Of course, the copious "free space" on one's hard disk is the next target. Without the speech module and keeping all the files compressed, there goes 10MB of disk space. Uncompress the files to save time during gameplay, and there goes 15MB of disk space. The voice module? Add another 6MB of disk space! Thus, when "maxed out," say goodbye to about 21MB of the hard drive! No wonder a special blue sheet is included in the game box with a note from Robert Garriott beseeching players to invest in CD-ROM!


Hairline Fractures For what is clearly an "A" product, Origin has opted to cut some odd corners on the game's production. Okay, so there is no nifty Wing Commander hat offer... There is also no Claw Marks magazine inside, either. That makes sense since that ship was destroyed ten years ago, but the substitute of a cheaper-looking play manual and Joan's Fighting Spacecraft supplement really stand out as cheap when included in such a classy package. The aforementioned plot weakness to the traitor's motive notwithstanding, this reviewer certainly hoped to hear more about all the survivors of the Claw. The one quick mention of the fate of Maniac was simply not enough.


Players will also be disappointed in the lack of fanfare. Our hero is "busted," remember, so there is no glory of sinning medals, no hope for promotion from the hostile Admiral, no chalkboard where one can revel in the victory total (that number is only shown when the game is actually saved). Sic transit gloria. Finally, it seems that every Kilrathi "fighter jock" wears an eyepatch. Either this should be explained somewhere, or more than one "generic fighter pilot" should be in the graphics package.


The Next Encore Certainly, all the advances in product quality from Wing Commander to Wing Commander II are not technical leaps. Much of the improvement came from Origin listening to consumer demands. A more engrossing storyline, better plot segues, more diverse ship types, communication hot-keys, etc. are all some things the legions of avid Wing Commander fans have been expressing their desire for. Please indulge this Wing Commander fan while he offers two suggestions for what must inevitably become Wing Commander III: The Next Iteration.


A player's success or failure in battle has always determined the storyline's overall development. This is the heart of the Wing Commander game system, but could it be suggested that a player's interpersonal successes also have a bearing on the plot line? For example, suppose that our hero was speaking to another character but was presented a few options for his response (i.e., snub this person, play along or politely decline their offer)? Standard adventure game stuff, to be sure, but it would add a whole new dimension to the Wing Commander universe! What kind of interpersonal conflicts might arise? How would our hero find a path through a moral, rather than a military dilemma? What loves and betrayals might ensue? This won't be an easy task for Origin's excellent script writers, but they certainly seem able to overcome any challenges considering the Worlds of Ultima line they produce.


While the previous suggestion might bring a touch of adventure gaming to Wing Commander, this suggestion will have some appeal to the strategy-minded. Since our hero was clearly in a command position, perhaps a scene might precede each mission briefing in which the player must decide on what missions are to be flown and by whom. Discovering pilot personalities that "click," breaking in green recruits, staffing what are clearly "suicide" missions, etc. would all be weighed in the balance. In other words, the player would have a hand in planning mission rosters.


Now, certainly, the player will need to be prompted with plenty of advice as to what is going on in a particular sector of the system in which the crew is currently located thus affording on the knowledge of what is "out there" that needs to be dealt with (and keeping the overall game within the defined parameters of the script). Perhaps something as simple as matching a list of "Missions Required" to a "Pilots Available Roster" would do the trick via a simple point-and-click interface. This might affect "off-screen" characters' fatigue levels and attrition as the status of previous missions gets reported back at the next such planning session. "Green" characters' skills might increase (although their chance of survival and/or success would be rather low), veteran pilots might need R&R or be killed. Suddenly, the efforts of the entire crew (vis a vis a player's "use" of them by their assignment orders) can also determine the outcome of the war effort.


Champagne All Around When the dust settles at the end of the Enigma Sector Campaign (assuming the player wins), there is champagne all around. So it should be at Origin. In a game that took many, many person-years to produce, the results are clearly excellent. By constantly redefining the cutting edge, producers of high-end products like Wing Commander II will continue to garner the praise and support of the computer gaming community (and deservedly so). In the end, however, no matter how much gee whiz is packed into a box, the test of a game is in how it is as a game. Until Origin surpasses it with Wing Commander III, Wing Commander II will be flying at the front of the formation (of course, for a hundred bucks, one shouldn't expect any less), for as a game, it flies right and plays not only on one's computer, but also on one's emotions.


Wing Commander Academy

Get Your Blasters Degree
At Origin's Esteemed Wing Commander Academy
By Paul C. Schuytema
Original publish date: Nov. 1993


First, the bottom line on Origin's Wing Commander Academy: if you enjoy space combat simulations, you must have this game. Period.


While the game chalks up the standard fare of deficiencies and kudos, it has instantly become a mandatory element in any serious space combat library.


Wing Commander Academy is the third "primary" product in the Wing Commander universe created by Origin. In the timeline of their fictional world, in which the humans are continually battling the remarkably tenacious Kilrathi, it occurs after the conclusion of the Wing Commander II story line. The game is a simulation of a simulator, a combat simulator, that is. Colonel Jack A. Lombard is now employed as a flight instructor in the Wing Commander Academy after being nearly killed when his wingman, Maniac, didn't follow orders. He lost an eye in the battle and, reminiscent of "Jelly" in Heinlein's Starship Troopers, he has turned his attention to honing and improving the caliber of the Academy's recruits.


His first observation after coming to the Academy was that the combat simulator was good, but not nearly good enough. It needed to be improved. Putting the Academy's programmers to work, he created an entirely new combat simulator which used holographic projection technology to recreate, vividly and completely, the experience of flying a Terran star fighter. He also made the simulator customizable so that new cadets could create missions to test their classroom learning or work out problems and tactics. The Colonel stresses that while the simulator isn't as real as actual combat (you can't hit the pause key in real life), it's as close as it gets.


Wing Commander Academy (Academy) isn't a simulation of the entire training academy, but rather a concise simulation of Colonel Lombard's combat simulator, short and sweet. Working with the simulator, players can generate countless missions, from the retrieval of an ejected pilot to taking on four Ralatha destroyers after weaving through a mine field.


Academy is a stand-alone game. Possession of the other Wing Commander (WC) games is not mandatory, but herein lies one of the faults of the game. While it is a stand-alone product, it relies heavily upon the fiction of the previous two games to set the tone and atmosphere. Just playing Academy without previous WC experience reduces the game to a dogfighting simulator (albeit an excellent one).


On the other hand, since it is a stand-alone product, it allows players to hone their combat skills before purchasing either WC games, and, most importantly, it allows players to enjoy dogfighting without the time commitment of a sweeping adventure game. A saved mission can be ready for play in the time it takes to boot up a computer, and I've found myself taking down a few Kilrathi with my morning coffee before heading off to my nine-to-five. It gives me that killer edge that truly frightens my coworkers.


Before going into more likes and dislikes, let's discuss the nuts and bolts of the game. First off, the game is incredibly simple to play. The manual is optional since setting up and designing missions is very intuitive. When the game begins, the player is presented with a view of the "holo room" in which the configuration controls make up the dashboard of the simulator. Clicking on the controls brings up a full-screen of the mission configuration computer. From here the player may load and save missions, create them from scratch, run the "gauntlet," or modify existing missions.


Each mission may have up to four nav points, or theaters of action. Players of the other WC games will immediately recognize the nav points as the way the missions were broken up on those games, with players flying from point to point, to search, escort and battle the ubiquitous Kilrathi.


Creating a mission is as simple as selecting a clear nav point and then clicking on one of the buttons representing an object, from friendly shops and Kilrathi capital ships to data pods and asteroid fields. A small window on the left of the simulator presents the player with a rotating image of the object, and clicking on the nav point screen will place it in the mission.


Players may select their choice of ship, and whether or not to have a wingman (as well as the caliber and character of the wingman). Clicking on the "execute" button brings the player back to the holo room: the walls dissolve away, and suddenly the player is in the cockpit of a fully juiced interstellar fighter in the middle of a dogfight.


Combat is quick and breathtaking, with the welcome addition of a speed adjustment that allows the player to change the pace of the simulator. With each successive Wing Commander game Origin has refined the graphics of their bitmap/polygon three-dimensional space system, and Academy presents the best graphics yet, by far. Ships are sleeker and more defined with colored markings and subtle shading. Even the blaster discharge shifts color when the fuel mixture is changed during an after-burner kick.


The combat cockpits will be familiar to WC aficionados, with one display for the communications and targeting information, another for damage assessment and weapons loadout, and a radar screen for tracking bogies. The technology in the WC universe has been steadily improving, and the player can control side and rear turret guns, as well as enjoy the benefits of ITTS (Improved Targeting and Tracking System) tracking. When a target lock is activated with the new tracking system, the player's shipboard computer calculates the enemy's trajectory and presents the player with a leading reticule, allowing greater accuracy in leading blaster shots into a Kilrathi hull. This is a great help since in space, where there is no absolute speed, only relative speed, it is often hard to tell how fast and slow the enemy is moving with visual cue alone.


A player may choose to fly the full range of WC ships, from the Volkswagen Bug-like Ferret to the advanced Morningstar, choosing between fighter and bomber types. Two additions are noteworthy. During the time since Wing Commander II, both the Terrans and Kilrathi have hit the drawing board to up the technology ante, and each has a new fighter in preproduction testing: The Wraith and the Jrethek. Academy allows you to fly either one of these experimental fighters, and flying a Kilrathi fighter against Terran bogies is more fun than a barrel of kitties.


The simulator also offers the "gauntlet" mode, essentially a training game which presents the player with 15 levels, three waves each of attacking Kilrathi. A player's ship regenerates shields after each wave and is fully repaired and reloaded after each level. Like a good Nintendo game, he who chalks up the highest score wins, and his name is presented to all who enter the holo room for combat training.


I found a lot to like in this game. In today's market of ultra-complex games it is a true breath of fresh air to find a game this simple and easy to play (or rather to set up to play - running the gauntlet or taking down four Ralaris is next to impossible), and one that comes on only three disks.


On of the most important criteria for any game, fun, Academy comes up holding five aces. This game is an absolute ball to play and presents the player with almost zero frustration (except from the challenge of attempting to complete a difficult mission). The simplicity of the interface means that 90 percent of the time will be spent in white-knuckled dogfighting, and the only potential hazard this game raises is trigger-finger calluses. Oh sure, some will say that this game merely turns a several thousand dollar computer into a Super Nintendo system, but those will be the ones who haven't played the game and who tend to shun too much fun as bad for their health.


Taking this game at its fictional face value, as a training simulator to prepare you to better fight the Kilrathi, it makes a wonderful companion product to the previous WC games, it is even possible (but not all that realistic) to head out on a WC mission, gather intelligence, then closely recreate the mission's hazards, in Academy to "safely" work out a successful strategy.


I also like the fact that the mission files can be copied and traded, uploaded and downloaded. This feature will help to bring the WC community closer together and will allow a player to assemble a library of truly great missions.


Perhaps the best aspect of Academy is that it can be a truly social game. Missions can be short and sweet, allowing friends to get together and play for a while without the cumbersome learning curve of a full-blown adventure game to get in the way of immediate playing satisfaction.


I did have some quibbles with the game, mostly things which I feel Origin should have included but didn't. Some of these I consider necessary, others make up more of a wish-list.


First, only the gauntlet mission keeps track of the player's score. Each mission should have its own scoring, allowing for more than a binary success/fail result. Ideally, since this is a training simulator for cadets, the score should be a detailed report of mission results: time taken, enemies shot down, kill percentage, fuel used, etc. Having this type of scoring system would allow more competition between friends and more relevance to uploaded and downloaded missions.


Second, since this is a training simulator, it should have some type of mission recording function, or at least an instant replay function. This would allow the cadets to replay their failures and successes and learn from their mistakes.


Finally, I would like the mission builder to be a touch more sophisticated, allowing the player to create such things as escort missions, delayed enemy encounters and navigational flying.


In all, Academy is a tremendously exciting game, one which provides many, many hours of play and replay. One of my favorite missions, and one which I'm sure goes against the Academy's code of ethics, is to set up a mission with only a wingman and no enemies (flying a Ferret is best - they only have a single weapon, a mass driver). I start the mission and then turn on my wingman, going mano-a-mano until one of us blows. The combat is fierce, and the obscene shouts of "traitor!" really get my blood pumping.


Well, enough banter. Time to head for the holo room and punch up mission number 23 to see if, this time, I can get through those three Drakhri and take out a Dorkathi transport with my lowly Ferret. Wish me luck!


Privateer

Trading Spaces
Origin's Wing Commander: Privateer
By Jeff James
Original publish date: Dec. 1993


  • Title: Wing Commander: Privateer
  • Price: $79.95 (speech pack: $19.95)
  • System: IBM
  • Requirements: 386 or better, 4MB or RAM, VGA graphics, 22MB hard drive space (with speech pack); Ad Lib, SoundBlaster sound cards supported
  • Publisher: Origin Systems (Austin, TX)


Several years ago, there was one game that drew more of my attention than any other: Firebird's Elite. In Elite, the player was an interstellar tradesman struggling to remain profitable in a galaxy of bloodthirsty pirates, overzealous police, and invading space aliens. Over the years, several attempts have been made at updating the Elite universe, with Lightspeed and Hyperspeed from MicroProse and Origin's Space Rogue being the most recent efforts. It's not difficult to pin-point the source of this genre's appeal - it's freedom. All of these games offer the gamer real choices about how to live one's simulated existence. The next step in the adventure is not scripted in these games; piracy or peaceful trade, assist a cause or fight against it - the player makes the call.


With the release of Privateer, Origin Systems puts their own spin on the genre, making strides in some areas and stepping back in others. Privateer is set in the tumultuous Gemini sector of the Wing Commander universe, situated along the edge of known space. True to the Wing Commander story, the Kilrathi will occasionally appear, harassing merchant vessels and threatening human settlements. Most of the time, however, one will encounter the riffraff of the Gemini sector: a potpourri of criminals, pirates, thugs, mercenaries and religious zealots that frequent the space lanes of the frontier. The player is thrown into this fertile mix as an opportunistic space pilot for hire, a character not all that unlike Star Wars' Han Solo.


The game begins with the player on the Achilles mining colony and in command of a lowly Tarsus-class vessel, a gift from the late grandfather of the player's character. There are a few places to explore on Achilles, among them a commodity exchange, a ship dealer and a bar. This format is used at most of the locations the player can visit, and each type of base (i.e., agricultural, mining, refinery, pirate hide-out) looks the same. While this provides a consistent layout and interface, it does get a bit monotonous.


At the onset of the game, there are two ways to make money. Players with an independent, capitalistic streak can buy inexpensive metal ore, ship it to Helen (an agricultural planet in the same star system as Achilles), sell it for a profit and purchase cheap foodstuffs, then return to Achilles to sell the food there. This process of ferrying cargo between mining/refinery planets and agricultural ones can be used with success throughout the game. The other potential for profit is in missions. There are normally three ways to obtain missions: the mission computer, The Mercenary's Guild and the Merchant's Guild. The mission computer - located in the center of the base - serves as a clearing house for a variety of money making ventures: ferrying cargo from one planet to another, patrolling nav points, defending bases and the like. The Mercenary's Guild specializes in gun-for-hire work, with the bulk of the missions devoted to hunting down pirates, patrolling space lanes and eliminating Kilrathi. The Merchant's Guild is the perfect organization for less dexterous gamers, with profitable commerce taking precedence over combat. The guilds offer more lucrative missions than the mission computer, but there are two caveats: these unions require dues ($1000 for the Merchant's Guild , $5000 for the Mercenary's Guild) and one must usually travel out of the current system to complete the mission, requiring the addition of a jump drive to one's craft. A jump drive is absolutely essential to complete Privateer; with over four dozen planet/bases scattered throughout more than 60 star systems, the world of Privateer is a very big place.


A jump drive isn't the only component that can be added to a player's ship. The local ship dealer offers a menu flush with expensive, high-tech delights. Shields and engines are offered in five strength levels, with scanners, ECM packages, and armor plating available at a variety of price points. Eight different gun types are available, ranging from the quick firing laser cannon to the awesome plasma gun. For even more firepower, proton torpedoes and four missile types can be added, turning a passive trading rig into a potent offensive vessel. The ultimate upgrade is a new ship, and the player will want to upgrade ASAP. The decrepit Tarsus that one starts with gives players boxy, utilitarian view screens and displays with a limited field of vision. It is an awful ship and should be turned into scrap metal before the unfriendlies in space do it first.


Once launched into space, the playing perspective shifts to the cockpit of the craft. In terms of playability, Privateer plays much like its predecessors in the Wing Commander series. All the same keystrokes are used ("W" still cycles through the available missiles, "Tab" still engages the afterburners, etc.), so Wing Commander aficionados should feel right at home. Gamers should know that the same joystick calibration routine used in Strike Commander, does not work so well here. It refused to accept my CH Product's Flightstick at face value; a call to Origin's tech support provided the answer in the form of a text file entitled "JOYB.DAT", filled with several "X's" and placed in the C:\PRIVATER directory. Even when things are working as they should, the joystick control in Privateer is somewhat coarse. Players used to the sensitive combat controls in Wing Commander may find Privateer difficult to get used to.


Plotlines and Pirates


Whereas Wing Commander I & II featured very structured storylines, Privateer sheds the linearity of its predecessors and gives the player free reign to explore where and when he desires. In Privateer, the player can travel to any location in the game, provided he doesn't get blasted to bits in the process. The game does start the player off in the relatively docile Troy system, allowing players to get a feel for the game before being pounced upon by experienced opponents Even so, the early going is tough, with the player having the very minimum of weapons and armor. Some might become frustrated with this long and shaky start, but those who diligently work their way out of the Troy system will be rewarded.


Privateer does have a storyline. A loose backbone of missions serve to guide the player towards the eventual conclusion of the game. Unlike the storyline in Wing Commander I & II (which essentially led the player by the nose through a string of tightly connected combat missions), Privateer lets the player proceed at his own pace. Once one gets on the right track, an exciting storyline unfolds, beginning with the discovery of a bizarre alien artifact and culminating in an encounter with an advanced alien civilization - and the enigmatic alien spacecraft alluded to in the Privateer introduction. Privateer's treatment of plot and story may be crucial to some gamers enjoyment of the product. Gamers who preferred the connected, structured flow of events in the Wing Commander series may be disappointed; on the other hand, players, like myself, who felt constrained by the same structured plotline should find Privateer a much more enjoyable gaming experience.


As enjoyable as I found Privateer to be, two aspects of the story were troubling to me. The first concerns Privateer's decidedly sophomoric streak, first evinced when the player attempts to communicate with other spacecraft. During these exchanges, the player is given dialogue choices such as "Can I borrow a donut, Lard-O?", "What's your sign?" and "I'm going to slow roast your nuts!". This boyish approach extends to the portrayal of women in Privateer as well. The female secretary in the Mercenary's Guild is shown filing her nails and chewing gum, while most of the other females encountered in the game are portrayed in a similar, stereotypical fashion. In these two aspects, the script writing of Privateer lacks the relative sophistication of Origin's other games.


In another aspect, the world of Privateer is up to par with Origin's Ultima series in terms of offering real moral choices. In Privateer, the player has the opportunity to smuggle drugs and sell human slaves for profit. Trafficking in either cargo is viewed as criminal by the "good" side of the Privateer universe (i.e., the Confederacy and local planetary militia). Confederate and militia patrol craft often will scan the player's ship for contraband; if drugs or slaves are detected on the player's ship, they immediately attack. Unfortunately, gamers who scoop unmarked cargo out of space after a fierce dogfight could unknowingly find themselves in possession of either of these illegal cargoes and be attacked immediately by the authorities. Origin should be given credit for providing these options and leaving the heavy hand of morality out of it. If they wish, players can go over to the "Dark Side," but they must be willing to deal with the consequences. On the other side, it would be nice to have the option to free captured slaves or carry out raids on pirate bases trafficking in questionable cargo.


This Is Not Your Father's Wing Commander


Privateer doesn't require quite the investment in hardware that Strike Commander does, but potential pilots should be forewarned: space smugglers do not fly on slow 486s alone. Origin recommends a machine with a 486 CPU running at least 25MHz - it should be a requirement. Privateer doesn't offer any controls to adjust game detail settings, something that would allow users to match the game to the speed of their machines. When engaging multiple bogies, screen updates become very choppy on anything less than a 486/33 with gobs of RAM. The situation worsens when a dogfight occurs within the blue mist of jump points, with screen updates slowing to a crawl. The ideal gaming system for Privateer is a fast 486 machine with a speedy local bus video card and 8MB of RAM. Allocating at least 4MB of RAM to SmartDrive helps smooth out choppy frame rates and prevent pauses for hard drive access during gameplay.


Although Privateer worked perfectly with a Sound Blaster Pro, it refused to work correctly on a machine with the Gravis Ultrasound in Sound Blaster emulation mode. Privateer would also not work with the Pro Audio Spectrum (PAS) in native mode; it only worked when the PAS was configured for Sound Blaster emulation (although the Privateer configuration program incorrectly lists the Pro Audio Spectrum as a valid option). Sound cards compatible with the MPU-401 General MIDI Interface standard all work with Privateer, although the Roland LAPC-1 sound card is not directly supported. Privateer's incomplete sound card support is puzzling, as robust support for a wide range of sound cards is vital to any entertainment product.


The Privateer soundtrack (by Nenad Vugrinee) is a model of unobtrusiveness; after dozens of hours of playing time, I still found myself enjoying the game music enough to continue listening to it. Graphics are polished throughout, with plenty of ray-traced objects to complete the gritty, hard-edged portrayal of life in a distant, violent future. The 64-page manual is an excellent one, complete with a pithy quick start section to get novice players up and gaming in hurry.


Privateer isn't for everyone. Like Strike Commander, Privateer is a deluxe, high-end product designed for use with 486 machines sporting fast video cards and vast hard drives. Gamers with less capable gaming hardware should look to Wing Commander Academy for a less hardware-intensive slice of the Wing Commander universe. Gamers able and willing to pay the high hardware admission price - and patient enough to endure the slow start, hardware glitches and minor bugs - should find the cash-for-game exchange rate to their liking.


Wing Commander: Armada

Don't Play This Game Alone
Origin Adds Multiplayer Dogfighting To The Catfights In Wing Commander: Armada
By Martin E. Cirulis
Original publish date: Dec. 1994

3 stars
Pros: Beautiful to behold, and a hoot to play head to head.
Cons: Don't play this game alone! In addition to a certain imbalance in the shield/firepower ratio, the AI is as dumb as a stump. Joystick calibration is very flaky.


For years now, space combat fans have seen the evolution of one of the best space opera milieus since the old pen 'n' paper days when Traveler was born. Origin systems started the ball rolling with the legendary Wing Commander, a game revolutionary on many fronts, not the least of which was the creation of a coherent galaxy to serve as a backdrop to its endless starfighter duels. In the tradition of Ultima, each new Wing Commander had two goals: the first being the refinement of combat and graphics, and the other, somewhat subtler, to continue the story of humanity locked in life-or-death struggles with a fearless race of catlike warriors. Fortunately, it seems that Homo sapiens have been as valiant as Larry Niven's lawyers have been forgiving.


Each new product offered some new insights into your fearsome foes, or as least let you get your hands on some hot new Confederation technology. Slipping into the cockpit of new fighter designs made a grin spread slowly on your face, especially when the foe scattered ahead of your fearsome weapons. Of course, that smile usually turned into a grimace when you encountered the Kilrathi answer to your new toy. No matter what, though, one could always be fairly certain that a Wing Commander product would be worth the money, since the worst case scenario had always been "Just more of the same," and that wasn't bad at all.


The Last Starfighter


At first glance, Armada simply attempts to add a strategic wargame to the WC universe, but as you delve further into it you realize that perhaps the wargame was a veiled excuse to test new graphic and communication technologies. Your hands begin to itch as you start exploring the human-to-human options and realize that here, finally, is the chance to find out who is the best starfighter pilot on the block.


The manual makes a small attempt to interest you in "The Gauntlet," but in reality, this aspect of the game is just the traditional WC "simulator" you usually find in the practice area of other WCs. You start out in a light fighter of either human or Kilrathi design and must face wave after wave of enemy fighters, which increase in number and weight-class until finally destroying you. It's Space Invaders with a serious attitude, but wears thin after a while to all but the most committed fighter jocks. This aspect of the game would soon gather dust if it weren't for the fact that the communications suite allows you to duel with another player or team up with another pilot against the computer hordes.


What meat there is in this package is in the strategic game referred to as "Armada." Here a player starts on one side of a large cluster of worlds with one planet bearing a mine complex and shipyard, and a single carrier equipped with only two light fighters serving as an initial exploration and conquest arm. The game functions as a simplified version of Spaceward Ho! in that the only resource is minerals, each world having a set allotment that must be extracted by a facility. The only use for your mineral wealth is the construction of facilities or fighters.


As in Spaceward Ho!, your Carrier is important, not as an extension of force to be reckoned with, but as a construction vehicle to be protected at all costs. Planetside facilities, mines, shipyards and fortresses can only be built when your Carrier is in orbit and loaded with the appropriate mineral tonnage. Fighters themselves can travel from world to world under their own power, so the traditional role of the Carrier is negated. In fact, the real importance of the Carrier is to serve as a kind of "King" piece in the game. Whoever destroys their opponent's King wins automatically. Fortunately, only heavy fighters carry the necessary torpedoes to harm the capital ship, and since these fighters take the longest time and most resources to produce, you can feel fairly safe exploring and setting up mines for the first ten or so turns.


There are no other capital ships available in the game, and you cannot build other carriers. This and other logical shortcuts make the Armada game somewhat superficial, to say the least; an expanded version of this game called the "Campaign" is basically just a best out of ten Armada games.


Those hoping for some sort of real chance to inhabit the Admiral's chair in the WC universe are no doubt going to be disappointed, but all is not lost. Instead of dry, number crunching combat resolutions (though this option does exist for the die-hard accountant-types out there), the player must fight out each combat encounter in the hot-seat of one of the fighters involved. All combats occur when ships from opposite sides inhabit the same star-system; but no matter how many fighters are in the area, only two from each side enter combat at any given time. The rest enter as fresh reinforcements when the active combatants meet fiery ends. This interesting twist to combat both continues the flight-intensive aspect of WC games and allows an interesting clash between strategic and arcade skills. A fine joystick jockey can pull victory from the mandibles of sure doom if faced with a Montgomery with a distaste for sweat and a strained wrist.


The Thrill of the Hunt


Armada is at least the graphical equal of any space action game on the market, if not the best-looking starfighter sim around these days. Though previous entries in the WC series were always top-notch graphically, the high-water mark has just been raised again. Ships move smoothly and quickly on a 486 class PC, but now the images maintain their smooth lines and coherency at almost any range, distorting only at the point of impact. Long-time fans of the series can remember how capital ships, while beautiful and clean at a distance, became an incomprehensible mosaic when you tried to strafe close in. Many a career has been cut short by slamming into the side of a suddenly indistinct cruiser instead of blasting neatly over its bow. Those days are over: now, you can actually fly between the runways of a carrier using its own hull to block shots from defensive batteries! It's a nerve-racking and dangerous stunt to be sure, but thanks to the incredible graphic precision, it's now a possibility instead of a Death Star dream. Another thrill of the new visual splendor is that you can actually see your shots hit an enemy ship's shields first, lighting them up with crackling blue fire stunning enough for a Next Generation effect. If you are close enough, you can actually see your shots striking the hull of your opponent's fighter after you pound his shields down, debris flying off in greater and greater chunks until a final cinematic explosion occurs. All the while the game careens along at high speed with multiple ships on the screen.


Armada further distinguishes itself in allowing all aspects of the game to be played against human opponents via a NetBIOS network, modem or even the marginally playable split-screen technique, as well as allowing you to use .WAV files of your own creation to customize your taunts and radio chatter. The game functions beautifully across a network or by direct link, subject only to the usual foible of phone line connections in modem modes. Not since the days when I spent far too much dough playing Air Warrior on GEnie have I experienced the same level of exuberant air combat intensity.


High Tech Horrors


But all is not sunshine and furballs in the land of Armada. The great thing about the earlier installments of Wing Commander was how everybody else flew around you, friends and foes alike. The enemy would fly strategies reflecting the strengths of their fighters: heavily armed and shielded fighters would try and lure you into a straight-on duel, leaving them dented and you dismembered and dispersed if you were foolish enough to fall for it; light fighters would make a quick pass and then try to jump on your tail, or snipe away while you were busy with another target. Your own wingmen were actually good enough to steal kills out from under your guns, and certainly they were capable of engaging and destroying the enemy with some modicum of skill.


Well, for some unfathomable reason, the folks at Origin have decided to rip out all these tried and true routines and give us the Forest Gump of flight AIs instead. Imagine my dawning horror as I discovered each and every fighter, of both races, fights almost exactly the same way, regardless of type, damage, or even your own behavior. Apparently, the tactic du jour is a short pass followed by an afterburner turn, again and again and again, until death do you part. Computer pilots will even refuse to follow you and blast away from behind as you fly leisurely, in a straight line, admiring the stars. Changing the skill level of your opponent only shortens the length of the firing pass, making it harder to draw a bead on your target, nothing more. Even your wingmen have to follow this pattern, so they are now useless enough to have the LucasArts Wingman Academy button on their jackets. In a fight where you have been destroyed already and you refuse to take control of another fighter, the computer can have two light fighters go around and around for over 15 minutes! The flaw is so serious that if it weren't for the multiplayer mode the game would be nearly useless.


This problem is exacerbated by a subtler problem with the series in general: more has been confused with better. Instead of keeping track of improving fighter technology and its implications for gameplay, designers are seemingly content with bigger guns, stronger shields, faster engines and quicker recharge rates. The balance of a competitive game is a finely tuned thing; any changes have to be carefully considered.


While I, as a player, love having a more powerful ship to fly, I begin to despair when I see shields that are so strong and recharge so fast as to rob the game of any hard tactical choices. In the old days when a shield started to buckle you had to break off quickly and slow your rate of fire 'til the weak side recharged. Now, as long as the rain of fire is not continuous (and given the way the computer flies even this is extremely rare), and if you are in anything above a light fighter, you can virtually ignore the incoming shots and blithely fire away because everything recharges so darn efficiently.


Here's a concept for all you fledgling game designers out there: an increase in regenerating armor is not countered by an equal increase in firepower because, while defenses are passive, shots will miss more often than not! Any flight sim where a player can deem the action at his back irrelevant has serious problems.


Kitties on your Six! It is a shame Armada has these flaws because it is such a beautiful looking simulation. I found it to be remarkably bug free, except for the fact that Origin has traded memory manager woes for joystick calibration routines from Hell. Either the game loves your joystick and port arrangements or it insists they do not exist - there is very little middle ground. The strategic game, though lightweight for the experienced wargamer, would still be very enjoyable if the computer could fly like previous WC offerings.


Fortunately, Armada does offer the multiplayer aspect, and thus the game benefits greatly from Martin's First Lay of Networking which states: "The lameness coefficient of any computer game is reduced in geometric proportion to the number of players networked into it." Playing this game against a human being alleviates most of its flaws and makes for a very pleasurable experience. At the time of this writing there is a rumor that Origin is thinking of offering an expansion disk, allowing for six players to fight against each other. This could be crucial to this game's success, especially if a patch to return the flight AI to traditional Wing Commander values is included.


As it stands, if you have someone to play Armanda against regularly, then this is a very enjoyable game, stunning to look at, that should keep you flying and cursing for many hours. But if you figure prominently in MicroProse demographics and thus, are a lone gamer, this game will not amuse you long after the glitz fades.


Wing Commander 3

A New Star is Born
Origin's Wing Commander III Fathers A New Gaming Form
By Martin E. Cirulis
Original publish date: Feb. 1995

5 out of 5 stars
Pros: A classic space combat game is mated with a competent movie - and a new breed of gaming beast is born.
Cons: Configuring your computer for this game can be a challenge in itself.


Every once in a while things change - sometimes slowly, sometimes in a moment. Computer gaming tends to evolve in small steps, many of them in a year, so that when you look back across a decade it makes you feel like checking into an old age home, but the steps themselves can be hard to notice while they are happening. And sometimes they aren't.


For the thousands of times a products is labeled as revolutionary, there is the one time the use of the word is justified.


This is one of those times.


Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, from the technology-pushing nuts at Origin, has to be one of the most hyped programs to come down the pipe in the history of the field. From the amount of money spent on production to conversation with stars who wouldn't be caught dead doing TV but are now on an even smaller screen, WC3 has already been loved, hated, mocked, honored and dismissed by various talking heads... and all before it even hit the shelves. Well, now it's finally here and what's a poor reviewer supposed to do.


Just play it, I guess.


Well, after having spent enough hours playing to have gotten myself a degree in brain-surgery from the Sally Struthers TV College, I can honestly say I have no idea what to say. It's simply incredible and the annoying thing is, I'm not sure what the heck to call it. It's not really a movie. It's inane to treat it as just another game. I'll choke on my own arm before I'll use the word "interactive," "virtual" or any other media catch-word that really doesn't mean anything. I'd call it a "software experience" but I'm afraid people would start asking me to tune their crystals.


From the "When in doubt, stick to what you know" school of journalism let's start looking at WC3 as if it were just another game.


Another Game, Another Carrier


Once again, it's time for you to journey back to the troubled Universe of Wing Commander, where space combat is as visceral and exciting as going up against The Red Baron over the Somme, except there's no air to blow through your hair. Unfortunately, humanity is still at war with the feline Kilrathi, who want the wind to blow through your body. If you've played through the previous two WCs, then be prepared for bad news; once again, you've had another carrier blown out from under you. In seeming retaliation, your old pal Admiral Tolwyn, who holds you personally responsible for every human ill all the way back to Beverly Hills 90210, assigns you to an old Carrier, the TCS Victory.


Well, wouldn't you know it? Once you arrive at your new home and meet the crew, you realize that perhaps this ship should have been called the USS Caine. Morale is in the gutter, personal disputes are rife amongst the crew, and the worst-kept secret in the galaxy is that, contrary to glowing press releases, humanity is less than a year away from being Kitty food. And then there is the matter of your lover being shot down behind enemy lines while on a secret mission...


There's more woe unto you, but that's enough to get the gist of the story and besides, any more would be telling. The point is that this is definitely another Wing Commander, a starfighter game with a storyline spliced through it. Each mission affects the course of the story in a success/failure pattern. Fail too many missions and you end up being pushed back while world after world is ravaged by the Kilrathi. Kick butt and you could be pounding on the door of the Kilrathi Throne room.


Each mission is flown from the cockpit of one of a half-dozen types of fighters, ranging from a light scout to a heavy bomber. Flight mechanics and controls are virtually unchanged from previous WCs, with a few useful additions like the ability to unleash all your missiles in one salvo and to turn your ship independently of your direction of flight. Ships are still protected by energy shields (visible when they are struck as in Wing Commander: Armada) that must be blasted away before you can start chewing up the hull itself. Also unchanged are your fellow pilots, at least one of which is at your wing on every mission, and they still fly with their own personal, and effective, styles. One change, though, from previous games, is that since you are a commanding officer now, you get to pick your own wingman for each mission, and sometimes the storyline may influence those choices.


Graphically, the space combat portion of the game is stunning and superior to anything out there now, including those from the galaxy Mark Hamill used to fly in; shields light up when hit, capital ships have clean crisp lines even when you are flying through the superstructure, and explosions are varied and realistic. Combat has also become more detailed in response to those graphics, fighters can now fly into landing bays under the pilot's control - a great but dangerous way to devastate an enemy carrier is to fly in, blast away and try to get out. Capital ships no longer fire from vague positions on the hull; antifighter fire comes from visible turrets along the hull, which can be destroyed independently of the ship they are protecting. Oddly, though, the space backdrop is not as convincing as it was in precious WCs - I guess something had to be shaved down to keep the frame rate up.


Details for the Retentive


For the person who has failed to see anything in this game but the space combat portion, all is not sunshine and roses. Due mainly to the cinematic sequences and super-detailing of the ships in combat, WC3 pushes the resources of the most powerful PCs out there, and it is not just central processors that are being worked: hard drive interfaces, local busses, video cards and memory must all be near state-of-the-art or things will suffer.


Your first clue that you're not having a faultless experience is the amazingly long time it takes to load the sim part of the program. Once you commit to a mission, it can be upwards of a minute before the sharp sights of space greet you. Also, with "only" 8 megs of RAM and no local bus, players may experience half-second "freeze-ups" while cinematic explosions are loaded, but the action is usually furious enough that all but the most hard-to-please gamer can get used to it.


And speaking of the action, it is very fast, very exciting and very cinematic - and I am not talking about the quality of the images, as beautiful as they are. I use the word cinematic in the sense that combat has been tweaked to make it feel more like a movie instead of a flight sim. The fighting is always at very close range, except for closing; you will spend half the time with the enemy ships filling a good portion of your view. Things blow up a lot faster now. While 15-minute turning duels may be realistic, most directors would rather eat their own spleen than let one take up that much film, and that philosophy is present here.


The combat model has changed to the point that instead of fighting two Kilrathi that are hard to kill, you are wrapped up in a furball with ten enemy fighters that are pretty easy to kill. The danger is about the same, it's just the action that has increased to make things more interesting to the casual gamer, and there are now five skill levels for enemy pilots, so things may be further tweaked to your own personal level of sim-competency. While most would see this as a good thing, those that don't notice the paradox of demanding extreme realism in a starfighter may feel things have gotten a little fluffy. But have no fear, the incompetent flying in Wing Commander: Armada is gone, hopefully never to return. Computer pilots fly well and style is dictated by fighter type, as it should be.


"I'm Ready for my Close-up Now, Mr. Demille."


All this being said, I'm afraid I've come to the conclusion that the space combat aspect of Wing Commander is almost incidental to playing the thing. The story you are moving through is interesting and the characters so well detailed that you almost wish you didn't have to strap into the fighter just to see what happens next. The storyline of a Wing Commander game used to be a gimmick to make what was basically a space combat game seem more interesting, especially to people who weren't dedicated sim-pilots; but things have come full-circle now, and it's the story that is the point and the flight-sim that is the gimmick.


You move through the story in a series of cinematic sequences and conversations that arrange themselves according to your actions on the field of combat. Often in conversation you will have one opportunity to choose a type of response that affects the course of things, or how a character relates to you for the rest of the game. Sometimes these choices are unsatisfying, boiling down to either being a jerk or kissing up, but for the most part, your own personality can guide events.


While I lack the film course credits and salary to be a film critic, I am qualified to judge writing, plot and the SF element itself, and I can tell you without an ounce of hesitation that Wing Commander is at least as good as any SF movie made in the past two years, and superior to any given episode of Star Trek: Any Generation (unfortunately, that's not much of a compliment). From the opening sequence to the finale, if you aren't driven to find out what happens next, you must have the imagination of a newt. In essence, plot development is your reward for going out on a mission.


Now this isn't MacBeth by any means, it's a good B-movie that is marred by only a couple of excruciating lines of dialogue. But it is so superior to what passes for writing and plotting in the industry that in context, it is MacBeth. Perhaps the best part of the "Cinema" portion of WC3 is the fact that it is crafted with some care and attention to the material. The Victory actually looks like a military ship, cramped, utilitarian and no wall-to-wall carpeting on the bridge. Characters, while not completely free of cliches, are at least passionate and dynamic. And the acting is good enough that you almost always find yourself interested in your wingmen as people and not just as victory points.


The cast is strong and while my job isn't to critique acting, all the big names do a good job; but, to be honest, it is some of the unknowns who really make an impression on you. For smaller rolls, Cobra and Vaquero make very lasting impressions and of them all, big names included, the most enjoyable actor to watch is Tom Wilson, portraying our old unstable friend, Maniac. I don't know where they found him, but I have to party with this guy someday; he deserves a long and successful career, hopefully in SF movies.


The weakest point is the Kilrathi themselves, who suffer from the "Alien culture?... hmm.. Let's make 'em Japanese!" philosophy and visually it takes a while to get past their muppet-esque behavior. But once the words "Dark Crystal" stop running through your head, the big cats make fine villains who only need a bit more fleshing out to become truly interesting.


Epiphany


I realize that there will be those who think that I have been blinded by chrome and taken in by pretty pictures and have failed to "critique the game," even now. I'm sure there are lonely guys, using techniques from the Rush Limbaugh School of Getting Attention, crowding the nets to be the first ones to say that WC3 in only a glorified pop-up book, and some technicality or another has ruined gameplay, and they are returning the whole thing tomorrow. Well, more power to them; there are always those who miss a paradigm shift and go on believing the sun revolves around the earth. The reality is that we are witnessing the birth of something new in gaming, something the term "interactive movie" is woefully inadequate for.


Origin should be applauded for taking this kind of risk, and believing enough in their personnel to let a bankroll of this size ride the wheel. Chris Roberts himself, though no Orson Welles, gets much of the credit here - and may he put this much love and attention into all of his projects of this type. Whatever weird future award is given for these things, I'm sure he will receive one retroactively. No matter what damage the "Hollywood" influence wreaks upon the software world, if it has brought us this, then it has been worth it... so far.


I may indeed be blinded by the novelty of it all, considering the only personal complaint I have of the game is there should be an option, when you get to the end, of watching all of the video sequences you made it through strung together into an actual movie. I'm finding it hard to be coldly critical when the kid inside is jumping up and down, but so be it, I've made sure I'm not just weird. Of the literally dozen-and-a-half friends and associates who have stolen my computer chair and watched the opening and first few events unfold, some of whom wouldn't play a computer game to save their lives, none have failed to be wowed - in that same way we were wowed the first time we saw that tiny rebel freighter being chased down by the giant Star Destroyer. Whatever we end up calling this kind of beast, the computer gaming world will never be the same again, and I couldn't be happier.


Wing Commander 4

Freedom Rings True
Origin Packs in the Popcorn Without Leaving out the Game
By Scott A. May
Original publish date: Apr. 1996

4.5 out of 5 stars
Target audience: Both new and experienced fans of this venerable sci-fi space-combat series. Curious about so-called interactive movies? This is one of the few that works, and it works well.
Pros: A near-perfect meld of professional cinematic, branching storylines and heart-pounding space action. First-rate production values, from the quality cast to the stunning SVGA graphics and clean stereo sound.
Cons: Annoying, repetitive wingman dialogue may make you want to commit fratricide. Similarity of some missions detracts from ongoing story development. Hefty system requirements make for smooth gameplay on only the fastest systems.


Forget everything you know about interactive movies. With the release of Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom, designer Chris Roberts and his team at Origin blow this upstart game genre wide open by creating an interactive movie that excels as a movie and a game.


The look and feel of Rober's creation has changed dramatically since the series' auspicious debut in 1990. The original Wing Commander, though still an engaging piece of computer entertainment, seems little more than an ambitions space cartoon by today's standards. Each subsequent release - Wing Commander: The Secret Missions, Wing Commander Armada, and Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi - saw subtle improvements in graphic quality, artificial intelligence, story detail and character development. In 1994, Wing commander III: The Heart of the Tiger, introduced live-action video and full-blown Hollywood production values. Once again, Roberts pushed the envelope of electronic entertainment.


As good as the previous installment was, it served as only a rough prototype for the polished chrome that adorns Wing Commander IV. Real sets, improved film quality, digital Dolby Surround sound, imaginative camera work and more relaxed expressive acting all work together to create a ground-breaking cinematic experience. Beneath the surface, the games' storyline has also significantly matured, targeting a more adult audience with greater attention paid to plausible plot turns and character depth.


By the same token, traditional gaming values remain alive and kicking. Interactive elements have been streamlined in some cases and expanded in others. The end result is a near-perfect integration of film and computer entertainment that should set this burgeoning industry back on its collective heels.


Goodbye, Kitties


In the last episode, the humans of the Terran confederation barely survived an all-out war with their dreaded antagonists, the cat-like Kilrathi, thanks to your heroic efforts as spacefighter pilot Col. Christopher Blair (played by Mark Hamill). Now that the war is finally over, Blair has planted himself on terra firma to enjoy the peaceful life of a farmer. But all is not well in the galaxy you fought so hard to defend. The economy is sluggish, no longer fueled by the war machine. Far worse, renegade attacks on Confed ships - many of them unarmed civilian transports - suggest rebel activity in the Border Worlds. Could this be the start of a civil war?


Admiral Tolwyn (Malcolm McDowell), commander of the Strategic Readiness Agency, thinks so. As the story begins, he addresses members of the Terran Assembly, urging the use of full military action to quash the rebels. He dispatches your old friend and irritant, Maniac (Tom Wilson), to return you to active duty. "I've always said, you're either an eagle or an earthworm," Maniac taunts. To no one's surprise, Blair jumps at the opportunity to see action again.


Once reinstated, Blair dutifully follows Tolwyn's lead. Then, like clockwork, a series of conflicting orders, mysterious discoveries and suspicious personnel shifts begin to raise doubts about the entire affair. Are the Border World Conflicts simply a ruse? Are there traitors at work within the Confederation and - if so - how high up does the conspiracy go? Even more disturbing, you're no longer completely sure who you can trust.


We wouldn't want to spoil things by outlining every plot twist and character action. Suffice it to say that this script has some whoppers, delivered in a more convincing manner than previous efforts in the series. Although the ending isn't exactly a shocker, how you arrive there is an intricate and entertaining web of disparate plot threads, untangled by your decisions and actions throughout the game.


Action and Interaction


Structurally, the game is divided into a series of 15 scenarios, each of which can branch into a number of player-controlled directions. Your performance in battle, as well as your choices in dozens of key character interactions, determine which limb of the multi-branching storyline you follow. Some of the game's most intriguing plot branches are built right into the cinematic cut scenes. The film pauses, prompting you to choose between two character responses. Sometimes, the effect is immediate and dramatic; other times it foreshadows actions - or inactions - much later in the game. Decisions affecting morale now influence individual characters only, not the entire ship. A welcome addition is a conversation map, which allows you to view which characters are available for optional or mandatory interaction - you'll spend a lot less time wandering the halls of the ship.


With the basic technology in place from Wing III, the producers were able to spend more time on storyboarding and mission design, resulting in consistently smoother game flow. Flight duties no longer involve simple blast fests; you'll be sent on rescue, reconnaissance, infiltration and planetside missions. Another big change: cockpits have virtually disappeared from your spacefighters, replaced with elaborate HUDs projecting more than 17 different instruments, gauges and tactical information onto the view screen. Though visually less enticing than the traditional first-person bitmapped display, it's more functional, giving pilots the bigger picture - targeting radar, power consumption, ordnance supply, damage control - at a glance. New ships available for combat include the Black Lance Dragon, armed with an incredible fission cannon, and the Banshee, equipped with the new wide burst scatter gun. Several ships support "autoslide," a real-world physics tactical maneuver which allows you to fly in one direction and shoot in another - perfect for strafing runs on capital ships. Some items left out of Wing III make a triumphant return here, such as tractor beams and an improved version of the Mace missile. Six skill levels, ranging from rookie to nightmare, affect flying and gunnery skills of both enemy and allied pilots.


Wingman Commander


Wingmen play an even greater role in this new adventure. You can now choose wingmen from the entire duty roster, bringing into play pilot attributes such as trigger-happiness, aggressiveness, courage, flying skill, loyalty and verbosity. Some missions even require the use of a second team of wingmen. These can be ordered to different quadrants, reporting their status directly back to you. Chatter among wingmen has been significantly expanded with each response indicative of their current morale level. Unfortunately, however, the responses are still annoyingly repetitive at times building the desire to shoot your own wingman just to shut him or her up.


One of the most interesting aspects of the new game is the uncertainty of your opponents. There's no clear-cut enemy like the Kilrathi. Instead, the enemy rises from within. You never know if the wingman who backs you up on one mission will be flying against you somewhere down the line. It brings a refreshing sense of mystery to an already complex game structure.


Performance Anxiety


Production designer Chris Douglas has tweaked the graphics considerably, both in the cinematic cutscenes and actual space combat. Although the programmers use the same 3D animation package (Alias) as in Wing III, the graphics are now rendered in 24-bit color, producing greater detail and smoother texture maps. The most spectacular example of the improved graphics engine can be seen in the numerous special effects, including a mind-blowing shock wave (triggered by the special Flash-Pak bomb) that rivals anything seen in a sci-fi feature film. Add in some light-sourcing shading and 16-bit Dolby Surround digital stereo and you have a game with breathtaking overall ambiance.


To get the most from the game, you'll need an above-average 486 local-bus system and quad-speed CD-ROM drive. Although the product tested reasonably well on a lesser machine (486DX2-66 non-local bus), the animation proved too fractured for serious extended play. On a mid-range Pentium or 486DX4-120 with PCI bus, the game flows like a mountain stream.


Many products claim to be interactive movies, but fall short in either their cinematic or long-term gaming appeal. Wing Commander IV addresses every aspect of this new genre with equal importance. This truly is the vanguard of the next generation of electronic entertainment.