Why We Fight
A reader named John Brown recently e-mailed us to ask: why are we so excited about Wing Commander Arena? Why are we so positive when there are fans who aren't happy about the release, and when other news sites insist that Wing Commander fans will be 'disgruntled' over the title? I wrote him back with an explanation... and he suggested that I convert it into an editorial so that everyone could understand our point of view on this issue.
The easy answer - but not the accurate one - is that there's a key difference between someone complaining about screenshots at the forums and myself: I've actually played Arena, however briefly. I've also seen an aspect of the development they haven't - EA's extreme interest in making absolutely certain that the continuity and the look and the feel of the game fit with the needs of the Wing Commander community. That alone is amazing, since statistically we don't matter - the people who make Wing Commander Arena a hit will be the hundreds of thousand Live players, not the few thousand hardcore Wing Commander fans. I could tell some stories -- the Arena team wondering about incredibly detaild things wherever possible, beyond even what an old continuity junkie like myself would worry about. I remember an e-mail asking whether they had researched the gun colors correctly -- even Origin didn't keep that straight. Having seen the game and having seen how hard EA has worked on getting it 'right' for so few people, I completely believe in it.
With regards to other news sites, remember that they do not know the Wing Commander community. They haven't spent a decade catering to its every whim, to making sure that it stays together, to putting it before anything else. Kotaku didn't race across the country tracking down Prophecy DVD and The Mercury Post didn't beg and plead with a dozen ex-Origin guys for rare documents to scan. If you have believed in us before, then do so now. General gaming news sites don't understand us, they simply want a negative story to help sell advertising.
Is Arena a good game? As nearly every professional reviewer has already agreed, Arena is a wonderful game on its own merits. It has exactly the outstanding synthesis of simple gameplay and complex options that have defined the greatest video games of all time. Here's an example: you pull the right trigger to fire one type of gun and the left trigger to fire the other. To fire a de facto 'full guns' setting you squeeze both at once. Arena is the 20th non-PC Wing Commander title... but it's the first to find something this simple. Every other attempt is an awkward button-combo attempting to replicate the PC's 'G' key. Arena is a well designed game. It is easy to load Arena and blast a few meteors... but it also has an intricate web of devices to perfect, weapon loadouts to understand, game modes to master, special maneuvers to practice and hiding places and secrets to discover. It's easy to learn and hard to master - exactly what you want in a video game.
That's not the whole story - at all.
The reasons for the nature of our coverage are much deeper than this, though. They relate to the kind of community we've been trying to create for Wing Commander fans over the last decade. I feel very strongly that modern internet fandoms have become unacceptably negative. You can no longer be a Star Trek fan if you aren't complaining about Enterprise, you can't be a Star Wars fan if you loved Episode III, and so on. It's something that I consciously try to avoid when writing material and otherwise interacting with the Wing Commander community. If our favorite game isn't something that makes us excited and happy then what's the point?
The same is true of modern news reporting: if a story isn't sensational or shocking then it doesn't make the paper. I would like very much for the WC:CIC to emulate the news reporting of an earlier age. Have you ever seen news broadcasts from the early 1960s? I have a very clear image of my head of anchors reporting on the early space missions by explaining exactly how things like on-orbit rendezvous work using models and diagrams. I would much rather use my time and effect to have the CIC explain how Arena's game mods work or to find what the specifications of the different ships are than to try to find a new way to spin things negatively. If this means that we receive less hits or are somehow less respected by the rest of the world, then I am happy to stand alone in my principles.
I have also been around the block quite a few times. I remember, just barely, when Wing Commander II came out. People were angry that it didn't have the same elaborate mission tree as the original. When Privateer came out its freeform nature bothered the reactionary masses. When Wing Commander III was released there was an enormous backlash because of the switch to full motion video. Wing Commander IV was attacked for losing cockpits and for not designing an entirely new set of ships. Wing Commander Prophecy didn't have its multiplayer or its FMV choices. Today all of these games are considered enduring classics.
In fact, I once suggested to EA that they not to involve the Nephilim in Arena because of how poorly they were accepted in 1997... only to be shocked and embarassed when so many notes were received asking if the cliffhanger at the end of Secret Ops would be addressed. Today the things that made Prophecy the object of the fandom's ire are the things that make it great; the nicer graphics, the focus on gameplay over story and so forth. The things that make Arena unique - the low cost, the number of ships, the massive multiplayer environments, the console-specific gameplay - may be objects of complaint now... but they will someday make the game timeless.
No, Arena is not the same as a classic Wing Commander game. The style is different. Though it works hard at incorporating elements and the general feel of Wing Commander, it is a different game. There is no massive story, save some text (well, Secret Ops did this too). There is no 'first person' view, save for an optional FreeLancer style perspective. At the end of the day it is not Wing Commander 7 - but nor does it claim to be. Ask yourself: is the only game you ever want to play Wing Commander 7? Does a WC title have to have Mark Hamill playing Blair in order for it to be 'real'? If Arena were the worst game ever made (and I promise you that it is not), you would ultimately be out the cost of a fast food meal in order to play it. I spend more money feeding my fish in a week than I will on a new Wing Commander game which I will play for hundreds of hours with my friends. Any way you look at it, that's a bargain.
Think of Wing Commander Armada. It was a completely different game. A strategy-focused multiplayer game. In a modern sci-fi community it would be ripped apart months before anyone had a chance to see it. No actors?! No storyline?! This isn't Wing Commander! Yet I remember being fourteen years old and being so incredibly excited when the local Babbages called to say that my copy had come in. I remember begging my mother to take me to pick it up in the evening, I remember falling in love with its amazing continuity manual on the drive back from the store and I remember playing it for hours and hours instead of sleeping before school. I want everyone to have that kind of experience with a new Wing Commander game, not some negative sludge of "this will suck" repeated over and over. That kind of promise is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Also, consider that Arena is very good news from a futurist's standpoint. There hasn't been an original Wing Commander game in nearly ten years! This is a very, very good sign! Even if you don't have an Xbox, even if you don't plan on ever getting one, it's great news for the series as a whole. After ten years of refusing to touch the property without Chris Roberts, EA management is finally willing to let their developers do Wing Commander games again! If - nay, when! - Arena is a success, it will mean that one of the big-budget Wing Commander sequels which has been throw around over the last five years will finally get the green light. I've personally been involved with three such projects and they have all been cancelled by executives because there's no proof that Wing Commander can sell in the 21st century. Arena will prove that. If you aren't familiar with XBLA, know that Arena is far and away more impressive than anything currently available. We're talking about a service that offers simple card games and NES ports. Arena will be a smash hit that pushes the boundaries of the service in exactly the way Wing Commander always has.
Last, but not least, we run a Wing Commander news site. The whole staff is very, very excited to be able to report on a real Wing Commander game again - that's a big part of the positive tone of our articles. We genuinely enjoy finding a new video or a new screenshot or a new fact about the game... and we hope the rest of the world will, too. If they don't, then that's too bad... but we're not going to let it rain on our parade. We've kept our promise and have reported something interesting about Wing Commander every day for year after year - and I will be honest, it hasn't always been fun. There have been days when there just isn't news or where we've all had real life issues to deal with... but we've kept it up, and all that time we've insisted that Wing Commander will be back. Now it is - and that's great.