This is the last in a series of interesting video features published in the mid '90s by the CD-ROM "magazine" Interactive Entertainment. Their Wing Commander 4 review appeared in issue 23. The CD-ROM interface displayed screenshots from the game and overlaid them with low resolution videos. That experience has been recreated here rather than displaying the videos full screen. Again, while it looks pretty dated today, the setup was really cool for the time. The vast majority of internet access out there was still dialup, so this was the only practical way to experience something like this!
Text article that accompanied the video review on the CD:
The Commander Returns to Battle
A rogue band of pilots from the border worlds descends upon an innocent civilian transport and its escorts and destroy them by unleashing a mysterious device. Cut to our hero, Christopher Blair, once again played by the seemingly ageless Mark Hamil (though it must be said that for a hero, he is a bit on the dull and dumpy side). He's taken up farming ("Luke, come in for dinner. . . Luke") and is picked by his wacky old friend Maniac, played by the "why doesn't he get cast in real movies" guy Tom Wilson. Blair's been reinstated to active duty by his occasional foil Tolwyn, once again played by the magnificently coifed Malcolm McDowell.
Blair keeps trying to get out, but they keep pulling him back in. He's reunited with some of his old crew, but something is amiss. The war isn't going the way they intended, suspicions begin to grow, and at one point the player, as Blair, is forced to choose between loyalty to friends or to the Confederation. Once that choice is made, the game takes one of two divergent paths that lead to multiple endings.
So goes the storyline to Origin's Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom. From its 30 minute opening cinematic to its eternal credits listing everyone and their favorite pets, there's little question that all involved really want to make movies. There is an actual game here, though, a fact that's all too easy to forget. To many players, the space combat of the Wing Commander series isn't the equal of X-Wing or TIE Fighter, two programs that have the distinct advantage of having that little Star Wars tie-in. Wing Commander IV isn't likely to change the opinion of those folks much; the combat engine is a virtual carryover from Wing Commander III, except for an improved, albeit glacial, terrain model for the land-based missions. There are a number of subtle improvements, a few new ships, better AI, better graphics and more variety to the missions, but there's nothing, game-wise, that you haven't seen done here and elsewhere.
What ends up happening, though, is that the combat almost seems inconsequential and irrelevant to the game, as the cinematic pretenses of the movie make you want to avoid the damn battles and just get on with the show. Drama is, in part, built through control; no movie would interrupt the viewing for extended periods of time to allow the viewer to muck around (and some of the missions are complex enough to engage the player for a while). It's a flaw this particular interpretation of the "interactive movie" concept shares with others.
Since the designers have chosen this particular movie route, they have to answer primarily to the inadequacies of the filmed bits in the game: the dialogue is stale and clichéd (Blair's speeches are eternal and yawn-inducing, filled with all sorts of philosophizing yet revealing little insight), the plot is predictable, bit players are stereotypes rather than three-dimensional characters (you have the crusty mechanic, the burned-out veteran pilot, the idealistic rookie, and so on), and certain staged action scenes appear to be just that – staged. The film making has yet to reach the level of polish that even most film school graduates can attain with more meager budgets than this.
The price of freedom may indeed be eternal vigilance, as a few people in Wing Commander IV seem to agree upon, but the real question the game doesn't really answer is whether or not a $12 million budget makes for a better game. It certainly makes for better press coverage (how many times have you heard how much the thing cost?), and there's no question that the non-interactive "movie" parts of the game, flawed as they are, are still technically and visually superior to everything that's been produced by Silliwood thus far.
Hollywood producers, though, have little to fear from a little project like this. $12 million ain't chump change to most mortals, but by film industry standards it wouldn't even pay for Arnie, Sly or Bruce's limo rides to the set. However, the far-ranging effect of the series may be the demise of a number of companies now trying to replicate the production values of the game, but with far worse results. Gamers always judge each subsequent effort based on the new standard (see Doom and Myst for recent examples), and there's little question that Wing Commander IV has set the new standard for interactive movie experiences. Even Origin is painting itself into a corner: will gamers settle now for anything less than Wing Commander IV quality, from even the most innocuous projects?
Despite the fears and reservations such a project may have induced (and let's face it, when you first boot it up your first response is, to quote Kurt Cobain, "Here we are now, entertain us"), you have to admire the way the game manages to succeed. It does so by utilizing every cliché known to cinema: really, really nasty villains (who dress in black, no less), lots of spaceships flying around blowing things up, moral dilemmas, acts of unspeakable violence and betrayal, a hero with a rebel streak in him (of course the "him" is all important), a wacky sidekick for comic relief, numerous, stern-faced extras as cannon fodder, some good old fashioned angst and, believe it or not a dramatic court scene at the end. All it lacks is that tacked-on hackneyed love story (hello Wing Commander III) to make it really pass "Generic Adventure Movie 101."
Of course all of this would actually matter if we all didn't love this sort of thing. Many would be more upset if a game or movie didn't follow these rules, as set in stone (or celluloid) by the great philosopher Lucas. Part of the charm of the things is their familiarity. Besides, the game is such an event and a bigger-than-life experience that criticism becomes somewhat futile. Yes, it could have been made better with a bit more attention to film basics and story and less to hiring name actors and building fancy sets, but it remains a must-have for anyone interested in state of the art gaming experiences. On its toughest levels, gamers will find a serious challenge and some hardcore gameplay. If you want to watch a movie, set the difficulty to lowest and go along for the ride. You won't regret it.