Looking back at the Wing Commander games

Wing Commander was one of the first, majority successful space combat sims, and we take a look at the classic series...

The humble flight sim is one of the oldest genres around and one of the major reasons why PC gaming managed to, if you’ll forgive the pun, take off. With a decent flight stick to hand and a system specification that could handle them, PCs back in the day wowed anyone lucky enough to get a chance to play some of the classic flighty titles, and one of the very best was Origin’s Wing Commander.

Spanning several instalments and spin-offs, the Wing Commander series is considered by many veteran gamers to be one of the best of all time. Although Star Wars: X-Wing Vs TIE Fighter usually manages to take the lion’s share of nominations for best classic space combat flight sim, Wing Commander was treading new territory in the genre long before the Lucasarts title, and right from the get go the series featured groundbreaking technology and gameplay mechanics. Not only was the game presented in a truly cinematic manner, a rarity for flight sims, but it featured gripping, accessible play and an absorbing story.

The series is perhaps best known to many for featuring Star Wars‘ Mark Hamill alongside Malcolm McDowell in later instalments (not forgetting the awful movie), but there’s far more to Wing Commander than famous faces strutting their stuff in front of blue screen, which we’ll go into here as we look at the series, beginning with the first outing.

Wing Commander (1990)

First released on PC and then ported to a number of systems, including the Amiga, Apple Mac, Sega Mega CD and even SNES, Wing Commander is the game that kicked off the war with the Kilrathi, the series’ cat-like antagonists.

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As a newly graduated fighter pilot assigned to the Confederation carrier, The Tiger’s Claw, you were tasked with flying missions in various star systems against he Kilrathi threat. Missions involved seek and destroy, patrols, and escorts and, as to be expected from the name of the series, you did so with a wingman at your side, who you could order around during the mission.

This ability to give orders to your allies, not to mention the ability to taunt your foes, was just one of the novel features the game employed, and Wing Commander really did set the standard for the genre, and for things to come.

Although many of the features of the title had been seen in some fashion before, rarely had a game managed to combine so many technical features into one release. It had it all for the time, lip syncing in cut-scenes, impressive AI, branching, open-ended story and a game engine called Origin FX that never failed to impress.

This engine, which may look archaic by today’s standards, tricked users into believing they were seeing a fully 3D universe by using rotating bitmapped sprites. Various angles were rendered for each fighter and object, and the game simply selected the appropriate angle to show at any one time to give the impression of 3D. This allowed the game to avoid simplistic wire-frame, vector graphics, and have far better-looking ships, whilst retaining a 3D aesthetic. It was amazing at the time, and facilitated those Star Wars/Battlestar Galactica fantasies gamers had wanted to play out.

The aforementioned branching story was another key element. The interaction with your colleagues in between missions, and the cinematic briefings and launch sequences only added to the fantasy element, and your progress on each mission affected the flow of the game.

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Each star system you jumped into had a selection of missions, which you could win or lose, and by lose I mean fail an objective. If you died, it was game over, and your story stopped there. Your success contributed to winning or losing the battle for the current star system, and would then affect which system you jumped into next. Fail, and you’ll end up in a different system, with a different set of missions than if you won the previous battle. Keep failing your objectives, and you could end up with difficult odds and inferior ships, win and you’d find you’d have an easier time of it.

This flow helped to make the game that much more immersive, as you could actually fail a mission, or have to eject to save yourself, and it wouldn’t be game over. You’d simply have to live with the consequences, and life may become harder. The need to be successful was very real, and made each mission far more tense.

This urgency was also enhanced by the mortality of your wingmen. Although AI controlled, these fighter pilots under your command weren’t invulnerable and certainly not perfect. They could make mistakes and even die if you weren’t careful, and sending them into battle without considering the situation could not only mean you’re left outnumbered and out gunned, but that character would be gone for the rest of the story.

It’s true that the wingmen in the game weren’t particularly effective anyway, often leaving you to get all the kills, but they could be a good distraction for some foes, and they occasionally helped out. More importantly, they greatly enhanced the immersion as you really did feel like a wing commander, barking out orders, telling them to break and attack, keep radio silence or form on your wing. Again, this may not sound like much today, but in 1990, this kind of AI interaction was mostly unheard of.

For all its technical achievements, though, perhaps Wing Commander‘s biggest success was its simple, but challenging gameplay. Unlike many flight sims, it wasn’t bogged down by ridiculously over-complex controls, and wasn’t concerned with realistic flight physics. Instead it featured intuitive and enjoyable arcade dogfights, and an interesting sci-fi universe to fly around in. It was both accessible for the layman, and a great breath of fresh air for the flight veteran, and it was no surprise that it would spawn a squadron of sequels and spin-offs.

Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi (1991)

Following on from the success of the original, Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi took the groundwork laid by the first game and polished it up a little. Although much of the game remained the same, including a very similar, if slightly improved graphical engine, WCII was a big improvement over the original in almost every way.

The controls and general combat feel were better, with less sluggish slowdown, and the combat was much more satisfying, helped along by improved audio and speech of your wingmen. AI was also better, including more effective wingmen (who could no longer die outside of scripted events), and more variety in enemy types graced the many battles.

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A major focus of the second game, however, was not so much the core gameplay, but more on story. Here the story took centre stage, helped along by improved, animated cut scenes that featured full voice acting and included scenes featuring the Kilrathi antagonists. The story lost it’s branching progression, but there was much more depth to the events rather than it simply being a vehicle to shunt you from dogfight to dogfight, as in the first game.

The player protagonist, now disgraced after the destruction of the Tiger’s Claw, now serves on a space station flying routine patrols. The top brass blamed him for the loss of the Tiger’s Claw, not believing his story of Kilrathi cloaking technology. Of course, the game sees events quickly escalate, and ‘Bluehair’ (as the protagonist is often called, and eventually Christopher Blair), saves the day once again.

Although it wasn’t a major departure for the series, and the game didn’t radically change the original formula, it was still a great release, and gained critical acclaim once again. It was tweaked and improved enough to make it a classic, and a worthy sequel, and we wouldn’t see another direct sequel for a couple of years to come. Instead, Wing Commander  expanded its universe with a couple of spin-off titles.

Wing Commander: Academy (1993)

The first spin-off WC title was an odd one. Instead of using the familiar format of story-based space combat utilised by WC I and II, Academy was a stand-alone training simulation. Rather than a series of pre-set missions, the game instead gave players the chance to create their own.

Using the game’s impressive mission creation tools, players could set up nav points to be visited, and choose the hazards and enemies that they would come face-to-face with. Wingmen and ships could be chosen, as well as various goals and mission types, such as seek and destroy, capital ship attacks and escorts.

Up to 24 missions could be created and saved, and these could be traded with friends, making for a nigh-on inexhaustible supply of Wing Commander content.

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The game utilised another tweaked variation of the Origin FX engine, with improved visuals, but the lack of any story mode, and various other WC staple features were missed by fans. Still, the core action was still top notch, and the chance to create your own missions was a rarity at the time.

Wing Commander: Privateer (1993)

Also arriving in 1993, Wing Commander: Privateer was the last Wing Commander title to utilise the Origin FX engine, and it was also a big departure from the norm, fusing Wing Commander‘s space combat and navigation with retro classic, Elite‘s trading gameplay.

As Grayson Burrows (also known as Brownhair), players were no longer part of the Confederation military, but instead a civilian privateer trying to make their way in the Wing Commander universe. Here the focus shifted from the Human/Kilrathi war to an open adventure that players could explore at they saw fit.

The story could be followed, of course, but the player was equally free to go off into the game’s universe and do whatever they liked, establishing themselves as a trader, pirate, mercenary or an amalgam of them all. This free-roaming continued even after the main game story was complete.

The actual play was split between space travel and combat and excursions to bases and trading posts. When docked or landed at a base, players could visit the local trader to buy and sell items, hopefully to turn a profit, and visit the bar to converse with others. New ships could be purchased, and all could be upgraded with better weapons.

Actual flight was similar in many ways to previous Wing Commander titles, but the open map didn’t limit player’s to set missions when in the cockpit. Not only that, but events would unfold around you, with other space travelling parties going about their business. For example, you could be flying along minding your own business and stumble upon a trader being attacked by pirates. Here you can choose to ignore the attack, or intervene, being good or bad. Likewise, others can come to your aid.

Although the game was a radical change from the previous titles, with the open-ended world and total overhaul in story and pacing, Privateer is considered by some to be the best Wing Commander title of them all. It’s certainly a large and replayable title, and the open world nature makes it very appealing to those wanting to get lost in their own sci-fi world, but the series was beginning to show its age, and the Origin FX engine was ageing badly.

Super Wing Commander (1994)

Released for the Apple Mac and 3DO, Super Wing Commander was a remake of the original Wing Commander on modern tech, and it updated the game’s presentation, complete with full speech. It included the secret missions from WC, as well as another new campaign. It also featured a more in-depth story lead up to WC II.

Arguably the best version of the original game, the visuals were very impressive for the time, although the limited formats meant it didn’t exactly sell all that well. The Apple Mac was hardly a gaming machine, and the 3DO never managed to take off. This left Super Wing Commander in a rut, and few gamers have played this interesting remake. Shame.

Wing Commander: Armada (1994)

Wing Commander Armada was released shortly before the next main instalment in the WC series, and although it took place in the same universe, and focused on the same Human/Kilrathi war, it was more of a stand alone product, so isn’t entirely canon. The main distinguishing features of Armada are the use of the new RealSpace 3D engine and the first multiplayer features seen in the series.

Unlike the OriginFX engine used by previous games in the series, the new RealSpace was a true 3D engine, and it allowed a far more fluid and believable combat experience, not to mention a major overhaul in visuals. Gone were the clunky and awkward sprites and cumbersome mock-3D, replaced by impressive 3D rendered ships and locations, and better space combat.

Armada was a kind of engine beta test for the next main instalment, Wing Commander III, and the multiplayer functionality, which allowed two players to fight head to head via modem or Ethernet connected PCs, and later via splitscreen was very interesting. It was an impressive enough title, but what we really wanted was to get back to the main story.

Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger (1994)

With the Wing Commander series starting to flag a little in terms of technology, Origin needed to reinvent the series without losing all of the hallmarks that had made it such a success, and that’s just what it did with Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger.

Like Armada, WC III ditched the ageing OriginFX game engine in favour of the new RealSpace engine. This was further enhanced over the Armada version, with full SVGA support and visual improvements. Alongside the new game engine was the move from graphical cut-scenes to full FMV sequences. This facilitated the incorporation of real actors to convey the increasingly important story, and for this Origin enlisted the services of Mark Hamill, John Rhys-Davies and Malcolm McDowell, along with real-life versions of the series’ main antagonists, the Kilrathi.

Sadly, he Kilrathi’s transition from sprite to real life took them from being mean and menacing lion-esque warriors of previous games to Jim Henson-style cute and cuddly cat people, which didn’t really depict them as a fearsome race, and the bane of mankind. Instead you kind of expect to hear the Fraggle Rock music start to play at any time, or David Bowie to pop up juggling crystals.

For WCIII, Origin doubled its efforts on the game’s plot, which had been ramping up throughout the series. With real actors and then-amazing FMV video, this was very important. Luckily, the game itself didn’t suffer, and although the new engine offered plenty of technical wow factor, the wise move of keeping the core gamplay, right down to the controls, was made. This meant that series veterans could pick up and play the game without even reading the manual. It was as if you’d never left the cockpit, although someone had come along and made it all nice and 3D while you were sat in it.

The story of WC III followed on directly from WC II, and after the destruction of the TCS Concordia, Christopher Blair (Hamill) is sent by Space Marshal, Geoffrey Tolwyn (McDowell) to serve on the TCS Victory. This move is part of a secret plan by Tolwyn, which is revealed as the story progresses.

Although WC III incorporated the new RealSpace engine, and kept much of the gameplay the same, right down to similar controls, it succeeded in improving on the Wing Commander formula, not something many such major overhauls manage without losing sight of what’s important. This made WC III a big success, and a great foundation for what many consider to be the best WC game of all…

Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom (1996)

Two years after WC III redefined the series with a new engine and FMV story, Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom was released, and to this day it’s considered by many hardcore fans to be the best of the series.

With the tag line “The best interactive movie has just gotten better”, WC IV undersold itself. Although the FMV element was even more central this time, with some truly impressive, high quality FMV, it never lost sight of the gameplay element. Unlike many FMV titles of the time, such as the Sega Mega CD titles, this was more than a movie with bolted on mini games, it was a superb mixture of story and space combat.

That said, the movie aspect of WC IV was simply stunning, and it’s no wonder it stole the show. Never before had we seen such Hollywood-quality production, complete with full studio sets, not just talking head shots. The same ensemble cast returned, and were better than ever in a story that details events after the Confederation won the war with the Kilrathi. As the game’s title hints, peace certainly doesn’t come for free.

At the time, the film-shot movie sequences took a lot of the focus, with branching conversations that allowed the player to choose their responses. Blair, now in command, has to make choices that will affect not only himself, but that of his crew. Your decisions affected missions, the game’s eventual conclusion and even how others reacted to Blair. It was impressive and well-handled.

Although the movie sequences may have grabbed the limelight, the space combat was far from sidelined. Photo-realistic visuals were incorporated, and the same, rock solid dogfighting remained to carry the story along perfectly. True, it wasn’t quite the leap forward WC III made, but as the engine was solid enough already, little had to be changed.

Few ‘play your own movie’ titles ever really worked. Most were little more than amazingly poor quality and badly-produced stories with little to no gameplay, but WC IV nailed it, with high quality FMV and great gameplay. WC III may have done it first, but WC IV perfected the formula.

Privateer 2: The Darkening (1996)

The second Privateer game, The Darkening, also benefited from the growth of high quality FMV, and it included an even bigger all-star cast of actors, including Clive Owen, Christopher Walken, David Warner, Jürgen Prochnow, Brian Blessed, and John Hurt.

The game followed a very different story, set in a remote part of the Wing Commander universe, and made use of the new 3D engine to deliver the Privateer-style mixture of combat and trading. As with the first game, The Darkening wasn’t a level-by-level title as with most of the WC releases, but allowed players to explore the universe as they wished, choosing the kind of character they’d become. It also featured a range if cinematic side-missions, and was an impressive and very ambitious instalment in the series. The game also used new in-game technology such as jump gates to travel through the universe, and it was a very unique story in the WC series, shot at Pinewood Studios in the UK.

Although part of the Wing Commander franchise, The Darkening had very little to do with the actual main series, not even the original Privateer, save for a classic original Privateer ship and mentions of the Confederation, although even this doesn’t reference the Terran military from the main series.

Still a great game, Privateer 2 isn’t usually placed directly alongside the other games in the series due to it’s unique setting, but it does still feature the same space combat, and it’s a great entry to check out, even if only to watch the impressive ensemble cast in action.

Wing Commander V: Prophecy (1997)

The last real entry into the main series, Wing Commander V: Prophecy one again evolved the series, using the new Vision engine. This engine focused on then popular and cutting edge 3DFX Glide tech, and produced the most impressive Wing Commander 3D combat to date.

Set around a decade after WC IV, Prophecy introduced a new alien foe in the form of the Nephilim. This was an insectoid race who were invading the galaxy via a wormhole. As protagonist, Lance Casey, players were tasked to do battle with the this new threat.

Although no longer the main hero, Christopher Blair (once again played by Mark Hamill) was still present, this time as a Commodore, and some other familiar faces returned too, however much of the cast was entirely new, representing a different direction for the series.

The new 3D power under the hood, thanks to 3DFX, made for some of the most impressive space combat so far in the series, and the game included new multiplayer features. There was a definite shift here from the interactive movie feel of previous titles to a more gameplay-focused release, and this was welcomed by fans who were more concerned with the core combat, and not the heavily pushed FMV scenes.

Another version of Wing Commander V: Prophecy was also released later on in 2003 for the GBA by Raylight Studios, after getting permission to use the license from EA.

Wing Commander: Secret Ops (1998)

Set after the events of Wing Commander V: Prophecy, Secret Ops continued the fight against the Nephilim and also used the Vision engine to power the action. The main difference here was the distribution of the game.

Rather than sell the game in boxed form, Secret Ops was an episodic release distributed over the Internet for free, something of a visionary plan for 1998, and all the more impressive when you realise that episodic digital releases are now only just taking off some 15 years later. Each episode featured a collection of missions, furthering the storyline through in-game cut scenes.

The actual gameplay was the same as previous instalments, although the method of distribution kept the glitzy presentation to a minimum. The missions were all made available offline via the Wing Commander V: Prophecy Gold package, which was released at a later date.

Wing Commander: Arena (2007)

The last Wing Commander game released, and the first for some 11 years aside from the 2003 GBA version of Prophecy, Wing Commander: Arena was released as a downloadable arcade title via Xbox Live Arcade. Unlike all previous WC titles, however, Arena wasn’t a cockpit-based first person combat sim, but was instead a far more arcade-oriented third-person shooter.

For this reason, most die-hard WC fans avoid this title, as it has very little to do with the series other than the name. Still, it does have its claim to fame, as it was the first 16-player game on Xbox Live Arcade.

Heavily multiplayer-focused, and with little in the way of tactics, Arena is a simplistic shooter that takes place on a handful maps. It’s a colourful blaster that’s decent enough for what it tries to do, but if you’re looking for the proper WC experience, the earlier games are where it’s at.

Mothballed

And that’s it. Wing Commander in it’s traditional form hasn’t seen the light of day since 1998’s Secret Ops, and no new instalments of the series have surfaced since Wing Commander V: Prophecy.

This is a shame, but also understandable as the genre hasn’t exactly flourished s time has gone by. Flight sims in general have dropped in popularity since the 90s, where they excelled, especially on the PC. More arcade-style releases have been produced, but none have become major money spinners. In its day, though, Wing Commander was one of the biggest names in gaming, and the series’ fans would certainly like to see it return on current hardware.

Wing Commander is a true example of a classic gaming series. When it arrived it delivered a unique and challenging, yet easy to play flight simulator-style title, which was an exception in a genre known for being overly complex and daunting. Anyone could play the title, and you didn’t even need an expensive flight stick to get the most out of it.

Importantly, the series never sat still. Instead of simply releasing rehashed sequels, which would have no doubt sold very well regardless, Origin constantly refined and improved the game’s formula. New game engines, impressive FMV storytelling and all sorts of other technical tricks made each entry in the series feel fresh. The core gameplay remained true, yet evolved as time went on, and with Privateer, the series even embraced open-world conventions, and paid homage to all-time classic, Elite.

Simply put, Wing Commander is one of those series that any self-respecting gamer should look up and try if they haven’t already. It’s part of gaming history and is a very important series, taking many brave first steps and big risks, and making them pay off.

Sadly, as with many older PC-centric series, Wing Commander isn’t exactly modern PC friendly, and getting the games to run on up to date machines can be a nightmare, even the later releases. Luckily, most of the games in the series can be played with little fuss via GOG.com, so if you’re curious and want to relive the classic franchise, be sure to take a look for yourself.

GOG.com

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