In the past month, I have heard the name of a long forgotten series appear in the news several times. Reviews came out for a Kickstarter funded game called Strike Suit Zero, and said reviews compared it numerous times to the Wing Commander games. Then this week at the DICE conference, I heard Wing Commander mentioned more. I was left with flashbacks of my youth and questioning if it was all a dream. The name Wing Commander used to carry a lot of weight in the gaming world, but nevertheless the space flight simulation genre had gradually faded out of popularity as time passed. I used to be quite the Wing Commander junkie, and all this talk was like getting a quick fix of my childhood. It had been a long time since I heard its name.
Are you new to the Wing Commander games? Did you live under a rock in the ’90s? That’s okay, when I am done explaining you can find them over at GOG.com. They stand the test of time in both game play and storytelling. Wing Commander alone is the one reason I still keep a flight stick floating around the house, despite my wife’s confusion about lugging it around every time we move.
Wing Commander is the brainchild of designer Chris Roberts. It revolutionized the idea of space flight simulators, and helped make other landmark games like TIE Fighter a possibility. Chris’ aim was to tell stories of fighter pilots in space, like those of the World War II pilots of the past. In the early games, this is done with well-drawn characters and in later ones with live action actors including Mark Hamill (yes, Luke Skywalker) and John Rhys-Davies (Gimli from Lord of the Rings). The live action footage in this series is the best of the ’90s era’s numerous attempts to use real people in video games. Seriously, I have seen TV shows with worse acting and sets than Wing Commander. It was an engrossing experience whether rendered in pixels or as film footage.
In Wing Commander, mankind is locked in a war with an alien species known as the Kilrathi. The Kilrathi are best described as a cat-like race of warriors similar in nature to that of Klingons in Star Trek. They are brutal and show no mercy to anyone. It’s never really made clear who started the war, though they heavily imply that the Kilrathi are at fault. Like all sci-fi of its era, humans are infallible… or at least they are in early games.
As the rookie pilot of the space carrier TCS Tiger’s Claw, you have big shoes to fill. The game doesn’t hesitate to tell you that the odds are against you, and the war is not going well. In each sector of space, the Tiger’s Claw arrives under direct threat of enemies in various ways. One planet may be under blockade, or another may be in desperate need of medical supplies. The game does a good job of making you understand the overall goals and inspiring you to do your best.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that you’ll be winning all the time though. Unlike many modern games, Wing Commander does not require you to win every mission. In each sector, there are 2 to 4 missions for you to fly. You can fail them and still move on… but there are consequences. If you fail too many missions, that sector ends up under enemy control. Sounds interesting? Not only does failing missions not end the game, it can actually lead you to an end of the game where the Tiger’s Claw costs humanity the war. Losing too many missions also changes the sectors you go to as well. I have played though Wing Commander several times, and sometimes I end up in place I have never been. I really wish more games had the nerve to keep things less linear and let it flow like Wing Commander.
You always start each mission the same way. You are sitting in the rec room of the Tiger’s Claw with various pilots and the barkeep Shotglass. Being a former pilot, Shotglass gives you pointers on the different fighters. Other pilots like Paladin, Angel, and Maniac feed you intelligence, gossip, and tales of grandeur. These conversations are essential to the Wing Commander experience. If a Kilrathi ace pilot is in the area, it might come up in a story or someone might ask you about a Kilrathi fighter type. All these dialogs provide information on gameplay mechanics that you might not know otherwise.
Being a space flight simulator at its core, most of Wing Commander takes place in a cockpit. You have various displays like damage, weapons, speed and fuel — yes, fuel. Normal flight does not cost fuel, but hitting the Tab key to use your afterburner will. Afterburner is the key to most of Wing Commander’s combat; it helps you escape enemies to get your bearings and rush back into the combat.
In every mission you get assigned various ships, each with its own layout, weaknesses, and armaments. Light fighters don’t have the power to take on tough opponents, but heavy fighters can take on just about anything. The variety of game play constantly makes the game challenging.
Wing Commander is not just the series’ title, it is also your role though all of the games too. Besides star fighters, your commanding officers also assign you to be a wingman to dozens of other pilots. Each have their own flying skills and degree of aggressiveness; some pilots will keep close to you while others will leave you in the dust to chase a fleeing enemy. In 1990, I had never seen a co-op A.I. like this before. I think it may have been one of the major reasons I still come back to Wing Commander every few years.
Games like TIE Fighter had great gameplay, with the Star Wars logo to back them up. Unfortunately, they lacked the personality in wingmen and storytelling that Wing Commander brought to the table. Wing Commander crushed them with these aspects. TIE Fighter sent you from mission to mission, and there was relatively little conversation with other pilots. Sure, your communications channel might say “I need help!” but “Pilot #2″ did not have the emotional oomph that hearing from Paladin or Angel would trigger. If Pilot #2 died, there was no seeing his name scratched off the bar’s tally board.
The original Wing Commander was so critically acclaimed that it spawned two expansion packs for the PC and a third that was only available on the 3DO version. Similar things happened with the sequel, Wing Commander 2: The Secret Missions. Each game in the series took huge leaps graphically from its predecessor, but kept the flight style and free-flowing, non-linear mission structure of the original.
All five games are captivating in so many different ways. Chris Roberts had a vision, and wasn’t afraid to make you feel there were consequences for your actions. I remember being depressed playing Wing Commader III: Heart of the Tiger for the first time. After several important missions from an admiral, the Kilrathi seemed to be winning the war. I was only about half way through the game, but had made several mistakes in those missions. At that point, the game changed directions to following an enemy fleet headed to Earth rather than leading an attack. Despite having successfully completed every mission after that, I still watched the Kilrathi fleet wipe out Earth. I was shocked! Really, that was the end!? They took out Earth and got Mark Hamill to agree to star? That seemed crazy to me. I then restarted the game and made fewer mistakes. That time I was leading an attack towards the Kilrathi home world. A few small changes were all it took for me to experience a drastically different story. It takes nerves of steel to randomly change a game’s story midway like that. The game has several hours of live action footage and Chris Roberts had taken time to shoot a few that most people might never see. It is one of the things I truly admire about Wing Commander. Every game feels so linear in contrast.
While I don’t think the live action of the later games is amazing — at least not by modern standards — it is not garbage either. I think that’s why Hollywood greenlit a full-fledged Wing Commander movie, also directed by Chris Roberts. Wing Commander (the film), was released a year before Star Wars: Episode I. Someone thought that premiering its trailer before Wing Commander was good idea, and I think this is played a big role in causing its theatrical failure. After that trailer, most people (even in the theater I saw it in) got up and left. Little did they know Wing Commander would be better than Episode I. Despite being a pretty boy, lead actor of Wing Commander, Freddy Prinze Jr. could out-act Jake Lloyd from Episode I with his eyes closed and both his legs broken.
Oh, I almost forgot! At one point, there was a cartoon too… but let us say nothing else of that tragedy. It still makes me cringe.
After the movie and cartoon series flopped, little was done with Wing Commander for a long time. EA, who acquired the game’s developer Origin Systems in 1992, attempted a brief reboot a few years ago on Xbox Live Arcade, but it vanished into the ether. (Largely because it was a bit poo — Pete) Most fans of the series seemed to have moved on or given up hope on more games.
But all hope has not been lost, I am happy to say. Last March, after several years of development, a fan game called Wing Commander Saga: The Darkest Dawn was released. EA agreed to not pursue any rights violation as long as the team released it for free. The game takes place during the story of Wing Commander III, and you can find it here.
If all that was not enough, Chris Roberts reappeared out of nowhere too. He announced an ambitious new game called Star Citizen; it was to be an amalgamation of Wing Commander and an MMORPG. On top of having 4 million in private funding, it went on to be one of the highest funded Kickstarters by earning $2.1 million. I anxiously wait for a demo or beta of some kind. The proof shall be in the pudding.
I could talk about Wing Commander and its spinoffs for days, maybe even weeks. It is one of the finest examples of an almost-extinct genre of gaming, and if you’ve never experienced the series you’ve certainly missed out. So again I will remind you that the Wing Commander games are on GOG.com. You can get them for around the price of a fancy coffee. So don’t stop for one in the morning… you might be buying a game in the evening. Nudge nudge, wink wink.
The Vault is our weekly delve into gaming history to seek out the underappreciated and overlooked classics of yore, hosted this time around by Lou Page. Follow Lou on Twitter here.