Those of you who regularly read the blog may remember my previous retro review on the blog being Wing Commander: Privateer. Now I’m going further back with the very game that started the series, the original Wing Commander. This game was released back in 1990 (hard to believe, but that’s over 20 years ago) by one of my favourite developers of the time, Origin (who are also responsible for the Ultima series).
You may be asking why I revisited this old classic in the first place. Well during my holidays I wanted a game I could play for only a few minutes at a time (between the eating, sleeping and sightseeing) that would also run on my netbook. Consequently, Wing Commander seemed like a perfect choice as it only took a few minutes per mission and it wasn’t like a fully fledged RPG which would require immense levels of concentration.
Wing Commander is set in the future where Humans, under a Terran Confederation, are fighting for survival against the aggressive, feline aliens known as the Kilrathi. You play a space fighter pilot recently assigned to the carrier Terran Confederation Ship (TCS) Tiger’s Claw. Through the course of the game you fly missions in what is known as the Vega Sector against the Kilrathi.
It’s your typical space opera fare, but true to Origin’s credo, “We create worlds”, the world seems very real thanks to the banter you have with your comrades and also the excellent manual which is disguised as a TCS Tiger’s Claw newsletter; there are even blueprints of each of the Confederation fighters (unfortunately, with the digital versions nowadays you don’t get the original, physical copies, but you can always view the PDFs)! You get a lot of the background story but only if you choose to look for it; games nowadays would do well to emulate Wing Commander’s example.
Wing Commander is a space combat sim where you get to pilot a variety of space fighters ranging from weak but nimble light fighters, to sluggish but powerful heavy fighters. Missions are usually patrol, escort or attack missions; sometimes a mixture of all of them. Between missions, you’re able to chat to some of your crewmates and also practise your skills in the simulator.
One aspect of Wing Commander which I love is the fact that the performance of the aforementioned missions impacts the Vega Sector campaign: succeed in your objectives and the the Terran Confederation push the Kilrathi out of the Vega Sector; fail and the TCS Tiger’s Claw ends up retreating back to Earth. Not many games allow you to have varying levels of success in your missions which Wing Commander does quite well. By doing so, it forces the player to ponder over some tough dilemmas: “Will my wingman survive this engagement? Should I send him back to base so he can live to fight another day or do I keep him along in case I really need the backup?” “Should I engage this patrol to increase my kill count or should I not risk it and just afterburner past them so I can save my missiles for the primary objective?” These are the sort of questions you’ll be asking yourself as you play the missions.
Wingmen also have different personalities – some are gung-ho and aggressive and will rarely listen to your orders while others are quite happy to leave you to your own devices when ordered to go home. Along with the background material in the manual, and the talks with your wingmen in the bar, this further adds to the illusion that they’re real human beings and you will start feeling personally responsible for their welfare. The only annoying aspect about your wingmen is that sometimes they can accidentally kill you, but then again I suppose friendly fire is possible in war…
Well what can I say, this is a 20 year old game, and the sound effects are pretty basic. Also you may occasionally experience sound looping issues while running the game through DOSBOX.
Most of the game music sound like MIDI files but George “Fatman” Sanger did a really good job with the soundtrack nonetheless. Most of the music can be described as epic space opera/military sci-fi music which suits the game perfectly. One neat feature in the game is that the music even changes while flying your mission. For example, flying back to base after a successful mission will play a triumphant version of the main theme, whereas returning after a failed mission will play a version of the same theme in a minor key.
Graphics are obviously dated by today’s standards but they were revolutionary for the time. While most of the ships are represented by blocky bitmaps, Origin must be given credit for the amount of detail they’ve taken in drawing the cockpits and animating your ship being damaged. I’m also a big fan of the cutscenes as it makes the game seem more like an interactive movie – in a good way.
Wing Commander has good replay value, even better than some games released today. The non-linear campaign means you will watch different cutscenes depending on your mission performance, not to mention losing wingmen (and sometimes having them) can alter the difficulty. You also can receive different medals depending on your combat performance (an early form of Steam/Xbox Achievements perhaps?).
The game is pretty well polished – one great aspect about these old games is that (1) you had small development teams and (2) the Internet wasn’t as prevalent as it is nowadays. I believe this means developers in the old days had to spend more time on QA as you couldn’t just patch the game ad nauseam post-release. The smaller teams also meant reduced complexity and less crossed wires.
The only thing that did annoy me was you could sometimes accidentally issue incorrect commands to wingmen. The commands available to you change depending on what situation you’re in – so once your wingmen fly into range of enemies, new commands pop up. The commands are issued using the number keys and sometimes a different command gets substituted for the number you want to press – which can be annoying if you inadvertently tell a wingman to return to base…
Score - 8/10While the audio and graphics are rather dated, Wing Commander is still one of the most immersive space sims I’ve ever played – and it’s over 20 years old!
If you want to get the game, you can get it off Good Old Games, DRM free.
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