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PC (IBM/Clones): Wing Commander

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-^CrossBow^-

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Some of you might not have known this, but without a doubt, Wing Commander is one of if not my favorite PC game of all time. I guess the simple reason behind this is the fact that it was the first computer game I played that really put me in the shoes of the character completely. I felt like I was the one in that cockpit blowing away the bad guys to save mankind and restore peace. Cliched...yes. But the music, sounds, and graphics were so blended together perfectly that I've not felt the same with any other games since. Below is my complete review of this excellent space fighting sim from the masters of the once great Origin Systems and Chris Roberts. Enjoy...

 

Title = Wing Commander

Platform = Multiple (IBM PC version reviewed)

Genre = Space Fighter Sim

Released = 1990

Players = 1

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"Star-date 2654.122 - 15, April 2654:

Only been about 3 months now that I have been stationed onboard the Tiger's Claw. Seems much longer than that. Yesterday was a good day for me. That is, I didn't bite it on the end of a Kitty dart. Man, the flight deck chief was sure pissed about those busted cannons on my Raptor. Perhaps he wouldn't have been nearly as upset if I hadn't managed to get both neutron guns destroyed. I guess those must cost the Terran Confederation a bundle a piece to produce. Well, after yesterdays nearly botched patrol run, I think the price of two neutron cannons makes up for the price of my life. After all, ships are replaceable, good pilots are not. Sometimes the upper echelon of ranks forgets that. Oh well, can't dwell on that now...I have to get my report from yesterdays patrol flight written up to justify my actions. Someday this whole war will be over and I can go home back to Proxima. Okay... so on my damage report I have one wasted acceleration absorber, one rather nicely well done electrical system. I can't forget those two lovely sparking metal hollow pylons that used to be my neutron cannons. And I think the left ion drive was leaking coolant. Oh! Can't forget the garbled flight recorder, which is the whole reason I am having to do this stupid report. And... Damn! The Klaxons are going off again. I better finish this up later and get to the briefing room. I hope Col. Halcyon has a milk run for me this time after the fireworks I went through yesterday..."

- From the "Diary of 1st Lieutenant Todd Marshall "Maniac"

 

The above excerpt was inspired and created from none other than one of the greatest all time games ever made for the PC system. That game is none other than Wing Commander. In Wing Commander you take on the role of Christopher Blair the new young rookie aboard the Tiger's Claw. In truth the first and second games let you choose your own last name and call sign. In the later games, only your call sign can be changed. Wing Commander is a space/combat/opera tour de force that at the time the game was made, took graphics and sound to a place they hadn't been before in the IBM world. Wing Commander is all about the war against the cat like alien race known as the Kilrathi. The Kilrathi are a warrior race and seek only complete and total control of the known explored universe. Earth which lies in the Sol system is of course a tasty target for these ill-tempered kitties. Wing Command specifically starts the game off at a time when the war isn't going so swell for the humans. And that is what we try to change as our character in the game. To save Earth from the impending invasion of the Kilrathi. The plot for Wing Commander certainly isn't a new one. But the game did take this plot and expand and add to it in a way that no other game had before its' time.

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Wing Commander plays primarily from a first person view from the cockpit of your fighter. However, the game includes other modes of camera views so that you can view the action and pilot from a third person behind the ship view. Also in the game the player has the ability to actually look left, right and behind from within the cockpit. This was really something, which added to the realism of the game. From the cockpit we play and fight and communicate to both our wingman and enemies. Yes, that is correct, Wing Commander marks as the first game I can think of to give the player the ability to taunt the enemy during combat and really ruffle the fur of a Kilrathi pilot during a dogfight. In Wing Commander we play out various missions, which are very linear in order. However, the success or failure of a mission determines the overall mission path the player takes and eventually leads to one of two possible endings. If we aren't fighting it out with fur balls in the cockpits, then we are chatting and getting more plot story progression or helpful advice from our wingmen and peers. At the beginning of the game and after each mission, you start off in the pilot lounge. Here you can get the latest gossip from the barkeep or swap stories and advice from other pilots on board the Tiger's Claw. Many times what the elder pilots have to say can mean the difference between life and sucking vacuum in the game. Once done with the chatter you progress to the briefing room to actually get your next mission briefing and start the mission.

 

The graphics in Wing Commander may seem very simplistic and perhaps even ugly to the new player of today's 3D accelerated cards and fancy bump mapped textured polys. But rest assured that while Wing Commander may be seventeen years old, it still holds its own pretty well. For starters the game play in the cockpit is first person but flight and combat take place in a virtual 3D space environment. This means that enemies can be literally behind and slightly above you in the game...or that you can dive and come up and fire on the belly of the enemy ships. The amazing part of this is how well the 3D effect is actually accomplished! The geniuses behind Wing Commander, Origin, actually made small-scale models of all the ships in the game and then ray traced them graphically into the game. This means that the actual ships themselves are only 2D sprites on the screen, but the game will change their appearance during play to actually appear as if they are 3D. Which means you can see a ship from various angles simply by flying around it. This transition of graphics is super smooth and the images of the ships themselves will suddenly change from one view to another. But the effect still looks very convincing and the models themselves are still fairly highly detailed and realistic looking. Another excellent realistic point to the graphics in Wing Commander is that, throughout the game you fly in a variety of different ships.

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As you fly each ship the cockpit will take on a new and drastically different appearance than the other ships. This gives each ship their own weakness and strengths in an area I hadn't ever seen demonstrated before in a game. Specifically, since the cockpit of each ship looks different so too is the area of visibility from inside each ship. This lends an area of reality that I don't think I've seen replicated as well except on the sequals. So a ship that may not have much armor or shields tends to be the fastest, more manuevrable, and gives the best visibility. Whereas a larger ship with more armor, guns, and shields, will have less visibility, speed and manuerability due to the extra size of the ship, gun placements, and armor. Also the graphics for the left, right, and back views change as well to match. The only static graphic in the game is the pilot's seat. Truly, it was a step above and beyond in computer game graphics in the early 90s. The graphics inside the Claw between missions where you hang out with the crew and talk are a bit less impressive. For instance there is a very cartoon like look to the people aboard the Tiger's Claw. Even during the mission briefing screens, the graphics look very much like Saturday morning. However, there are a few places in the game where actual motion capturing was done and makes the animation of the people or cut scenes in the game look very impressive. Take the scramble scene after each briefing as a prime example. Also the animation of the pilot as he puts on his helmet and cockpit canopy comes down just before you launch was simply jaw dropping at the time. Even today as I go back and fire up my rusty Pentium 200 legacy gaming machine, I find a very pleasing look to the graphics of Wing Commander. Rest assured they are impressive for a game of the early 90s era and I still think hold up pretty well today.

 

The difficulty in Wing Commander is pretty well balanced. The game starts off with fairly laid back standard patrol run missions with just a few light Kilrathi fighers to take out to help you get used to the controls. But as you progress in the game, the missions can become exceedingly difficult ,almost to the point of insanity! I can't tell you how many times I would blurt out a colorful 4 letter expletive when my Drayman 'sport would get iced. Or how much abuse my mouse would get with my repeating banging on the desk fits when flak burst from a nasty Ralari jumping in from nowhere suddenly takes me out. Yes, Wing Commander has its love and hate moments. But that is what I really love about the game and makes me keep playing. The missions themselves are nice in that there are several varieties of missions you may get. The most basic and common mission types are patrol runs. These have you fly out to several Nav points and clean up any bad kitties you find there. Or if you find something too large to handle, like a Cap ship... you afterburner your butt back to the Claw. Some of the most exciting missions are strike missions where you and your wingman join up with a destroyer or other wingmen to play seek and destroy with a Kilrathi cruiser. But then some of the most boring and difficult missions are escort missions. Most of these entail flying to a rendezvous Nav point and meeting some transport or helpless destroyer that is near death to escort them out system to another jump point or back to the Claw. There will always be Kilrathi ships waiting in ambush somewhere along the way to take out the ships. And this is where they become most difficult. As an already damaged destroyer or transport needs only a few missiles or well placed gunshots to take it down, and that would mean failure of the mission. Not to mention that just flying to the various Nav points during your missions can be a real exercise in flight skill as you may often fly through asteroid belts or even zones of space that are filled with Kilrathi mines. Still the missions are addicting and even the escort runs keep you coming back for more when you fail them the first time.

 

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The control in Wing Commander is very tight. The game makes use of several control schemes for playing the game. You will always need the keyboard to execute a few things such as your communications to your wingmen or for changing views & weapons in game. In addition actual control of your ship can be done with the keyboard, mouse, or a good analog joystick. I actually played the game my first time through using mouse and keyboard combo. And while difficult to fly with a mouse at first...it soon became second nature and quite intuitive. It may seem difficult to use both keyboard and joystick or mouse at once, but rest assured the keys make sense and aren't difficult to find during combat. For instance to change guns you press "G". To select the next Nav point you press "N". To talk to wingmen or harass the kitties in space you press "C". Also the controls are great in that ships respond instantly to commands and do not lag. Controlling with the keyboard is the least desirable method as the keyboard is a digital control device, which means little to no small adjustments while flying. Also each ship you fly in Wing Commander behaves differently depending on the main role of the ship your flying; Like the Hornet, which is a fast & agile close support recon fighter. Or the big and burley Raptor, which boasts some great firepower and armour but lacks speed and agility. All in all the controls for Wing Commander really fit well with a simple to remember keyboard scheme that isn't overly complicated and provides tight and responsive controls when flying your fighter in space.

 

"Boom! Bizzt! Crackle! Pop!" No, these are not the sounds coming from my bowl of Rice Krispies. It is the sound coming from my cockpit since I have lost most of the instruments! For anybody with an old school original SoundBlaster, Adlib, or the ultimate, the MT-32/LAPC-1 audio cards, Origin did an absolutely fantastic job with the sound and music in Wing Commander. You know the first time you start this game it will be an experience to behold since the first thing on the screen is a picture of Earth with the silhouette of an orchestra in the foreground. A conductor stands proudly and taps on his stand. Then the Origin fanfare music bursts to life and the orchestra fades away to a flying Origin logo that ends with a display of fireworks! No I am not making this up, this is how the game actually begins. This intro for just the Origin logo alone tells you that you are about to witness something new and exciting. Then the sound of laser blaster fire can be heard along with the sound of metal being hit and then finally a "Boom!" A enemy Kilrathi Drathi (Pancake ship) is turned into a collection of debris on screen. Followed by the flying in of the Wing Commander logo and then the music. Ahh...the music! Yes Wing Commander still stands today as my favorite main title song of any game I have every played. The master himself known as George Sanger A.K.A. the Fatman composed the music. George is also responsible for the soundtrack of many other great games such as Loom, 7th Guest, Thin Ice etc. The music changes in the course of your mission as events unfold. The music can often tell you when you have lost a wingman or when the mission has just turned South for the worst. Or the brass fanfare as you take out the last enemy ship and bring a mission to a successful close. There is music in the bar as you talk with your ship mates and the scramble music still pumps me up and readies me for action! The music used in the final cinematic and awards ceremonies still sends chills down my spine! It is unlike the music of most games today. It simply has to be heard to be believed. The music is not the only wonderful sound to come from this game. The sound effects themselves are worthy of many awards and accolades. There is a different sound for each gun type. Explosions will sound bigger and bolder when capital ships are taken out. Even the sound of my armor being stripped away from enemy gunfire lets me know that my last moments won't be dull on my ears. The sound is so complete in this game in fact, that on the save game screen (An awesome touch if I say so myself) there is the sound of dripping water into a bucket from an overhead leaky cooling line. There isn't any speech in the game as that would come later in Wing Commander II. But the sounds that are present sound very realistic and well done. The only sound that is weak compared to the rest, is the sound of the missile launches themselves. It sounds as if someone just puckered their lips and blew air out from their mouths. But I quickly overlook this when that satisfying *Boom!* erupts the ship in front of me and turns it into kitty bits.

 

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Wing Commander... I really can't say enough about this game but I do have to draw this review to a close. This game has a huge replay factor. While the missions won't change unless you do fail or succeed, Origin added lots of other touches to keep you coming back. For starters there is the multiple mission path. Basically if you fail most of the missions in a given sector, then the game will progress towards the bad ending path of the game. However, you can amend this with doing well on most of the missions in the next sector which takes you back towards the path of the good ending. Figuring out which are the best paths to take for the most number of missions is a real challenge. It is possible to average about 20-24 missions for a complete game. The real aces can finish this game in a short 18 missions. Also the in game cut scenes every so often will change depending on your performance throughout the game. Perhaps the biggest replay factor for me in the game is the fact that while the missions are handed out in a very linear way, how you actually fly the missions is not. For instance, the game usually will put the easier foes to encounter towards the beginning of the mission and save the real fur flying fests for the later Nav points or while heading back to the Tiger's Claw. Knowing this, you can semi cheat by going to the last Nav points first and take out the bigger opposition waiting there while you still have most of your missiles and armor left. This is especially handy during escort missions. I've found that the ship your escorting will fly the Nav points in order regardless of whether you do or not. This is handy as it allows you to fly ahead to the later Nav points, taking out the enemy and ambushing the ambushers while the ship your escorting is safely traveling through non infested nav points. This is just one of many little tricks I have found while playing through this game and finding as many ways as possible to complete mission objectives. The game rewards you for good piloting through award ceremonies and the kill board. After each mission good or bad your commanding officer Col. Halcyon will debrief you the highlights or mistakes of your mission flown. On certain key critical missions, outstanding performance can lead to pretty nifty award ceremonies where the Colonel will personally pin a medal for your bravery and excellence. There is no two-player mode in Wing Commander but this isn't needed as Wing Commander is supposed to be more of a space opera than anything, and so it is a story told through your eyes and actions. So there we have it... Great graphics, great control options, great sound and a damn blast to play make Wing Commander one of my favorite games ever to grace the PC scene. Finding this game today will be quite tricky as Wing Commander has a fanbase all its own. You can probably pick the game up for a decent price on Ebay. But be advised that even if you do find a copy of the game, you need an older computer to play it that you can turn the speed down on. Wing Commander was designed during the height of the 286 and lower 386 era. That said, anything faster than a 486 SX33 is really too fast to make this game playable. There is software available to slow down the CPU processes for today's higher end PCs. But you might check the BIOS on your old PC and see if you can turn off the cache options. Especially the level 2 cache as turning if off will creep the math to a halt on the cpu and allow Wing Commander to be playable without the use of slow down programs. On my old P200, turning off the L2 cache takes it to a 286-30mhz speed demon. Also note that most copies of Wing Commander were sold in the 5 1/4 inch high-density disk format and the game needed a full 640k of memory and loves about 2 megs of expanded memory if you have it. Be careful to leave plenty of room on the hard drive as this beast of a game does way in at some 12 or so megabytes once installed. If you're lucky and should happen to find a copy of Wing Commander: The Kilrathi Saga, then you should immediately put it in the post and sent it to me! Sierously, Wing Commander is one heck of a game and if you haven't ever played the series, you should find a way to play the first one. Wing Commander is the one game that finally made my Amiga loving friends finally break down and admit that PC gaming was not only catching up to the Amiga but had finally surpassed it.

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Graphics = 9 (The ships lack some detail and are pixellated up close, But otherwise the is a visual feast! )

Sound = 10 (Music is excellent, Sound is excellent, just excellent!)

Controls = 8 (Controls are tight and responsive, but keyboard combo with joystick or mouse might be combersome to some)

Challenge = 9 (Starts of slow and laid back at first, but can be satisfyingly frstrating on the later levels)

Replay = 9 (Varied missions offer a nice mix, and the ability to play them as you want is great!)

 

Overall -^CB^- grade = 9 (One of the best PC games of the early 90s ever!)

 

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I thought it was very good, but generally prefered the sequel. Those aside, I think Tie Fighter and others (Tachyon, Aquanox) are better as well. Still, at the time it was groundbreaking and the reason for upgrading my Amiga to a 486 DX 50 back in the day :)

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