"Almost out of the asteroid field, OH-"
Oh hey guys, it's been a while since my last retrospective, over two years now. I'm still alive though, and finally decided to get off my lazy butt and take a look at another game and how it's aged, or I should say games. I chose to do both Wing Commander 1 and 2 since they aren't different enough to justify a separate retrospective for each one, and I want to look back on all of the major installments in the series at some point.
Developer: ORIGIN Systems
Publisher: ORIGIN Systems
Release Date: (WC1) 1990
Platforms: (WC1) DOS, Amiga, Super Nintendo, 3DO
It was the late 80s, and one particular game designer known as Chris Roberts was disappointed at the lack of space combat sims that made the player feel like a starfighter pilot participating in a greater conflict, and so Wing Commander was born.
Wing Commander and its sequel had very simple mission design, they focused entirely on dogfighting with enemy fighters and destroying enemy capital ships with the occasional escort mission where you did the exact same thing, only you had to make sure the enemy fighters didn't destroy the ship you were supposed to be protecting. After a while it began to get repetitive as most missions consisted of three or so skirmishes where you just cleaned up the area and then pressed A to instantly autopilot to the next one.
There is one way that Wing Commander and its sequel attempted to mix things up, asteroid and mine fields, and this is leads me to the primary issue that has caused this particular relic to age so poorly. Instead of using early 3D polygons like most other developers who were making fast paced simulation games such as Stellar 7 and Red Baron at the time, the folks at ORIGIN decided to use sprites akin to first person shooters like Wolfenstein 3-D. While sprites may have been prettier than 3D polygons, they led to all sorts of issues and irritating mission restarts. When I first played Wing Commander I crashed into asteroids a lot because they just popped out from below my field of vision and smashed into my ship resulting in an instant death, and because they were sprites it was difficult to tell how far away they really were. During the replay I did for this retrospective I had a much easier time since the fields are a bit easier to navigate after you've navigated a couple dozen, but I did have a couple asteroid deaths and one of them occurred the second I launched from the Tiger's Claw, which for some reason felt that it would be nice to park in the middle of an asteroid field. Screw you Commander Halcyon. There's also nothing quite like constantly crashing into the Tiger's Claw when trying to do something as mundane as landing because your angle and position isn't just right.
The game's sprite based graphics also led to unnecessary and often frustrating deaths during dogfights as well, and they also made taking capital ships down harder than it should have been because more often than not the angle you were seeing wasn't the position the ship was actually in, resulting in your shots hitting a section of the ship you did not intend.
Probably one of the best design decisions in both of these games was the branching storyline. Unlike most space sims, Wing Commander and its sequel didn't make you replay a failed mission, instead you were either thrown into a "redemption" story track if the mission was important enough (and in WC1 this means a lot of asteroid fields and potential rage quits), and if you failed that track or failed a really critical mission you'd end up in a losing track that resulted in a game over no matter how good you did.
It also wouldn't be right to look back on Wing Commander and not mention the core storylines. While Wing Commander 1's storyline wasn't particularly complex or memorable as you basically just went from mission to mission fighting the Kilrathi, occasionally learning something interesting from your fellow pilots in the bar, its sequel was a very compelling space opera that helped make the series feel more like a sci-fi epic similar to Star Wars as opposed to just a space combat game.
How it holds up:
While Wing Commander helped pave the way for future flight sims the first two games just did not age well, largely due to their usage of 2D sprites, but also because of their sheer simplicity in comparison to future, more in depth space sims like the X-Wing and Freespace series'. The only reason to play the first game, if you haven't already, is if you're into space combat games and want to try out one of the first. Wing Commander II is a different story, despite having the same core design and gameplay issues as its predecessor, as they're practically the same game, it might be worth checking out if you enjoy space operas. Wing Commander II is worth playing for the not half bad cinematic storyline if nothing else.
The early Wing Commander games may not have aged well, but there's no denying that they helped jumpstart the space combat simulation sub-genre leading to future masterpieces like TIE Fighter and Freespace. Wing Commander and Wing Commander II had their fair share of sequels and spinoffs as well, but aside from a small arcade game on Xbox Live released a few years back and recent rereleases on GOG the franchise has been collecting dust in Electronic Arts' vault for many years now.
- Both Wing Commander games had two mission packs, Secret Missions 1 and 2 for WC1, and Secret Operations 1 and 2 for WC2.
Next Time: Super Mario Bros.