For the fifth chapter in Origin's space-combat series, the designers have abandoned the game's recent tendency toward the cinematic. The last two Wing Commander chapters have seen gameplay give way to lengthy expository film sequences, with missions often seeming like no more than a way to kill time until the next big plot point. Not any more. With original series creator Chris Roberts gone to head up Digital Anvil (and reportedly direct the Wing Commander film), the new design team has shifted the emphasis from screenplay to gameplay, and the result is an engaging, but somewhat different, Wing Commander experience.
Why different? Primarily because the shift away from FMV has been accompanied by a shift away from plot in general, a significant departure for a series that has been associated with some of the most intricate and gripping storylines in recent gaming memory. It's true that the game introduces a new crew of characters, and some old favorites - such as Blair and Maniac, played by Mark Hamill and Tom Wilson, respectively - are still around. And there's a new alien species invading Confederation territory, wreaking havoc on the crippled Kilrathi (who were all but annihilated over the course of the first three games) and bent on destroying everything in its path. The modest attempts to develop these characters aren't very interesting, and the plot is largely devoid of the types of intrigue and surprise we've come to expect from the Wing Commander series. The game also lacks significant dialogue choices to make, and hence, storyline branches. Prophecy is almost totally linear, with only one or two minor exceptions based on mission performance.
All this means that Wing Commander: Prophecy stands or falls based on its gameplay. Fortunately it stands up quite well. As rookie Confed pilot Lance Casey, your role is simple and straightforward: Work your way up the ranks of Confed pilots by taking out as many alien targets as you humanly can. Encounters with the aliens are the most fascinating aspect of the game - thanks in large measure to designer Syd Mead, whose previous work includes production design for Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Mead has crafted a menacing, insect-like alien race, piloting ships that look like, behave like, and are even named after sea-creatures. Even better, the invaders dart and dodge through space, with a distinctly different flare than opponents from earlier chapters in the series.
Most of the missions center around simply destroying as many of these aquatic-like craft as possible. There's a heavy emphasis on patrol missions, in which you fly from one Nav point to the next fighting any enemies encountered along the way, but there are a few really brilliant missions strewn throughout the game. You'll take out massive cruisers and transports, and you'll encounter immense battleships armed with devastating weapons. The last mission is particularly notable - it makes the rest of the game worthwhile, truly creating a sense of suspense as you desperately try to achieve your final objectives against overwhelming odds. It's also possible to fail many of the missions and still continue - though your next sortie will be made a little more difficult as a result.
Undoubtedly, some will find a few of the mission conventions a little frustrating. Except in rare cases, you no longer get to choose your ship, and you never get to choose your wingmen or your weapons loadout. But this adds a welcome challenge, as you can't always rely upon the best combination. It should also be mentioned that many of the missions are quite lengthy and there's no way to incrementally save your game. While that fact alone isn't too much of a problem, it is a problem when the designers string two of these missions together without giving you a chance to save in between. It may heighten the drama, but it occasionally escalates the frustration.
But even with these quirks, this game is difficult to stop playing, and for one simple reason: Wing Commander: Prophecy is one of the finest looking games ever created. Along with Quake II, it may be the only reason you need to justify purchasing a 3D accelerator. While the nonaccelerated version is quite nice, the accelerated version is downright awe-inspiring. The bleak black space of previous chapters has been replaced by a more visually dazzling backdrop, filled with colorful gasses and treacherous asteroids. The ships contain an amazing amount of detail and the explosions - not your basic fireballs mind you, but huge rings of light and hurtling debris - are incredible. The flight engine, while still very familiar, has been improved, especially in terms of raw speed.
The only real problem with Wing Commander: Prophecy is that it ends too soon. And as a result of the linear storyline and lack of multiplayer support, this is not a game you'll be returning to over and over. You'll long for a little more substance once you've finished, but the engaging gameplay, solid mission design, and mesmerizing visuals make Wing Commander: Prophecy a blast while it lasts.