(This is part of my journey playing through Wing Commander. You can follow the entire series on the Nostalgia Lane page.)
No voting for the next few games I’ll be playing because I have a trio of titles that I’ve really wanted to get to for some time now. First up on the docket is 1990’s Wing Commander, a game that’s avoided an oblivion of forgetfulness by gamers for being somewhat groundbreaking, for launching a very popular series of space fighter sims, and because Chris Roberts is making some sort of space MMO these days. Elite something.
My big past experience with the Wing Commander franchise pretty much began and ended with Wing Commander II and a dabbling of Privateer, so I’ll leave my recollections of those games for a later date. I might have played Wing Commander the First on the Super NES for a session or two, but the only thing that I remember from that is that the controls felt stiff and the game was pretty clunky.
Still, I know well enough that Wing Commander was a huge shot in the arm for space sims, marrying a challenging arcade cockpit experience with space opera storytelling. The later installments even brought on well-known actors and did the whole FMV thing, but this is 1990 and that wasn’t yet as en vogue. These are just fun games that try hard to add context to the combat by giving settings, characters, plots, and little things to do between missions. It’s probably why I loved the Battlestar Galactica series remake so much, since I always fancied carriers in space from these games.
What do you say? Let’s do this!
The opening sequence fills me with plenty of nostalgia, because I do remember the silhouettes of the orchestra against the planet, the kicking in of that oh-so-sweet MIDI music (SoundBlaster, anyone?), and the jaggy-yet-colorful ships swooping in.
The game starts out with me playing an arcade game of the game (whoa… meta!). I don’t know if I’m supposed to lose this quick or if the game is being buggy on me, but the game over screen pops up almost instantly and asks for my name. I am Ace Acerton, space ace, at your service.
I give the “training simulator” another go because I want to reacquaint myself with the core game. It’s remarkably difficult with my mouse, because everything wants to turn too fast. Again, I don’t know if it’s just a sped-up pace of playing it on a modern system, but it takes a lot of very fine movement to keep a ship in my sights.
So in Wing Commander’s “3D” combat, you operate from a first-person view of the cockpit of your fighter. There’s your joystick (for animation purposes only), a radar (to help you track off-screen ships), a display for your ship’s damage, and some bars representing shields and heat (or somesuch) that your weapon is generating. It then becomes all about getting a bad guy into your sights and blasting away without overheating or taking too much damage yourself. You also have to lead your sights a bit because your shots move so much slower than modern-day bullets. There are also missiles, although heck if I can remember how to fire them. Number keys? Right click?
The two bar flies here are fellow pilots from the Cultural Exchange Division, representing Scotland and France respectively. Check out that Flock of Seagulls hairdo! They give out fairly useless advice about fighting the bad guys, but no matter, I’m just mesmerized by Angel’s stunning earrings.
Different menu features are accessed by trawling through the various rooms of the ship. For example, in the barracks you can save your game (and in a nice touch, each save game plops a new pilot down in one of those there beds) and view your medals. I have two medals already just for showing up to the game. I’m awesome like that.
Past the barracks is the mission room, where I settle in for a briefing on today’s assignment. It’s a routine patrol of three nav points, and I’m given Spirit (a transfer from the Native American Division) as a wing buddy. Then we’re off to the races with a really cool launch sequence, all while my mind is screaming, “I don’t know how to fly this thiiiiiiiing!”
Because I really don’t know how to fly it. I know how to point and shoot, but nothing in regards to speeding up, slowing down, or any of the other dozen-plus controls. I hammer on some keys and find the ones that change which missile I’m accessing (although how to fire it? still a mystery) and one that gives me a neat fly-by cam.
Well, nevertheless to say, our first encounter with the enemy is a disaster. It’s bad enough that the screen’s so small that fighting anything is like peering out of a hole in a cardboard box. I feel really claustrophobic in this cockpit. It’s worse because I’m still having problems with the controls and can’t fire missiles even when I get a lock.
I’ll give this to Wing Commander: It really does a good job of going above and beyond to deliver an experience with all of the storytelling frills. Dying nets me a view of me frying in the cockpit, an explosion, and then a full-fledge funeral service. 21-gun salute and all. Sniff. I liked that Ace Acerton. He was good people.
Well, it’s off to the manual for me! Guess I can’t just slack my way through this one.
Next time: Ace is back… from the dead!