In a year fraught with excellent game releases, I suppose it’s a bit odd that one my most exciting moments of 2010 was when Wing Commander IV was released onto the PlayStation Network. Back in the day, I used to obsess over the game’s trailer, but lacking a proper computer to run it in its heyday I never got to play and honestly never thought I would. Actually being able to play it, even in its inferior PS1 version, was a moment of unadulterated gaming joy. A feeling I tend to get whenever I revisit the Wing Commander games.
It’s a point of distinct sadness for me that Wing Commander as a franchise has fallen so far in the culture of modern gaming. In their prime they were pinnacles of their genre, pushing the limits of what games could do with their visuals, gameplay, and storytelling. Indeed, even years later the Wing Commander games still boast some of the best written stories you’ll find in any game on any system. Moreover, the latter entries in the numbered series (I’ve never played Prophecy) are perhaps the only games to ever use live action FMVs well. Wing Commander III and IV both proved that live action cutscenes can be you great. You just need the proper resources and talent to make them worthwhile.
They cut no corners in that regard. The cast was populated not just with good actors, but well-known ones; Malcolm McDowell, Tom Wilson, John Rhys-Davies and Mark Hammel starred in both games. Moreover, Wing Commander IV cost $12 million to make; a record budget for a video game in 1995.
Unfortunately, not a cent of those millions was spent to update the gameplay, something that may arguably played a part in the series eventual downfall. If you’ve played any of the Wing Commander games you’ve basically played them all. Between plot points you fly missions in your fighter, exploring nav points and destroying enemy ships you encounter on the way. It never evolves past this basic structure. You’re doing this in Wing Commander I and you’re doing this in Wing Commander IV. There is some variety; you’ll fly escort missions and doing bombing runs and such. But for the most part the gameplay never evolved past the first game.
I personally mind this too much. Growing up I loved space ships. I didn’t want to be a Jedi I wanted to fly an X-Wing, and Wing Commander played into that fantasy very well. Moreover, while the flight missions do become a bit too standard, there’s nothing overly wrong with them. Even in the PlayStation versions they’re fairly easy to control and enjoyable. They just failed to grow with the times, and were often be overshadowed by other games in the genre like X-Wing and Tie Fighter. I know I’ve certainly played better space flight simulators since then.
Any fan of the series will tell you though that you don’t play Wing Commander for the gameplay alone, you play it for the story. The war between humanity and Kilrathi is easily one of the great space epics. It was a drawn out, gritty struggle where victories were hard won and defeat was frequent. Part of the reason I can keep coming back to these games (especially Wing Commander II; just plain awesome) is the fact that it so easily draws you in to the events of its world. It’s filled to the brim with believable human drama that it makes just as important, if not more so, than its action.