I love Wing Commander. In fact, when I look at those games that have stuck with me over the years, Wing Commander II still stands as one of my favorite games. The series in its heyday was the picture of ambitious gaming, pushing the boundaries of interactive narrative and standing as a pillar of the now barely-breathing space sim genre. Even at their best though, the Wing Commander games weren’t perfect and if I had to pick a single game to personify all that was great and lackluster about the franchise, it would be Wing Commander: Privateer.
Taking place in the same universe as the mainline Wing Commander games, Privateer removes you from the Terran-Kilrathi conflict that serves as the backdrop for the rest of the series and, instead, drops you in the shoes of a freelance space pilot scouring the fringes of human civilization for work. The game starts and you’re essentially left to do whatever you please. Granted, being a Wing Commander game, there’s a hefty focus on blowing things up. By extension, the end goal of everything you do is generally to earn credits so you can buy bigger and better toys to make said space slaughter an easier, more efficient process.
What makes the game unique and, even today, just damned impressive is the breadth of the ways you can play it. You can play things straight, taking missions from the mercenary and merchant guilds. You can buy and trade commodities, both legal and illegal. You can even turn pirate; shooting up innocent merchants and then stealing their cargo or, if you’re feeling particularly malicious, capturing ejected pilots and selling them into slavery.
The universe it provides for you to explore is, perhaps, even more comprehensive than the ways you can explore it. There are dozens of star systems to visit and your every interaction with them is colored by the tension of the unknown. Just moving between nav points carries risk and you’ll often find yourself praying that those ships in the distance belong to a friendly patrol instead a of marauding pirate out for your cargo (and blood).
Amplifying this sense of danger is the fact that Privateer is not an easy game. If you walk into a situation you’re not ready to handle it will swat you down like a fly. I still remember, after hours running missions and saving my credits, finally having enough to buy a new ship. I went to the local ship dealer, traded in my junky freighter and then launched into space with a shiny new vessel that was promptly shot to pieces by the first pirates to cross my path. Having spent all my money on the ship itself, I hadn’t bothered to properly equip it.
When old school gamers talk about how games used to be more challenging, titles like Privateer are what they’re talking about. It’s a game where your progress is slow and hard won, but is exponentially more satisfying as a result. Did it suck to have my new ship totaled right out of the gate? Hell, yes. But it was also a learning experience, and a few hours later when I bought it again, you can be sure I’d set aside some credits for a few missiles. In short, if you’re one of the people who enjoyed Demon’s and Dark Souls, you’ll find something to like in Privateer.
If you can get past its problems, that is.
The interface, is not well designed; something I attribute to the fact that most interfaces were lousy in the early 90s. Sometimes this amounts to minor annoyances. Unless you take the time to read the manual, it can take some time to learn how to access all of the menus and perform the most basic elements of the game.
One thing that can’t be fixed by reading the manual, though, are the difficulties of navigation. The map system in Privateer is just poorly designed. There are four different quadrants in the game and instead of simply piecing them together, the game splits them into four separate pages that you need to flip through manually while plotting your course. This might not seem so bad in theory, but it can become really hard to trace the various jump routes across the multiple maps and, in turn, overly easy to wind up in entirely the wrong system.
Granted, a lot of this frustration eases off as you become more experienced with travelling between star systems and simply get to know around the universe. Privateer is nothing else if not a game that rewards you the more time you put into it. That said, too much of the game feels like you’re trying to find an unfamiliar place in a strange neighborhood with only vague directions and people shooting at you at every intersection. It’s a problem that’s doubly infuriating because it could have been solved very easily with the simple inclusion of a full screen map.
Privateer also suffers from a lot of the same problems that plague the Wing Commander franchise as a whole. The game world may be massive and your play options varied, but there is still a lot of repetition. Combat can be slightly different depending on who and what you’re fighting, but it will usually only be the difficulty of the fight that changes. The basic mechanics never really vary from one engagement to another and you will spend the majority of the game bouncing around nav points shooting down the same ships that you’ve already fought a hundred times before.
The controls are also very clunky. I will confess that this might be on account of my playing the game sans joystick. Most any veteran of the flight sim genre will tell you that a joystick is a genuine necessity for this sort of game. That, the first time I played a Wing Commander game all I had was a keyboard and ever since it’s just been the control scheme that I’m most comfortable with for this franchise. The native controls for Privateer, though, are barely adequate.
Tapping any of the arrow keys even lightly results in a change in direction that’s just too extreme. It makes dogfighting with only your ship’s guns next to impossible. On one occasion I spent almost half an hour trying to shoot down one fighter because I’d run out of missiles and half of my lasers were missing their mark on account of my target having the audacity to move. Again, maybe a joystick fixes this problem but considering the fact I’ve been able to beat every other Wing Commander game with a keyboard and without any comparable issues, this still strikes me as a problem.
Flawed as it is however, I’d have a hard time not recommending Privateer. Every hour that I spent with the game, even when I was frustrated, was an hour that I was enthralled. It’s a game that’s certainly weighed down by its own antiquity, but it’s still a lot of fun and simply not the sort of thing that many developers would even think to make in this day and age. It goes out of its way to let you make your experience your own and though it has problems, they’re outweighed by how much it gets right.