The definitive space mercenary experience.... man, I LOVE this game!
The best thing that could happen to Wing Commander was to take the concept behind Elite, Starflight, and other space traders and merge them with it's trademark action-oriented gameplay to create what stands today as probably one of the best space-shooters ever conceived.
Taking place in a far-off section of space bordering Kilrathi space, you take the role of a space jock out to make a living. Of course, in the border worlds of Gemini Sector there's only one way to make a living for someone like you, and that's as a space pilot/mercenary/trader, in other words: a privateer.
The trick is that as a private entrepreneur, it is in you who all the responsability lays, so you not only have to go out and shoot the hell out of everything, but you also have to balance your checkbook, take care of repairs, upgrade your equipment, decide on what missions to take, etc. etc. Not a novel concept historically speaking, but certainly brand new on the WC universe. No longer you are tied to a military carrier and listen to a CO brief you on your next mission without worrying for such things as ordenance, ships, etc. You now have the freedom to go anywhere you want in space from New Detroit, to that shady pleasure station, to a peaceful agricultural planet tradding commodities and taking randomly generated missions as well as special assignments from fixers and guilds that go from bounty hunting, cargo transport, escort, raids, etc... What to do with the bounty? You can upgrade your ship to include better weapons, smarter radars, repair bots, jump drives, tractor beams, etc. etc. or if your piece of junk just doesn't cut it no more, buy a different ship more suited to your needs or just blow it all on cargo to reap even bigger profits! To spice up the action there's a main plot which is actually very well paced out and takes you around the galaxy as you try to uncover the mistery behind a misterious alien artifact that you get stuck with and a misterious fighter seemingly bent on your destruction, but you can but the plot on hold anytime and just fly around at your leisure. The space is appropiatelly populated, with pirate ships hidden on dangerous shipping lanes, military carriers on the lookout for criminals or illegal cargo such as drugs, or pleasure bots, border systems filled with Kilrathis, cargo freighters and privateers constantly flying around and religious zealots stirring trouble anywhere you go, and each of these factions can be friend or foe depending on your actions.
Technically speaking the game is awesome, with graphics even better than on WC2, and spectacular sounds and effects, which coupled with Origin's trademark production values and quality art make the game a fantastic experience. The interface also benefits from the WC legacy, with the classic "hotspot" animated backgrounds that serve as menus and the classic WC control scheme that makes for an engrossing, yet extremely fast paced and entertaining action sequences.
It could be pretty hard at the beggining. I remember struggling for ages to destroy a stupid Talon with nothing but a laser when I couldn't even afford an afterburner.... It certainly is worth to get past the beggining, but introductory missions would have really helped this game out.
Also while the amount of features, equipment and whatnot is excellent, not so is the amount of original missions, neither of flyable ships. You just have the starting junker, a mercenary-oriented fighter, a cargo-oriented freighter, and the "plain vanilla" one...
The Bottom Line
Takes an already exciting gameplay premise honed to perfection and adds more gameplay depth and features while mantaining the balance between breackneck action and space exploration. That's genius in my book. As far as I am concerned it's one of my top 4 games ever, sure. Those "top XX" lists are always quirky and depend as much on personal experiences as well as on objective acomplishments, but while Privateer may not have been the first, it certainly was the one that managed to combine all the gameplay depth without bogging down the game to board-like standards and keeping all the whiz-bang flair intact in the midst of space trading and exploration.
Try picking up Elite nowadays and you'll throw it out the window in no time, despite it's more engrossing and open-ended gameplay, Privateer on the other hand remains a class act with all of it's gameplay bonanza intact and accessible, it is to Elite what Half-Life is to Wolfenstein 3D. With it's possibilities endless yet well defined and not obscure: you can get on the Kilrathi's good side and be hunted by Confed fighters, you can become a bounty hunter that rivals Boba Fett, you can keep an eye on news flashes and run cargo shipments for a living, transport food and medical supplies while avoiding pirates or run from the law as you take Brilliance and slaves to distant space stations. That spells masterpiece for me. And Heck! this game has one of my favorite videogame moments ever!: Tractoring an ejected opponent in, and then selling him off as a slave!! :)) Or if you feel merciless just ram him and watch him splatter all over the cockpit!! Yeah... that's for getting in my way Retro scum!... ah...All in a day's work in the life of a privateer...