The one and only
Wing Commander is one of those rare games that comes once in a lifetime, and which forever will go down in history as a classic of classics, defining a new genre, standard of gameplay and technical excellence. Before WC there had been some attempts at making space sims, but they were all geared towards exploration/trading sims a-la Elite, and none had managed to capture the more military-oriented action extravaganza of that which remained in everyone's mind as the definitive space "flying" experience: Star Wars. It's WW2-inspired blend of fast, agile starships dogfighting in space against each other remains to this day one of the best contributions George Lucas's saga gave to our collective imaginations, yet over 10 years later no one had managed to really capture that in a videogame. Enter Origin, the company which was previously better known for it's Ultima rpgs and Chris Roberts who singlehandedly jumped to videogame stardom with this groundbreaking title.
The reasons for it's success are varied, foremost among them the fact that he got it right from the start. Due to innovative game design, sheer programming prowess and technical proficiency Roberts and co. were able to translate the basic layout of a classic flight sim with it's "sitting in a cockpit" first person perspective and take it into outer space with simplified game mechanics that accounted for a more action-oriented gameplay that basically boiled down to controlling a magic jet that didn't have to worry about drag or gravity and which incorporated the notion of regenerating shields that you had to take down before you could knock down a ship. Furthermore, the fact that the game was set in space was actually a blessing for the developers, as no terrain meant they only had to spawn the ships and objects in a perpetual "starry night" environment that allowed the engine to focus on faster action that for the first time mimicked the breakneck pace and excitement of those kickass dogfights we had seen on Star Wars! Heck, I vividly remember wildly yanking the joystick and leaning sideways as if trying to dodge the oncoming laser blasts when things got too intense!! :D Finally a game got it!
Another area where WC broke new ground was in the technical arena, before I'd took the "Tech crown", there was only one company that forced players to upgrade their machines for their games, and that was Origin with their Wing Commander games which always included the latest and most amazing technical improvements. I dare say however, that in those days it was worth the cash and even if you couldn't go all the way the games allowed gameplay on lesser systems by toning down certain features, unlike in today's games where you need to update your system every month because your videoboard only has pixel shader 2.546456 and you need 2.546457 for a stupid stencil shadows effect that you have no way of turning off and thus can't run the game... What's that? Me, resentful? Naaaaaahh!!
But I digress, I was talking about WC and it's tech achievements, which included 256 full vga graphics that looked like a dream in it's day, complete with such graphic details as multi-function displays in the cockpits that showed detailed info on your target, damage status and even allowed you to communicate with your wingmen (using a numbered menu system that has virtually remained unchanged to this day) and which even showed the faces of whoever you were talking to in a green-hued display! That alone made it extra special to taunt your opponents and see their reactions. For as good as the graphics were however, one of the most incredible features in WC and one that got it incredible praises was it's pioneering use of stereo soundboards with digital sound effects that rivaled those one remembered from the Star Wars flicks and a musical score that will go down in history as one of the earliest dynamic soundtracks ever to appear in a game, not to mention some of the most memorable collection of tunes ever written in it's day (that's right fanboy, take your Final Fantasy soundtracks and shove them, WC got there earlier and did it better). It is a testament to it's quality sound design that one of it's more well-remembered feats was the fact that it got thousands of gamers to dish out the staggering amount of cash required to get sound boards in those days, I even suspect that this game alone is responsible for establishing Creative Labs and it's Sound Blaster board as the gaming standard (does anyone remember how the Origin logo came up with a simulated orchestra overture? Now that's what I'm talking about!)
However all of these features would have translated into just a really nice looking and sounding dogfighting sim set in space by themselves, with nothing to separate it from the boring pseudo-military games that appealed to the hardcore simmer fanbase and which have nothing but loosely arranged campaigns that just call for you to blow shit up and earn medals. Taking it's cues from space operas like Star Wars itself, Battlestar Galactica, etc. Roberts dedicated as much of his design focus on the gameplay in the cockpit as outside it, and crafted a believable gameworld thanks to superb character development and cinematic techniques. You didn't just tackle missions over and over in Wing Commander, instead, you took on the role of a new pilot in the terran carrier Tiger's Claw and mingled with your fellow pilots on board the capital ship by talking to them. While the interactions were relatively straightforward, they were filled with well-written tidbits that built up each character's background were they talked about their reasons for fighting in the war, their fears, doubts and even discussed between each other and argued about the way the conflict was being resolved. Come mission time, you would attend a briefing room where the character interaction continued as your CO assigned you your mission and often joked or made special comments regarding your upcoming assignment or who you had to take with you (Maniac took most of the flak in these scenes if he was assigned as your wingman); the characters would then scramble to their fighters in cinematic cutscenes and off you went! The result was that you weren't just blowing shit up for blowing shit up's sake like in most sims, but you were instead taking an active role in a space conflict in which the earth forces faced off against the alien forces of the Kilrathi empire (a cliche I know, but what the heck) and flew with actual characters you cared about and had a "life" outside the cockpit. Losing a wingman meant something more than just losing fire support for a mission, as that character was gone for good, with even a funeral cutscene for each one to drive the point home even more strongly. Furthermore the entire conflict went hand in hand with your campaign and if you completed your missions, you would see "victory" cutscenes that painted a bigger picture. Interestingly enough, should you fail your missions you got completely different cutscenes that branched the plot towards a "failed" conflict! How's that for added replay value?
No review of the "good" about Wing Commander would be complete however, without a mention of the amazing documentation. Games like Wing Commander are the reason I can't help but curse publishers when I see a flimsy, 6-page pdf manual when I get a game nowadays. Origin made a name for itself by including extensive documentation with their games that introduced everything you needed to know about the game while keeping the context of the gameworld. WC is one of the best examples of this, as the entire manual is written as an issue of the onboard magazine of the Tiger's Claw, complete with strategy tips disguised as ads., character bios and lots of subtle info that helped build the gameworld even before you played the game!
Are you kidding me? Move along dork!
Ok, ok maybe in retrospective some missions were too repetitive (something which would eventually become the mantra of Chris Roberts) and the storyline in the end isn't that amazing. Actually I think WC is a lot like Half-Life in the sense that both excel at storytelling, but neither tell a particularly amazing or innovative story per se. Anyway, that's all I can think of.
The Bottom Line
Wing Commander is one of those titles that will forever grace Halls of Fame and "All-time best" lists. It is one of those rare cases in which everything comes together in sync. and the result just becomes a massive breakthrough in technology, gameplay and storytelling. A game that has spawned entire cloned series (even including the famed X-Wing games), imitators, sequels and spin-offs that continue to be respected titles to this day.
Wing Commander is a masterpiece of masterpieces, and it's also a game that will forever be linked to fond memories of my childhood as it was one of the few games I vividly recall playing with my dad, who managed to beat that final mission against the main Kilrathi base where I failed, forever gaining my neverending admiration. WC is required gaming for anyone that wants to call himself a game buff. You never touched it? Then stop reading this and get a copy n00b!