When was the first time you were blown away by a game? I remember distinctly what it was for me. Back in the 90’s a video game TV show The Zone showed footage from a game that looked like a movie. Like something you would see in the cinema. It had everything: Space ships, explosions, A big cat style monster and an all star cast including Mark Hamill and Tom Wilson (or as I knew them at the time Luke Skywalker and Biff). This was the first time the potential of what could be done with a game was evident to me. The game in question was Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger and it is still incredible.
The Wing Commander series, published by Origin Systems, is a series of space flight simulators. You play as Christopher “Maverick” Blair (Hamill), Ace Pilot for the Terran Confederation. The game is set during a war between ConFed and The Kilrathi, a race of giant warrior cats. The original game, described as “World War II in space” by developer Chris Roberts, was released for DOS in 1990 and was ported to other systems 4 years later. The first two games won multiple awards and are still fondly remembered as classics today, but it’s the series’ third installment that really turned things up.
After his stationed ship from the last game, the Concordia, is wrecked, Blair has been transferred to the Victory. A much older and less state of the art spacecraft carrier. Being that there are a lot of unofficial reports of Confed losing the war, “Angel” Devereaux, his romantic partner, is still missing and that nobody seems to have a straight answer for him, this all seems a little suspicious to Maverick. Most of the game will be spent unraveling the mystery. There is a lot going on behind the facade and not all of it immediately obvious. There’s intrigue, there’s conflict and you are caught in the middle of it. That is, when you aren’t involved in thrilling space battles.
The core mechanic revolves around air to air dogfighting (well, vacuum to vacuum dogfighting, we are still in space). You and a small squad of WINGmen you COMMAND are tasked with missions like minesweeping, escorting civilian transports and occasionally full-on assaults on Kilrathi ships. Processing power aside, It’s pretty instantly apparent why this series was PC-exclusive for so long. There would have been no way to map the complex commands and menus to a 6-button control pad. The sheer number of things you can (and are in fact required to) do from the cockpit is, at first, super-complex and intimidating. BUT after reading the instructions for the key bindings (which my research tells me were LEGENDARY for their feelies back in the day) it made a little more sense. The keyboard was clearly not the first choice of input device they had in mind when designing the game. It works a lot better with a joystick (or control pad if you’re good with some key mapping), which in a flight sim, makes a lot of sense. Flying and shooting seem like they would be the basics, but the game also puts heavy emphasis on communicating with other ships. Checking up on your home base or ordering your wingman around (we’ll come back to that) are the main functions, but you will have a lot of fun just yelling insults at your opponents.
You see, Wing Commander III has had an unfortunate association with FMV games – games where the main selling point is that they look and “play” like a movie. Most of them, especially those released as tie ins for various movies, are awful. The problem is that if you’re going to build an entire game around footage clips you’re severely limited in the game you can make. It pretty much has to be a linear, puzzle-style adventure with one correct path and one ending, and if you were lucky some quick time events. The reason for this is the very nature of the game limits control. now that we know more about game design we’ve been able to take advantage of that (see: Her Story, Five Nights at Freddy’s) but back in 1994, this was your lot.
Wing Commander III gets around this by using FMVs in a better way. Rather than them being the focus of the game, they are an addition used to enhance the plot. The key here is treating them like text. It advances the story and builds character, but the game doesn’t rely on it. The meat comes from the space combat, which the game was originally based around. The game realises that the FMV is a tool in the mechanic tool box, not an entire mechanic to base a game around. Even though they aren’t the core of the game, the FMV cutscenes have had just as much effort and care put into them, and this is why the game still holds up
Unlike a lot of its contemporaries, Wing Commander III treated it’s FMVs like actual movies. Origin hired some real actors (In addition to Mark, the game also stars Malcolm McDowell and Jon Rhys-Davies), a real director (My Google-fu is unable to tell me exactly who, but if anyone knows please get in touch), and put together a real script (referred to as a screenplay in the opening credits). This game BRIMS with personality. Each cohort you fly with has a unique attitude that is affected by your actions in-game. High morale usually translates to them flying better for you, whereas low morale will impact their performance. The AI does leave a lot to be desired however. More than once my wingman flew into a missile I’d locked onto an opposing ship and exploded. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it weren’t for the fact I was court marshalled when I landed. I was, however, grateful that they survived. Each character is unique and nuanced enough that you’re going to fall in love with them all, for different reasons.
The comparison I keep coming back to is Mass Effect, albeit on a smaller scale. Choices that feel like they matter, an entire universe to explore, a mysterious and SUPER dangerous opponent in a brutal and deadly war, a devoted but still with their own wants and desires crew and a main character who does what he has to, even if some people don’t like it, because that’s his job. The different personalities that you meet throughout the game are all engaging and, whether you like it or not, you’re the one who’s got to save the world. A world which, through the game’s stellar writing and great performances from the cast all around, lives and breathes and makes you WANT to save it.
All in all in my mind it’s kinda strange that this series has been left alone for so long. You would think that in the wake of sci-fi’s popularity of late (what with a new Star Wars and all) this series would AT LEAST be scheduled for a reboot or something. The thing is though that they just don’t make games like this anymore. This level of star power, this level of story depth, even flight sims in general are a rarity these days. This game could only have come out when it did. Today you would never be able to get something quite like this released. And the world is poorer for it.