Wing Commander was jaw-dropping back when it came out back in 1990; of course, it was cheating at being real 3D by simply using a clever and complex system of changing bitmaps to give the illusion of 3D, but hey, it worked out just fine.

Fortunately there's more to it than just some techno-gimmickery and it has stood the test of time pretty well. If you are in the mood for a spacecraft sim these days there's plenty of other options that have long since surpassed it, but taken on its own merits it is still a pretty fun experience and I had a good time giving it a run for this review.

So it's about 200 years in the future. Mankind, finally fed up with furries once and for all, ejects them into space. The craft containing the felinoid furries finds a habitable planet, however, and eventually they build up a powerful space fleet and declare war on mankind in revenge. Wing Commander throws you into the midst of this conflict with the feline Kilrathi as a Second Lieutenant space pilot freshly graduated from pilot school and sent to serve on the TCS Tiger's Claw somewhere near the front lines.

Aside from the space combat, which is handled pretty well, the game also was pioneering in the use of fluid cinematics to advance the story. It's basically serial drama caliber stuff, think Starship Troopers and you are most of the way there. The characters are all basically some stock stereotype or another, but the cinematics plus the awesome cue-shifting soundtrack by PC composing legend "Fat Man" Sanger make the whole thing compelling all the same and give you impetus to push on through.

Another nice touch is branching paths through the game - your stay in each star system generally constitutes 3 to 4 missions, and if you perform overall rather poorly in them, you'll be shunted onto a less desirable story path. You can win out of the less desirable scenarios, however, and get back onto the "good" path, and this is actually the only possible way to see certain scenarios. The only way for the game to end is if you get blowed up while out in space (you can eject to end a mission in an automatic failure, if you do it in the middle of a dogfight you stand a random chance of getting killed, but if you get picked up the game continues on to the next mission.)

Play control is pretty decent. You can use the keyboard alone, keyboard and mouse combo, or a gamepad. I found gamepad to be the most comfortable, but while the basic in-ship controls worked pretty well with only two buttons, there's a slew of stuff you have to reach for the keyboard for (or use a keymapping program like Joy2Key to map onto unused joystick buttons.) You have to send messages to your wingman in combat to give them new orders, and this requires taking your hands off the controls to press the number of the command you want to send. Likewise when taunting the enemies, a tactic that becomes necessary to draw them away from carriers you are protecting during transport missions, but usually must also be done while already under fire from other targets.

I found the difficulty fairly decently balanced, and unlike other complex sims the controls are fairly intuitive (even if there are like 1000 auxilliary functions for the ship that require keyboard keys, the basic flight and combat manuevers can easily be confined to a gamepad or joystick with only two buttons.) The only problem is the handful of escort missions you get during the course of the game - due to the program's limitations, you are repeatedly thrown into the silly situation of defending some carrier with only you and a lone wingman, usually from multiple enemy battle groups of four. Your wingman only draws off one enemy usually, frequently leaving you three to deal with on your own, which is a little much all at once. Fortunately, some of these can be lost intentionally with no overall detriment to the eventual "good ending", but if you lose enough missions you get shunted onto a path where you are constantly stuck with crappy ships and crappy wingmen, which makes the game not so much fun. You can change the odds in your favor on overly tough missions with a little selective cheating; use the ol' "wc Origin -k" trick just to fly the crap escort missions where you are ridiculously outgunned, then save the game and turn the cheat off when you proceed with the rest of the game.

So you've got 40 total possible missions, though each run-through of the game you'll see maybe 15 to 20 of them before either hitting the "good ending" scenario or the "bad ending" scenario. Plenty of fun, plenty of replayability and there were even two add-on packs called the Secret Missions that add a bunch more scenarios to the game. Definitely worth a look if you missed it the first time around; the 3D0 and SNES ports are both pretty good too.

Links :

* Wing Commander: The Revival
* Moonlord's WC Page
* Wing Commander Combat Information Center

Videos :

* Gameplay Video
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