WING COMMANDER 2 / Origin / PC
The original Wing Commander was a giant hit when it came out in 1990, and it only took a little over a year for a sequel to be cranked out. Given the limited development time, you can expect a lot of recycling; the game's combat engine is fundamentally the same, with only a few small tweaks. It makes big enough strides in the presentation and storytelling to keep it feeling fresh, however.
Though it's very dated now, back in the day this was all about the cinematics and narrative combined with simple but solid gameplay to really make you feel like a space pilot charging to the rescue and staying on guard for unexpected ambushes. Lucasarts' Star Wars sims of the time had the superior gameplay, but they didn't absorb you in the narrative the way the Wing Commander games did and WC2 is arguably the best of the whole bunch in that regard.
Unfortunately, the plot gets off to kind of a stupid start. You continue playing as the self-named pilot responsible for the heroics of the first game, but this one opens up with the beloved TCS Tiger's Claw getting quickly and rudely dispatched by Kilrathi stealth fighters just as it was pressing the attack on the Kilrathi homeworld. Instead of taking the war hero's word seriously, command decides to call him a traitor and blame him for blowing up the Tiger's Claw because ... reasons. Of course, since they have no actual evidence, they instead relegate him to a security post in some remote no-action star system for a whopping 10 years before the game begins.
It's a testament to the game's cinematic approach and storytelling that you'll quickly forget how dumb the setup is very shortly into the game. WC2 presents a consistently interesting mystery as your blue-haired hero gradually works his way back to active service from security detail, amidst a sabotage campaign conducted by unknown parties. The aesthetics are stepped up here with the cinematics drawn from multiple angles (rather than just having the zoomed-in mugs of the first game) and the use of some sweet-for-the-time 3D ship models superimposed over static backgrounds.
Once in the cockpit everything looks pretty much the same, though, which is good and bad. Good in that it was a winning formula for the most part so it's worth repeating, and that vets of the first game will feel right at home with no learning curve. Bad in that the annoying points of the first game really haven't been addressed here, most notably the terrible escort missions and the wingman AI that will happily gun right through you in pursuit of an enemy. However, there is one change that makes the whole thing more lenient and doable. The difficulty adjusts up and down depending on your performance; each time you die in the midst of a mission it steps down a bit on the next attempt.
You also don't have to worry so much about sheltering wingmen, as the plot doesn't branch as much and has less variation. That does mean less replay value, but it makes the overall story tighter and stronger. There are a handful of expendable wingmen, but they have no real bearing on the story if they're lost. The story-critical ones will automatically bail back to base or successfully eject when they're about to die.
The music is also largely recycled. Now, if you have to recycle a soundtrack, The Fat Man Sanger's epic score is definitely one of your better choices. But it's disappointing that there's basically no original music while flying, and new compositions are sporadic outside of that.
As with the original game, there are lots of hotkeys but a bunch of them also aren't really necessary. When playing with DOSBox, major modern gamepads will be automatically recognized, but since this was designed in the era of one-button joysticks you'll only be able to use your analog stick and a fire button - everything else requires reaching for the keyboard unless you use some sort of third-party keymapping solution. Fortunately, that's all quite doable. For the game's first eight or so missions, all you really need is the C button to order wingmen and taunt foes (to draw them away from escort targets), + and - to adjust speed, and A to auto-warp between nav points when you aren't fighting or dodging asteroids. As the game goes on it does demand that you learn to use the added features, however - cycling through the various gun and missile types, using side turrets in the slower vessels and using afterburners to dodge missiles. Fortunately, none of this is very difficult.
While the gameplay is now rightly considered primitive (amazing that it once took an expensive cutting-edge PC to run this), modern games could take some lessons from the cinematic and storytelling approach found in this game. And I still find its old-school bitmap dogfighting style pretty fun.
* If using DOSBox, start the game with " loadfix -32 wc2 " to fix the problem with freezing during in-space cutscenes. You may also need to turn digitized speech off in the installer to prevent crashes.
* Gameplay Video