Whatever Happened to Wing Commander?

First published on  CubedGamers (Printed Edition): February 2015

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens riding high at the cinema, and Star Wars: Battlefront selling well for consoles, it’s fair to say that it’s a good time for fans of the Star Wars franchise. Over the next few years, it’s certain that Disney will release a slew of titles set in the new expanded universe, recreating the days when Lucasarts turned its hand to big budget PC productions in a variety of genres, from first person shooters, RPGS, and perhaps even pod racing!

Well perhaps not, but what can be said with confidence is that the least likely genre to be revisited is the space simulator. A mainstay of the PC and console gaming market in the 1990s, space sims are now one of the few genres that can truly be considered forgotten. While recent titles such as Mass Effect and Elite: Dangerous created immersive science fiction environments, neither focuses on actual ship-to-ship combat, with only Darkstar One – released a decade ago – coming close to recreating the atmosphere of games such as Interplay’s FreeSpace series, Lucasarts’ X Wing, and most notably, Origin Systems’ Wing Commander, one of the biggest game franchises of the 1990s.

The story of Wing Commander is one of ambition, and sheer gusto, in the pursuit of creating the cinematic gaming experiences that we all take for granted today. And, in retrospect, one could argue that they created a science fiction saga that was the equal to Star Wars.

Origin Software were one of the most ambitious of the first generation of computer games computers. Surviving the video games crash of 1983, Origin built their reputation with a series of strong titles for the Amiga, Atari, Apple II and PC platforms, led by company founder Richard Garriot’s Ultima RPG series. Recognised for their well realised settings and attention to detail, including Infocom style feelies (additional game related props included with the manual), the company eventually played up to this reputation, adopting the motto “We Create Worlds.” Even after their purchase by Electronic Arts in the early 1990s, were able to sustain their success right up until the conclusion of the Ultima series in 1999.

The roots of the Wing Commander series can be found the Dave Braben’s classic Elite, and Origin’s own Space Rogue – which mixed Elite’s trading and Ultima’s RPG elements.  Created by Paul Neurath, who had previously designed Deep Space: Operation Copernicus for Sir-Tech (the first game to utilise rotating polygons to simulate 3D), the game attracted the attention of fellow employee Chris Roberts, inspiring him to change his next project from a fantasy game to a space simulator. His aim: to recreate a cinematic experience to rival Star Wars, which Roberts had first seen aged eight. “From that day” he recently admitted, “I dreamt of being a hot shot pilot saving the galaxy, or a lovable rogue making my way across the cosmos…[Its] influenced everything I’ve done since then.”

First released in September 1990, Wing Commander casts you as a hotshot pilot rising through the ranks at a time of interstellar war between Earth and the Kilrathi, a cat-like warrior race. Tasked with flying missions in various star systems against the Kilrathi, each mission saw you accompanied by a wing man who you could order around. In between each mission were extended animated cut-scenes that drove the forward a branching, open ended story, with multiple endings based on your success or failure. Phenomenally successful, the game instantly became Origin’s most popular product, driven by its ability to recreate the Star Wars aesthetic. In 2012, Time recalled the game as “a revelation in 1990 for…buffs looking for a little less Star Trek and a little more Star Wars from the genre.

A well regarded sequel – Wing Commander 2: The Vengeance of the Kilrathi – followed in 1991, however, competition was not far away. The following year, Lucasarts, until then best known for its point and click adventure games, acquired the license to make Star Wars games from Brøderbund, and began work on a competitor to Wing Commander. Surely no-one was better placed to recreate the atmosphere of Star Wars than the Lucasarts, a company founded by George Lucas.

Released in February 1993, Star Wars: X-Wing, the game was one of the first to use 3D polygonal graphics, a step up from Wing Commander’s sprites, and is considered a classic. Less successful was Rebel Assault, released in November of the same year. Predominately a rail shooter, the game featuring digitised footage and music from the original movies, and was one of the earliest games to make use of full motion video (FMV on the PC). Essentially retelling the story of A New Hope, but with different characters, the game garnered mixed reviews, praised for its graphics but received critics for its middling game play, and awkward controls.

Origin and Roberts quickly focused on an attempt to take back the impetus from Lucasarts. This involved replacing the now tired looking engine, updating the space combat, and ensuring that the plot became even more intricate. To do this, Roberts took a series that had movie like aspirations, and set about making a truly interactive movie, giving gamers the full experience that Rebel Assault had failed to do. He hired a cast of experienced actors to film over two hours of FMV cut scenes – filmed on green screen – including Malcolm McDowell, John Rhys-Davis (Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings), Thomas F Wilson (Back to the Future). And starring as Colonel Christopher Blair: Mark Hammill. Luke Skywalker himself.

With real actors and an expansive plot, Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, gave PC gamers a game-play experience far more involving than any Star Wars title to that date. The only thing that vaguely disappointed was the Kilrathi’s transfer from sprites to live action. What had been mean and menacing lion-esque had undergone a Jim Henson style transformation, hardly looking like the bane of mankind. Or as Hammill described them: “Garfield on steroids”

Lucasarts second wave of Star Wars games was met with mixed reviews. The Doom clone Dark Forces was well received for its new twists on the nascent FPS genre. The reception to Rebel Assault II: The Hidden Empire was even more muted than the first. A victim of style over substance, the game increased the number of FMV cutscenes, but at the expense of almost everything else. The arcade shooting was simplistic, and imprecise controls on the flying sequences made for the very steepest of learning curves.

The success of Heart of the Tiger meant that a sequel was pushed into production. Released on February 12th 1996 for MS-DOS, Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom is not only considered to be the best instalment of the Wing Commander series, but one of the premier examples of the FMV genre. Produced on a then record budget for a computer game of $12 million dollars, the game truly lived up to the tagline “The BEST interactive movie has just gotten BETTER!”, with real sets being used rather than just green screen.

If Heart of the Tiger represents Return of the Jedi, then Price of Freedom can be considered to be the Force Awakens of the Wing Commander series. The war against the Kilrathi is over, but threats to galactic peace still reign high. Christopher Blair (Hammill) is in retirement on a Tataouine inspired planet, until he is recalled to active duty, this time in a command position. Though some game magazines criticised the FMV for being over the top, it remains to this day a great advocate for those who hope that computer game cinematography can attain the same level of respect as that earned by a motion picture.

Not long after the release of The Price of Freedom, Chris Roberts left Origin to form Digital Anvil. Though never confirmed, his departure is rumoured to have been motivated by the game having gone so far over budget.  A fifth entry of the series, Wing Commander V: Prophecy, was released in November 1997. It introduced a new protagonist (Mark Hammill also returned) and antagonist, and proved to the final entry of the series. With improving 3D graphics, FMV was no longer proving to be a draw for gamers, with Wing Commander the last major franchise to use the format.

A little over 12 months later, the X-Wing series also saw its final instalment in Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance. Both series had begun to age, buckling under the challenge from Interplay’s FreeSpace series, which sold poorly despite being considered to be not only the pinnacle of the space sim genre, but one of the greatest games ever made. Whether it was because such games were dependent on the joystick, or the difficulty in porting the games to consoles, nobody seemed to want to play space combat games anymore.

Flash forward 15 years, and there are signs that a revival might occur. Firstly, in 2012, a group of Wing Commander fans released Wing Commander Saga, a tribute game built using the FreeSpace 2 engine. Later that year, Chris Roberts returned to the genre via a Kickstarter campaign for his new project, Star Citizen, a game that will meld the very best aspects of the Star Wars and Wing Commander lore – thrilling space combat missions, combined with a wider universe of Han Solo style buccaneering. These releases were followed in 2015 by a Kickstarter campaign led by the original designers of X-Wing for their own space sim.

With the first incarnation of Star Citizen – which again stars Mark Hammill as a maverick pilot – scheduled for release in 2016, it seems that the genre might be showing signs of life after all. And if Star Citizen is successful, who would bet on Chris Roberts rekindling his competition with Star Wars for the space combat sim crown.

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