As some of you might know, as of this writing GOG.com is still having its DRM-free holiday sale in which you can get all Wing Commander games at a reduced price!
Maybe it’s me. I don’t know. But after having finished Wing Commander III for the first time (really!) I can’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed. So let me start with a little detour, right at the beginning, roughly 18 years ago:
Back in the day of the 386 and 486 processors, PC gaming was still an elaborate hobby – do you remember the terms “EMS”, “XMS” or “DOS4GW”? If you do, congratulations, you’ve probably been there.
We were astonished by even the smallest technological achievements back then, the CD-ROM and its “vast” storage capabilities being one of them. Back then most games came on multiple 3,5″ discs and required an installation to the hard drive (hope your 200MB drive wasn’t full when a new game arrived). The new format not only promised an end to all that disc swapping, but also much increased game fidelity thanks to the storage possibilities.
With most games taking up less than 50 Megabytes however, many developers questioned how to use all that space? Modern 3D engines requiring hundreds of megabytes worth of texture files haven’t been invented yet (besides the fact that game resolutions rarely exceeded SVGA – look it up!), so the most obvious choice was full motion video (or FMV in short).
In retrospect, FMV was rarely a blessing and anyone who survived that era would even downright call it a curse: Lots of games shunned “real” gameplay in favour of branching “interactive” movie experiences (which would deserve a piece on their own). Wing Commander III was a blessing in that regard, but not without its own set of caveats.
When I first came into contact with Wing Commander, I was a staunch supporter of X-Wing and its successors. Old Wing Commanders still used sprites instead of true 3D graphics while Lucasarts’ (or more correctly Totally Games’) space shooter was already using a polygon engine, which lacked some detail in comparison, but made the experience a much more fluid affair.
But what Wing Commander lacked in 3D spaceflight fidelity, it made up with pure storytelling skills. The player could fail missions which not necessarily led to the Game Over screen (unlike X-Wing were the player had to succeed in each mission to continue) and cut scenes together with the rec room chats allowed for a deeper sense of interaction with your wingmen – all of which helped in creating a more meaningful approach to storytelling compared to its competition.
Alas even that stronger emphasis on storytelling didn’t result in “good” plots or even balanced characters: Christopher Blair is your archetypal “good guy” player character, singlehandedly saving the Terran Confederation. The Kilrathi are pure evil incarnate with all kinds of possible atrocities thrown into the mix to justify military action that borders on genocide (Wing Commander III in particular).
Needless to say that the player has not only one, but two possible choices for love interest in this game, both of which feel forced, shoehorned and out of character – but I guess my 12-year-old self would’ve liked it.
So the story is not without its fair share of (very) broad strokes, but does the actual play fare any better? Well it depends on personal taste really – Kilrathi are zig zagging through space without any sense of self-preservation and in a way that forces you to throw any tactical considerations right out of the window.
Rarely does the game need more of you than to destroy all enemy forces, advance to the next waypoint, rinse and repeat. If it does actually change-up its objectives, it shoehorns this into the existing gameplay – transports that need disabling just need enough damage until the game proclaims that they are disabled.
And somehow the only reason to care are the actors and the cut scenes – there is not much to care for storywise, too one-dimensional is the conflict between Terrans and Kilrathi. But by giving the major players a face (and well-known ones too), players can’t help but feel compelled not to let Mark Hamill down – he was Luke Skywalker for all its worth.
What remains after 18 years is a game that once pushed gamers’ budgets by requiring top of the line hardware, marrying FMV video with proper gameplay and continuing the legacy that is the Wing Commander universe. And it gave Chris Roberts his first chance to fulfill a lifelong dream of creating cinematic experiences – but that is exactly what is felt throughout the game:
The “gamey” parts of it were created by a more or less independent team with Roberts focusing on the live action parts of it all. Besides the new 3D engine not much of the core gameplay was changed and compared to its later installments (especially Prophecy) the combat didn’t age well.
So if you wish to experience the “legendary” Wing Commander III for yourself, try to get it during GOG’s holiday sale, because at $2.99 it’s a steal and will give you at least a few hours of old school space shooter fun. But don’t expect much: A lot has happened in 18 years!
Note: Only the DOS version of Wing Commander III is sold on GOG.com, so videos will remain low quality (compared to the Playstation version of the game) and you have to play the game in a DOSBOX window. Wing Commander IV (also available at reduced price on GOG.com) is available as a native Windows game with DVD quality videos, so better get both games at once, as the successor is better in every regard while retaining the core caveats of the Wing Commander experience.