Wing Commander Academy. (computer game) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by David Gerding
Piloting two ponderous Cross-bow attack ships, you and your wingman drop out of autopilot at Nav Point 4. As you survey the starscape, a strange sense of deja vu overcomes you. Two Ralatha capital ships, your primary targets, hang motionless in the distance. Between you and your targets swarm a mess of Kilrathi fighters, like angry bees protecting their queen. You give Hobbes the order over the communication circuit to break and attack, then pull the ship hard to the right and do the same ...
That sense of deja vu could be caused by a number of things. Perhaps you spent many hours playing one of the first two Wing Commander games, and you've encountered the feline Kilrathi before. Or maybe it's just the tenth time in an hour that you've tried to make it through this specific mission. Cursing as you explode yet again, you have no one to blame but yourself--after all, in Wing Commander Academy, you're the one who made it so tough.
In Academy, you aren't flying in the persona of "old blue brow," the familiar hero from the preceding games. Instead, you're a cadet at the Confederation Academy. Rather than facing actual combat, you experience missions courtesy of a holodeck-style simulator. Designing these missions is up to you.
Academy uses the Wing Commander II engine and scraps the story line that wraps around the missions in the earlier games in favor of an elegant, albeit simplistic, mission design editor. You design your own missions and then play them through. Missions can be saved to disk and shared with friends. Gamers looking for cinematic drama won't find it in Academy; Wing Commander fans, however, will find combat scenarios limited only by their imagination and skill.
In Design mode, you place enemy craft and obstacles at each navigation point as you see fit. There are 16 ship types to choose from, including two new designs. Adding variety and challenge are asteroids and minefields, retrievable data pods and ejected pilots, and a space station to defend. You can choose wing men--simulated versions of the sidekicks from the first two games--or choose to go it alone. The relative skill of each enemy pilot is also selectable.
Turning tradition on its head, you can fly missions as a Kilrathi pilot up against Confederation fighters. If you just want to dive in and start shooting, the Wave mode skips the mission design altogether. You face progressively tougher ships in progressively larger numbers and shoot for the highest score.
Taking the story out of a game is a bold move by Origin and a concept that would be anathema to many of today's top designers. Narrative framework almost always helps to bridge the emotional distance between player and game. Yet Academy succeeds because designing the missions puts some of "you" into the game. An added benefit is that jettioning story animation lets Academy fit in just under 5MB of hard drive space.
If you're looking for some outer space action while you await Wing Commander III, you'll find that Wing Commander Academy is a great, all-action playground where you can keep your battle skills honed.