Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 126 / FEBRUARY 1991 / PAGE 50

Wing Commander. (computer adventure game) (Entertainment) (evaluation)
by Richard Sheffield


I was terrified. It's still hard to admit, but I almost lost my wingman, and it would've been my fault.

Things just happened so quickly. it was just a routine mission, if there is such a thing. We knew that the Kilrathi had been dropping into the Vega system through one of the jump points in the area, so Spirit and I were out making the rounds, checking the possibles. Then - boom! - out of nowhere, we found ourselves in a swarm of Dralthi-class medium fighters. I gave the order to break, and Spirit kicked in the burners and headed into a group that was coming in low. I lit 'em up, too, and headed straight into two fighters dead ahead.

We traded laser blasts during a head-to-head pass. Then I took a chance and guessed that one of them would break straight up. I got lucky and slid neatly onto his tail. Playing the afterburners just right, I managed to stay behind him until his shields wore down, and I sliced right through his ion drive. Such a pretty explosion. A similar blast off to the right told me that Spirit was doing her thing, too.

Meanwhile, a loudmouthed furball had come around behind me and was heating up my sheilds with his lasers and heating up the comlink with a steady stream of insults. I had had it up to here with his "monkey boy" comments, so I honked the stick back into my lap for a quick look and activated a heat-seeker. We fought to a stalemate for several minutes as both our shields got weaker and weaker. Then the fleabag made a mistake; he got predictable. I anticipated his move and cut in behind him. Dead meat. They don't call me Catskinner for nothing!

Two blasts took his shields down to nothing, but some fancy flying kept me from finishing him off. That's when the first call for help came in from Spirit. She had been my wingman on my very first combat mission; we were compadres. I knew she was rock-steady but quiet - if she called for help, she really needed it. But just one more shot would finish off this arrogant cat-head in front of me. I really wanted him. I missed with another shot, and Spirit called for help again. Another shot was lining up nicely, but it would take a couple of seconds - time Spirit might not have. And I owed her, big time. So I gritted my teeth, whipped my fighter around, and headed off to help her, burners blazing.

She was really in a heap of trouble by the time I got there - no shields, no guns, and two Kilrathi on the hunt. I caught the first one by surprise and splattered him with a missile, but the other was lining Spirit up for the kill. I fired my laser at him till it overheated. His shields were down, but I couldn't finish him. I was desperate and could only think of one thing to do. My shields were strong, and his were down; so I lined him up in my sights, hit the burners, and flew right through him. The crash knocked my shields totally out, but my ship held together. His didn't.

Spirit and I managed to beat feet back to the Tiger's Claw, but I was badly shaken. I had almost let my wingman get killed because I let a fight get personal. I vowed not to let that happen again.

Right there. That's when you know a game has got you. When you start to think about the game characters as real people. When you start to get an emotional attachment to them. Wing Commander's characters get to you better than those in any other game I've seen.

In Wing Commander, it's the year 2654. After a peaceful expansion and colonization of space, mankind has run into the Kilrathi, a race of catlike warriors intent on our destruction. You're a new fighter pilot, just assigned to the carrier Tiger's Claw. Things aren't going well for the home team, and your performance in battle could swing the tide from defeat to victory. How's that for pressure?

Flying your fighter is easy and pretty straightforward. The controls are simple, and the cockpit displays give you enough information without giving you too much. The ship is controlled with a mouse, keyboard, or joystick; but the joystick seems to have the best feel. Just to make sure you get off to a good start, there's a walk-through of your first mission and a simulator to hone your flying and fighting skills. The manual is well written and very entertaining. It's made up to look like the ship's magazine Claw Marks, and is designed to put your right into the plot of the game.

As a pure flight simulator, Wing Commander is among the best. Everyone is raving about the 3-D graphics, which are without doubt the best of any simulation game, period. But that's certainly no accident. The game's designer, Chris Roberts, wanted to get the look and feel of the space combat in Star Wars, Battle Star Galactica, and Buck Rogers, but he realized early on that the current state of the art just wasn't good enough. High levels of detail aren't possible with the filled polygons used in most combat sims. And bitmapped graphics look jerky and take too much storage space.

Still, bitmapped graphics seemed the way to go if he wanted to display a great amount of detail. So his team developed a new 3-D graphics driver based on ray-tracing technology and engineering diagrams of the fighters. This new driver can not only produce smoothly-scrolling space fighters, but it can do it with the proper shading, reflectivity, and textured surfaces. Something totally beyond anything we've seen before.

But this still wasn't the gaming experience Roberts was after. There was something lacking - involvement. So the team linked the combat sequences together with cinematic sequences that take place on board the ship. Created from a digitized videotape of live actors, these sequences bring you into the Tiger's Claw and introduce you to some of the characters. This gets you involved with the game and the plot before you get involved in combat. It's these conversations with the nonplayer characters in the bar and during flight that are the key to the emotional involvement that marks a first-rate game.

Interwoven with the cinematic sequences and the combat portion of the game are an absolutely superb musical soundtrack and sound effects. The soundtrack sets the tone for the sequences on board the ship, as well as in combat, where the mood of the music changes with the action on the screen. The sound is so important in this game that playing without a sound board greatly reduces the experience.

Which brings me to another point. Hardware. This all sounds like the perfect game, right? Give me two! But all this performance comes at a stiff price, and that price is hardware. To use the musical score throughout the game and to use all the great graphics features, you need a very high-end system. According to Origin, the optimal platform for playing Wing Commander is a 16+ MHz 386 with 1 + MB expanded memory; a hard drive with 6.5MB free; a Roland, Ad Lib, or Sound Blaster sound card; VGA graphics; and a joystick. Not your average home machine, at least not yet. Origin has chosen to program the best games it can, even if that means leaving those of us with less powerful systems behind.

Of the items on that list, the most important is VGA graphics. The game is much more enjoyable on a 12-MHz machine with VGA than it is on a 25-MHz machine with EGA. The EGA graphics are functional but nothing special. The detail is lost, and at times you can't tell which way the enemy ships are heading. I couldn't tell one end of the Tiger's Claw from the other with EGA. Once you've seen this game in VGA, you won't be able to look at your old EGA monitor the same way again.

Unlike simulators that generate a new scenario each time out, Wing Commander has a story line that takes you through a single campaign. However, the path you take from the beginning to the end depends upon your performance in battle. There are 39 unique missions set up in a sort of tree structure. According to Origin, you can actually win the entire campaign and finish the game in as few as 10 or 11 missions - if you do very well on each flight. But there would still be a bunch of missions that you wouldn't have seen, so there's a good degree of replay value. Just botch a mission or two, and you'll find yourself on a completely different mission path.

The biggest complaint anyone seems to have about this game is that there should be more. Origin is listening. A Secret Mission disk is available directly from Origin for $19.95 with a whole new campaign that takes you deep into Kilrathi territory. (Any characters lost in the original campaign will be reborn!) Coming in late spring will be a completely new and improved stand-alone sequel that will include new ships and features.

If you really want to push your computer to limit, Wing Commander does it better than anything else on the market. So heat up your laser cannon and show those feline fleabags that the "hairless apes" of earth know more than one way to housebreak cat!