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The History of Wing Commander: Part Two

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Posted August 11, 2011 - By Guest Writer


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The History of Wing Commander: Part Two

Wing Commander’s
revolutionary approach to narrative presentation helped pave the way to the modern video game industry, and its design continues to influence game development to the present day. In order to help us celebrate the legacy of this famed franchise, creator Chris Roberts granted us his first games-related interview in over a decade. G4 is proud to present: The History of Wing Commander. You can read part one of the history here, and keep reading for the second installment.

The original Wing Commander was published in 1990. It was the Crysis of its day, a killer app that often required PC gamers to upgrade their rigs just to play it, and to soup them up to push the game to its limits. “The amount of people I ran into that said ‘I had to buy a new PC to play Wing Commander,’ you know, I should have [had] Intel stock or something,” Roberts told me. Keep reading to see what else he had to say about this iconic franchise.

Due to the success of the previous Wing Commander games, Roberts was able to succeed with full motion video where others had fallen short. “It cost four to five million to do Wing Commander III which, at the time, was probably one of the biggest budgets ever,” Roberts said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why Wing Commander III on the movie side was successful. You [need] good actors, you [need] good production values, or else it’s just going to look sort of cheap and chintzy and people [will] disconnect, which is I think what happened on some other interactive movies.”

Wing Commander III was published in 1994. Players controlled the role of Colonel Christopher Blair, depicted by Mark Hamill. They were stationed on the TCS Victory, an outdated but dependable carrier taking the war to the Kilrathi. The game included a high-quality fold-out of the game’s starfighters called “Warbirds,” and another shipboard magazine, titled “Victory Streak.”

Maintaining Origin System’s penchant for elaborate pack-ins to aid player immersion required some negotiations. “We used to fight some battles because EA…had a different mentality about all the bits you’d have in boxes. They were more cost-driven,” Roberts said. “But we fought really hard on Wing Commander III because we thought it was really important.”

Player choices in Wing Commander III’s dialogue sequences could affect relationships with other characters or the morale of the crew, and the branching mission system from the first game returned. It was possible to lose Wing Commander III, with a final cinematic depicting a Kilrathi massacre of the human race on Earth.

Players could choose their own wingmen, ships, and ordnance loadouts. They also had more fine control over their starfighters with variable power systems and the option for manual carrier landings. The biggest changes were the huge capital ships that felt more properly scaled to the starfighters. Players could actually fly into enemy hangar bays and destroy capital ships from the inside, where their shields could not protect them.

Wing Commander III and Myst were two of the biggest games to popularize the CD format. “When we were deciding to do Wing Commander III, it was a big deal that we were going to be CD-ROM,” Roberts said. “At the time, people weren’t sure whether we could justify being CD only. Obviously it was the right choice because Wing Commander III became the first EA PC game ever to sell a million units.”

Wing Commander III wrapped up the war with the Kilrathi, and Roberts intended it to be the end of the series. “Maybe I was subconsciously viewing [Wing Commander] as a trilogy because, you know, Star Wars was a trilogy, or at least it was back then, anyway,” Roberts said. Then Electronic Arts asked for another game in the series, as a console transition was threatening a shortfall in their revenues and Wing Commander was their largest-grossing title that wasn’t a console game.

According to Roberts they wanted the sequel in a year. “I said, ‘Okay, but I can’t build a brand new engine from scratch because we don’t have the time,” Roberts said. “So what we’re going to have to do, to justify a proper sequel and charge full price for it, [is] push it on the polish and the content and the storytelling side.”

Wing Commander IV had a budget of $12 million, was shot on film instead of video, used real sets, and had a 400-page script. Hamill, McDowell, Rhys-Davies and Wilson reprised their roles from Wing Commander III, and were joined by John Spencer of The West Wing fame, and character actor Peter Jason.

“We polished the spaceflight more, we upgraded the resolution, we did better with the textures…there was a lot more polish on Wing Commander IV than there was on Wing Commander III,” Roberts told me. “Then we had to come up with a storyline because the war [with the Kilrathi] was over.”

Wing Commander IV was released in 1996, and pitted Hamill’s Christopher Blair against a plot to inspire a civil war within the Terran Confederation, in order to toughen up humanity in case they ever encountered a race like the Kilrathi again. “I thought [that] was pretty interesting, more adult and a little more gray than the traditional Wing Commander storyline,” Roberts said.

Wing Commander IV again gave players control over choices like wingmen, ships, and loadouts, and in the latter half of the game included command of a carrier and the ability to make broad strategic decisions about which mission to pursue or strategy to employ. The actual spaceflight combat mechanics were largely unchanged.

Chris Roberts left Origin Systems after the release of Wing Commander IV. A compilation of the first three Wing Commander games updated to run on Windows ’95 called The Kilrathi Saga was also released in 1996, and Electronic Arts would publish two more games in the series.

Wing Commander: Prophecy was released in 1997. It continued the use of full motion video cutscenes, and had an updated engine for the space combat. Mark Hamill reprised his role as Blair, and Tom Wilson returned as Maniac, but players took the part of Second Lieutenant Lance Casey, a new pilot for the Terran Confederation. The story involved a Kilrathi-prophesized invasion by a race of insectoid aliens piloting organic ships.

An expansion pack for Prophecy called Special Operations was released in 1998, and would be the last Wing Commander game produced by Origin Systems, which was shut down by EA in 2004.

The final game in the series was Wing Commander Arena, an Xbox Live Arcade title developed by Gaia Industries and released in the summer of 2007. It had very little to do with the other games in the franchise besides borrowing some ship designs and names. Arena was drawn in three dimensions but was actually a 2D action shooter controlled from a third-person perspective, which was a far cry from the original in-the-cockpit experiences.

The influence of Wing Commander on the video game industry cannot be denied. It inspired an entire genre of PC games that would include the X-Wing, Independence War, and Freespace series. Blizzard’s Dustin Browder recently cited Wing Commander as the inspiration for Starcraft 2’s mission hub system. Wing Commander’s style of interactive dialogue is part and parcel of modern Bioware games, and Wing Commander’s presentation of epic, cinematic narrative is pervasive throughout present-day gaming.

We can even see the influence of Wing Commander in establishing the camera perspective of the first person shooter genre that would, in the eyes of many critics, eventually lead to the death of the 3D space combat genre by providing a similar gaming experience.

As testament to the lasting power of this franchise, the gameplay and graphics of the original Wing Commander from 1990 still hold up in the present day. We should not find this surprising, as one of the characteristics of a masterful work in any art form is timelessness.

Read Part One of The History of Wing Commander, and you can also read our entire interview with series creator Chris Roberts.

Special thanks to journalist James Fudge for his assistance with this feature, and to Wing Commander fansite Combat Information Center for curating the legacy of the series.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston, MA. His weekly video game column, First Person, is published by Village Voice Media. He occasionally blogs at punchingsnakes.com, and can be followed on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.

The History of Wing Commander: Part Two
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