Ranking the Wing Commander Series
With Star Citizen looming just out of view on some distant otherworldly horizon, I thought I’d take a look back on the series that made both Chris Roberts, and his brother Erin, household names before it gets here.
The Wing Commander series always prided itself on pushing the hardware of its time, something that looks to continue with Star Citizen. It also spawned an animated series: ‘Wing Commander Academy’ that ran for thirteen episodes and acted as a prequel and a movie: ‘Wing Commander’ starring Freddie Prinze Jr.
Sadly, Electronic Arts have let the Wing Commander franchise languish a little, with the last big title set in the universe: Wing Commander: Prophecy, coming out in 1997. This list will just be ranking the main series entries. Of course this list is just my opinion, let me know yours in the comments!
5. Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom
Released: 4th February 1996
The Price of Freedom built on the foundation of Wing Commander III, improving the game engine and improving the production values across the board, the full motion video being shot on sets rather than being pure green screen sets, for example, whilst also being released with enhanced quality on DVD. It was also the first Wing Commander to remove dedicated cockpit graphics, instead opting for a fullscreen HUD style which would stay with the series in Prophecy.
The game takes place years after the Terran-Kilrathi war, with internal politics pulling both sides apart from within. A new conflict has flared up between the Terran Confederation and the Union of Border Worlds, after unarmed ships started being destroyed by mysterious fighters with a weapon that vaporises all a ship's contents, leaving no traces.
This change of pace, moving to a more political “after the war” story rather than the more action-film style of the prior games, gives Wing Commander IV a very different feel to the rest of the series.
4. Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi
Released: 4th September 1991
The second game starts with the player character wrongly demoted after the events of the original; picking up ten years later it introduces us to a new cast with some old favourites returning. Those Kilrathi are again up to no good and the story has some emotional moments this time around.
Vengeance of the Kilrathi improved on almost every element of the original titles presentation; graphically and aurally it’s a step up in every way, featuring some of gaming's first voice acting courtesy of a separate Speech Accessory Pack. There was a heavy emphasis on cinematic presentation, the games amazing introduction sequence setting the bar that the whole industry strived to improve upon.
Gameplay-wise it was a little bit of a step back, because the game had specific story beats it wanted to happen it was a little less freeform. Wingmen could no longer die (except in scripted moments) for example.The more structured nature to the plot made it feel more linear and less responsive than the original game, but overall it was far stronger to actually play.
3. Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger
Released: 8th December 1994
Heart of the Tiger made waves when it launched, as it utilised over two hours of full motion video featuring prominent stars including Mark Hamill, John Rhys-Davies and Malcolm McDowell. The main character was finally given a name: ‘Christopher Blair’, after being player named in previous instalments (although he was nicknamed Bluehair by the development team, it’s clear to see how that became Blair!)
Technologically it marked the jump to a fully 3D environment with actual models rather than the 2D sprite-based affair of previous games. This was just before 3D acceleration cards were the norm so it used a software 3D renderer; due to this a new selection of ships were created for the game, with more primitive blocky appearances to aid the games speed on high-end for the time 486/Pentium hardware..
It picks up with Blair being transferred to the TCS Victory, a couple of old faces return but it’s mostly a whole new roster. The story this time has you taking the fight to the Kilrathi homeworld of Kilrah, bringing with it new planetary missions.
2. Wing Commander: Prophecy
Released: 12th December 1997
Prophecy is the fifth and final entry in the main series and is set over 10 years after The Price of Freedom. It’s also the first entry where Chris Roberts wasn’t directly involved. It introduces a new alien race to the series in the insectoid Nephilim race that travel to human space via a wormhole.
You play as Lance Casey rather than Christopher Blair, again with a new roster of characters, as you take the fight to the Nephilim during their invasion of Terran space. After the more thoughtful campaign of Wing Commander IV it feels nice to be going back to a more action-packed Space Opera style storyline
It’s the first title to embrace 3D hardware, the new Vision engine designed primarily to support 3DFX Glide. This makes it stand out visually compared to the software rendered 3D of prior entries, with impressive explosions, weapon effects and more detailed ship models.
Prophecy arguably also feels the best to play, it’s the most modern engine and the controls feel nice even after all these years. As for gameplay: it clearly builds on all the prior entries but feels polished to a sheen.
1. Wing Commander
Released: 26th September 1990
The game that started the franchise and arguably the progenitor of the space combat genre. It pushed PC graphics of the time featuring spectacular 256-colour VGA artwork and cinematic cutscenes. Introducing us to the conflict between the Terran Confederation and the feline warrior race known as the Kilrathi; it presented the multicultural crew of the TCS Tiger’s Claw as they take on the Kilrathi menace.
The gameplay in Wing Commander seems basic now, essentially consisting of clearing an area of enemies and moving on to the next, but for the time it was a revelation and it set the template for future games to build upon, not only in the series but beyond.
The main draw was the game’s branching storyline, whether you succeeded in a mission or not would affect how the main storyline progressed with multiple factors, including wingman deaths, being referenced. Any deaths would force you to deal with future missions that would’ve had those characters in alone instead. The game culminated in one of two endings based on your performances but the mission to mission storytelling was very personal.
Playing through the whole series again for this article made me realise just how well they hold up. The first game holds a special place for me as it’s the first one I played as a kid, that iconic music as you race to your ship will stay with me forever.
All of the games are still well worth playing and are still enjoyable today; that basic space combat template still works well and seeing Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell et al. chew up the scenery in the later entries is a guilty pleasure.
It’s a shame EA don’t seem to want to revisit Wing Commander anytime soon, but Chris Roberts is keeping the spirit alive in Star Citizen, especially in the Squadron 42 campaign portion. I’m particularly looking forward to that!