Pete Davison: While You Sleep, They’ll Be Waiting . . .

Posted on September 16, 2011 by

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I started up Wing Commander III tonight in celebration of its recent rerelease on Good Old Games and in protest against all the Gears of War 3 excitement that’s slowly building up. (I hate Gears.) And by golly, I miss that series something rotten. (Wing Commander, not Gears of War.)

I remember first playing the original Wing Commander and being gobsmacked by its then-revolutionary cutscenes and effort in telling a story. In fact — and this was always a big taboo in the early days of PC gaming — Wing Commander‘s dedication to spinning a compelling, if cheesy, space opera yarn made me consistently enjoy it far more than the X-Wing series.

Wing Commander III was something special, though. One of the first games to boast a multi-million dollar budget. An early outing for Mark Hamill, now a mainstay of the games industry. Full-motion video in a glorious 256 colours coming out of its ears. And, bizarrely, a porn star cast as the ship’s mechanic.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what it is that’s so appealing about the Wing Commander series — III and IV in particular — but I have a feeling it’s the good balance between plot and spacefaring action. Missions are short enough that you can get through a bunch in a single sitting, but they don’t feel like “throwaway” efforts — there’s always something to do, even if it’s just a patrol. But it’s the fact that you’re rewarded for completing them with advances in the plot — or sometimes just getting to know the characters a bit better — that made the game fun for me. Despite the fact it’s essentiallyTop Gun in space, with all the cheesiness that implies, Wing Commander‘s cast is memorable, even years later. I can still recall Malcolm McDowell’s star turn as the deliciously sinister Admiral Tolwyn years later, and it’s always nice to see John Rhys-Davies. Hamill, too, puts in a good performance — at the time, the game invited references to Star Wars thanks to Hamill in the leading role, but if Wing Commander III showed one thing, it’s that Hamill had grown up, got better hair and was no longer Luke Skywalker.

I’d almost go as far to say that I have fonder memories of the Wing Commander series than I do of the Star Wars saga. I mean, sure, I respect Episodes IV, V and VI and the culture they created, but despite the username by which I typically go online, I’m in no real rush to watch them again — neither am I in any hurry to go pick up the Blu-Ray box set which released recently. Wing Commander III rereleased on Good Old Games, though, for $5.99? I was straight in there. (This may have something to do with the fact that the Star Wars Blu-Ray set costs nearly 70 quid, while Wing Commander III offers an equivalent, if not greater, amount of entertainment for less than a tenth of the price.)

Nostalgia, as they say, isn’t what it used to be. But sometimes you revisit something from the past and find it’s just as awesome as you remember. So far, Wing Commander III, in all its grainy-video glory, has fallen squarely into that category. While modern takes on the space sim genre (what few examples there are left) often offer pleasingly deep and freeform experiences, there really is something to be said for the structured, narrative-heavy approach that Wing Commander offered.

And if you’ve never tried the series for yourself? For $5.99, you can surely afford to check it out.

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Posted in: Pete Davison