It’s been quite clear, since the advent of CD-ROM, that computer games are steadily moving towards some new hybrid of movie and game. We’ve been subjected to numerous "interactive movies," and all of them have failed on some level -- whether in writing, acting, filming, animation, or pure gameplay. Whatever the reason, the potential of this new movie/game hybrid has, until now, gone unfulfilled.
But with Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, Origin has produced a title that succeeds so perfectly and on so many levels that it must be considered the new benchmark against which all interactive entertainment will be compared. With its all-star cast, big-budget production, intriguing storyline, sumptuous sound, and beautiful 3D rendering, WCIII is a game in which every element is meticulously crafted, and brought together flawlessly.
WCIII opens with a jaw-dropping mini-movie, setting the stage for the drama to follow and establishing the main characters. In a series of soaring scenes, we’re taken from the vast palace of the Kilrathi emperor to a shoreline where a space carrier lies in ruins. Along the way we meet our main characters and begin to sense the tension and conflict which your character, Colonel Christopher Blair, will face. Blair is being assigned to the slightly disreputable carrier TCS Victory by the scheming Admiral Tolwyn, whose plans are not immediately clear. The crew of the Victory, lead by Captain Eisen, is competent enough -- but the Victory is still the kind of assignment pilots pull when they’ve pissed someone off.
The usual array of Wing Commander-style characters, mostly wingmen and women (wingpeople?), are here as in previous versions, but the high-quality video and acting bring them to life as never before (see sidebar). Everything about the production, casting, and performances is executed at a level of quality and professionalism we’ve never seen before in a game. The backgrounds are finely rendered and the video is smooth, full-screen -- and, for the most part, clear. There is some pixelation in the video sequences, but it’s still the best that’s possible at the current level of technology.
None of the actors are "A-list" stars (though some used to be), but they prove in WCIII that they can still turn in solid, compelling performances in the truly unusual context of a computer game. Casting Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker himself) as the Wing Commander is a stroke of genius that pays off big. Not only does he do a good job, but he evokes the swashbuckling spirit of the Star Wars flicks as well, giving the entire proceedings a nostalgic resonance.
Even more exciting are the animatronic puppets used for the Kilrathi. Large, imposing, and fully articulated, these are the cats as you imagined they would look in reality. With growling, distorted voices and the vocal talents of actors such as Tim Curry and John Shuck, they are menacing yet regal.
True to Wing Commander form, you experience these scenes between flying missions. Some scenes have a level of interactivity, in which you can choose how you respond to certain people. Only a few of these seem to really alter the course of the game, though, and then only in minor ways. (One choice you do get to make is who you’ll boink: Flint or Rachel. It’s purely a matter of taste, however, and only changes the very last scene.)
You get to wander the entire ship, including the flight deck, bar, gunnery control, flight simulator, bunks, and more. When ready for a mission, you enter the briefing room, where Captain Eisen describes the mission elements and goals. From there, you drop to the ready room to pick your wingman and then its off to the flick deck for a long wait while the game loads the mission details. Hey, nobody said it was perfect.
The point of all this sturm und drang is to put you in the cockpit of a Confed fighter in a series of fast-paced missions. The heart of WCIII, it’s action sequences, are vintage Wing Commander made even better, and guaranteed to impress even the most jaded gamers. The most striking element of this new flight engine are the SVGA graphics. Simply put, no game has ever had this level of detail and this kind of high-quality rendering in action scenes. The ships look so good you feel like you could reach out and touch them, with laser blasts taking chunks out of enemies and Kilrathi exploding into blinding fireballs. The action never lets up, and you can set it for as easy or as hard as you like without changing the outcome of the game. On easier modes, the Kilrathi ships explode with only a hit or two, while on harder levels they’re much more difficult to kill.
Altogether, the Kilrathi fly with a high level of competence and offer quite a bit of challenge on many missions. The missions themselves run the traditional gamut from fighter sweeps and scrambles to bombing raids, escorts, and search-and-destroy. Some added twists new to WCIII are the ability to fly into some Kilrathi ships, such as carriers, and destroy them from the inside. Another novel mission, only somewhat successfully executed, is a planetary strike that has you defeating several waves of fighters, then taking out ground-based tanks, and finally blowing up a few buildings.
There’s enough that’s familiar here to please fans of the series, while providing a couple of new tricks to keep things interesting. The flight dynamics and (for the most part) the mission structure are the same-old Wing Commander, with more of an emphasis on arcade-like action than true "space simulation." At times you still get the feeling that you’re in a bubble with the scenery rotating around you, but this hardly matters. Wing Commander III delivers in spades where it counts -- in the action and drama departments.
Computer entertainment has been struggling towards some synthesis of Silicon Valley and Hollywood: "Sillywood," some have dubbed it. In Wing Commander III, that synthesis has actually arrived, and it’ll forever change how multimedia games are viewed. Of course, there’s some cost for all this: WCIII will fight even the most advanced systems for a proper configuration, and on my Pentium 60 with 24 MB of RAM and a full installation it still features a protracted, almost two-minute-long mission load time.
But the rest of the game flows quite well -- so well, in fact, that you’ll soon forget this is a game and just become wrapped up in its fully realized world. It’s a tour de force, and the culmination of years of work on a series that many consider the finest in computer gaming history.
-- T. Liam McDonald