When it made its debut in 1990, Origin’s Wing Commander set new standards as both an epic space opera and a fast-paced action game. Since that time, the combination of finger-blistering action and story-driven cinematics have propelled several sequels and spin-offs to great success. In recent years, however, the careful mix of story and action seen in early WC games has become a bit unbalanced. Story elements that were originally brief animations between missions began to take on a much larger role as 1995’s Wing Commander III introduced lots of full-motion video as part of series creator Chris Roberts’ dream of creating a true interactive movie. Though these FMV elements were skillfully done, the follow-up -- Wing Commander IV -- left many fans feeling the series was beginning to concentrate far too much on the movie aspect than on the thrills of space combat. Luckily, the newest installment strikes a more palatable balance of the two by paring down the movies and re-emphasizing the basic appeal of the original Wing Commander -- fun space combat.
There’s still a fair amount of story-telling, only this time the clips are short and sweet, and the plot -- such as it is -- requires very little maintenance. Rather than playing as ace pilot Christopher Blair (the player’s role in the previous four games), you now take on the role of a young rookie named Lance Casey. Even though Blair (played by Mark Hamill) isn’t the main character, he is still a significant part of Prophecy -- this time he’s in charge of research and development of the TCS Midway, a huge spacecraft carrier packing enough punch to knock out an entire fleet and capable of carrying a complete attack force of fighters. As you join the game on the deck of the Midway, the ship is in the middle of shakedown procedures out in deep space. Of course the shakedown doesn’t last long, as an unknown alien force begins spilling through a wormhole and destroying an entire fleet of Confederation ships in the Kilrathi system.
The attractive opening sequence gives the player a good indication that these mysterious new aliens are up to no good, and once the shooting starts, Prophecy really shines. From the first tension-filled mission Prophecy sets a blistering pace, with loads of twisting, turning, dog-fighting. From start to finish, the missions are very well done, offering a wide variety of engagements. In some missions, you’re required to take out turrets on massive alien ships; in others, you’ll lead cat-and-mouse reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines. The fighters you fly (all new models) are responsive, and each one handles very differently; some can turn sharper, while others can pitch up and down more quickly. Different tactics are required depending on what you’re flying -- you’re not going to nail that super-fast Remora fighter if you’re in a sluggish Devastator, but once you get behind the stick of the Vampire, those aliens better watch out.
If you have a 3D accelerator card, you’re in for a treat. The game engine features support for 3D cards through Direct3D, along with native support for the 3Dfx Voodoo Graphics or Voodoo Rush chipset, and these accelerated visuals are fantastic, with some excellent explosions, shading, and zippy frame-rates. Don’t sniff at the software acceleration, though -- it’s still fast, and the framerates are perfectly acceptable even on the minimum system requirements. The only real difference in visual quality is the nice soft edges you get with 3D acceleration, along with shading, fogging, and lens-flare effects. But in the heat of battle, you won’t be looking at the pretty art -- your only concern will be lining the enemy up in your sights.
The only problem with the gameplay is that it still has that familiar Wing Commander physics model. Basically, it feels like you’re stuck inside a sphere, simply turning and shooting at targets as they fly by. There’s rarely a sense of movement as you chase after enemy fighters or move from location to location. Only when you get up close to the big capital ships will you notice any sort of forward momentum.
For those who’ve prized previous Wing Commander story lines, Prophecy’s plot will definitely disappoint. Where WC III and IV featured rich characters and situations, Prophecy has little substance. While the menacing aliens look great, their motives or origins are never fully explained, and, ultimately, the alien invasion is just an excuse to keep the action coming. Luckily, the intrusion of the story line can be tailored to your liking. You can opt to turn off the movies completely or only see the movies that directly affect the plot, skipping the incidental filler flicks.
If you really want to watch the videos, be warned. Even though the game boasts some star actors (Mark Hamill as Blair, Tom Wilson returns as Maniac, and Ginger Lynn Allen reprises her role as chief mechanic Rachel), the performances often range from mediocre to just plain bad. Many of the scenes seem shot in one take, and the whole production has a rushed feel.
And unfortunately, the game has its fair share of bugs. Although there aren’t any updates at the time of writing, there’s an extensive help section on Origin’s web site at www.origin.ea.com . There are some sound card issues that affect the video performance you should be aware of if you have a Diamond Monster Sound.
Also, despite being a touted feature early in the development of Prophecy, there’s no multi-player feature. Origin is considering offering an expansion pack or stand-alone product that will contain multi-player elements using the Prophecy game engine in the next year, but there are no guarantees. It’s a sore omission, as the game would have benefited greatly for having multi-player, especially with the variety of ships available. However, there’s still plenty of replay value with the variable difficulty setting, the ability to replay past missions from the Flight History Terminal, and the slew of training missions available for each craft in the Simulator.
Even with its flaws, Wing Commander: Prophecy is a worthy addition to any Wing Commander fan’s collection. It has the gameplay the last two lacked, and all the action that made the first two great. While the movie sequences may not live up to previous games, all self-respecting fans of space combat should definitely check this one out.