Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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I Dream of Wing Commander

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 29, 2016

Wc2confederationThis weekend I had a dream about a massive Wing Commander remake. It was a total reboot, but the carriers Tiger’s Claw and the Concordia were part of the demo video.  The Concordia was so huge it could actually hold several Bengal-class carriers like the Tiger’s Claw inside it.

I woke up really, REALLY wanting this to happen. I suppose it could, but I’m not holding my breath.

WC1_BoxartThe problem is… well, okay. If a game was labeled “Wing Commander” and was truly a reboot of the original series, then I’m sure it would do reasonably well based on that legacy. But these days, games based on that style of gameplay – space combat with canned missions in a story-heavy format – don’t typically do so well. Space combat itself has gotten a little on the stale side, at least from what I have played, so it tends to be mixed in with something else (like an open-world game) to make it interesting.

One indie game that really embraced the Wing Commander style of gameplay fairly recently was the indie title Eterium. The game apparently didn’t do so well. You could chalk it up to a lot of different reasons. I can say on my side, I liked it, and I still intend to finish it at some point, but after my initial enthusiasm for a game with such strong spiritual roots in Wing Commander (especially 1 and 2), it didn’t take much for me to get distracted and to lose interest in getting back into it.

Would a new Wing Commander run into the same problem? Would my dream-reboot die a quiet death after big fanfare? Has the time passed for that subgenre? Was the success of the original more due to novelty and technology?

I dunno. I think a really good Wing Commander-style game today would need to execute well on three fronts:

Deeper, Cinematic Gameplay

Not to be confused with harder gameplay. If anything, the original Wing Commander games were on the easy side – deliberately. You can actually see in the credits a role for “Dogfight Choreography” (at least in the first game – I’m not sure about the second). When the enemy ships were in front of you, they would do all kinds of weird, twisty gyrations that were probably not the most effective combat maneuvers… but they looked cool. That was the point. It was cinematic. A total failure if you were adding it to multiplayer, because real players wouldn’t fight like that… unless somehow the gameplay forced you to do so.

I think the “cinematic” part is the key, though. It flies in the face of realism (as if space fighter combat is anything close to realistic), but the point is to make it dramatic and make the player feel like they are in an action scene in a sci-fi movie. All the time.

But still, I think a modern Wing Commander would need a bit more depth than just leading a swift-moving vehicle in space and firing lasers and missiles at it, occasionally hitting the afterburners to boost through the dicier sections (or, to borrow from later games and the X-Wing series, re-balancing shields). I don’t know what it would be (yet), but for a space-combat game veteran like me, there needs to be more to hold my interest so I’m not just retracing old steps.

Some of this gameplay could be in the meta-game aspect. Wing Commander 1 had a branching storyline (largely ignored by players who replayed to stay on the winning path), medals and promotions, and a scoreboard against the other characters. In later games, your between-mission choices would influence morale and other aspects of the game. That’s a good start, but I’d like to see a lot more.

WC_Hornet_BlueprintsA Convincing, Detailed World (Universe)

Maybe I was the only one for whom this was a big thing, but part of the draw for me was the amount of effort that was put into the first game to make the world feel real. This started in the documentation – the “blueprints” for the ships (which doubled as copy protection) and the manual which pretended to be an internally distributed ship’s magazine. But it also came through the game internally – the pilots talked shop, compared stats and tactics (including enemy tactics), and told old war stories.

This was old-school Origin… trying to make the universe come alive, whether it was within the Ultima series or in Wing Commander. For me, it worked. This was a big part of what made the first game work for me… and why the subsequent games didn’t quite capture the same magic for me. They focused more on plot, and in some ways lost the concept of setting. I think the writers and designers forgot that for combat pilots, all those kinds of details ARE their world.

It’s a challenging line to walk between simulation and narrative, but they both have to work. At least for me. Maybe not all players are into that kind of immersion, but having it there makes it feel real.

Characters and Plot (with some player control)

WC1-AngelWing Commander 1 presented us with characters who weren’t a whole lot more than stereotypes, but they worked. One of the elements that made them work so well was that their lives were at least in part in the player’s hands. It was pretty startling to see a character marked as “KIA” on the scoreboard, and to realize not only why there was an empty seat at the table in the bar, but that it wasn’t supposed to be empty.

WC2 removed that power from the player, in the interest of having a better story. It’s hard to create a story in advance when you don’t know what characters will still be alive at certain points in the plot. The characters got a bit more fleshed out and less of stereotypes, which was a great thing. But the lack of player responsibility for anything that happened in the story weakened it as interactive entertainment.

A really good Wing Commander successor (literal or spiritual) should somehow mix those a little bit better, making the player more consequential to how the plot evolves (and the underlying details of the story), yet also maintain a riveting plot with a cast of characters the player can care about. What kept me playing through WC2-WC4 was a desire to find out what happened next in the story. Maybe they weren’t perfect, but they were compelling enough.


Nothing else – even Chris Roberts’ own spiritual successors – really succeeded in all three of these areas, to my knowledge (or at least in my estimation). Some of the games in the 1990s succeeded anyway, and were still very good games. It’s a tall order. And would all that even be enough? If a game kicked butt in all three categories, would that still be insufficient in today’s marketplace?

I really don’t know. I haven’t played space combat sims as much as I used to, and so a bunch have fallen beneath my radar. Maybe there’s an indie game out there that exactly fills this bill, and I just haven’t given it a chance, yet. In the meantime, I guess my really cool Wing Commander reboot dream is going to remain just a dream.

Filed Under: Space Sims - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Infinitron said,

    Wing Commander 2 does have some branching as well.

  • Adamantyr said,

    Wing Commander 1 was easy? Yikes… I must have really sucked. I constantly had the problem if either my wingmen getting killed OR the Tiger’s Claw getting destroyed. Especially in the expansions.

    I actually picked up Wing Commander complete with manuals and blueprints at a game store bargain bin back in the early 90’s, which was awesome! But getting the Kilrathi Saga was the best way to play the game in modern Windows. (I THINK it still works, I haven’t tested it in Windows 10 yet.)

    I do miss playing space combat games, although I had the most fun when I still had a joystick on my PC for it. And you’re right that it wasn’t THAT accurate, more cinematic in nature.

    I like the idea of a rebooted original Wing Commander as well… but I don’t trust Electronic Arts at all to handle it right.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Infinitron: Yep, you are right. I had to look that up to make sure. I guess it’s been too long.

    @Adamantyr: Well, okay, I played through the whole game (deliberately failing in some cases to play the fail branch) about four or five times, and by that time the game seemed pretty easy. 🙂 I thought some of the later games upped the difficulty a bit, though.

    Flying the Ferret in WC2 though… MAN. Any attempt to afterburner will be met with a mid-space collision that will either destroy or cripple your ship!

    As far as EA getting it right… yeah, I dunno. They bat around .500 on things like that. If someone could do for Wing Commander what Firaxis did for X-Com, though, I’d be happy.

  • Mark said,

    Anyone been watching Wings of St Nazaire? I only saw a trailer or two, but looks interesting. Also, Starlancer brought some interesting new mechanics to the table. And hopefully the features in RSI’s game will leak into other games in the future. Features like:
    -damage models
    -explore the ship you are driving
    -raid other ships

  • lakerz said,

    I wonder how well Star Citizen is selling?