This article originally appeared in issue 247 of PC Gamer UK.
Red alert! Red alert! When the Kilrathi attack the TCS Concordia, you don't get a briefing screen that says “So, we're under attack by seven-foot cat aliens. Click here to continue.” There's no level or mission number on the screen, or a choice of difficulty. You just get feet smashing against the bulkhead, sirens and red lights blaring as you and your fellow pilots race into your ships and blast off in the full knowledge that if you fail, there'll be no carrier left to land on. And that'll really put a downer on tonight's poker game.
Wing Commander is the saga of a pilot who you could initially name whatever you wanted, but became canonically known as 'Blair' as a mocking reference to his blue hair, destined to become hero of the Terran Confederation in its darkest hour. The first game was a cinematic masterpiece in 1990, with this sequel upping the ante in every respect for 1991. It blew everyone away at the time... or at least, everyone who could run it.
Developer Origin had complete contempt for system specifications, and while its official studio motto was “We Create Worlds”, it might has well have been “Your PC Probably Can't Run This”.
Even by modern standards, Wing Commander 2 goes above and beyond the call to make you part of the navy. There are funerals for fallen pilots, for instance, and lots of time hanging out with other pilots and crew aboard your assigned carrier, the TCS Concordia. Everyone has a personality, both in and out of the cockpit. Take Spirit, your first wingmate in the series – a classically helpful, reliable fighter whenever you fly with her. Her eventual suicide therefore means that much more if you manage to get her through the first game in one piece, as well as forever changing the relationship between Blair and his commander, Angel – that fact subsequently starting WC3 off with a real bang.
While the first game had similar character, it didn't have a vast amount of actual plot. Wing Commander 2 sets out as one of the most cinematic, plot-obsessed action games ever – if you don't count its sequels, which swapped the hand drawn characters and cutscenes for FMV starring the likes of Mark 'Luke Skywalker' Hamill and Tom 'Not Luke Skywalker' Wilson. Wing Commander 3 is especially enjoyable, even weighed down by a script that in all seriousness includes the line “God, I love that boy's spunk... ”.
What's unusual about Wing Commander's take on space is just how depressing it can be. There's heroics, yes, and it's a sprawling space epic of betrayals, friendship, and space cats with voices that will make you beg for a throat sweet after a while. However it's odd to start a sequel not as a war hero, but as The Coward of K'Tithrak Mang, picking up after Blair has spent the last ten years on the bench due to the Tiger's Claw carrier ship being blown up by stealth fighters nobody else believes in. Of course they're real, but a running theme still emerges. Every time you're sent out alone, you fight them. Every time you fight them, your black box mysteriously malfunctions before you get home.
That alone adds a lot of spice to the game, with Blair not only having to earn the respect of his colleagues, but you having to make sure it works out. Wing Commander has a branching mission system where your performance directly affects the war effort – the 'bad' path ultimately leading to a suicidal last stand. This kind of thing simply isn't done any more in games, not least because of the cost of making all that content that people will just go back to a saved game to avoid. Text being cheap though, Wing Commander pulled it off.
I've not mentioned much of the actual game yet, and there's a reason for that. During the '90s there was a big fight between Wing Commander and X-Wing/TIE Fighter fans over who had the best game. Cinematically, Wing Commander clinched it. As a space shooter, there was no competition – even from the other side of the great divide, the Star Wars games had what it took. Since then, Wing Commander's action has aged badly, with its universe made up of scaled sprites rather than polygonal 3D, and an AI that thinks it's in a jousting tournament rather than a dogfight. It's borderline unplayable these days, and unthinkable that it was once king of the genre.
The human element remains effective though, and shows up just how sterile most games are. There's something satisfying about landing after a mission and having the engineer, a girl called Sparks, shoot the breeze and tally your kills via a conversation instead of just having it added to a variable somewhere. Likewise, you don't get to make any actual conversation decisions (until Wing Commander 3), but the amount of time you spend with everyone does so much to turn the war from a simple series of missions into something with actual impact and repercussions on a wider scale.
Even the mighty Freespace 2 – the best space sim of all time – largely failed at this by never letting its characters be more than just 'Alpha 1' and 'Alpha 2'. Here, you quickly start sharing Blair's frustration at everyone refusing to believe in stealth fighters... although in fairness, this is countered by wishing he'd just buy a damn camcorder to prove it. Throw in murders, sabotage, a little romance, and the introduction of one of the series' best characters, turncoat Kilrathi Hobbes, and the main game and its expansions add up to an extremely enjoyable space epic.
Without nostalgia though, WC3 is the game to go back to. It's tough to start with WC2, to put it mildly, unless you're going to use the cheat that lets you instantly blow up enemy ships and play it for the story. To save a trip to Google, start the game with 'wc2.exe Origin -k', and press Alt + Del. On the plus side, you won't need to make a trip to your local hardware provider. Twenty years later, your PC almost certainly can run it.