This is the final game from 1994 and marks the end of Origins most prolific period. It seems like a long time since I was playing the last missions in Special Ops 2 and it was definitely a lengthy wait for Wing Commander fans before this game eventually came out after the unresolved ending. There were plenty of spin-offs in the meanwhile to keep the fans busy though – since SO2 I’ve played the entire Strike series, Privateer, Righteous Fire, Wing Commander Armada + Academy. With the exception of Privateer none of those games were as much fun as the original Wing Commanders and I’m not sorry to get back to where it all started again.
Wing Commander 3 completes the Kilrathi trilogy before the series started moving off into new directions. Things are very different this time around – the old sprite based flight engine has gone and its replaced by a state of the art polygon based SVGA engine. The more obvious change still is that the Origin FX cutscenes have gone and are replaced by digital video starring real actors. As I understand it Chris Roberts went off to play at being a movie director and do all the cutscenes whilst leaving the game itself to others.
I should probably make a confession at this point – I love interactive movies. Games like Under a Killing Moon, Pandora Directive, Gabriel Knight 2, Realms of the Haunting, X-Files, Spycraft, A Fork in the Tale, Rebel Assault 1 & 2, Black Dahlia, 7th Guest… I love them all. Games journalists however couldn’t stand them for the most part and the term itself became a dirty word effectively killing the genre off before it had really got started. I remember add-ons like Mysteries of the Sith for Jedi Knight receiving praise for having in-game cutscenes which “didn’t take you out of the game” unlike the original Jedi Knight. I say give me the FMV every time. I’d much rather see real actors than a load of dodgy polygons. It especially made sense back in the mid 90’s when realtime 3D graphics simply weren’t up to much.
It goes without saying then that I’m a bit of a fan of Wing Commander 3 & 4. In terms of FMV, Wing Commander 3 was on a different scale to anything that I’d seen before and blew me away at the time. Back when I bought this I was a student living in a shared house – just to get this to run at all we had to combine the best parts of our computers and it still took about a minute to load before each mission started. We couldn’t run the flight parts in SVGA as you needed something of a supercomputer (a Pentium) so had to live with VGA. All the grief was worth it though as no one had ever made a game that looked and sounded as good as this.
I know WC3 very well as I’ve played it through several times since so I could more or less write it all up before I’ve played it again. I remember the movies being more fun than the flying parts although the flying sections were still entertaining enough. Its been a few years since I played this last so I’ll be curious to see how well it has stood the test of time.
The introduction must last about 15 minutes. The first part shows the emperor + Thrakhath on Kilrah executing some prisoners. Angel has also been captured but is spared disintegration because of her prowess as a warrior. We don’t get to find out her fate at this stage. The Kilrathi are brought to life with some sort of animatronics. They don’t look all that bad actually considering. If Chris Roberts knew he was going to have to recreate them in real life years down the line I expect he wouldn’t have gone for highly evolved cats back in Wing Commander 1.
The next part shows our hero, now called Christopher Blair (Chris after Chris Roberts + Blair being short for Bluehair) + Paladin looking over the wreckage of the Concordia. There is a pretty decent cast for this game including Mark Hamill (Star Wars), John Rhys Davies (Indiana Jones, Sliders) and Malcolm McDowell (Clockwork Orange, Star Trek 6). It’s especially nice to see Malcolm McDowell – his performance in this game isn’t exactly up to the standards of A Clockwork Orange but then neither is the material. I can think of a few interactive movies that had bigger names e.g. Christopher Walken in Ripper but I can think of more where the actors were just clueless and the whole thing ended up like a home movie. This is not the case in WC3. For all that we have a decent cast of real actors here, what we don’t have are real sets so everything is done on bluescreen. This limits the possibilities for any dynamic action and the camera remains static for every scene in the game that isn’t full CGI.
In this scene Blair asks after Angel but Paladin doesn’t know anything (allegedly).
Blair then goes to meet up with Tolwyn to get his next assignment. He is assigned to the Victory and is not all that pleased about it. The Victory is an old ship that is hardly up to the standards of the Concordia – it beats the 10 years in security that I had at the start of Wing Commander 2.
While flying to the victory, Blair watches a news broadcast. There are rumours that the war is not going well although Tolwyn seemed to think things were looking up.
The Victory may not be as impressive as the Concordia but it still doesn’t look bad in FMV.
I land to a formal welcome from the crew. The guy in charge is Captain Eisen. Hobbes is also here as second in command but is no longer flying due to anti-Kilrathi prejudice among the crew. I insist he is reinstated to the flight roster as he is allegedly the best wingman I’ve ever had. I remember Maniac being the best wingman I ever had but I won’t argue.
This finally signals the end of the introduction although I don’t get to fly yet. I can walk around the ship in the same manner as other Wing Commander games talking to people first. There is a cutscene shown between each room showing me walking into it – this will be one of the first things I turn off in the options.
The introduction is truly epic compared to anything I’d seen before with very nice CGI for the time and a sweeping score by George Oldziey. It certainly impressed me back in 1994. Watching it now, it still doesn’t look bad but the video compression isn’t great. There are serious artifacts in some of the CGI scenes where there is a lot of movement.
Back in 94 there were not many standard video libraries as far as I know. We had the AVI standard but that was definitely not up to full screen SVGA so companies like Origin had to write their own. The problem was exacerbated by CD drives only being single or dual speed and not being able to supply the data fast enough during demanding scenes. Running through an upscaling filter on Dosbox it still looks nice most of the time – the video codec used copes with the usual static camera scenes extremely well however. We only have 256 colours for now but this isn’t too obvious.
This is the first game in this blog that was only released on CD and it came on 4 of them which showed an inherent problem with the storage capacity of CD’s when you are trying to do FMV. To be fair there must be a few hours of FMV in this game and it’s not a big problem in a linear game like this where you just worked through the missions in order but I remember swapping backwards and forwards constantly in other games like The Pandora Directive. The idea of copying the whole lot to a hard disk was unthinkable and wasn’t usually even supported – I think I had about a 200 Mb hard disk around this time. As far as I know the first ever CD exclusive game was 7th Guest and even that came on 2 CD’s.
I’ve been playing this for 15 minutes and not actually done anything yet. I’ll meet the crew and start the game properly tonight. I’m well practiced at WC3 and expect to get through it in no time. I’ll aim to complete at least a CD a night and have it done by the weekend.