Wing Commander Saga – The Darkest Dawn

I’ve already had a look at the prologue to Wing Commander Saga but today I can finally give an opinion on the main campaign. I’ll avoid too many spoilers with this being a new title and keep this as general as possible.

The first thing to say about the Darkest Dawn campaign is it’s big, really really big. I honestly think that I could have played through the entire Kilrathi Saga including mission packs in the time I’ve spent on this. The campaign has about 50 missions but with no branching that is even more than it sounds like. The later missions can take 30 minutes+ on a successful run. Add in time for failures and the gameplay stacks up.

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I complained a little about the amount of dialog and repetition required in some of the prologue missions and I’m glad to say that things did improve. The dialog tended to be more spread out and less in a large clump at the beginning of a mission. This doesn’t mean that you won’t spend large amounts of time getting back to where you were if you get blown up. If you die 30 minutes into a mission near the end of the game, you are stuck playing the whole thing again. If you haven’t got the patience for this sort of oldschool mechanic, this isn’t the game for you.

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Despite this, the missions rarely seemed unfair and were very well structured. I had some issues getting used to the dynamics while playing the prologue but I soon settled down and it was usually an issue with my tactics and lack of foreknowledge if I failed a mission. Taking a different approach would always get me further which is key to this sort of gameplay. That isn’t to say that this is easy and on medium difficulty it’s going to provide much more of a challenge than the vast majority of missions from the original games. If you fail a mission 5 times, you do get the option of skipping it but I didn’t have to resort to that. I only had this offered to me twice during the campaign so the difficulty is well judged enough not to require constant reruns.

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The amount of variation in missions is impressive to say the least with endless little tweaks and gimmicks being used to keep it fresh. I particularly liked the nebula missions. In the original WC games, flying in a nebula was represented purely as a palette tweak but here there are banks of clouds you can barely see through and lightning strikes going off around the ships creating a fantastic atmosphere. Not too surprisingly in a game this size, the novelty of shooting Kilrathi was waning slightly by the later missions but Saga definitely doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.

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All the usual WC3 fighters were represented and I also got to fly a Sabre (previously only seen in WC2). The handling of the heavier ships appeared slower than I’m used to and it could be quite tricky getting the Kilrathi lined up in my sights. This applied mostly to Longbows which were particularly lumbering, and taking out the smaller ships with rear turret fire seemed to be the most practical approach. I was definitely right about my skills being better suited to bombers as I sailed through those missions.

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For most of the game, the Kilrathi were a lot more deadly in Saga than I remember them being in Wing Commander 3. This was especially true with any ships that had turrets which can quickly rip your fighter apart if you aren’t careful. Unlike some Wing Commander games, I don’t feel quite like the all-conquering hero of humanity in this and was much more a part of a team with my wingmen scoring plenty of kills. In fact, the game got a lot easier at the end when I realised I should stop trying to win the war single-handed.

You can still expect to be racking up well over 50 kills a mission by the end of the game. There are some monumentally huge battles with large numbers of ships on both sides which can get seriously hectic. If you lose awareness of the location of your wingmen and supporting craft you can quickly be overwhelmed which adds a welcome tactical element, although it does can show up some strange wingman behaviour. There are very few missions where you get to be a wing commander and issue the orders. This option could have come in really handy at times.

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One thing that becomes apparent as the game progresses is that the missions are on rails to some degree. This usually manifests in such ways as certain ships only taking a certain amount of damage before becoming invulnerable or suddenly blowing up at other times. Once you are aware of these rails, it’s hard not to exploit them a little. For instance, I’m not going to put any effort into protecting a bomber I know is invulnerable. I’m sure it’s extremely difficult to avoid this sort of thing if you are telling all the story within the game.

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Speaking of the story, it follows alongside Wing Commander 3 complimenting and explaining the original events extremely well. It’s less serious than WC3 with some truly larger than life characters for wingmen and some blatant references to several TV shows and the like. I really enjoyed most of the banter but it could detract from the sober nature of the plot at times. For instance there is a battle in which a ship called The Kinney is blown up at which point we get a “Oh my god, they killed the Kinney”, “You monsters”. The reference made me laugh but also stopped me being able to take what would have been a sombre cutscene that followed the mission seriously.

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These are minor quibbles in what is an epic game. There are many memorable moments throughout the 50 missions with nearly every one having its own character. Saga’s gameplay comes across as a mixture of X-Wing Alliance style story telling and Wing Commander combat, which would be enough on it’s own to sell me on it. Combine this with the superb production standards and it’s the most fun I’ve had playing any game in quite some time. It’s too good to be free and I just wish there was a big box version I could sink some money into. A huge thank you to everyone in the team who put this together.

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