Game of the Month: March 2017
Wing Commander III - PC / 3DO / PS1
If you were to sit back from a safe distance and view the gaming industry as a total outsider then it’s very possible that you could easily be drawn into everything revolving around gaming consoles. A quick piece of evidence to support this statement could be that most books released by (cough) authors that swamp the scene with regurgitated Wikipedia facts with nice high res scanned images around unimaginative text flock to the famous systems. From the NES, the console that helped save the North American scene to the SNES Vs. Mega Drive wars and the Playstation changing everything, some days it seems that there’s far too much focus on them… especially when many of the best games of all time came from the computer domain.
Whilst Nintendo, Sega, Atari, Sony, Microsoft, Philips, Panasonic, NEC etc etc have sold gamers on new generations of gaming experiences, one format has just evolved within itself. In the past 30+ plus years the home Personal Computer has grown at a consistently impressive rate. At one point it was in the home so that people could do home business accounts and in other times it’s been the main communications device thanks to the Internet.
The one thing however that it’s always been used for is playing videogames. It’s earliest days saw it being the home to fans of Role Playing Text Based Adventures and simple time wasting experiences such as Solitaire and Minesweeper but in the 1990’s the PC technology explosion and resulting software went on to drive everything else on as it fought to match the 16-bit consoles. What began as a race to remain relevant as the younger audience flocked in their millions to machines from Nintendo and Sega soon became the format that everyone else would eventually play catch-up to. A race consoles still trail way behind in today.
There are of course numerous games from the earlier days on the PC format that are amazing but it was the release of the Pentium chip that would go on to be one of the most important events in the history of the videogame industry. A quantum leap forward in processing power and graphical capabilities that was the prime example of how numerous technologies could work together to produce experiences unmatched by any one console on the market. The problem of course was in it’s initial price and the fact that, much like any new platform or expansion, a killer set of games was needed.
For the month of March 2017 we here at RGG want to take you back to a calendar year after the Pentium processor hit the market and one of it’s earliest masterpieces that made everyone eat their words. It’s time to hyper jump into deep space and fall in love all over again with Wing Commander III - Heart Of The Tiger.
Hang around the internet as much as we do and you will very often see people turning noses up to the early days of CD-ROM gaming, especially on consoles such as the CD-TV, CD-I and of course the Sega Mega-CD Add-on. Thanks to twenty year old Youtubers who have zero experience of the actual evolution of the industry from that time, judging it retroactively against impossible standards of now those early 1990’s get a bit of a hammering. If you also spend time on social media then the term FMV (Full Motion Video) is also another thing that get’s accused of simply being a waste of time. Now in some cases this may in fact have some truth attached to it, some of the games were abysmal. The problem was that a whole ton of cartridge based games without FMV were even worse.
The huge potential of the extra storage space a CD offered over a cartridge was mind blowing, so much so that most companies just whacked on soundtracks or short video sequence intros and figured that would be enough. So as the CD-I and the Mega-CD were ripped apart a ton of people probably didn’t take much time to look at how developers handled games for the PC format. One particular developer however took a look at this emerging technology and decided to take an existing popular franchise and really make full use of everything on offer to make a superb example of why people needed both a Pentium processor and a CD-ROM drive.
Released in North America on March 27th 1994 Wing Commander III - Heart Of The Tiger was the third instalment in the hugely successful space combat simulator series. Essentially like any flight simulator with a focus on action rather than attention to detail and realism it told the continuing story of the Human forces desperate struggle against the formidable and warlike Kilrathi Empire.
Set in the 2669 this galactic conflict has now waged for over 30 years with no clear end in sight. You play the role of a pilot, named Colonel Christopher Blair who was also the protagonist in the first two games yet this was the first time he was given a name. Under new orders from an Admiral you are assigned to a new post as Wing Commander on the TCS Victory. The Victory is an old ship, posted far from the front lines with a good captain who is more safe than risk taking but respected by his crew. As luck or fate would have it though, you are suddenly thrust into events that will directly lead to an epic and consequence laden series of missions that will determine humanity’s survival.
Much like the previous two games, which were fully sprite based in both look and gameplay movement style, Wing Commander III is primarily a game set in the cockpit of your fighter. A mixture of important convoy, patrol and enemy movement investigative missions make up the bulk of the actual core game but for this third instalment all the dials were turned up to 10. Thanks to the new raw power of the Pentium chip a fully boosted PC made this adventure something straight out of the Hollywood movie theatres.
Sprites were out and fully texture mapped software driven polygons were in. The transformation when compared against the previous flight sequences are quite literally worlds apart. Dozens of moving objects on the screen at once with a super smooth frame rate ramped up the feeling of intensity to levels not truly seen in any other game of it’s type. The developer, Origin Systems however didn’t stop there, oh no! A completely new set of fighter craft and ships were created from scratch for both the Human and Kilrathi factions. A unique style for each reflecting how both sides saw themselves and really creating a superb difference of species. For some these new polygons were bulky however it’s important to remember that this game shipped before expandable graphics cards were a thing so everything on screen was generated by the actual PC’s CPU. Impressive indeed.
The real difference however was in the games presentation aspect. The sprite based cut sequences that fans were used too were gone and instead of using just 3D models and stored CGI sequences the developer decided to really make this game feel like you were inside a real movie. In what was a breathtaking and in many ways groundbreaking move the entire story was acted out by real people, the same as if it was being prepared for TV or the Cinema screen.
A full cast and crew were assembled including two huge names in the Hollywood screen circles. The main protagonist that you played as, Colonel Christopher Blair was played by none other than Luke Skywalker himself… Mark Hamill and Admiral Tolwyn was played by the phenomenal Malcolm McDowell. It didn’t stop there though because other great actors such as Tim Curry, John Rhys-Davies and the man who played Biff in the classic Back To The Future movies, Thomas F. Wilson also lit up the computer monitor. The game also played host to a previous star of the adult movie scene as Ginger Lynn assumed the role of Rachel Coriolis.
Instead of static screen intros to missions or simple audio over text, entire scenes played out with incredible backdrops showcasing it’s enormously expensive production. This added hugely to the entire galactic conflict as now both sides had superb visual representation, the Kilrathi costumes were for the time incredible. Origin Systems didn’t stop there either as they also now used filmed sequences with interactive options to converse and build relationships.
For those of you that think games like Mass Effect from Bioware created complex relationships and trust meters we are here to let you know that 1994 called and says hello. Wing Commander III put in simplest terms was so far ahead of the curve on it’s release that it was almost like a dream. Prior to this games release a lot of flight combat simulation games were often seen as boring or too static in formula, this third Wing Commander game blew everyone away. The graphics step up, the presentation aspect, the sound… everything was a true next generation step up.
Releasing in 1994 for PC/MAC on 4 CD-ROM’s to very positive critical reception across the board from every gaming magazine this third game sold more than 500,000 copies on the PC format alone. Against today’s standards that would be seen as quite poor however in 1994 when the industry was a fraction of the size it is now and the fact that the Pentium chip was still very new and exceptionally expensive, that figure was huge. Reviewers praised the use of actors and FMV and cited it as being a prime example of how full motion video can enhance a games experience instead of being a poor substitution for actual gameplay.
The following year in 1995 the 3DO console was next to sample the delights of this already recognised classic. The power of the 32-bit console did the game proud and although several elements were either removed or changed the final game was another 4 Disc CD-ROM masterpiece. Gameplay options were streamlined to remove take-off and docking procedures and to give it a more action feel rather than just a space combat flight sim. Planet based missions were also removed in favour of FMV sequences which in all truth was the biggest sense of missing out against the PC big brother. It does however remain, to this day one of the reasons to own a 3DO console.
Playstation owners were also introduced to the game in 1996 when a port of the PC game that was a lot closer to the original hit the stores. The PS1 version is very good however be prepared for a serious amount of loading times, you have been warned. A Sega Saturn version was planned and even appears on the advertising flyers however was never finished or released. More recently the game has been made available on the GOG service for modern fans to fall in love with.
The PC format is one of the hardest parts of the gaming industry to define, it’s never stood still, not even for a day and remains the primary development port of call for the majority of the industry. Every possible type of game genre exists on it, somewhere. It gets massive budget blockbusters and tiny 1 person developed games all at the same time. There’s an infinite number of hardware configurations and components to play around with to make it perfect for you but that’s not it’s greatest aspect.
Whilst Atari, Nintendo, Sega, NEC, Sony, Philips, Panasonic, Commodore, Microsoft and others have competed to push generations on through buying all new systems the PC has mostly just naturally evolved within itself through changeable components. Every so often though huge technology leaps have occurred forcing people to really sit up and take a genuine long look at just how superb this format is. You can point to games like Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake and Half-Life but let us be very clear on this… Wing Commander III is on that list.
In the 1990’s it wasn’t all about that Mega Drive & SNES war and just because the 32-bit era took a while to get going that doesn’t mean that gaming stood still, far from it. Not only were dozens of games on systems like the Sega Mega-CD & 3DO that people bash so easily superb, but the PC was churning out wave after wave or completely new and utterly stunning gameplay experiences.
Wing Commander III sits at the very top table of videogame excellence for several reasons. It took full advantage of two new types of technology (CD-ROM / Pentium Processor). It blurred the lines of game and movie perfectly through correct and incredibly well produced FMV and it also made space combat sims relevant and cool again. It’s often said that the third game in a series is the letdown but Wing Commander III - The Heart Of The Tiger is the total opposite. It still looks, sounds, feels and plays great so imagine how this must have made gamers of the early 1990’s feel.
Chris Roberts and Origin Systems didn’t just make games, they gave us as kids the chance to be at the centre of galactic spanning epic conflicts that would determine the fate of the entire Human Race. And you thought studying for your school exams was pressure…