Prologue (actual review to follow 3 paragraphs down)
A couple of weeks ago, I was on the train home and I saw a post on Facebook that said the entire Wing Commander saga was going on Gog.com for only $10. Next thing you know I was signing up for an account and fumbling for my credit card in the middle of a crowded train.
I installed Wing Commander 1 that night, and booted it up immediately thinking I could just get through it using a keyboard like I did when I was 13. I was wrong. The key jamming made it quite impossible to play properly as steering and holding the space bar to shoot made the keys lock up. I realized that I needed a joystick.
Problem is, it’s 2014 and the 90s were two decades ago. Shops don’t really stock joysticks anymore. Call around and they’d have a Hori fighting stick if you’re lucky, but something to play flight sims with? Good luck! It took me days of searching auction sites and calling computer stores before I finally found a Logitech 3d extreme pro, hidden literally on the floor under shelves and shelves of mice.
Review starts now!
They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle, and honestly that’s how I felt when I started playing Wing Commander again. I remembered all the controls, all the tactics, the way you fly to nav points out of sequence in order to avoid asteroid fields, and I even remembered that the maximum effective range of a laser cannon was 4200m (it used to be a copy protection question).
If you put footage of me playing this game back then next to footage of me playing it now, it would look the same. I don’t think the decades have changed anything.
The same solid game play that made it so fun back then holds up now. The graphics are low res VGA but honestly there’s a certain charm about it that I wouldn’t give up. It still feels like it’s the most important thing in the world to hunt down the Kilrathi aces, especially since everyone talks about them in the dialogue leading up to the mission. And bear in mind that this was before achievements, so you don’t get a pop up stroking your ego whenever you kill one.
Has anything changed? Not really. Dosbox means that you don’t have to tinker around with your config.sys and autoexec.bat files to enable expanded memory anymore, though I must say that was quite a satisfying process on its own to find the right balance for your upper memory. Younger gamers will have no idea what I’m talking about, but that’s okay because your forefathers fought so that you can avoid such horrors in your lifetime.
The only issue is that the game still chugs when there are more enemy fighters, especially when asteroids or mines are around. My PC is a gazillion times more powerful than my old 386, so what gives? Ah well, it’s just more nostalgia to have the ugly bitmaps stutter past your cockpit as you try to put a missile in its tailpipe.
The main campaign is still very unique in its mission tree. The story was written in a modular way that you can lose missions and go onto different systems and missions, so that each play though would be different and you’d get to fly with different wingmen in different ships. But honestly, with the exception of the infamous impossible mission where you have to escort the captured Ralari destroyer against a flight of Gratha, the main campaign missions are all pretty easy and you’re not likely to end up on the losing branch much.
That said, I did do something this time around that I was never able to do before: I beat the Ralari mission on my first attempt, without cheating! I’ll chalk this up to the Logitech joystick.
At the end of the day, this is a classic game that every PC gamer should play. It’s not quite as amazing as Wing Commander II (which takes everything good about WC1 and makes it GREAT), but it’s still amazing how much story and action can be packed into a game back then. Not many games these days can do the same thing.
It’s not a long game, and you should be able to beat it with a few nights of gaming, so what are you waiting for? Go and get it from GOG now!
The Expansion packs
PS I also went through both expansion packs (the so-called Secret Missions 1 and 2). Are they worth playing through? Unlike modern expansion packs with new weapons and ships and achievement points, these really just give you more missions to go through. They’re harder, the mission tree is more linear (much like subsequent Wing Commander main campaigns will be), and you get some new wingmen and the chance to fly a Kilrathi Dralthi Mk II in SM2.
But story-wise, you’ll be missing out the backstory in Wing Commander 2 if you don’t play through these so I suggest you invest the extra couple of nights to play them. Besides, the 2D Wing Commanders are much better than the 3D ones, so savor what you’ve got!
PPS One big telling factor about the strength of this game is I had received a whole bunch of new games to play at the time, but instead I chose to replay a decades-old game that I’ve completed a gazillion times before.