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AusGamers Throwback Thursday - Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger (1994)
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 08:46pm 13/11/14 | Comments
Throwback Thursday is a new weekly column here on Ausgamers where Kosta Andreadis opens up the proverbial gaming industry attic, has a poke around, and amongst the photos of game developers posing in front of exotic cars, finds dusty copies of games from a different time – and plays them!

The Skinny

The Game: Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger
The Year: 1994
The Developer: Origin Systems
The System: DOS/Mac

Watch the super-long intro to the classic game embedded above

Chris Roberts is a name that is now synonymous with an indie game being made with the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster, but back in the mid-90s he was known as a developer who made games that simply wanted to look like they were Hollywood blockbusters. So the key difference between something like the currently in development Star Citizen and 1994’s Wing Commander III is that the former is a space combat simulator, and the latter is a space combat simulator starring Mark Hamill.

Use the WC3.BAT command on your CD-ROM drive Luke. That, or the Force.

In the early 90s computer software and games went from being stored on floppy disk to compact disc (CD-ROM), and this represented a monumental shift in storage capacity. “So what?”, you may be thinking, “I’ve gone from CDs, to DVDs, and now Blu-rayDs, the difference isn’t that drastic”. Well, you’d be wrong because none of those formats represent a 600-fold increase in capacity. Also it’s just Blu-ray, not Blu-rayD.

With a floppy disk storing around 1MB of data and a CD around 600MB you can bet this opened the door to some big shifts in gaming. And with most of these hypothetical doors leading to the world of multimedia, a largely forgotten 90s term, this meant developers could now put things like recorded video, voice, music, detailed animation, and other fun things into their games. Some developers treated this additional storage with restraint and respect, like that guy who manages to eat only the one Krispy Kreme Doughnut. But just like the rest of us, most developers went a little multimedia crazy.

Wing Commander III starts with an intro cut-scene that is no less than 10-minutes in length. Let’s get that bit out there right away. And in this 10-minute sequence you’ve got credits, people dressed up in elaborate giant cat suits, the dwarf from The Lord of the Rings consoling Luke Skywalker amongst the ruins of a gigantic spaceship, a ritual sacrifice in a stadium filled with more cat people, more spaceships, a futuristic iPad, and finally another giant cat but this time in a weirdly tight flight suit. Basically, the stuff that would have been impossible to pull off on floppy disk.

OK, so maybe that makes the game sound crazier than it is, but at the time Wing Commander III was one of a few key games that tried to inject Hollywood-style production values and position itself to be as much an interactive movie as it was a game. So that meant a lot of pre-rendered CGI, costumes, actors, special-effects, and so forth. For 1994 this was an impressive achievement, as at that time a cinematic game was a relatively new concept and even the tools in which it was achieved, like filming actors in front of blue screen, was still a new thing in the world of filmmaking.

On the other hand, as the third game in a series of respected and popular space combat simulators, with the core game mechanics already established, this part was never going to be in any serious doubt. Even if it presented a switch to 3D polygonal graphics at a time when dedicated graphics cards were still a few years away.

“So, these are the mission objectives. Oh, and one last thing...”

So how does it stack up today? Well weirdly, playing Wing Commander III today is an exercise in “Hey, that thing you think is going to happen? Well, it’ll end up being the opposite”. In the sense that going in the expectation is that the combat stuff is going to be rock solid and the actual filmed FMV interactive-movie stuff, well, that’s going to be a problem of the B-grade, dated, and hammy variety.

Turns out that just like the plot twist where 20 YEAR OLD SPOLIER ALERT! Blair (Mark Hamill) is betrayed by his long time Kilrathi (ie cat people) friend Hobbes END SPOILERS!, you’re genuinely surprised to find the acting pretty solid, the character development better than most sci-fi movies from that era, and the special-effects adequate if a little dated.

Which brings us to the combat, which comes in the form of a large number of branching missions that are dependent on the choices you make in the ‘interactive movie’ portions of the game. So if you pick Person A as your wingman, Person B as your love interest, or even fail to stop a planet-bound missile here or there, the story and flow of the various combat missions will change.

The biggest problem with playing these missions today, though, all boils down to the controls. Because unless you have one of those button-filled PC flight joystick things from the 80s or 90s, playing the game with the keyboard and mouse or even a modern day gamepad can get extremely frustrating.

Does that mean that with the right joystick all of Wing Commander III’s problems would be solved? Well not entirely. Even though the game conveys the sense of an action-packed dogfight between small space craft better than most, overall there really isn’t much more to missions than that. So when each mission is prefaced with a filmed briefing that may go into detail about things like escorting transport ships, flying recon, or even defensive manoeuvres for a much larger scale attack, you know it’s going to boil down in the end to one thing. That is, ship-to-ship combat against Kilrathi fighters. Combat that although is a lot of fun, grows a bit stale as the game progresses.

But in the end Wing Commander III is still an enjoyable experience, thanks mostly to a great cast of characters, a memorable Mark Hamill performance, and an engaging story. Sure a lot of the characters may feel like your typical Hollywood archetypes, and some of the dialogue can get a little cheesy or at the very least feel cliché, but by placing important story decisions directly into the hands of players the game is somehow able to transcend these otherwise obvious shortcomings. This was a rare thing for a game to do at the time, and thanks to the overall disappearance of live-action FMV in games today, is rarely seen today either.

Throwback Rating

Best Forgotten / A Trip Down Memory Lane / Timeless