Good Old Reviews: Wing Commander 3 & 4

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Good Old Reviews: Wing Commander 3 & 4

Wing Commander 3/4 covers

Wing Commander 3 and 4 are classic examples of the awfulness of live-action FMVs, sacrificing artistry and gameplay for cheap wardrobes, ugly graphics, lousy acting and absolutely rancid scripts.

Funny thing about Wing Commander. I played and loved the first two games back in the day but when Origin announced that Maverick was being replaced by Luke Skywalker for Wing Commander 3, I walked away without a backward glance. I'll never know if the me of 1994 was cheated out of a memorable and perhaps even formative gaming experience, but I can say with confidence that the me of 2013 thinks he dodged a bullet.

The first thing you'll notice about Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger is that it's desperate to be a movie. It comes at you with a cinematic intro that's probably as close to a theatrical experience as was possible in that era, which as it turns out is not very close at all. It is, in a word, ug-hug-hugly, and while it may not be entirely fair to hold visual quality against a 20-year-old game, there's no getting around it either. Characters up close are blocky and blotchy and the further you get away from them - across a room, say, instead of face-to-face - the more indistinguishable they become.

I'm picking on the graphics in part because, as mentioned, Wing Commander 3 tries very hard to be a movie and, being from 1994, that means live-action FMVs and lots of them. As you might expect, it's awful in every possible way: The dialog is worse than a George Lucas first draft and it manages to make a reasonably talented cast that includes Mark Hamill, John Rhys-Davies, Jason Bernard and Malcolm McDowell look like an overly-earnest drama class. The only one who really sells it is Ginger Lynn (yes, that Ginger Lynn) who plays a sex-kitten technical chief who Blair - he finally gets a name in this one - has the option to romance.

Every mission begins with the same FMV clip of Blair wrapping up the briefing and selecting a wingman, and then it's off into space to fly through checkpoints and blow up bad guys. Alas, there's nothing in the cockpit to save the experience; it's just as ugly outside as it is inside, pilot chatter is almost immediately repetitive and the awkward 3D ship animations and anemic audio utterly fail to generate any sense of excitement.

Wing Commander 4: The Price of Freedom manages to be both better and worse than its predecessor. The FMV sequences are much better, as they use actual sets rather than green-screens and run at a far higher resolution than those of WC3, but there also a lot more of them and unfortunately neither the script nor the acting is improved in the slightest. The in-flight graphics are better as well, as you'd expect, but in virtually every other way the two games are almost identical. It is, however, definitely the tougher of the two; I was able to breeze through WC3 missions with almost no effort, but that kind of lackadaisical approach to WC4 resulted in many quick deaths.

Between missions, both games will have you interact with various members of the cast by choosing either/or responses to conversational cues, and will branch off in different directions depending on the choices you make. But the choices are entirely binary and the results, when they aren't essentially meaningless, can be outright silly. Choosing to romance one of your two possible partners, for instance, and thereby scorning the other will cost you the services of either your tech chief or a wingman. Is this a military vessel or a flying frat house?

The GOG versions run flawlessly on Windows 7; Wing Commander 3 in DOSBox and Wing Commander 4 natively. But a smooth and painless setup can't make bad games better, and while these two might have seemed impressive back when everyone was still pretending that live-action FMV wasn't a god-awful idea, they just don't hold up today. The single-minded drive to make Wing Commander 3 and 4 more like movies ended up robbing them of the immersive magic that made Wing Commander 1 and 2 so great. These titles, comparatively, are perhaps best seen as nostalgia-tinged curiosities, reminders of an era in videogaming that's best left behind. That said, if you still want to give them a try, you'll find both Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger and Wing Commander 4: The Price of Freedom at GOG for $5.99 each.

Come back next week for a final piece of Wing Commander coverage for the month of November. Next Saturday, we'll be looking at Wing Commander: Armada.

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Good old reivews?

Is this some new feature that we will see more of in the future?

Wow. I think this may be the first time I ever heard a negative review of WC3. I have to disagree with the initial assessment. WC3, and 4 to a different degree, were one of the few examples of FMV actually working in a game. The story was good, the characters were fun, and unlike nearly every other FMV game in existence it actually HAD good gameplay. Hell, it had gameplay at all.

Now granted, WC3 was my first Wing Commander, so I have no idea how it paired up against the previous ones, but for my money I really enjoyed it when it was out, and I purchased it earlier this year from GOG and still thoroughly enjoyed it.

BTW, love the Good Old Reviews. Keep 'em coming.

I would suggest this review heavily reflects the fact that you are nostalgic about the games you played as a kid and not nostalgic about the ones you did not play. You should probably realize the games were contemporaries of the original Descent (no, not freespace, just descent) and maybe consider the context they came from before going an a rant. Also, your complaints about the writing and acting seem particularly blind considering the crap we pass of as "good storytelling" these days.

Oh I remember playing those games...

and I loved them!

They were campy, silly at times - but also heartbreaking, like...

But they were also awesome.

And yes - its clear that they were both itching to be real movies, but at the same time it was probably my first RPG-like experience, ever. Sure, there weren't any XP or skill trees, but that you could choose A or B and get different outcomes were very much new to me at the time.

Heck, I think I wrecked at least 4 joysticks going through those games (and Star Wars X-wing, and X-wing VS Tie-Fighter)

Good times

grigjd3:
I would suggest this review heavily reflects the fact that you are nostalgic about the games you played as a kid and not nostalgic about the ones you did not play. You should probably realize the games were contemporaries of the original Descent (no, not freespace, just descent) and maybe consider the context they came from before going an a rant. Also, your complaints about the writing and acting seem particularly blind considering the crap we pass of as "good storytelling" these days.

I don't know about that, I remebmer reading reviews of wing commander 3 and 4 way back when and they all brought up similar points to this one. Wing Commander just didn't make the transition from 2d to 3d, partly because they tried to gussy it up too much.

Wing Commander 3 having anemic sound? Maybe I'm wrong, since this is second hand (I have the first four games but I'm trying to play them in order), but I seriously doubt that one of the first games in history to support surround sound[1] had sound that could be described as anemic.

The rest of the review is kind of weird too, since like Rot Krieg said, I've never actually seen a negative review for WC3, not from anyone who liked the genre. WC4 was a bit more polarizing, and Prophecy gets bashed fairly often by fans of the rest of the series, but the first three, along with Privateer are effectively undisputed classics.

[1] using software mixed Dolby Surround, no less, which means there's no need for a high end sound card with special speakers that are incompatible with home theater surround, the way most PC games with surround sound were in the late 90's and early 2000's. Edit: I realize being one of the first wouldn't normally be a reason to assume it was well done, but it was actually a selling point that Chris Roberts was crowing about at the time, he was huge into the idea that videogame development and movie production would eventually converge, he even based the hierarchy in his dev teams on that used by Hollywood production companies, with producers, directors, choreographers (for the combat AI in the first two games. The AI of the day was using simple algorithms, which he likened to choreography), and so on.

Both gog.com pages list them as five stars.

My brain is so full of dissonance right now.

I am sure Andy would not approve of the Tex Murphy games let alone the new one that is coming out soon.

http://www.texmurphy.com/

I have yet to replay WC 3 and 4 but it is on my to do list after I get some other games finished up so I will withhold judgement for now. I do remember they were a bit cheesy but I also remember enjoying them. A replay will solve this.

Merlark:
You sir, are a hack. no game did FMV better back in the day then WC. calling them aweful is an admittance of a complete lack of experience with FMV titles. WC3 and 4 is not Oscar material but you couldn't ASK for a better all star cast, Mark Freaking Hamill for starts, Malcolm McDowell? I'm not sure how many flavors of awesome you need in your video games back then but WC 3 and 4 was the gold star standard that did everything right.

Stop writing for the escapist, get another side job Andy. If you want to play some bad games we'll give you some bad games. Go play Privateer 2 the darkening.

By todays standards the game certainly isn't there but for the day it pushed all the tech that was available and made your windows 95 machine scream and it was awesome. from flying through enemy carriers to making choices to piss your wingmen off.

Your opinion is noted, but certainly not agreed with.

Basically you're calling him wrong, yourself right and correct in a high horse manner and then telling him to stop disliking what you like and to stop writing.

Yeah this is why I still have some hate for some people on here that act like children.

and these two games are still two of my favourites games ever and personally this is the first time i have ever read a negative review as well. its not just nostalgia talking either i replayed them last year

the only groan worthy moment from these two games was in wc3 where you get to choose who your love intrest is. to put that into perspective both choices are standing at the bar, 5 ft from each other and you walk up to your choice and turn your back on the other.. real classy blair haha

FMVs were not always terrible, WC3 and 4 did them right, as did a few other games that headed the trend. Just because it was mostly used as a gimmick or replacing gameplay does not negate it's effectiveness when done correctly.

wombat_of_war:
the only groan worthy moment from these two games was in wc3 where you get to choose who your love intrest is. to put that into perspective both choices are standing at the bar, 5 ft from each other and you walk up to your choice and turn your back on the other.. real classy blair haha

The correct answer was always and will always be the greased up porn star.

Awful, awful review, but I can see where it's coming from. Specifically the Hipster elitism that games must only be about the gameplay.

It spends so much time hating on the FMV that it forgets to you know actually review the game

Merlark:
You sir, are a hack. no game did FMV better back in the day then WC. calling them aweful is an admittance of a complete lack of experience with FMV titles. WC3 and 4 is not Oscar material but you couldn't ASK for a better all star cast, Mark Freaking Hamill for starts, Malcolm McDowell? I'm not sure how many flavors of awesome you need in your video games back then but WC 3 and 4 was the gold star standard that did everything right.

Stop writing for the escapist, get another side job Andy. If you want to play some bad games we'll give you some bad games. Go play Privateer 2 the darkening.

By todays standards the game certainly isn't there but for the day it pushed all the tech that was available and made your windows 95 machine scream and it was awesome. from flying through enemy carriers to making choices to piss your wingmen off.

Your opinion is noted, but certainly not agreed with.

Saying that no game did them (FMV's) right doesn't excuse the game even if it's better than all of the others, since by your own admission it still got them wrong. You're ignoring a prime point of this review which is that he's looking at it from a modern day perspective (even if it was unintentional), and choosing to ignore that is idiotic.

This is also the first negative review I've seen for this game, but you're acting like a spoiled child with your post here,if you don't like the review, fine, but that doesn't mean you can just tell him to go and get another job based purely on the fact that you don't like it.

hakkarin:
repetitive and the awkward 2D ship animations

That's incorrect. Wing Commander III and IV are in full 3D. The 2D sprites were used on WC1, WC2, Privateer and Academy. From Armada on all games used 3D models.

Ah I rememebr the days when I watched my bro playing those two games. Good times despite how silling those scenes were.

I'm surprised WC IV was dissed so much. I know three had issues but four improved on the series in a lot of ways, particularly doing something different then "fighting aliens" that the first three games and the game after did.

By modern standards? Yes it's not that good. But at the time WCIII and WCIV were amazing, and they're still some of the best uses of FMV ever. Compared to C&C for example, WC is in a whole other league, even with part III.
The story for both games is quite good as well.

Prophecy on the other hand... it's no surprise the series died with it.

'You should have been there!'
That's one of the things you REALLY missed with this ba...I mean, 'review'.

While 3 is probably the weakest of the series, 4 I thought was one of the best.
Everything that makes the series enjoyable was there, and it was worth playing.

It's not X-Wing vs Tie-Fighter, but it was still a solid game.

Everyone kind of chuckles over the game industry thinking FMVs were the future and a dozen CDs you had to switch was a selling point, but c'mon, WC 3 and 4 were the best of the series!

It's amazing to fly INTO a an enemy ship's hangar and bomb it from the inside out and tell me your "ultimate betrayal" didn't cause a wave of feels

Delance:

hakkarin:
repetitive and the awkward 2D ship animations

That's incorrect. Wing Commander III and IV are in full 3D. The 2D sprites were used on WC1, WC2, Privateer and Academy. From Armada on all games used 3D models.

Uhm, I don't remember ever writting the comment you just quoted.

Absolutely no nostalgia when I say WC3 is still awesome, I recently GoG this mess and had a blast.

Much less of a blast as I couldn't dig out a joystick, but a blast was had regardless.

Owyn_Merrilin:
Wing Commander 3 having anemic sound? Maybe I'm wrong, since this is second hand (I have the first four games but I'm trying to play them in order), but I seriously doubt that one of the first games in history to support surround sound[footnote]using software mixed Dolby Surround, no less, which means there's no need for a high end sound card with special speakers that are incompatible with home theater surround, the way most PC games with surround sound were in the late 90's and early 2000's.

Could be a compatibility issue with the GOG release, but the thin, flat "pew pews" and the MIDI soundtrack were definitely a weak point.

Delance:
[That's incorrect. Wing Commander III and IV are in full 3D. The 2D sprites were used on WC1, WC2, Privateer and Academy. From Armada on all games used 3D models.

This is true, and I've updated the review to reflect it, but the net result remains true and I think is a reflection of the move to FMV: a slavish devotion to the latest and greatest technology, before it was fully baked, gave us full 3D models that looked like absolute garbage compared to the 2D sprites of Wing Commander 1 and 2. Origin embraced technology over artistry, and the games suffered for it.

Andy Chalk:

Owyn_Merrilin:
Wing Commander 3 having anemic sound? Maybe I'm wrong, since this is second hand (I have the first four games but I'm trying to play them in order), but I seriously doubt that one of the first games in history to support surround sound[footnote]using software mixed Dolby Surround, no less, which means there's no need for a high end sound card with special speakers that are incompatible with home theater surround, the way most PC games with surround sound were in the late 90's and early 2000's.

Could be a compatibility issue with the GOG release, but the thin, flat "pew pews" and the MIDI soundtrack were definitely a weak point.

You've got me curious, now. I'm downloading and installing my copy of it, to see if I can figure out what your issue is. I wouldn't think it'd have midi music at all -- it was on, what, 3 CD-roms originally? I would have expected CD quality music, or at least some non-redbook compliant (like maybe 8-bit instead of 16-bit) PCMs. If it /is/ general midi, there's an easy way to make that sound beautiful in general, which might be kind of important if you're going to be reviewing old games for a while: free software synths and soundfonts. The one I use for general midi compatible games is called VirtualMIDISynth, which can be found here. I use the WeedsGM3 soundfont, which is linked at the bottom of the page there, and it sounds amazing. Midi doesn't have to suck, it's just the software synth that comes with Windows is terrible.

Also for really old games, and I mentioned this on the WC 1+2 thread, you'll want to set up with a copy of Munt, which is an MT-32 emulator. That was an early synthesizer that used a different setup than general midi, and many late 80's to early 90's games -- including the first two Wing Commanders, were built around it. In the mid 90's the Roland SC-55 took over as the synth of choice, but that used general midi and you can actually get better results using a modern softsynth and soundfont. The MT-32 used what was called LA synthesis, which was really weird and different from your standard sampled midi music, so it's not so easy to replace with a soundfont even if you could get around the issues with the instruction set being different.

Owyn_Merrilin:
Also for really old games, and I mentioned this on the WC 1+2 thread, you'll want to set up with a copy of Munt, which is an MT-32 emulator.

The primary point of these reviews (I assume, I mostly just do it for shits and giggles) is to give people who aren't familiar with the games and how to set up things like emulators and DOSBox and so forth an idea of what's in store if they download, install and go. I'm using straight-up onboard audio with stereo speakers, as off-the-shelf as it gets, and while I think it's a relatively minor point compared to the overall lack of quality in the FMV sequences and phoned-in gameplay, it is something that people in that boat should be aware of.

Andy Chalk:

Owyn_Merrilin:
Also for really old games, and I mentioned this on the WC 1+2 thread, you'll want to set up with a copy of Munt, which is an MT-32 emulator.

The primary point of these reviews (I assume, I mostly just do it for shits and giggles) is to give people who aren't familiar with the games and how to set up things like emulators and DOSBox and so forth an idea of what's in store if they download, install and go. I'm using straight-up onboard audio with stereo speakers, as off-the-shelf as it gets, and while I think it's a relatively minor point compared to the overall lack of quality in the FMV sequences and phoned-in gameplay, it is something that people in that boat should be aware of.

I can definitely see the reasoning behind that. I'd just like to spread the word, because it's not a complicated process, it's just an extra step that pays off /a lot/ in the long run. Munt in particular gets talked about on the Dosbox forums all the time, I think they may even be hosting the official forums for the developers. And a good softsynth is just a good idea for anyone who does a lot of retro gaming, although you've got more options there. I use the one I listed because someone on these forums told me about it and it works. I think Timidity is the name of the more common one, and there's also some you can pay for, if you have the money you can spend -- I think Roland makes a few, for example.

Alright, I installed it and played around a little. It /is/ midi music, but I just don't see what's anemic about the sound effects (which I'm using bog standard SB16 emulation for, same thing Dosbox points it at by default), and as far as the music goes, I don't see how it could be any worse than WC or WC2 out of the box, since all three of them are set to soundblaster by default. In fact pretty much every dos era game is going to have that as the default for people who don't go into the settings, unless it's so old that it defaults to PC speaker instead. But, like, the pew pews you were talking about, I didn't even bother with my stereo, I just plugged in my earbuds, and there was tons of bass in there, and the overall effect was about what I'd expect for a laser sound in a space combat game of the day. Comparing it to the X-Wing games or even Descent, they're all pretty much the same in that regard. The in flight graphics are also much smoother and more detailed than WC1, although WC2's sprites might have given it a run for their money on everything but the smoothness.

I don't know, I guess what I'm saying is, I'm not feeling the technical side of the complaints here. It's really impressive for a game of the day, and if you're the kind of person who plays old games, there's nothing on that side of things that would turn you off of it.

Worgen:

I don't know about that, I remebmer reading reviews of wing commander 3 and 4 way back when and they all brought up similar points to this one. Wing Commander just didn't make the transition from 2d to 3d, partly because they tried to gussy it up too much.

I'm not particularly calling these beacons of amazing gaming, just that the author gave a pass at all the issues with 1 and 2 while whining about pretty much the same things on 3 and 4 - and these issues weren't as bad in 3 and 4. Also, the reviews averaged around a 7/10, which in the mid 90's actually meant above average as opposed to today where a 7/10 is the lowest score you can achieve without the game being about driving big trucks.

Huh, gotta admit I wasn't expecting such a harsh review. I never played WC3 and I only played a few hours of WC4 at a friend's house nearly 15 years ago, so i don't have much in the way of nostalgia for these two games. However, a few months ago I bought the PS1 port of WC4 and I gotta admit that the FMVs are actually pretty good. I also watched some of the FMVs for WC3 and while I'll admit the green screen effects are kinda obvious the writing is still pretty solid, IMO.

I'll probably pick up WC1-WC4 once I finally decide on a joystick.

I remember enjoying both games for the time- but I had a pretty high tolerance for FMV, so long as there was actual game attached rather than poorly conceived Dragon's Lair "press x to not die" or "Choose Your Own Adventure" -style just barely sufficient to segue between video clips.

I do remember getting rather tired of certain wingman chatter, though.

"Yeah, action is what the Flashman needs." nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod

"Yeah, action is what the Flashman needs." nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod

"Yeah, action is what the Flashman needs." nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod

"Yeah, action is what the Flashman needs." nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod

"Yeah, action is what the-" LOCK ON FRIENDLY! FIRE ALL MISSILES!

Owyn_Merrilin:
Alright, I installed it and played around a little. It /is/ midi music, but I just don't see what's anemic about the sound effects (which I'm using bog standard SB16 emulation for, same thing Dosbox points it at by default), and as far as the music goes, I don't see how it could be any worse than WC or WC2 out of the box, since all three of them are set to soundblaster by default.

Do you have WC4 by any chance? If so, and you feel like installing it, take it for a run and see if you have serious (like, SERIOUS) volume balance issues between the FMV and gameplay segments. I had to turn the volume way up for FMV bits, and then back down when the combat started.

Andy Chalk:

Owyn_Merrilin:
Alright, I installed it and played around a little. It /is/ midi music, but I just don't see what's anemic about the sound effects (which I'm using bog standard SB16 emulation for, same thing Dosbox points it at by default), and as far as the music goes, I don't see how it could be any worse than WC or WC2 out of the box, since all three of them are set to soundblaster by default.

Do you have WC4 by any chance? If so, and you feel like installing it, take it for a run and see if you have serious (like, SERIOUS) volume balance issues between the FMV and gameplay segments. I had to turn the volume way up for FMV bits, and then back down when the combat started.

I do have it, but I have to download it so I can't quickly check and see if I have the problem. However, the forums are full of threads from people who have either this exact problem, or a variation of it where they have no sound at all in the cutscenes. Apparently the solution is to install a program called AC3 filter.

Here's a thread from the GoG forums that explains what you need to do to get the game up and running properly. Apparently there's some codecs and things that need to be installed to get everything working properly, even on the GoG version. Which is more common than you might think, GoG aren't miracle workers, and especially when it comes to Windows native games, they can't always make things work in a way that doesn't require some extra leg work from the customer.

Merlark:
You sir, are a hack. no game did FMV better back in the day then WC. calling them aweful is an admittance of a complete lack of experience with FMV titles.

Your opinion is noted, but certainly not agreed with.

THANK YOU! Couldn't have said it better. This is the equivalent of me loading up an old Game Boy game that I've never played and bitching about the graphics and sounds. Back in the day, these games were awesome. I'd never had a more cinematic gaming experience in my life up to that point. I think you lump this game into the other FMV shovelware that was coming out at the time, and that's a damn shame.

WC3 and WC4 were great for their time. If you missed out on them, then just move along.

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