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Back In The Cockpit: Wing Commander Saga

Fly me over the moon

Featured post Okay, so my aiming's a bit off. It's been years!

Wing Commander Saga isn’t the long-awaited big budget continuation of Chris Roberts’ epic space combat series, but on the plus side, it’s not some Facebook bastardisation of it either. No, it’s a huge, spectacularly ambitious fan-sequel that’s been in development for the last ten years, which combines burning love for the franchise with the Freespace 2 engine to create a brand new, old-school instalment. But can it live up to its name? We jumped in to find out.

Just so you know, I don't love any of you boys' spunk.

The greatest space combat series of all time? The best space combat engine of all time? Of course Wing Commander Saga is terrific, and a stunning achievement. Best of all, anyone can play it. While it uses the Freespace 2 engine, it’s a standalone version. Just download, install, and you’re good to go. There’s absolutely no reason not to do exactly that.

Saga’s new campaign, officially called “The Darkest Dawn”, is set during the Wing Commander 3 timeframe. If you played the earlier games, you’ll know exactly how bad things are for humanity at this point in the war. If not, here’s a quick summary. Go find a tomato. Place it delicately in the palm of your hand. Squeeze. That tomato is humanity’s collective balls, currently being not so much crushed as mopped up by a hostile race of cat aliens called the Kilrathi.

As for you, you’re not series hero Christopher Blair for this one. Instead, you’re a rookie pilot with the call sign “Sandman”, helping to hold the line on the TCS Hermes, and quietly praying that your beloved Terran Confederation has some kind of planet-busting superweapon hidden quietly up its ass that might prevent the kitties turning Earth into their litter tray. Either way, it’s going to be a long fight. The Darkest Dawn has 50 missions to play through, and the kind of name that doesn’t promise much in the way of sunshine and roses on the long path to victory.

Wait, isn't space meant to be blue? Wing Commander 1-3, you lied to me!

Wing Commander was always a series of two halves – honestly weak space combat (especially compared to X-Wing and TIE Fighter) and a sense of story and character that papered over the cracks and made you feel part of a living, breathing universe. It was a series that let you hang out on your carrier’s bar between sorties, and which bothered to take the time to develop relationships between its difference characters through fights, betrayals, late night poker, and in-flight chatter. There were other shooters, but none with anything like as much heart.

Wing Commander Saga doesn’t go that far, largely because it can’t. The Freespace engine wasn’t designed for series stalwarts like branching campaigns or wandering around the ship between missions, as wonderful as that would have been. At times, you can even feel the games grinding against each other, especially when it spurts out page after page of overwritten story that it wants you to digest, all displayed in a deeply unfortunate reading font.

But that’s largely to be expected of a game wearing another series’ coat. Not to mention one trying to pick up from a staggeringly high-budget series on a budget of roughly zero.

What matters far more is what is there, from pre-rendered cutscenes at key moments, animated briefings, and most importantly, a ton of audio chatter during missions. No, you don’t get to drink with your comrades between missions, but you do quickly get to know them, their quirks, and the relationships going on behind the scenes – Kettle for instance trying to be the authoritative commanding officer while leading a wing, despite the more laid back Greywolf having no shame about teasing him in front of newbies and puncturing his ego at every opportunity.

Remember the three golden rules: Protect your carrier. Trust your wingman. Never ask a sex partner to call you Wing Commander in bed.

Missions are absolutely packed with these character moments, off-topic banter, arguments between different viewpoints and flavour about current news and upcoming sporting events, and it takes very little time to sink into and connect with this corner of the universe. Like the Tiger’s Claw and Concordia before it, the Hermes has a believable family whose interactions really help the often repetitive dogfighting action stay fresh from mission to mission, system to system.

(All this unskippable chatter can grate if you get blown up and have to restart one, but there’s a simple answer: don’t get blown up. For more top tips, and the first part of our complete solution to Moonstone, call our premium rate hotline. Don’t ask your parents first!)

Easily the standout moment in the early levels is when you’re assigned to back up an elite squad called the Valkyries, and dispatched with a cryptic warning from Hermes control about hoping you like classical music. It starts out simply enough, as you hook up in deep space and head off on a mission to shoot down some missiles heading for a populated planet. Then it takes a turn for the ridiculously awesome as you find yourself descending into the clouds and not only fighting the Kilrathi in the atmosphere with a city below, but doing so as the Valkyries swap out the normal orchestral background music for a quick spot of Wagner. In a word: Yes.

Yes, it's a skybox - but WHAT a skybox!

As far as the combat goes, it’s closer to Freespace than Wing Commander, but sticking firmly to the latter’s universe. You won’t see the capital ships armed with beam cannons for instance, and there’s no Shivan/Kilrathi alliance in the offing. Whichever side of the sci-fi universe you come from though, it’s highly enjoyable – a great engine, familiar ships and weapons, and some shamelessly pinched Kilrathi taunts and pilot portraits for an extra shot of nostalgia.

As far as controls go, if you’ve got a joystick, plug it in. Playing with the mouse, as I unfortunately had to, it’s more than playable, but there’s a massive dead-zone in the middle of the screen that makes precisely targeting small objects like capship missiles and specific subsystems a real pain. The AI can’t always be relied on to do its job very well in these situations, and you’re not guaranteed to have command authority over your wingmates anyway.

Update: Comment-Hero Dominic White points out that you can adjust the deadzone problem from the joystick controls. I hadn’t really looked over there since I wasn’t using one, but a quick tweak there indeed completely fixes that control and makes the mouse floaty and lovely.

I’m nowhere near the end of the 50 missions on offer, but the ones so far have been a good selection of dogfights, carrier battles, point defence, and those ever-dreaded escort missions. They’re heavily scripted affairs, with a good sense of ebb and flow and more than a few surprises that I won’t spoil. Only occasionally has this gotten in the way, with the prime offender being an early battle with a Kilrathi ace who not only showed up at the end of a long mission, but quite shamelessly did so with a book of cheat codes on his side. Grr. Bad kitty!

The biggest compliment I can give Wing Commander Saga is that it didn’t take long to forget its fandom origins. There’s a bit of shaky voice acting here and there, yes, but it nails the classic feel of space combat that’s been missing for many, many years in commercial attempts, and I can’t remember the last time it was so satisfying to screech around with afterburners blazing, land a missile right on target, and fly through the gap in the middle of a carrier for the sheer hell of it. Replaying missions after a late death and having to repeat nav-points and sometimes a lot of dialogue can be hyper-annoying, but if you’re a veteran Wing Commander, you’ll forgive it.

Ack! Sorry, planet! Sorry again! That was me, sorry! Pardon my ion blasts! Aaargh!

Wing Commander fan or Freespace fan, there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t grab Wing Commander Saga right now. It’s a terrific fan-game, and a much needed return to a genre that’s been sitting with adventure games in the commercial sin-bin for far, far too long.

One caveat though. The tutorial is older than the main game, and it shows, but you really do need to play through it if you don’t remember all of Freespace’s controls and Wing Commander’s elements. You will be expected to know things like a Dralthi being a fighter and a Paktahn being a bomber when the actual missions start up, and I for one had completely forgotten just how many damn keys this game uses. Not to mention how handy a good joystick used to be.

Download the full game here, and put your hands together in pleas that it won’t get pulled offline for boring legal reasons. Considering that this half-hearted Xbox Arcade arse was the last official Wing Commander game, that’d be both a crime and a shame.

As for the classic Wing Commander 3, it’s seriously showing its age these days, but Good Old Games will sell you a copy for $5.99 if you want to catch up on the official universe, conflict and its heroic resolution before jumping into the Darkest Dawn. Freespace 2 is also on there, and holding up rather better, though again, you don’t need it to play this fan game.

UPDATE: Unsurprisingly, the servers are being hammered at the moment. If you can’t get through to the main site, click here for mirrors that should work better.

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Richard Cobbett

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