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Have You Played... Wing Commander III?

You pathetic descendant of monkeys!

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Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Cutting edge games often age poorly. Past a certain point, it can be tough to see what all the excitement was about in the first place. With so much fuss about Star Citizen though, I think it’s worth remembering that Wing Commander III wasn’t simply one of the most advanced games/interactive movies when it came out, but remains one of the bravest stories ever told. I don’t necessarily mean in terms of raw content here, but look. Put yourself in Chris Roberts’ shoes back in the early 90s. You’re making the most expensive game ever. A whole $4 million dollars! And what do you make?

One of the most depressing action movies ever, that’s what.

By the end of the titles, Wing Commander III has laid its cards on the table. The love interest from the previous game is murdered (though admittedly you don’t see the details for a while) and your former ship nothing but scrap on an irrelevant planet. Humanity is losing the war against the feline Kilrathi so badly that the best the propaganda can do is dial-down just how bad the situation is. And in the middle of it all is our hero, Christopher Blair – as of course played by Mark Hamill – who carries with him a palpable sense of weariness with the war that’s consumed his entire life.

Really, it’s a story of failure, only saved by a last minute swerve that makes the rebel run on the Death Star look like a fait accompli. Like Blair, the ship you serve on is old and everyone believes it’s had its best days. Having spent the whole of Wing Commander II learning to see the good in the enemy, in the form of turncoat pilot Hobbes, Blair gets the ultimate backstab of finding that his best friend really was a traitor all along. The situation is so bad that even in the best ending… the best possible ending… he only survives by the skin of his teeth and a near impossible bit of good fortune.

It’s campy. Yes, of course it’s campy. Greenscreens and the kind of acting you’d expect when your biggest names are an aging Luke Skywalker, Biff from Back to the Future and porn-star Ginger Allen. But it’s also brave, setting out to tell a story quite apart from the usual gung-ho action fare. And this wasn’t the only time where Wing Commander went above and beyond the call of duty in trying to tell a worthy story. The follow-up, Wing Commander IV: The Price Of Freedom continued this style with a story of what happens to soldiers once the war is over. The part of the story that most deserves attention though is the little watched Wing Commander Academy, a Saturday morning cartoon of all things, that only ever got one showing before largely being forgotten. It’s absolutely superb though, being a cartoon that not only boasts the celebrity voices, but surprisingly tight writing that’s again far more interested in the nature of the war than the actual missions – not just on the pilots who might be unwittingly sent on suicide missions for the greater good, but the officers who have to make those decisions. The whole series got a re-release a couple of years ago, and it’s well worth watching.

And it’s this kind of thing that I really wish Wing Commander III was remembered for, rather than the slightly duff flight model, or the series’ perpetual belief that deep-space combat would be done in a series of jousts. No, it never played as well as X-Wing. It still seized the chance to show that games could tell real stories even at a time when everyone would have been quite happy with ra-ra explosions… and when we look back on it, that’s what should come to mind before the specific quality of the FMV, or worse still, the movie. If Star Citizen can do half as much with its own story it’s going to be a hell of a ride. And if not? Well, we’ll always have the and the best line ever.

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Richard Cobbett

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