Have You Played… Wing Commander III?

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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  1. Infinitron says:

    I think WC3 didn’t get enough flak for how it semi-rebooted the Wing Commander setting. It lost a lot of the narrative complexity that was built up in WC2 and its expansions.

    A similar thing happened with Ultima 8 during that same time period. Come to think of it, Ultima 8 didn’t really get that much flak for it either, but that may be because everybody was too busy raging about the platforming.

    • LexW1 says:

      Agreed completely.

      The ending of WC3 was, in large part because of this, some of the biggest bullshit that has ever happened in a computer game. I mean, there’s no way Hobbes from WC1/2 would act that way, nor any way the human side from WC1/2 would be well, so, jolly and keen about super-genocide. Unnecessary super-genocide too, from WC3’s actual plot. And then they’re totally blase about it in WC4! Taken alone, WC3 is fine, if murderous, but in the context of WC1/2? Blech. It’s a very different tone generally – WC1/2 are all about bravery and goodness and sacrifice and bright colours and strong lights, but WC3 is dimly lit, morally dubious, and full of characters who just feel… Mark Hammill please forgive me… sleazy.

      Ultima 8 did get some comments about how the lore was a bit weird, actually, but people all just assumed it was one of these weird-ass worlds the Avatar goes to and then everyone politely forgets about it in future, like with UW2, where a lot of strange shit happened which wasn’t acknowledged much if at all in any other Ultima games.

      But yeah mostly the introduction of bad isometric platforming was enough to focus all rage on that area.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        “I mean, there’s no way Hobbes from WC1/2 would act that way”

        That’s kinda the point of a sleeper agent. He’s only activated when he hears Thrakhath say his codephrase. There’s a scene unfortunately cut from the game where he leaves a message for Blair saying that the Hobbes he knew was entirely a construct, but his admiration for Blair was real and as a result he feels the need to explain.

        I don’t know where you get the thing about them being blase from. Confed’s losing the war, the brass are horrified to hear about Tolwyn’s genetic experiments, and there’s a whole argument amongst the good-guys about using the DetPac to blow up a carrier ship full of innocents.

        “Ultima 8 did get some comments about how the lore was a bit weird, actually, but people all just assumed it was one of these weird-ass worlds the Avatar goes to and then everyone politely forgets about it in future”

        There really aren’t that many of those, except for UW2 where the point is that they’re Guardian controlled or destroyed worlds that are past the point of saving, and Serpent Isle, which Batlin screws up. The point of Ultima VIII was the concept of the greater good – the Avatar having to do evil things in order to get home and save his own adopted worlds, regardless of the impact that it had on Pagan. (The Bob White plot of Ultima IX had the Guardian taunting Lord British by showing him his champion doing stuff like summoning Pyros)

        • LexW1 says:

          Hobbes being a sleeper agent is precisely the sort of childish, simplistic bullshit that makes WC3 very weak. It’s drama for drama’s sake in the absolute worst way possible, utterly betraying the character, the entire arc of WC2, and generally being crap.

          And they certainly are blase – they care considerably more about the detpac business than the needless genocide of an entire species.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            Genocide of an entire species? No. Both the Temblor Bomb and the Behemoth are last-chance wildcards to perform a decapitation strike against the Emperor and their military command, at a time when they’re one failure away from the Kilrathi crushing skulls on Earth.

          • LexW1 says:

            By destroying their homeworld…

            It’s certainly the worst genocide in known history. It certainly at the very least wildly jeopardizes their long-term survival, putting in entirely on their colonies, such as they are.

            As noted re: Hobbes, making him manchurian candidate-type flies in the face of the whole WC1/2 story-arc, and the cut scene you describe only makes that worse, given it shows he clearly wasn’t a full-on manchurian candidate. It undermines the entire emotional context of really significant proportions of WC1/2. It’d be rather like you praising Return of the Jedi for revealing that Han Solo had been working for the Empire the whole time or something (presuming he was “activated” in Return). It was a retcon, and absolutely ghastly, ill-written one, just like most of WC3.

        • Booker says:

          That’s actually wrong. I saw this exact scene in the game, so I obviously wasn’t cut.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            It’s in the Playstation and 3DO versions, but it’s not in the PC game. Might have been restored in a later version/compilation, but it wasn’t in the original release.

          • Booker says:

            Again, that’s just not true. I’ve only ever played the PC version of the game and it’s in. Blair can open the locker and there’s a hologram of Hobbes in it, telling all this. It’s just that the hologram is only available once and you can’t open the locker again later. So it’s missable. Either you missed it this way, OR there are differences between countries. I bought my WC3 (I still have the game and CDs) in Europe.

          • Infinitron says:

            I’m not sure if it’s what you’re talking about, but I think there’s a scene that you only see if you chase after Hobbes.

          • Booker says:


            That could be the reason, I remember not seeing the scene in every playthrough.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            There’s a scene where Eisen is clearing out a locker and bitches Blair out for going after Hobbes, but that’s not the hologram scene. All I can say is I don’t see any reference anywhere to it being in the original PC version, though it is in other ones and it’s available to download. If you’ve got it somehow in your copy, great, but officially it’s counted as a deleted scene everywhere that I can see.

      • Infinitron says:

        It’s not really the tone as such that bothered me. The story, setting and characterization just seemed simpler all around. Look at the Jazz/Mandarin storyline next to the Hobbes betrayal. There’s no comparison.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          Eh, I like WC2 a lot, but I think you need to factor in SO2 for the Mandarin stuff, and its good bits of story are REALLY spaced out (pun not intended) after the transfer to the Concordia.

          • Infinitron says:

            Actually that part of the story wasn’t that great IMO. I’m talking about the whole murder mystery aspect of it in the main game, with suspicion falling on various people, etc.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            Ah, right. Yeah, I liked that, but I guessed it was Jazz quite early on, so like a lot of the story I was more waiting for the reveal than to find out what it was going to be.

  2. WorldMaker says:

    Something I still find amazing to this day was how bad the writing in the studio film was versus the games. You can blame the obvious things like it being an unnecessary prequel and presumably studio notes. There’s also the debates about why the prequel mixed in some of the more nonsense pieces of WC: Prophecy story. WC3 and WC4 will always to me be better movies than the studio film, and pretty much the pinnacle of the series’ storytelling.

    • LexW1 says:

      WC3 and 4 were worse at story-telling than WC1 and 2, I’d suggest, and told worse stories, to boot.

      • LexW1 says:

        I mean, just to expand on that, I don’t think it’s unfair to see WC3 as the “grim and gritty reboot” or even grimdark reboot of the WC series. And not in a good nuBSG way.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        “Commander, you’re going out on your own this time.”
        “Shit, stealth fighters.”
        “What was that?”

  3. Themadcow says:

    Oh my good lord. How could I have never heard THAT line before!?

    • spacedyemeerkat says:

      I laughed out loud. For real! Absolutely brilliant.

  4. Monggerel says:

    More like WANG COMMANDER eh?

    Yeah, that guy gets it.
    *leaves room*

  5. Infinitron says:

    I think the difference between WC1/2 and WC3 is that the former were a bit “space opera” while the latter is purely “military sci-fi”. That doesn’t have to mean less narrative complexity. Wing Commander IV was a big improvement on this front, taking the military sci-fi theme and running with it. Too bad they rebooted the series again after that.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      There was no game after it.

      There definitely wasn’t a game with that credit music.

      • LexW1 says:

        WC4 is the direct and inevitable product of WC3 being successful, especially the kind of story they told and the way they told it. You don’t get to laud WC3 and pretend WC4 doesn’t exist! Equally WC5 is the product of WC4 getting a lot of stick for certain things, and trying to do something a bit less predictable (and failing miserably, sad to say).

  6. Det. Bullock says:

    I liked Wing Commander III, but yes, it doesn’t really play as well as X-wing. The mission design was still very simplistic, 90% of the missions were “hit nav and kill stuff laying there”, evasive manouver of any kind don’t seem to work and your fighter have one of the shittiest energy generator management systems ever. Also replaying it recently, yes, they are very blasé about committing genocide, a bit too much. But the presentation is so lavish it can almost be forgiven.
    Wing Commander IV was better though, better presentation, better story and better mission design.
    Prophecy is just forgettable, it takes the “hit nav and kill stuff” to ridiculous levels, it’s the first game in the genre that left me with sore hands because there were waves and waves of fighters that took forever to die and were constantly using their afterburners, they put some more nuanced objectives but the interface to select specific targets was so stupidly fiddly it might as well not being there, with an energy managment system that’s even worse than the one in III.

  7. klops says:

    Old Luke Skywalker, a porn star and Biff. But there’s also Sallah/Gimli/Treebeard!

  8. SomeDuder says:

    Did you know there was an actual Wing Commander MOVIE? I think the only form of media that still doesn’t feature a WC thingy is a cassettetape with a radioplay.

    • Booker says:

      Of course, saw it in cinemas. The movie was disappointing, but at least the trailer is totally awesome. :D link to youtu.be I think the trailer rocks even today, years after I learned that the movie isn’t good. :D Incredible! :P

  9. DragonDai says:

    I grew up with a NES and then a Sega Genesis…but I played those the way a lot of little kids did; very casually and without any “serious businez.”

    Wing Commander 3 was the first game I played seriously. It was my father’s game and my father’s flight stick and my father’s computer, but I monopolized that game. I beat the whole thing several times. It launched my love of PC gaming.

    Sure, it’s full of some of the cheesiest live action video ever recorded and the combat isn’t as good as other space games, but this one will always have a very special place in my heart.

    • Det. Bullock says:

      “Sure, it’s full of some of the cheesiest live action video ever recorded and the combat isn’t as good as other space games,”

      You know, sometimes I think Roberts was a bit like the David Cage of the time, it’s just that without the internet there were no live conferences with him going on about “emotions” and how it related to graphical fidelity, a mediocre wannabe movie director that was stuck with videogames and didn’t even bother to hide it.
      I remember when I was little seeing a documentary or news psecial on television (Italian television, which is doubly incredible, out telly is at least a decade behind the rest of the western world) about the Wing Commander games and how the guys on screen (one of which was probably Chris Roberts himself) kept talking about using real actors and the fact they had Mcdowel and Mark Hamill, I couldn’t even tell what the game was about. I mean, the few memories I have of it look a lot like that video Sterling did in which he did an impression of Cage that raved about meeting Ellen Page every other sentence.

  10. geldonyetich says:

    These nostalgia glasses aren’t working right. Wing Commander 3 was actually pretty outstanding for its day. It was one of the first true 3D space shooters and had top-notch Origin production values. Even if it wasn’t as good as X-Wing, it was the best Wing Commander game to date… provided you actually had a computer that could run it.

    Granted, the story was a bit depressing. You see Angel get ritualistically disemboweled (tastefully) in the opening Cinematic, and most of the game our protagonist playing back the last message he got from her and wondering where she is and if she’s alright. About 3/4th of the way through the campaign, he gives up hope, shortly before he learns the truth.

  11. Babymech says:

    Editor’s note: That’s not how you use fait accompli.

  12. Booker says:

    Origin games were almost always truly exceptional at least in ONE way or another. Too bad no such company still exists today. It still makes me cringe that the name Origin is misused these days by EA for their Steam-clone shop… :(

  13. bobsterfetto says:

    The name of the porn-star is Ginger Lynn. Not Ginger Allen.
    Now i feel like a creep.

  14. wombat191 says:

    loved it at the time and loved it when i played it last month.

    i can remember playing it back in the day on my old crappy pc.. it literally took me over 5 and a half minutes to load a mission

  15. KingFunk says:

    Mark Hamill the biggest name? Seems a little harsh on Malcolm McDowell and John Rhys-Davies… Obviously being Luke Skywalker is big, but both those chaps were already well-known names and had starred in huge films by then

    • Missing Cat says:

      Absolutely! While I wouldn’t say the game itself has aged that well, MD’s performance was surprisingly good. Malcolm was much more memorable and more accomplished in this game than say, his performance in Star Trek Generations. Not his best work by any means (i.e. IF, Clockwork, Aces High), but still brilliant to watch him excel in this. JRD’s performance was okay-ish, but he seemed a bit tired and didn’t really want to be there. Nowhere near something like his work in Shogun or Raiders. Another example of great acting done right in videogames has to be Christopher Plummer’s Shakespearean General Chang in Klingon Academy.

  16. CartonofMilk says:

    the superior WC game is still Privateer to me. And obviously considering what roberts made later, more the type of games he always wanted to make. Freelancer was a spiritual sequel to privateer, down to its storyline, and Star Citizen aims (but will likely fail) to take the open world space sim to new heights.