Hall of Fame: Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom

Every week we want to showcase a game that we're playing, that you should or you should not play.  This is Hall of Fame is, a place where each month we talk about some of our all time favorite games, like Wing Commander IV. You can checkout last month Hall of Fame here or last week's feature, Into the Red, here.

With the exception of X-Wing Alliance, I will always consider the Wing Commander series to be one of the best space sim games of all time. Chris Roberts, whose crowd-fundedStar Citizen project continues to make headlines, crafted a war torn universe worthy of Lucas and Roddenberry in which humans battle against the relentless Kilrathi Empire in a decades long conflict. Each game was told from the perspective of Christopher Blair, a hotshot pilot who rises through the ranks, becoming the hero of the Terran Confederation and the most feared and hated enemy of the Kilrathi.

Wing Commander III was notable for its jump from pixelated graphics to more modern, high resolution interfaces and complex ship designs. The inclusion of full motion video would eventually steer the franchise in the direction of an interactive movie, a genre that was all the rage in the 1990s. Setting Wing Commander IV after the conclusion of the Terran-Kilrathi war could have been an uneventful and impotent affair. Instead, Roberts directs an enthralling story about conflict fueled by post-war malaise. Now that Blair is fighting his own species, there's the risk of the game breaking down under the weight of self-righteousness or melodrama.

FMV games tend to get an understandable bad rap and what saves Wing Commander from Mad Dog McCree-style mediocrity is the actors. Mark Hamill delivers a fine performance as a world weary Christopher Blair and is backed by Tom “Biff Tannen” Wilson, who delivers an inspired performance as Maniac, an egotistical hotshot pilot. Apart from Hamill and Wilson, Wing Commander IV is filled with seasoned actors including John Rhys-Davies, Jason Bernard, Chris Mulky, Richard Riehle, Peter Jason and John Spencer. The individual who steals the spotlight is the commanding presence of Malcolm McDowell as Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn. Its the professionalism each actor brings with them that makes the story so amazing. In the hands of a different director or lesser-known actors, the game wouldn't have the same impact. 

Apart from the game’s cutscenes, what made Wing Commander IV special was how it treated its characters, allowing the player to share in the relationships and emotional ties Blair develops among his co-pilots. Interacting with them positively or negatively has repercussions, with pilots performing at peak efficiency when treated well, but flying erratically, disobeying orders, or simply not being there when treated badly. Furthermore, a character’s death is treated with a great deal of solemnity and respect. Pilots killed in action are given funerals and while they removed for the duration of the game, their presence is still felt, whether it is from a casual glance at their KIA status on the killboard or their empty chair in the briefing room. Until Mass Effect, there would be no game that was so successful in making me care about NPCs both alive and dead.

When I reflect on the video games I’ve played over the last twenty years, I am always brought back to the first time I played Wing Commander IV. The fact that I can vividly recall the game’s most poignant moments, especially the brilliant final standoff between Blair and Tolwyn that calls to mind A Few Good Men,  is a testament to how well the story was crafted and performed. Though the gameplay shows age, largely due to game engine limitations, Wing Commander IV will forever be a classic that can stand the test of time. Want to be convinced? The game is available to purchase on Good Old Games. Try it out!

Well, that does it for this week's Hall of Fame entry. Check back next week as we look a games that are available to purchase but not necessarily ready for review.

Images courtesy of MobyGames

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.