So, Wing Commander eh? Wing Commander - the game which got people buying big, powerful PCs. Wing Commander - the landmark in shoot-em-ups. Wing Commander - the game which saved all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace. Wing Commander - the... aww, you get the idea.
The big problem when approaching a game like this is to separate the hype from the game beneath. It is all too easy to be taken in by the superlatives draped over its shiny, smoothy exterior, and it is also very easy to fall into the trap of adding to the hyperbole. What this takes is some kind of cold, detachment. But then, that is not what being a games fan and critic is about. Hell, I am not a number, I am a reviewer, and I will be enthusiastic or caustic if I want to. So there.
The history of Amiga Wing Commander is widely known, having already faltered on the starting block once, until programming genius Nick Pelling grabbed the reins, with the intent of doing what they all said could not be done - bringing Wing Commander to the Amiga.
And here it is. So what is new? Not a lot, thankfully. When you have got a game design so obviously successful as this one, then there is little point in messing around with the winning formula. No, what has been attempted here is an exact recreation of the original game, with the number of colours being the only compromise. The results are occasionally a little gaudy, but in the 3D space sections the reduction from 256 to 32 colours is hardly noticeable. Phew. Made it to first base.
HOW DOES IT WORK, UNCLE MARK?
It works something like this. Humanity, just for a change, is at war. This time it is a big budget interstellar affair, complete with chorus girls and Bubsy Berkely numbers. The bad guys are a bunch of pussies, literally. Going by stock Dr Who (Great! - Dave Golder) name number 29 - the Kilrathi - the enemy are lion-like warriors who seem to have some kind of genocidal grudge against the human race.
The player takes on the role of the rookie who, over the course of game will either be the saviour of the human race, or land them in big doo-doo.
The fact that all the blasting bits link together to form a story, means that each time the player returns to base, a debriefing takes place - sometimes followed by another medal to add to the old collection, sometimes a promotion, or sometimes a severe ticking off. After that it is back to the officer's mess. Here the game can be saved, or a visit to the bar can be made, where other pilots are always keen for a chat - a convenient way of conveying the storyline to the player. A 'simulator' is also available, for a bit of danger-free flying.
GROOVY, BUT WHAT NEXT?
Brass tacks time, methinks. Let us be honest, Wing Commander would be lumped in with all the other mindless shoot-em-ups out there if it was not for the graphics. Quite simply, they are the most complex 3D images yet seen in an Amiga game. In place of abstract 3D vectors, Wing Commander offers texture mapped craft. These little cuties actually have surface detail and colouring as if they were plain old sprites, but they can zoom in and out and rotate through all three planes as if they were real, live vectors. In the pictures dotted around this review they may look a bit gaudy and chunky, but when the space ships are actually doing the business - flying towards the player, then peeling off with gunfire smashing against their hulls - that is when the full impact of the graphics technology becomes apparent.
Let us be honest - Wing Commander is in a league of its own in terms of graphics technique. Programmer Nick Pelling has performed minor miracles in getting this stuff on the Amiga at all. Okay, so the colours hagve been compromised quite radically, but the overall effect is still mightily impressive.
The way the missions are threaded together into a coherent storyline should not be underestimated either. The effect serves to draw the player in even further, with little sequences depicting failures or successes in the war effect - all dependant on the performance of the player, of course.
In space, the game works as a very simplified flight simulator - even aterburners are available. Depending on the mission and ship type, mines, missiles and various strengths of photon torpedoes are available with which to wipe out the bad guys. It is not all fight, fight, fight though. Proximity mines and startlingly fast asteroids also lie in wait in that big thing we call space.
The missions themselves vary between reconnaissance, plain old offensive, and defensive jobs. The latter involve escorting huge transporters to designated jump points, while offensive runs sometimes give the player the chance to strike right into the heart of the Kilrathi empire, and go up against the might of a huge enemy warship.
Wingmen are available for some missions, with orders sent via intercom - which can also be used to taunt the Kilrathi during battle. It is all a bit like the fighting sequences of Elite, condensed and concentrated into one intense war.
The first game to really need an A1200
THE NEED FOR SPEED
The design aspect of Wing Commander has never been in doubt, let us be honest. The big question mark hanging over the game is one of speed. The original PC version required a pretty damn powerful machine to rattle along at a decent pace, so doubts have been hanging over the Amiga version since beginning.
It is a real shame then, that after such attention to detail on the game, the speed lets things down. On a standard Amiga the screen update is painfully slow, the dynamic graphics being reduced to stop-start blobs. Wing Commander has always relied on its pace to create tension and excitement. Without this, it is reduced to a (very slow) graphical showcase. It is certainly not fast enough to make it anywhere near as playable as it should be. Hell, I feel guilty about this. After all, I am such a fan of the game, and I really cannot see how the game could be made any faster without simplifying the graphics system radically.
But... it is not all heartache, disappointment and tragedy. Somebody at Commodore obviously pre-empted all this, and decided to bring out the fablious, sorry fabulous A1200. It is almost like a cop-out, but on the new machine Wing Commander is a dream - and a very swoony, smooth and pretty dream at that.
Good news for buyers of the A1200, then. For these lucky people, an almost exact interpretation of the original Wing Commander awaits. The only downer is that we are still dealing with reduced colours here - strange when the A1200 can handle it. The real problem, of course, is that Wing Commander on the A12900 shows up Wing Commander on the good old Amiga quite badly. Would you really be satisfied with a version which runs three times slower than on your friend's new super Amiga? I think not.
The game itself is still as paper-thin as ever, of course. Strategy and depth are as absent as ever were. But if delicious 3D shoot-em-ups are your bag, and an A1200 is yours, then Wing Commander awaits. The rest of us would do well to think twice before taking a ride on this particular freedom moped out of nowhere city.