"Yes, 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die?"
"You know how I've chucked a few flight sims your way recently, allowing you to experience the joy of dogfighting in space from the comfort of your office chair, with the sweetly calibrated refurbished flight stick you got because it was cheap?"
"Yeah, those games are great!"
"Weeeellll, how about another one, with film quality full motion video starring Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowel, John Rhys-Davis..."
"I've heard of those people!"
"Then let me introduce to you Wing Commander IV"
Were the 1001 list to be anthropomorphized, that might have been the conversation we had about the next game on the list, the fourth - I would imagine - in the Wing Commander series, Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom.
Following on from the plot, or at least the canon of the earlier games in the series, this high budget space combat simulator sees you play as Mark Hamill, reprising his role as Colonel Christopher 'Maverick' Blair, hero of the... plot... I have no idea.
There doesn't appear to any kind of start menu here, so I've no choice but to sit back and pay attention to this wonderful mix of CGI and live action actual human beings in my video game.
I know it's not the first time we've seen people in video games, but cut me some slack eh. Even Kane doesn't compare to these guys. Sorry, Kane.
It's important to note that I have no goddamn idea what Wing Commander IV actually looks like, or how it plays. I'm told it's a space combat simulator, but I sure haven't been simulating anything for a good ten minutes, watching things slowly unfold in these slickly produced cinematic scenes.
A whole $12 million went into the production of this game, and you can guess which parts of it received the bigger chunk of that. Full sets, no expenses spared costumes, and then any necessary CGI and green screen stuff on top of that. It was so well done that the quality of these scenes was dramatically downsampled just to fit on the CDs, and a DVD-quality release wasn't seen for another year, and even that had options for black and white movies just to help players watch them as smoothly as their rigs could run.
We still haven't got into the game, so far as I can tell, until a single freeze frame of a man claiming to be a veteran pilot of the war from the previous game (so important a war that its name escapes me).
Do you see that? At the top and bottom of the screen, in the tiniest of grey text? Multiple choice options for how to act in a scene. Wing Commander IV is an interactive movie! Thought it was a space combat sim, but there we go.
I don't know how much impact these choices will make, but after a couple of them, the plot progresses as we fly away from Not-Tatooine and back into the space piloting business. I think.
After a long, long time, we finally see a mission briefing screen, and Wing Commander IV is about to really begin. Joystick ready. Fingers hovering over keys. Let's fly.
No joystick input. No mouse input. Let's see what options we've got...
Invulnerability? Yes, please. Skill levels, mhmm. Quite a lot of options, but no working joystick calibration. I'm bummed out. No stick waggling for me, it seems. The game's too old, the stick's too new? Who knows. At least the mouse works in the menu and can turn itself on for the flight controls.
Am I doing anything here? Things are just happening, characters popping into life, targets filling up the screen. Before long, and after hitting 'A' a few times, which as well as triggering the autopilot seems to be the 'Just move me along in the plot' button, we're back to watching a video.
Further Fun Times
They're pretty damn good, these videos. It's not Oscar worthy, of course not, but it's doing its job in getting me to want to see more and more Wing Commander. What is the state of this galaxy? Who are these old friends and allies? What am I going to be doing in this game? Watching videos and using the autopilot?
Soon enough, we get some more obvious interaction with the movies, as they open into a kind of living hub world, sort of thing, changing over time.
Downtime in between missions makes for character development - just ask Mass Effect, for one notable example. It's no different here either, with the chance to talk to a few people and get more of a sense of what's going on. War, but of a different kind, was the answer. Whatever it is, it literally needs investigating, hence bringing us from farm life back into the frontlines.
To the mission briefing then, and to an actual mission. Gameplay in the traditional sense. I hope it goes better than the first mission.
Things did indeed go better here. The mouse worked. My keyboard was ready. I knew enough of the controls and invulnerability was well and truly on. I tracked my target and fired by weapons.
I say tracked. The sensitivity is just... not as pleasant as a flight stick. Or, if there's no difference between flight stick and mouse in Wing Commander, then the sensitivity is just not up to the standards that I'm not familiar with from TIE Fighter and Descent.
Sure, my ship moved, and in the direction I wanted it to move, but not with any of the grace I was hoping for. My shots went towards the centre of my targeting reticule, as planned, but shooting enemy ships had so little visible feedback that I might as well have been watching another video, waiting for an explosion to appear.
There's radar, and a visual display of the status of a targeted ship, but neither of these were useful to me. I merely progressed through the motions of pressing the mouse button a few times until a ship disappeared.
The disappointing thing was that there are hints of a much greater experience here.
Further Farther Fun Times
You can chat to your wingmates, asking for status updates, or issuing orders to attack a target or hold back. You need to ask for landing permission, just like Frontier: Elite II. You can even taunt enemy pilots, seemingly for no reason other than to add some character to the characters. And they do feel like characters. The actors help, I suppose...
Back in the ship, after a mission that mostly succeeded but we clearly should have done better, we're back to watching a video.
Further Farther Frustrations
Then another teeny tiny multiple choice decision appeared and I noped out for the day.
I am, for sure, going to see more Wing Commander IV. I don't know what form I'll see it in, but it will likely be in the form of a YouTube playthrough. Hell, it seems to be mostly watching a bunch of videos anyway, so I'm not missing out on too many epic dogfights.
Or am I? What's the percentage of gameplay to interactive video menus to cutscenes to whatever else there is going on? Is it worth persisting through super easy mode dogfights that I don't enjoy just to get to the next movie? Had my stick worked, would I have had a better time with this game?
So many questions, but I think they'll have to go unanswered for now. There are, in my experience, better games to get the flight stick out for, and yet Wing Commander IV has so much going for it - I want to see a Wing Commander IV movie more than I want to rewatch the actual Wing Commander movie. Maybe that's because Mark Hamill is better than Freddie Prinze, Jr. Well, no 'maybe' about that one...
Is Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom a must play? Yes. Yes it is. Is it going to rank highly on that list? Depends on what you like. I love the world, the videos, the effort... I just can't see myself liking the game itself.
The game was so reliant on the correct hardware to play the movies that many copies of Wing Commander IV were bundled with the DVD-ROM kit you needed to see them.
Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom, developed by Origin Systems, first released in 1996.
Version played: PC, 1997