The sequel to Wing Commander in 1991, a mere year following the first game, raised the stakes even further with sharper graphics and effects along with a long string of missions dangling along an epic storyline. But in some ways, it also cut down on a few of the things that made the first game memorable.
In many ways, Wing Commander II is a titanic mission pack in the style of the Special Missions disks that came out for the first game. Little has really changed gameplay-wise, though the graphics have been given a nice lift with better character portraits, sharper ships and effects, and larger number of cuts to help lay out the story that sees you humiliated after the first game. After breaking the Kilrathi spearhead enabling Earth to fight again another day, old “Blue Hair” is now flying a fighter that time forgot along a far away fringe of the war.
The Tiger’s Claw, the heroic carrier that you had been assigned to and had fought the war from in the first game, has been blown up thanks to a sneak attack by cloaked Kilrathi fighters. Being out on patrol, you were the only person to witness this along with being the only survivor. So not a lot of people are convinced by your story including Admiral Tolwyn who is doing everything in his power to drum you out of the service. Why? Some are convinced that if it wasn’t only sheer negligence that led to the destruction of the Tiger’s Claw, then it was treason. But without direct proof of any kind (your flight recorder has gone missing), all that Tolwyn can do is demote you to the ass end of the war piloting a fighter that time forgot as a glorified security officer for the next ten years.
So it’s no surprise that few even want to fly on your wing, but the game brings out a number of new pilots that will eventually bite the bullet as the war stretches out its hand and pulls ol’ Blue Hair back into the furball. Unfortunately, Wing Commander 2 didn’t quite have the same kind of extras that the first game did such as another magazine covering the war. Like the first game, I got into Wing Commander a little after its initial release so I picked up the “Deluxe” version for the sequel which packed all of the extras on a handy CD-ROM. A plain white manual, reference fold outs, and an Origin catalog were all that were in the blue box.
That also included the Speech Pack which almost single-handedly put Creative’s Sound Blaster card on the map. People whine about DLC today, but back then, a game like Wing Commander II didn’t have any speech unless you bought this and had the right hardware. Ad Lib and a Roland were needed for the music, but only a Sound Blaster would allow the game to talk back at you. And enough people splurged to make Creative a force to reckon with for years to come with their Sound Blaster hardware eventually becoming the go-to sound card for quite a while even when its driver software descended into bloatware.
Wing Commander II also served up a few neat additions to the formula: turret views for bombers, turrets on warships, and more importantly, torpedo runs. In the first game, capital ships could be shot up with enough patience by a lone fighter. In Wing Commander II, “phase shields” have been added to huge ships and large installations making them impervious to being turned into swiss cheese. Enter the torpedo. Lining up a shot, maintaining course, and then firing once it has lock added a layer of tension over simply doing fly bys with your neutron cannons. You can even set your bomber to fly in a straight line at the target, switch to a turret, and then cover your own six that way.
As for the story, it dives deeper into some melodrama, though it still holds together through where it’s needed. It’s also not quite as flexible as the first game was. There’s still a losing path, though not as many chances to get back onto the winning path since Admiral Tolwyn is looking for an excuse to get rid of you anyway.
We also get a closer look at the Kilrathi as a plot brews between Prince Thrakhath and the Emperor to take Earth. Eventually. Just as Blue Hair’s career is put on hold, so are their plans in an all-too-convenient setup. Still, the whole “you are a traitor” sub-plot that runs throughout the game adds a nice edge, especially when you run into old compatriots from the first game that do believe you like Spirit…right before a tear jerking twist.
Two expansion mission packs also stretched out the game after the “winning” ending, one involving renegade Confederation soldiers and a cunning plan by Thrakhath to take advantage of the chaos, and another involving a collective of human traitors called the “Mandarin” introducing a little sneaky skullduggery when Paladin wades in to help Blue Hair cut their efforts short.
For fans, the 3D action hasn’t changed all too much from the first game aside from a few things added in alongside cosmetic changes that make it look all new and shiny. Yet it was even clearer that Chris Roberts eagerly plugged his love for film into the games that he was designing. Despite how great it was, this was one of those DOS only games that remained firmly in the PC camp for awhile until the CD-ROM Deluxe edition was also ported to the FM-Towns.
From the film strip lined with screenshots below to the cinematic flavor of its cut scene direction, WC2 would also preview the kind of approach that Origin and Roberts would take with the most ambitious sequel yet with Wing Commander 3. Until then, Wing Commander 2 had raised the bar once again…by inches, this time, if not by the kind of quantum leap that the first game stomped into the retail space with.