Monster budgets courting tens of millions of dollars is a fact of life among publishers and developers betting big on new games in the AAA realm in today’s market. Even playing it safe with a sequel is still an expensive leap of faith.
As one example, Shenmue in 2003 had commanded a budget of $47 milllion and is considered one of the most expensive games ever made. Hearsay spinning around Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic’s MMO budget range from $100 million plus to a staggering $300 million. “AAA” gaming isn’t as cheap as it was in the old days.
But even before Shenmue was a glimmer in Yu Suzuki’s eye, Chris Roberts and Origin would stun the trade with the budget for Wing Commander III which ranged between four to five million dollars when it arrived on December 12, 1994, just in time for Christmas. A tiny sum for as huge a game as it was back then compared to today’s top titles.
The big reason was because Wing Commander III would be different from its predecessors – or many other games of the time – by employing big names to film the actual story behind the gameplay complete with virtual sets. A new 3D engine was also being developed to bring those 2D pre-rendered ships into polygonal bliss. It was to be an “interactive movie’…and that’s exactly how it turned out from the stunning intro that left my mouth gaping wide open to the incredible soundtrack. I don’t know how many times I just let it play because it was unlike anything I had seen used in a game at the time.
These weren’t hand drawn pixels in cut scenes or short videos that lasted less than a minute. This was movie making for a game with real stars in the roles and a heap of CG special effects to wallpaper every backdrop.
Instead of old “Blue Hair”, players took on the role of Christopher Blair who was played by Mark Hamill (Star Wars, Batman: The Animated Series) giving him a voice of his own as well as making him an even bigger part of the story outside of the action. This time around, the war is going badly for humanity. The Confederation is being battered on every front and the pride of the fleet, the TCS Concordia, has been destroyed. The Kilrathi Empire can already taste final victory.
Admiral Tolwyn, played with delicious fervor by the always-fun-to-watch Malcolm McDowell, assigns Blair to a backwater posting on the TCS Victory, an aged carrier safely away from the front lines. Though Admiral Tolwyn says that it’s his job to assign the best resources to where they’re needed, Blair can’t help think that he’s being sidelined. Still, as a good pilot, he takes his lumps and heads off to make the most of his new assignment. And that’s where the story, and Blair’s new career, begins.
The story is also packed with familiar faces and plenty of decent acting. In addition the McDowell and Hamill, John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark) takes on the role of Paladin and Tom Wilson (Biff from Back to the Future) plays an incredible Maniac. Choice is also introduced into the story affecting how some characters will react to you during the “interactive movie” bits.
And before BioWare made it popular, there’s also a romance option for Blair to explore between the two female leads, a wingman named Robin “Flint” Peters (played by Jennifer MacDonald) and Rachel Coriolis (played by former adult star, Ginger Lynn Allen) the spunky chief fighter technician who is responsible for keeping the Victory’s aging collection in top shape. Or you can lead Blair to just go it alone. It’s up to you on how to play the choices.
The cat-like Kilrathi have also been brought to life with animatronic costumes that don’t look too bad, though I kind of liked the stylized look that they had in WC2. Still, it’s a great effort to try and bring the alien cats to life and worked well for what Wing Commander had done with it.
Pretty much everything you see in the backdrop is a virtual set with only a scarce number of props to help guide the actors along. Back then, it was amazing stuff. Live action still stood out against the CG in an obvious sense, but I didn’t care because of how well the story was told with the flair of a Hollywood production. I couldn’t get enough of it and would even replay segments just to see the consequences and reactions of Blair’s choices especially with Maniac.
Failure in battle also opens up the losing path allowing the player to redeem themselves, or witness the Earth’s final defeat at the feline claws of the Kilrathi in juicy CG. Success brings on an amazing ending that is extremely well deserved and finishes off the thirty-year war in style. This is one ending that won’t leave anyone hanging or angry enough to ask for their money back.
Having 3D ships in true 3D , the same way that Lucasarts had done X-Wing in ’93, took them from being flat icons with a hit box to gargantuan vessels that you could actually skim over. Fighters now had actual profiles that didn’t feel like a square target in space. It was a huge leap over the first two games. Even though the blockiness of many of the ships owes as much to the state-of-the-art back then (and before dedicated 3D cards had even become the next big thing) in gaming, it was still seen as a huge quantum leap over anything the series had given its fans. Now I could skim the surface of capital ships and actually feel as if I were approaching the hangar. Dogfighting looked even better than before, though it also felt a little too familar.
And that’s probably one thing that a lot of fans noticed. Though it certainly gave us more of what we loved, it was still largely the same game. A polished GUI, cockpits, virtual indicators, flashy new engine, Malcolm McDowell, and all of that helped to elevate the state of the series to something that took firm advantage of the latest advances of technology like CD-ROM and the growing graphics card and sound card market. But at it’s heart, it’s still the same Wing Commander that fans had fallen in love with in 1990…which really isn’t a bad thing.
So in the end, I went with Rachel and saved the Confederation from utter annihilation. A few missions were really tough and I tried to save the Behemoth way too many times until realizing that there is no way to really save it. I tried diving too deeply into that platter of choices, but it was still an incredibly fun ride. As old and tried as the basic formula is, splashing a new coat of digital paint in the way that Wing Commander 3 has made it feel as fresh and new as it was years earlier. Origin wisely kept to what made things work, added a few new bits, but didn’t screw things up.
Wing Commander III’s interactive movie aspirations live on in the game and in the ad below presenting the space sim as a marquee event begging for an included packet of microwaveable popcorn. Names are listed as they would be in a film, the poster does a great job in showing off the characters, though there’s not much gameplay to be seen which is a little disappointing. There’s even a 3DO icon on there since Wing Commander 3 was ported to the system along with the Playstation. Even the Mac had its own copy the same time that DOS did.
Wing Commander 3 smartly clung onto what made the series fun and raised the bar on an interactive experience by weaving a movie with choices in between the harrowing dogfights, missile salvos, and capital ship runs. It challenged expectations for what a game could even be by skillfully blending together two things that a number of other titles had struggled to find equal ground with.
Wing Commander 3 was one of those exclamation points that made people sit up and take notice of the potential that games could deliver on a shiny plastic disk. But more importantly, even though Roberts had a stable of stars, the game never forgot why players dusted off the old ‘stick to leave streaking bolts of plasma carving their way through Kilrathi squadrons flying between them.