Wing Commander III was a big success for Origin, but it wasn’t the only game that continued to push the development house along the bleeding edge. Another game that I also couldn’t stop playing came out a bit before Roberts’ “interactive movie” made waves and used the old engine from Wing Commanders I and II.
In 1984, a game called Elite wowed gamers with its sandbox space sim blending together combat and trading allowing players to explore and blow up bad guys at the same time without being tied down to a story. In 1993, Origin leveraged its Wing Commander engine into its spiritual successor: Privateer.
It was a fantastic twist to the Wing Commander formula. It had the same flight mechanics and loaded up on the action just as its namesake did, only now, the player was free to fly wherever they wanted to go. Starting off with a ratty old Tarsus-class cargo ship, by doing enough side missions and bounty jobs, would-be privateers were soon on the road to powerful upgrades whether it was guns, missiles, or even a flashy new ship.
But the riskiest move was to take players away from the front lines and dive them right into the actions of a few brave pilots eking out their own fortunes on the frontier far from the savage fighting. It was a brave thing to do in making a game like this wholly separate from the usual Wing Commander, especially by today’s standards. It’s almost unheard of now because of the risks involved. It’s as if Call of Duty stepped out beyond it’s own box and tried something new with a stealth-based iteration.
But back then, and by recycling the same relative technology, Privateer stood out as a welcome side trip touring what spacefaring life was like between the stars when a genocidal war isn’t staring you in the face at every jump point. It was a clever twist that expanded the universe of Wing Commander and fans loved it. I certainly did! On a more sober note, it would also be the swan song for the “3D fighters as 2D renders” look of the previous two Wing Commanders. The engine still had some legs, but it was clear that Origin would be paving the way later for the technology behind Wing Commander III.
Privateer also has its own story that sees you as a down and out pilot that has inherited a battered cargo hauler. In between the space pirates, religious Retros who hate technology, and the occasional Kilrathi, life could be better. You’re soon pulled into a quest involving mysterious attacks by a devastatingly powerful ship and the chase to discover the ancient alien clues that may offer the answers everyone is after.
How you do it is up to you. In between the story-based missions, players can trade goods, gun down bounties, or just fly around and see what trouble they can get into. Space ports set up in asteroids, space stations, planet-based cities, and other corners of the sector will often have something to do whether it’s buying new upgrade components, picking up cargo, or finding work from the locals at the bar, the guilds, or the mission computer.
And the work never ends. There’s always a randomly generated mission for you to take on to keep your trigger finger permanently cramped. Feel the need to smuggle out some contraband like Han Solo? Do it. Just want to test your new weapons out on a few targets while getting paid? Who doesn’t?
I ate up the story, but I also couldn’t resist tapping into the RPG elements of the game by grinding up cash and buying all that I could to get that Centurion fighter my eye was set on. Blowing up ships could also send their cargo flying all over space allowing you to tractor it in.
But some of that could also be illegal contraband which, if you can find the right people, can make you cash. Or put you on the wrong side of the law when a patrol asks to scan your ship as part of their usual duties. Yeah, you can get in a fight with pretty much anyone in the game, though it’s probably not in your best interest to piss them off as they will remember. And that can guarantee a hot reception everywhere you go.
Enemies will remember you in this game and how trigger happy you are can determine just how many of them want to kill you when you jump into a new system they’re hanging out in. Just starting out can be really rough if you just go in guns blazing or flying off without regard for what might be waiting for you at a nav point.
Retros and pirates are the usual fodder, but the militia are better armed. Next come the military ships which can sport some serious hardware (though capital ships in the old engine still look tiny along with space stations). The Kilrathi you find will also be unhappy to see you as well and are armed for a fight.
Privateer became one of my favorite titles out form the Wing Commander universe not only for being an amazingly fun space sandbox, but for opening up a side of the universe with gameplay ideas that feel fresh all over again. Origin hit this one out of the spaceport with its usual risk taking and it also helped that it was knee deep in the space-sim combat excitement of the early to mid-nineties.
It would also leave a permanent impression on many fans who kept the open world excitement of Privateer alive. Freelancer would come out years later in 2003 and carry on the fine tradition of being a space pilot in a very big sandbox of trading and upgrade opportunities. Nine years later, the Freelancer mod community has kept its memory alive with endless additions that have transformed the game into persistent, virtual, and free, universes online. And nearly more than fifteen years later, Privateer lives again with new 3D graphics in a faithful reproduction of the game using the Vega Strike space sim engine.
Better yet, this revival of Privateer is free to download and it’s as every bit as fun as I had remembered the first game to be. The thrill of surviving your first fights, making a profit, and finally getting out of the coffin that was your first ship into something a little less fragile charged every shot and credit made. Even the cockpits made it over, each individualized to every ship such as the Tarsus’ narrow view crowded with monitors.
The opening words for the ad below were apt in creating exactly the kind of atmosphere that Privateer relished: a free for all behind the picket fence holding the Kilrathi at bay. Screenshots gave players and idea of what they would be getting, and who they looked like, in the game while an Orion gunship flies towards Perry station for a brief stopover…or work. Either way, the pilot’s probably going to be making another deal which will mean easy profits. Or a quick trip to the airlock.