TIE Fighter had shown how creative missions can be especially if you join up with the “bad guys”. Wing Commander III revived its tried and true formula in being the industry’s most expensive project to date as it took a stab at being an interactive movie. Both had their high points for doing what they thought was best for their particular series. Wing Commander III’s story could branch out and allowed players to redeem themselves from a losing path. At the same time, TIE Fighter gave players increased flexibility in pursuing their objectives or even toning down the difficulty to make things less frustrating.
And then Lucasarts and Totally Games ended their bid releasing a Collector’s CD-ROM for TIE Fighter in 1995. But they didn’t follow it up with another game as many hoped that they would. Only two expansions packs later, and that was all that Star Wars would write for space combat sims until 1997 with TIE Fighter vs. X-Wing.
Origin, in the meantime, didn’t give up and used 1995 to prepare for Wing Commander’s comeback. On February, 1996, Wing Commander IV came out. It was also a $12 million dollar behemoth, easily three times Wing Commander III’s estimated $4 million making it the most ambitious – and some would say, most expensive – game ever made up until that point.
Chunks of that budget went into the sets which replaced the CG backdrops used so extensively in WC3 as well as for the salaries of its returning cast in what is probably the series’ best story. The flashy intro clearly shows just how far Origin’s techniques have come along from the titles to the special effects, and it never lets up until the very end.
The story isn’t Star Wars, but the questions that it raised and the territory it covered made it especially stand out. In the same way that TIE Fighter questioned the perception of the Empire and gave us a glimpse of what life was like behind its grey exterior, WC4 would give us a post-war galaxy filled with uncertainty now that the war was over and lives up to the old adage of proving that the price of freedom is always eternal vigilance.
Christopher Blair (played again by Mark Hamill) is retired and living on a farm on a world far from the worries of the Confederation. Unfortunately, he’s soon called back into service once more when war threatens to tear the Confederation apart. It seems that the Border Worlds having been raiding Confederation ships, taking no prisoners and basically making it seem as if they were pushing things a bit too far. Although important allies in the war, the Border Worlds had always seen themselves as exploited second-class citizens and despite the Confederation’s belief that they were part of their alliance, the Border Worlds had always asserted their independence. But it had never become violent, at least not on this kind of scale threatening war.
Malcolm McDowell is also back as Admiral Tolwyn, now commander of the sStrategic Readiness Agency. Swearing to put an end to Border World aggression, Tolwyn brings Blair back in order to help him bring peace to the frontier. But as Blair discovers, it’s Admiral Tolwyn who has been using a secret squadron of cloaked fighters to instigate the conflict. The dramatic showdown at the end, driven completely by the player as they make their case for Tolwyn’s guilt in front of the entire Confederation, is one of the best endings to any game that I’ve played through.
It’s not only a great story, but the ending also marks the incredible fate of one of the series’ most enduring characters: Admiral Tolwyn. If you want to play the game and don’t want to know what happens next, skip past the next paragraph. Otherwise, be prepared for a little reminiscing spoilers.
Malcolm McDowell injected a kind of tragic grandeur to the role especially towards the end when he reveals his reasons for doing what he did, maneuvered by the choices you make as Blair in front of the Confederation council. It’s one of the more enduring scenes that I can remember. One can almost believe that he genuinely had the best interests of the Confederation at heart, though his extreme methods proved to be the worst possible way that he could have gone about to prepare the way for the future he envisioned. The war was over, but for Tolwyn, he couldn’t leave it behind. And when Blair visits him (in the “good” ending) at the end in his cell, little is said with the last scene of the Admiral that of hanging himself rather than face a firing squad.
As good as the story is, the rest of the game is also pretty good although at this point, the formula is starting to show its age. A new head’s up display, new ships and weapons, and a few creative twists with the mission mix leading to a few cloak and dagger moments give the series a much needed jump start, though the usual plethora of patrol and kill missions have become as routine as toggling though enemy fighters to find the targets you want to blast. After WC3, I guess I expected a bit more from WC4 whose gameplay felt more like a mission pack extension. Only the story and the extensive cinematics, multiple endings, and branching paths continue to raise the bar on that level. Everything else isn’t as amazing. Though I’ve said that there’s nothing wrong with giving players what they want, sometimes too much of the same thing can also be as dangerous no matter how nice it looks.
And though the story is neat, the “interactive movie” still tends to rely on a number of cliches such as the giggling psychotic that you’ll eventually need to face down. The high marks of its drama are still pitted with a few low points and it can be obvious from the beginning that something isn’t quite right. It’s almost as if the weighty drama of the potential conflict between the Border Worlds and the Confederation could have set up a new trilogy of storytelling in the WC universe. The dramatic finish almost feels as if it belongs in another installment further down the line as one result, though with how the series actually finishes off, I’m glad we got to see it now than never.
This could also be a tough game. The difficulty can tend to spike when you least expect it, though it’s not utterly unmanageable. In some missions, it’s almost as if the designers believed that you didn’t do anything else other than play WC3 in the year since to get ready for WC4. At least you can pick your wingmen for added protection and even what ship and loadout you want to fly out with, though this can be a little too advantageous when you go in with the best every time. Even so, the game knew how to throw a few more challenges into your way.
Despite how I felt about it’s “expansion” pack feel, I loved this chapter if only because of the risks that it took with its story and the way that the ending unfolded. WC4 low-key conflict also has its own particular uniqueness that makes it a solid entry in the series. From Admiral Tolwyn standing at the podium in front of the Confederation’s allies to Paladin (still played by John Rhys-Davies) doing his best to remain diplomatic, to old standbys like Maniac (Tom Wilson in a decent performance, though the antics are also starting to get old at this point), it’s also as if everyone had turned out for the final hurrah for series mastermind, Chris Roberts. This was his last dance with Wing Commander.
Screenshots previewed what gamers would expect from the game as marketing talked up the key points, though even the ad seemed to be running out of steam. Minimalist and as straightforward as its background colors were, the ad talked up all of the key points which seemed weighted more towards selling the game as an interactive movie like that of its predecessor. It’s telling how much was spent on text building up the film surrounding the gameplay than the gameplay itself. And as I would later discover, it turned out to be the last and best chapter of the entire series for this armchair pilot.