Though Lucasarts dropped the ball with X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter’s story-less target range in 1996, Origin was still busy working on Wing Commander Prophecy for 1997. But before that came out, they also hit back with a sequel to their runaway hit with Privateer with Privateer 2: The Darkening. Given that my only alternative was duking it out against the PC in X-Wings and TIE Fighters, and that I loved Privateer, it wasn’t hard to guess which game I had a lot more fun with.
It embraced the “interactive movie” experience that Origin continued to tout for the series since Wing Commander III and featured an incredibly impressive lineup of star power. We’re talking John Hurt, Clive Owen, David Warner, Brian Blessed, Jurgen Prochnow, and Christopher Walken (who also starred in another live action game called Ripper in the same year). It was even filmed at 007’s digs, Pinetree Studios. And when you went in for a landing sequence at a space dock or descended to a planet’s surface for a little trading, there was even a CG cut scene for each one.
But the biggest problem for a number of fans, and which made me scramble with futile effort through its sparse documentation to explain the strangeness, was that Privateer 2 didn’t seem to actually be in the Wing Commander world. Or even in the same galaxy. As if it were a wholly new game universe being introduced to players, Privateer 2 has almost no reference back to the Wing Commander series. What were these ships that I was flying? Where’s the Centurion? What…what was going on?!
Yet the game boasts the cutting edge techniques that Origin learned from filming WC3 and WC4 to help ease players into this very different corner amongst the stars. The story of you being an amnesiac pilot plays well against the dark, gritty underworld theme of this strange future set somewhere far, far away despite some of the cheese that crops up in between the pixels. Everything about this corner of the galaxy away from the familiar trappings of Wing Commander stood out such as the cyber-inspired grit that seems to prop up every scene as an underworld recruitment drive that Johnny Mnemonic with a space ship would sign up for.
Your main character is played by Clive Owen as he tries to recover his memory by following clues around the “Tri System”. But to do that, he needs to take his ship and earn a few creds either by trading or shooting – both of which he happens to be good with. Just like in the first game, it’s up to you on what to concentrate on first.
I’ll say this: the interface system for your ship was really given a great makeover in Privateer 2 though you really need to keep an eye on your shields and armor in order to stay alive. It uses the same 3D graphics engine that was pioneered in WC3 and WC4 so the ships look great along with all of the explosive effects.
As great looking as the game is from the interface down to each ship, it doesn’t feel quite as expansive as Privateer. It’s called the “Tri System” for a reason leaving you with what feels like fewer destinations to do business in, though it still retained the same freedom of the last game. This is also a very movie-centric experience, though the difficulty of some of the encounters pack on an equal portion of weight to keep things balanced.
Erin Roberts, brother to WC’s grand maestro, Chris Roberts, helmed this take on Privateer and I liked it a lot. I just had to stop thinking of it as a sequel to the first game as anything more than in spirit and felt right back behind the controls of a jittery ship filled with contraband. It does that much, at least, while the sci-fi movie hopping in between the main missions delivers as much tongue-in-cheek, B-movie glitter as actual progress towards the inevitable confrontation with the people who made you forget who you were.
The spacey ad doesn’t really tell anyone a lot about the game leaving only the game box to lay down exactly what, or what isn’t going on. Privateer 2 received quite a bit of heat for being too different story-wise, but I appreciated what it tried to do by polishing elements of the gameplay that worked and keeping it as open as the last game. More importantly, it was a lot more fun than X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter.