From the pages of the past! Ads of yesteryear – Wing Commander Prophecy

Chris Roberts, Wing Commander’s creative founder and the man who directed its transformation into an interactive movie, took the next big step in his career by leaving Origin to found Digital Anvil. He also took quite a few people with him including his brother, Erin Roberts (Privateer 2), leaving the future of the Wing Commander series up in the air.

If the series had ended with Wing Commander IV, I would have been fine with that. After so many years and expansions, I could probably use a break after the Wing Commander/Star Wars explosion that became the face for space combat sims’ “Golden Era” in the early to late nineties before the decline.

Tolwyn’s end and Blair’s final mission to defend the Confederation that he had bled for seemed to be the perfect finish to the saga started way back in 1990. But EA and Origin had other ideas deciding to bring on the fifth game. It would also, in my mind at least, be the final chapter to the series.

Wing Commander Prophecy was a new game with a new crew, polished engine, and built by a group of new faces behind its digital nuts and bolts. That made it feel like a reboot and I was curious to see what direction it would be headed in and by 1997, Origin’s cinematic chops had come a very long way.

Prophecy’s name comes from a Kilrathi prophecy that foretells that the end of the empire will open a galactic Pandora’s Box of true evil. Now, I don’t have any problem with plugging an arcane deus ex machina to get things rolling when it makes sense, but in Wing Commander Prophecy’s case, it came off about as well as the aliens did in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

It just comes out of nowhere after so many sequels. Granted, Confed might not have been so interested in this stuff since a war was on, but there could have been some kind of mention of it. As it is, it’s an all-too-convenient solution to resetting the whole Wing Commander franchise by giving it another “oh no, aliens coming to kill us all” scenario. If this was a CRPG, I might have felt a lot more at home with it.

That said, something does happen in the rubble strewn orbit of what used to be the heart of the Kilrathi Empire which you, as Christopher Blair, blew to smithereens in Wing Commander III. It’s twelve years after Blair dropped the Temblor Bomb, and an alien race of destroyers designed by futurist, Syd Mead, emerge from “otherspace” and quickly set about their genocidal ways in killing everything in their way. Why this had anything to do with the Kilrathi Empire’s destruction, or why they’re coming out now, is a mystery that the game won’t answer right now in the hopes of continuing the story later.

As for you, you’re Lance Casey, a new hotshot pilot assigned to the supercarrier, Midway. If fans of the first Wing Commander think the name sounds familiar, it’s because Lance is the son of Michael “Iceman” Casey from the first Wing Commander in a clever bit of continuity. Their new home, the Midway supercarrier, is the face of the Confederation’s new navy. It’s a ship so well armed and so powerful that it has everything needed inside its massive hull to win a war, and the Confederation plans on making more of these things. But before they do that, they want to see if all those credits were worth it, so you’re onboard for the shakedown cruise. And The New Badness is ready to test your skills when the Midway heads off to answer a Kilrathi distress call.

A few familiar faces return such as Mark Hamill as Commodore Christopher Blair and Ginger Lynn Allen as Chief Tech Rachel Coriolis.  Tom Wilson also returns as the irrepressible Maniac. Even though it has been years since WC4, he’s still kicking it on the flight deck. Then again, who would really want to give the Maniac too much responsibility?

The engine looks fantastic. The cockpits are finally 3D. The HUD reflects the newness of the tech so many years later giving everything the feel of walking through an Apple store, though I kind of preferred what Erin Roberts and his crew did with it in Privateer 2. Yet the gameplay is exactly the same kind of stuff that the series has been doing since it started. That’s not so much of a bad thing, but a lot of the missions basically feel as recycled as the formula does at this point.

The new bad guys are very alien. They’re black hulled, green glowy decorated squid/artichoke things that fly through space and kill everything in their way. They don’t spend any time talking to us, so the Confed just call them the Nephilim. But they’re nothing to be really afraid of. These are the fearsome aliens that the game has been building up to? Because of how many of these things there are, and after blowing away their fancy ships by the cargo hold, they started to come off as just your typical space baddies. Their whole premise seems doesn’t seem to be to overwhelm everyone with bizarro tech that isn’t all that different from us, but with overwhelming numbers. They’re the substitute bad guys now that the Kilrathi have been de-clawed.

As a result, a lot of the missions in Prophecy become routine exercises in blowing up a lot of things. Things that will spam every nav point in certain systems until you don’t care anymore. It’s a lot like Wing Commander I, but a lot of things have changed in the space sim combat scene since those days to give the missions more variety. Prophecy’s attempt at rebooting the series has its heart in the right place by trying to go back to basics, but the audience is expecting a lot more nowadays especially after Lucasarts’ TIE Fighter and WC4.

Story-wise, there’s your usual pick of choices in dialogue, but not as much as there was in the last two Wing Commanders. There’s still a “performance” path for players to fight back from defeat if they do badly, but if you’re looking  for tension-filled clips of your science department dissecting the alien insectoid Nephilim for clues to what they are, their tech, or if you’re just hoping for some mystery to cloak their true intentions other than spamming the game with countless numbers of themselves, Prophecy underwhelms. This is about blowing up stuff with as little story as possible. Even the ending that writes off Christopher Blair in an act of heroic self-sacrifice felt like a cheap way to finish him off now that Admiral Tolwyn was no longer around.

So that was it. Although the gameplay delivers a solid experience with the AI providing an even better challenge after so many iterations, Prophecy didn’t click with me. The strange, new faces in the game were still largely unknown to me by the end of the game other than the old reliables that had face time. It felt as if the game tried to ratchet things up in too short an amount of time, shaking and baking an enemy that got by on its looks than by its fear factor. I would have preferred to fight the remnants of a secret Kilrathi faction, a criminal empire prowling the spacelanes, or another series of clever cloak & dagger missions like I did in Wing Commander IV.

A huge alien ship that looks like a cross between squid and fungus gives you an idea of the alien appearance of the new enemy in the ad below, though the two screenshots are the only real samples of the game that anyone will get to see from the ad. It talks up multiplayer and 3D support for dedicated hardware, which was making a splash at the time, and not much else. So if you just wanted to blow up a lot of stuff in a nice space combat sim engine with only a little story to interfere with your HUD, then Prophecy does fit the bill.

Prophecy’s story would be continued in a download-only release called Secret Ops, a 100MB+ chunk of data that, on a modem that I had at the time, was something I missed out on. But it was a great bonus that Origin gave out for free, something that quite a bit of  DLC today can learn from. Prophecy would also even be ported to the Gamboy Advance, but neither would provide any satisfactory conclusion. It was truly the last Wing Commander game in the interactive movie vein and it left players hanging with more than a few loose threads. I’m not even going to talk about 2007’s Xbox 360 arcade title, Wing Commander Arena. Just…no.

There would be no formal sequel to find out just what happened to Blair, to answer the questions left behind by the Nephilim, or even to revisit the trade lanes in a new Privateer. The year 1997 would also see the arrival of Ultima Online, shaking up the online world and giving EA another reason to streamline yet another venerable design house into doing only one thing as its coffers began to strain with the membership fees rolling in.

Origin Logo

Origin’s motto would soon become passe once Ultima Online was unleashed on the world as EA tightened its grip over the developer’s destiny as it had over so many others. Unfortunately, there’s no happy ending to this story.

As more resources were gobbled up by Ultima Online along with the last Ultima, Ultima IX, the odds for Origin revisiting the series were pretty slim. Lucasarts’ would also put its own space combat sim efforts on hiatus. The genre was also facing increased competition from the console wars and first-person shooters. The need to blow up bad guys in space on PCs seemed to be left behind for a bit until a little company named Volition stepped back into the market with their own revolutionary take on the genre in 1998.

I had high hopes for Prophecy and the deluxe box that it came in also came with the same idea. But for this armchair pilot, the end had already come a game earlier in WC4 with Blair teaching a new generation of potential wing commanders in the “good” finish.

Though Prophecy may have signaled the end of the galaxy with the arrival of the new bad guys, it’s also hard not to think of it…or to realize it…as being the final, muted swan song  to a series that had helped shape, inspire, and raise the bar countless times for space sim combat fans everywhere. It wasn’t the way I would have wanted the series go out on, though I also had too much fun over the years defending the Confederation from nav point to nav point for Prophecy to take anything away from that. Chris Roberts and company built a fine ship and, like many others, the next furball had always kept us looking forward to the next tour of duty.

Wing Commander Prophecy 1997

Now that the Kilrathi are done with and the Confederation struggles to find its place in the galaxy, time to unleash…an even bigger super race that also wants to wipe out humanity? Um, okay, I guess…

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