Turning the page back a bit, Origin’s high-flying aspirations didn’t always target space as the final frontier for their technical expertise. Chris Roberts had also wanted to bring the same kind of action to the nape of the Earth with a game called Strike Commander way back in 1993.
Strike Commander envisioned a dystopian future where corporations and governments waged covert wars against each other using legally deniable assets like mercenaries. The world that Chris Roberts and his crew put together was an exceptional piece of alternate history, the kind of stuff that you could probably build dystopian RPGs around for a nice PnP tabletop session or two. It wasn’t exactly cyberpunk, but if you threw in a few chrome limbs and implants, it would be just as good a setting.
Like with 1990’s Wing Commander, Strike Commander had also included a faux magazine integrated with the manual that laid out the characters of the game in interviews spicing up the flavor of its world. Ads colored by its atmosphere were inserted within its pages and it also had a great section that outlined the alternative history of the title’s backdrop as a “feature story”.
And it’s a pretty elaborate backdrop. The game begins in 2011, though the years before your arrive on the scene at that point were pretty rough. The United States’ economy had collapsed in 2000, petroleum is in short supply because of devastating wars in the Middle East during the nineties, and the IRS has been empowered to become something of a private army tasked with reclaiming all taxes owed to the Government by any means necessary even if it requires invading those states that have seceded from the Union. Or other nations.
Corporations have begun fielding their own private armies to protect themselves from the IRS, and each other, as the race for resources continues to rage across the globe. Rampant nationalism in Europe has created a simmering cauldron of conflict. Mercenaries are even more valued, and better prepared to take on the growing list of lucrative contracts fielded by corporations looking for a little protection, and Turkey has agreed to allow diplomatic immunity to these legally murky mercenary groups that want to call the country home. In exchange for 10% of their profits, of course.
Business is booming and mercenaries are also often able to field their own squadrons of multi-million dollar jets to the highest bidders. F-16s, F-22s, missiles, you name it…the game was loaded with a real-world arsenal of deal breaking ordnance. If a bank wants to reclaim a hyper-elite credit card from an ultra-wealthy client protecting himself with an array of anti-air defenses, it’s just another day on the job. This is how your world works as a mercenary working for Stern’s Wildcat’s. The Wildcats are unusual in that their boss, James Stern, only accepts contracts that guarantee no civilian casualties creating a sort of “moral” standard for his mercs. His rival, Jean-Paul Prideaux and his Jackals, will just get the job done regardless. You can guess where that’s eventually going to go.
Strike Commander boasted “two years of intense software development” using its RealSpace system which the ad below touts as the “industry’s most advanced technology”. Coming off of Wing Commander 2, I thought to myself that this would be just as fun and run just as well on my PC. What Strike Commander delivered instead was the “Crysis Effect” for the 1990s – tech so bleeding edge that even “standard” machines couldn’t run it well even when all of the features were turned down.
The game recommended a 486/33Mhz machine to run on which I had at the time. But 486 machines also came in two other flavors: SX or DX. SX machines were missing the floating-point unit on the chip allowing for certain calculations which were instead performed using software. DX had the FPU integrated onboard. Everyday users probably wouldn’t notice it, but in a title like Strike Commander, performance seemed worse. You can guess that I had the SX version, but even so, there have been others recommending a DX2/66Mhx box to run it even reasonably well at the time which was a little past what the box asked for. Upgrading my SX chip to DX also cost a pretty penny, somewhere in the neighborhood of several hundred bucks. And that’s just the chip running at roughly the same Mhz. So you can imagine that not a lot of people had these state-of-the-art boxes just to play a game with.
Also, these were still the good ‘ol DOS days, so manually altering system files was all a part of wanting to play the latest and greatest games. Squeezing every byte out of 640K needed you to have a modicum of memory ninjutsu or a handy boot-disk made to load as few things into that space as possible just for one game. And even then, there was no guarantee that it would even launch. HIMEM.SYS, DOS=UMB, DOS=HIGH…all of these arcane words were religiously checked over to ensure that the PC gods would smile on your efforts. CD-ROM drivers were also an arcane science at the time and could just be as migraine-inducing. It was easy to lose peripherals thanks to a fudged key. And then there were the settings for your different memory managers.
Even after going through this gauntlet of adjustments, Strike Commander still needed the raw power of a good processor to fly smoothly which it didn’t for me no matter how much I tried to get it to work. I even had the Speech Pack (sold separately) but couldn’t enjoy any of that when the gameplay moved at 5 FPS in heavy combat.
I wasn’t the only one that felt this way as some of the reviews at the time reflected. No doubt, Strike Commander was a technical marvel and the graphics were quite nice in stills, but it completely missed the point of making the best use out of what most people were using at the time. The lesson that Chris Roberts had learned before embarking on Wing Commander of making the best game for the best hardware at the time had really pushed the envelope.
Despite Strike Commander’s flight-sim aspirations which supported rudder pedals, ‘sticks, and had cockpits so detailed that you might want to build one of your own around your desk, it didn’t fare well enough for a sequel. As for dogfighting, I usually felt lucky enough to take down a plane or two given the performance of the engine. Part of my disappointment was also probably because I had expected it to play just as well as Wing Commander, only in the skies. After that, I decided not to fight the game anymore and shelved the thing.
The game did get an expansion pack that added more missions and planes along with the aforementioned Speech Pack, but that was it other than the CD-ROM release later on. Since it ran on PCs that a number of people likely didn’t have at the time (nor could be convinced to spend thousands of dollars just to get one to play one game), Strike Commander quietly slipped into the backdrop of gaming history as a “could-have-been” which was too bad. I liked the fiction behind the game a lot and would have liked to have seen it again. Even the economic aspect of not splurging your missiles because it could eat away at your outfit’s ability to stay afloat was an interesting twist.
Strike Commander seemed poised to go head-to-head with the likes of 1991’s Falcon 3.0 which sported flat shaded, polygon backdrops and planes but boasted cutting edge realism on a desktop. By giving it an arcade slant like the Wing Commander series and then plastering it with luscious graphics, it seemed like the perfect solution to getting players that may have never wanted to page through Falcon’s instructional tome to get a piece of the sky themselves. In that respect, it seemed more interested in pitting itself against Lucasarts’ Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe from 1992.
The ad below shows off the juicy visuals that Strike Commander wanted to spoil everyone with, but which few could actually run well. Just as Crysis’ initial performance issues became a running joke for months after release as players rhetorically wondered if the newest X-Hardware would be able to run it, I wondered the same about Strike Commander even after getting a Pentium a few years later.
The RealSpace engine would be revived in 1994’s Pacific Strike which took the Wing Commander formula into the Pacific Theater of WW2 allowing you to actually change events. Later, games like 2000’s Crimson Skies on the PC, Namco Bandai’s Ace Combat series, and Secret Weapons Over Normandy in 2003, would fill the kind of void that Strike Commander attempted to storm years earlier. It was a game that was literally too far ahead of its time, but the ideas and technical concepts it brought to the table were also on the minds of other designers eager to break down the intimidation of a flight sim with brilliant effects and the easy feel of simplified controls turning anyone into an ace.