Wednesday 3 August 2022

Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger (MS-DOS)

Wing Commander 3 logo PC
Developer: Origin | Release Date: 1994 | Systems: DOS, Windows, Mac, 3DO, PlayStation

This week on Super Adventures, I'm playing Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger! Not to be confused with 80s hard rock anthem Eye of the Tiger.

With a title like that you might assume that it's the third game in Chris Roberts' Wing Commander series, but developer Origin had been been busy in the three years since Wing Commander II, producing three spin-offs. There was Wing Commander Academy, which was basically a mission generator for WC2, Wing Commander: Privateer, a space trading/combat sim along the lines of Elite, and Wing Commander: Armada, a strategy game with dogfighting. Oh plus there was 1993's Strike Commander, which doesn't have anything to do with Wing Commander except the name, dogfighting, and it being produced by Chris Roberts at Origin.

I've heard a few numbers for how much Wing Commander III cost, like $5 million and $10 million, but $4 million seems the most plausible to me. Either way it was apparently the highest budget video game ever when it came out, which is funny considering that it's a space combat sim. It really shows how much things have changed since 1994. Oh hang on, I've just done the research and it turns out that the highest budget video game of all time is currently Chris Roberts' space combat sim Star Citizen, which has raised $400 million.

The reason this game cost so much is because the series had progressed from floppy disks to four CDs packed with live-action full-motion video, with real Hollywood actors. The game was meant to be taken seriously and required some serious hardware to run, like a Pentium-based multimedia PC with a good SVGA video card and a double-speed CD drive, or a 3DO console. A couple of years later it got a release on the shiny new PlayStation as well, but no Sega CD or Amiga CD32 ports for this one. It almost got ported to the Jaguar, Saturn and M2 as well, but those versions were later cancelled... and not because the game wasn't selling well. In fact this was a massive success despite the fact that so few people had machines capable of running it well, and they were soon making a sequel with an even bigger budget.

SPOILER WARNING: I'll be playing the first few missions and I won't be spoiling anything past that, but these are story heavy space sims and you might end up reading something here you don't want to know about the first two games.

The game begins with a flashy pre-rendered CGI intro showing... credits. Two minutes of names. In widescreen! I suppose it makes sense though. The developer's goal with this game was to make it as cinematic as possible, like a movie where you fly the spacefighters yourself, and a lot of films still had these long opening credits sequences at the time.

But the names eventually end and then we get to see a pair of Kilrathi space fighters doing some incredibly risky indoor flying. Fortunately they manage to swoop around and park at the end of the arena without decapitating anyone in the audience with their wings or frying anyone with their engine exhaust. That's because they're much better pilots than I am... which isn't all that reassuring seeing as they're the enemy I have to fight.

Hey it's switched to live-action!

These are the Kilrathi by the way. They're a bit like the Kzinti from Larry Niven's Known World books (and also Star Trek): basically a race of giant space cats that really hate humanity. They hate them so much that they've been fighting them for three games now (plus spin-offs).

This scene really threw me off at first, as it starts off with a shot of the guy in the foreground wobbling his head and moving his lips, but then we see that it's the guy on the throne that's doing the talking. It's pretty clear what they're saying though: they caught a bunch of human agents on a covert mission and now they've got them prisoner in a spotlight. Or maybe the humans are just standing there because they don't have anywhere else to go.

Wait, these aren't the human agents. They've captured the Ghostbusters!

Being held prisoner by evil tiger people isn't an ideal situation to be in, but fortunately these guys are disintegrated live on stage so they don't have to worry about it for very long. One of the humans is getting special treatment however: Colonel "Angel" Devereaux. Hey, I know her from the other two games!

Prince Thrakhath is also back from Wing Commander II, this time played by a dude with a giant animatronic head and voiced by Lord of the Rings actor John Rhys-Davies. They've actually done a good job with matching up the movement of the actor in the suit with the prerecorded animation of the face, and the whole performance is pretty decent. Well, aside from the way the Kilrathi tend to keep their elbows by their sides when they move their hands around. The voices are pretty decent as well. Wing Commander II had actors competing to see how unnaturally deep their could get their voices to go, but they've put an effect over the sound instead this time and I think it works.

Thrakhath tells everyone that the human cannot appreciate the honour that he is about bestow her, so I guess it's one of those cat things that humans don't get. He also mentions that her lair-mate is the Heart of the Tiger (hey that's the title of the game!)

We don't actually get to see the final fate of Angel here, as one of the fighters flies across the camera, providing the editor with an excuse to give us a Star Wars wipe that matches its movement. We're left looking up at a planet in an alien sky, but the camera soon tilts down and I couldn't resist stitching the whole shot together into one image:

Wing Commander 3 Concordia
It's the the TCS Concordia: the hero ship from Wing Commander II! The previous game started with the destruction of the ship from Wing Commander, so I guess this is a tradition now. We don't actually learn what happened to it though. Seems like someone just backed it into an ocean.

I'm surprised at how faithful this is to the original design of the ship, even if they have scrubbed any trace of colour from the thing.

Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi (MS-DOS)
Here's what the Concordia looked like in the previous game. CGI had come a long way in three years! I'm not a huge fan of how the ship was textured in its first appearance, but I do like the idea of giving ships a bit of colour and I think it's a shame when spaceships are entirely grey.

The unnamed hero of the last two games is also on the planet, assessing the damage, so I suppose I should give you some pictures of what he used to look like too.

Well, okay he did have a name in the previous games, it's just that you were the one that picked it for him. You got to choose his callsign too.

Some of the ports had voices though, and the actors had to call you something, so Wing Commander 1 on the Sega CD named him "Hotshot" and Super Wing Commander on the 3DO went even further and called him Jason "Maverick" Armstrong.

This means Origin already had two names to choose from when they were making Wing Commander 3. Either way they couldn't keep calling him by their own nickname for him: "Bluehair".

So from this day forward, the hero of the Wing Commander games now looks like Mark Hamill and has the name Christopher Blair. They even went and made it the default name in the Windows 95 ports of Wing Commander 1 and 2 contained in the Kilrathi Saga pack. His first name apparently comes from series creator Chris Roberts and his last name is just Bluehair with the 'ueh' taken out.

Blair is a bit depressed about losing another ship and his buddy Paladin (played by John Rhys-Davies, again) is trying to cheer him up a little. Unfortunately Blair can't get any reassuring information about the fate of Angel out of him.

Now we're in Admiral Tolwyn's giant CGI office, with fascinating ray-traced shadows everywhere except underneath the actors. I don't know what's going on with the lighting here, but it's very dramatic.

Tolwyn is another returning character and he's the first person on screen so far who doesn't have much respect for Blair. He's stopped calling him a traitor to his face, so their relationship has improved somewhat since the last game, but he's reassigning him to one of the oldest ships in the fleet: the TCS Victory. It's a bit of a downgrade for Blair after serving on the Concordia, but at least he won't have to wear scuba gear in bed.

I kind of miss Tolwyn's moustache and cape, but they kept the white hair at least and they've definitely upgraded his actor. They got A Clockwork Orange star Malcolm McDowell for the role and he does a good job playing a moderately adversarial authority figure.

McDowell delivers a couple of lines a bit weirdly though. Like when Blair mentions that he requested information about Angel, he replies "Yes, that came as a bit of a surprise to me", with the emphasis on the 'me'. That might be more director Chris Roberts' fault, seeing as he'd never done this before.

Anyway, Tolwyn's not going to give Blair any information about his girlfriend, so Angel's status is still a mystery. He does tell him that the Confederation are making "positive strides" and that "things are looking up" though. Which is reassuring.

Cut to Blair sitting in a shuttle watching the news, with the reporter revealing that the war's going far worse than Confederation spokespeople want to admit, and talking about secret "Confed plans for a 'doomsday' evacuation of Earth". They're going to send people away in ships to replant the seeds of humanity elsewhere. Hey that's the backstory to Chris Roberts' 2003 space sim Freelancer!

Then we get to see the ancient TCS Victory for the first time, and it turns out she's got a whole fleet with her! Seems that there's been a bit of a visual reboot since Wing Commander 2, as these ships all clearly belong to the same navy, but they don't look anything like the vessels from earlier games. Though I suppose the Victory does have those prongs at the front with the hazard stripes on like the Concordia. Plus it's hard to see, but there's some patches of colour on it too.

The carrier in the first game, the TCS Tiger's Claw, had the registry number CV-07 and this is CV-40, so does that mean the original ship was even older than this one? I don't have a clue. All I know is that all the Confed ships now equipped with glowing blue squares facing forwards and glowing orange squares on the back, no matter how old or new they're supposed to be.

Blair's shuttle lands and he steps out onto the virtual set to meet Captain Eisen and his first officer Ralgha nar Hhallas (aka Hobbes). He's not just the only Kilrathi in Confed, but also the only pilot who wears an XXL-size space helmet. Though it turns out that Hobbes isn't flying these days due to the xenophobia of the other pilots, which really annoys Blair as he was his bro in Wing Commander II.

If you think I've shown too many screenshots of the intro, you're probably right. In my defence, it is 12 minutes long. But it's over now and it's left me staring at an empty shuttle bay trying to figure out what it wants me to click on. There's stuff in the picture but nothing seems to do anything.

Oh, I just had to move the mouse cursor to the bottom of the screen and that made the text "Go to FLIGHT CONTROL." appear. Awesome, I've solved the first puzzle.

Flight Control's full of things for me to click on, plus it's in 640x480 SVGA! I'm not 100% keen on when a video game uses a picture of a room as its menu screen, and you have to hover the cursor over everything to see what it does, but I found all the options in the end. I think. I even found a simulator hidden in the corner, which was in Wing Commander 1 but not its sequel.

I suppose I should click on Hobbes first before doing anything else. I'm not really looking forward to sitting through even more video right after finishing the intro, but he's here to chat to me and it'd be rude for me to just walk off without saying hi. Plus I want to see more of his weird arm acting, where he keeps his elbows against his waist to avoid giving away that he's actually wearing giant shoulder pads.

Also this will give me an opportunity to compare the quality of the video in the console ports. Click the arrows to cycle through them.

1 / 3
2 / 3
3 / 3
I'm not sure there's an obvious winner here, weirdly. These are all lossless PNG images, but the screenshot from the DOS version is dithered like a GIF and the PlayStation version has artefacts like a low quality JPG. The 3DO video is cleaner than the PSX video, but it's lost some of the detail.

Oh by the way, I took screenshots from both the VGA and the SVGA videos in the DOS game, and I was going to compare them, but it turned out that they're identical. It didn't even stick an annoying interlaced scanline effect over the top to fake a higher resolution at the cost of making everything darker. If you want that you'll have to play the Kilrathi Saga version I guess.

You might be wondering why I didn't bother putting the effort in to capture the exact matching frame from the PSX game. Well, I tried but it didn't seem to be there!

It looks fairly slick in motion, but this is only playing at 15 frames a second. The live-action footage was filmed on video instead of film, so I expect that they recorded it at 30 fps and then dropped half the frames. The different versions didn't necessarily drop the same frames however.

Also look at that amazing animatronic head! I think that looks legitimately good, especially compared to the aliens Star Trek: The Next Generation was putting on screen at the time. They made a wise choice not going with CGI here. They also made a wise choice in hiring John Schuck to provide Hobbes' voice, as the guy's awesome.

Blair has managed to get his old friend back on the flight roster and believes that he's grateful about it, but Schuck puts enough ambiguity into his performance that I'm not sure.

Wing Commander 3 main terminal menu screen dos pc
I checked out the Main Terminal next, which turned out be the game's main menu screen. It lets me save the game and change the settings etc. so I have the option to turn off the transition videos that play every time Blair moves between areas of the ship. Movie directors learned a long time ago that no one wants to see scenes of characters opening doors and waiting for lifts, but video game directors were still figuring this out.

The PlayStation game features a mysterious button here that the PC game doesn't have, labelled 'news', so I'm going to see what it does.

Oh it shows a news report! Okay then. I have no idea if you get a different clip after every mission, but this is a nice extra feature. I presume it was dropped from the PC game because the rest of the video already takes up 4 CDs.

Here's another unique feature the PlayStation game has:

Wing Commander 3 PlayStation loading screen
Loading screens between different areas! Complete with an Xbox 360 ring of LEDs for some reason. They don't stick around for long, but they're kind of draining my enthusiasm to go explore the ship and talk to everyone.

Fortunately the PC version's a lot quicker about it. Though unlike earlier games I can't just visit the whole ship from the barracks screen. Here I have to go to the lift first. Which means waiting for the lift first.

Oh hi Rollins. Have I mentioned how much I like these uniforms yet? They look nothing like the uniforms from the other two games, but they're a definite improvement in my opinion.

Alright, that map on the right side of the screen lets me move between the Flight Level, the Living Level and the Bridge Level, and each floor has an extra screen that I can visit when I get there. First though I should probably have an awkward elevator conversation with Rollins.

Rollins echoed what the reporter said about the war going worse than Confed claims, then time froze and these two options appeared on screen, giving me an insight into what's going on inside Blair's head right now. Just highlighting an option makes Blair reads it out, so an indecisive player would get to hear "Play along with him... this guy's a loon... play along with him... this guy's a loon..." as they flipped between them. In fact I imagine everyone does that, because it's funny.

It's a bit like the Paragon and Renegade system from the Mass Effect games, as if I pick the option at the top Blair says the thing that'll make him happy and if I pick the bottom one he'll be more of a dick. The difference is that there's rarely any benefit to being a dick. In fact the Kilrathi Saga version mixes up the choices a bit so you can't just pick the obviously right top option in every conversation.

Being nice to people usually improves their morale a little, which apparently affects conversations in some way. The most obvious consequence is that it plays a different bit of video for the second half of the conversation. This is actually a big step up from the first two Wing Commanders, which had zero dialogue options. Anyway I was nice to Rollins and then clicked the button to travel up to the Living Level.

I arrived just in time to watch Hobbes walk in from next door, and another pilot immediately getting up and walking straight out. Seems like the only story in the game right now is Hobbes not having many friends. But hey look at all this real furniture in here! In fact I think the floor might be real as well for a change.

When I got control back I was left looking at the same screen, except I only had the one pilot to click on: Vagabond, played by François Chau. He played Dr Pierre Chang in Lost and Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze! Anyway I had a chat and picked the top option, and he seemed happy about that. I'm making friends all over the ship today.

There are two other things to click on in the Rec Room: the kill board, which was missing from Wing Commander 2 (Vagabond's in the lead and Hobbes has 0 kills), and a door to the Berths. Not much going on in there right now, but I was able to watch a hologram message from Angel by clicking on Blair's locker. The game's really making it clear that she's at the front of his mind right now.

Plus it's also making it clear that people really don't like Hobbes.

On the Bridge Level I ran into Maniac, played by Tom Wilson from Back to the Future, and it's immediately obvious that he's Blair's rival. The two of them have known each other since Wing Commander 1 and they don't get on, as Blair is a by-the-book kind of pilot and Maniac's callsign isn't ironic. Wilson does a great job in the role however, making him a semi-loveable douche. No dialogue options this time though.

The way I'm going around the ship chatting to people and getting bits of story isn't quite like Wing Commander 1 or 2. The first game had a couple of pilots in the bar I could listen to between missions, but it wasn't so dramatic. The second game basically had a 'play cutscene' button between missions and that's it, but there was more of a story going on. This has the talking to pilots and the story combined.

I also almost got to talk to Flint, but Blair was told to report to the Briefing Room over the PA system just as the cutscene started. That's fine with me as the Briefing Room is the only place I haven't visited yet.

Wing Commander 3 briefing room
I'm glad they were using green screen backdrops instead of blue screens or else all the characters would've been floating heads right now.

Blair's been called in to be briefed on what we're doing on the next mission (basically just flying a patrol through three Nav points and then returning to the ship). In previous games Blair got his mission briefing while sitting with all the other pilots, but he's been promoted to CAG so now he's the one who gives the pilots their orders!

Though he's really just passing on what Captain Eisen just told him, so the cutscene skips all that and goes straight to letting me pick my wingman for this mission. This time I have a choice between Hobbes, Hobbes, Hobbes or Hobbes. I suppose Blair would've been a real dick if he'd gotten Hobbes back on the flight roster, promised he'd fly with him, and then chose a different wingman.

Alright I've waited long enough (about 20 minutes) and now it's time to finally fly some space fighters!

Oh hang on, I can chat with Rachel first, and I probably should seeing as she's the one who keeps my space fighters flying. Turns out that she's heard I'm flying with Hobbes... and she's actually fine with that! So that's good.

Rachel is played by actor, model and porn star Ginger Lynn Allen, but it seems like they hired her for her 'actor' skills. Sure a few of the lines they gave her could've been delivered with a wink, but she's not hamming it up in a tight costume like the actresses in the Command & Conquer games.

Fun fact: I've had one of her lines stuck in my head since the first time I heard her say it. It's something like "You're prepped, primed, loaded, locked and ready to kick some ass." I don't know why that's been lodged in my brain all these years, I'm usually really good at forgetting things, but it doesn't seem like I'll be free of it any time soon.

Alright this is what I'm flying for this mission: a F-86C Hellcat V. For once they haven't stuck me in the lightest piece of crap fighter to start with. Though it does seem kind of light on curved surfaces. This is definitely a low-polygon vehicle designed to perform well in both pre-rendered cutscenes and real time 3D graphics.

Wing Commander 3 loading screen
And now there's a loading screen that owners of any version of the game can enjoy! I've heard that on a low spec 486 it used to take actual minutes to load the space combat part of the game, though in DOSBox it disappeared so fast I could barely even register the Batman '66 reference at the start.

I'm going to be very disappointed, by the way, if this doesn't match what the screen on the actual cockpit looks like.

It does match! That's a beautiful looking cockpit by the way, I love it. There's an option to hide the cockpit to increase visibility but I'd rather carry on looking at it to be honest.

The previous games had the launch sequence as a cutscene, but here it's letting me take off all by myself. Fortunately most of the buttons seem to be the same. I'll start by increasing the throttle and... well okay that's pretty much it, the ship doesn't have a 'retract landing gear' button or anything like that.

Alright, first things first: I need to turn this fighter around so I can take a good look at my carrier.

Wing Commander 3 PlayStation Victory
Hey it looks just like it did in the video earlier! This is the PlayStation version, but the graphics seem to be basically identical to the DOS version. The only differences I can spot are that I can see into the hangar here (it's replaced by a flat texture in the PC game), and they've taken my cockpit away!

It's a shame it doesn't support the Dual Shock so if you don't have a joystick for your PlayStation you have to fly it with the D-pad. Plus the other controls have been mapped to a mess of awkward button combinations. It's not all that intuitive to be honest.

Alright, I kind of expected the PlayStation to have the polygon pushing power to handle a DOS game that predates 3D accelerators (even if it couldn't quite match the SVGA resolution), but can the more humble 3DO actually pull off Wing Commander 3? 

Well, kind of. They've simplified the carrier to have a lot less polygons, to the point where there's no hangar at all and you launch in a CGI cutscene, but it's still basically the same ship and the frame rate seems okay. I'm just glad I can still fly up close to it without it turning into a fuzzy cloud of giant pixels like in the previous games.

The 3DO has even less buttons on its controller than the PlayStation, but somehow it feels a bit nicer to control. There's also a 3DO joystick you can use if you don't want to struggle with a D-pad.

I decided to lower the detail in the PC game to see if the ship turned into this low polygon model, but it turned the textures off instead, which I guess makes sense. Texture-mapped polygon graphics like this were cutting edge in 1994 and it's one thing the game had over its rival Star Wars: TIE Fighter, which had been released six months earlier.

TIE Fighter (MS-DOS)
TIE Fighter's most advanced trick was Gouraud shading, which smooths objects out.

But TIE Fighter has one thing Wing Commander has never been able to match: a second radar which shows what's going on behind you. In fact it's rare to find anything with a second radar and I always miss it when it's absent.

Wing Commander 3 options screen
There are some other interesting options in here, like invulnerability, but I think I'll leave things as they are for now. I've definitely got no need to check out what the harder difficulty settings are like, though I am glad they've finally added some skill levels to the series.

Alright one more screen and then I can start shooting things already.

Wing Commander 3 Nav screen
Hey they've made the Nav screen 3D now! I can spin it around and stuff. Not that it makes any difference.

This is a map of the entire level I'm flying around right now. Missions involve flying to each of the circles, doing whatever task needs doing (in this case destroying all enemy fighters), and then returning back to the Victory afterwards. It's not especially complex. In fact it's best to leave the 'flying to each circle' part up to the autopilot, because it skips all the waiting around.

Alright, I'm pressing 'A' to switch on the autopilot and I'll see what happens.

Wing Commander 3 Hellcat V cockpit
There are enemies at Nav 1!

Fortunately I remember the routine. The first thing I do is press 'C' to switch the left screen to communications, then I press '1' for Hobbes, and then '2' to tell him to "Break and attack." The second thing I do is kill all the enemies.

Every ship in this game has an ITTS feature that puts a green target up to tell me how far to lead with my shots, though I'm having a bit of trouble pointing my fighter where I want it. I remember the game being a little awkward with its controls even back on a real DOS machine, but DOSBox doesn't seem entirely fond of my Xbox One pad. It'd help if the other enemy fighter would stop shooting me in the ass!

I broke away then swung around to put the other red dot in the centre of my radar and give my pursuer a turn at being the pursued... while Hobbes instantly killed the enemy I'd been struggling with. We teamed up to kill the second one, the AUTO light came back on, and that was it for Nav point 1.

Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi (MS-DOS)
Here's the previous game for comparison. One thing that's gotten an upgrade with the shift from sprites to polygons is the ship design. They can be asymmetrical now!

Though aside from that, Wing Commander 3 is very similar to its predecessors; they haven't messed with the gameplay much at all it seems. Plus space is still dark blue and there's still next to no gap between the crosshair and the cockpit. It's like they don't even want me to see the enemy fighters! The insults are back too, which I found out when one of my opponents yelled "You pathetic descendant of monkeys!" at me, before exploding. 

Though the first two Wing Commander games have a fantastic dynamic soundtrack that builds up tension, lets you know how well the fight's going, and rewards you for every kill, and Wing Commander 3 is a bit of a step down in that department. I thought it was a lot of a step down at first, but then I realised that the ports sound alright and it's just my DOSBox version that's not great for whatever reason. It's not an issue I had with the Kilrathi Saga version either.

Anyway, I pressed 'A' to autopilot to Nav point 2, but no one was there so I just hit the button again until I reached the next dogfight. This is basically how missions go. You press 'A' until there's something to shoot and once it's shot you press 'A' again.

Enemies have shields that you have to wear down before you start hitting the hull, but it doesn't necessarily take much time at all. Provided your shots are landing on target, which mine generally aren't. I like how you get a little video clip from the other ship in the left VDU screen by the way, especially when they're calling to say "AAAARRGHHH!" They're just monochrome green on the DOS version, but I think that adds to the charm.

Wing Commander 3 landing
I got another little clip when I reached my carrier and used the communications screen to request landing clearance. Captain Eisen leaned in over Rollins' shoulder to tell me that my reputation's well deserved. I guess I have a reputation for Hobbes carrying me through fights.

Hang on, why's the carrier upside down? I can see all the other fighters sitting on the ceiling. The autopilot's gone to the trouble of lining me up for landing, but I'm going to be parking on my roof if I fly in like this. These spaceships don't steer like jet fighters, I can't roll by pulling left or right on the stick, but I'm sure there must be a way to do it.

Alright, that's mission one completed, about 36 more to go I think. It took me about five minutes, and I spent the first minute and a half of that screwing around and taking screenshots before I hit autopilot, so missions aren't necessarily all that long.

The first Wing Commander had a scene like this after every flight, while the second game mixed things up a bit. It seems like WC3 is going back to the classic routine. Though hang on, isn't anyone going to mention how many kills I got? In the other games when I finished a mission someone would tell me how well my wingman and I did. In this all I get is Rachel saying "Pretty slick flying, sir," and she's only saying that because I got my fighter home without any giant holes in it. She doesn't know how much I actually sucked in that fight.

First thing I need to do is save my game, then I need to go everywhere on the ship and figure out who I have to talk to before the briefing room door will open for mission 2. Sometimes I can skip the story and just start the next mission but not this time.

It'd help if I didn't have to go to every room in turn just in case someone's in there. It'd also help if I'd turned these bloody transitions off already! No one needs to see Mark Hamill waiting for a CGI lift to arrive more than once in their life. Or at all.

I went to the Rec Room and found a pilot called Vaquero sitting there and no sign of Vagabond anymore. Out of curiosity I decided to see what would happen if I restarted the game, went straight to the mission 1 briefing without talking to people, and then went to the Rec Room after the mission. Turns out that Vaquero and Vagabond were both there and I didn't miss out on any conversations. I even got the scene with Cobra walking out when she sees Hobbes (in fact it won't let you into the briefing for mission 2 until you've seen it).

I had a chat with Vaquero where I got to make another choice (I told him it was okay to have dreams of opening up a cantina), and then I had a chat with Cobra in the Berths where I didn't have a dialogue choice.

If it had given me an option I probably would've picked the one where I didn't tell the woman sharpening a knife who keeps calling Hobbes "it" that sooner or later she'll have to fly with him. Blair says it in such a "Well these things happen, what can you do?" kind of tone as well, like he's not the one who forced him back onto the flight roster.

Seems like my tour of the ship has paid off as all the pilots I've met so far are now available to fly as my wingman (I can only pick from the five at the front, the others are just extras there to fill up the room).

I wasn't able to choose my own wingman in the other games, so this is a new feature. They don't have special skills or anything like that, but they do apparently have different personalities and strengths, and the more I use them the more their morale increases. Unless I get them killed, which is a definite possibility.

Hobbes has already had a turn so I'm going to fly with... Vagabond this time. Even though he's weirding me out by standing absolutely still.

Hey I get to choose my fighter and missile loadout now as well!

There are some beautiful and distinctive fighter designs here and they look nothing like the fighters from the earlier games. Actually I think the Arrow first appeared in Wing Commander: Armada, but there's nothing from Wing Commander 1 or 2 here. I guess technology evolves pretty fast when you're in a war to prevent the genocide of your entire species. Though it would've been nice to have some feeling like the games are taking place in the same setting.


In the end I chose to fly an Arrow for mission 2 and it turns out it has a different cockpit! I'm not sure I like it as much, but it's still pretty good and I like it when a game gives me some variety. Anyway, I pressed the autopilot key a few times, Vagabond killed everyone, and then we went home.

I was able to contribute a lot more in the 3DO version though and I had more fun doing it weirdly. The PC and PlayStation versions feel like a step beyond what the first two games were doing, while the 3DO feels like only half a step, but it makes it work. You don't have to lead targets in it, just point right at the badguy, so it's less work to rack up kills whether you're using the D-pad or the joystick.

I headed to the Rec Room after the mission and this time I found Rachel sitting at the bar, staring at the specs for a new F-103 Excalibur fighter. It's weird seeing her dressed up in blue like the rest of the characters for a change.

Word is there's a test pilot flying in and she's hoping she can get her hands on his machinery (she's fond of her dirty double entendres). This is cool, because it's a sign that a story might be developing. Wing Commander 2 got straight into the drama, but this is still introducing me to people and sending me on disconnected and plotless jobs so far.

My third mission will be to escort a cargo ship to a jump point so it can make an FTL jump to another system, so that's different at least. I've got some fond memories of escort missions in space sims, and by 'fond' I mean I've got -
"Mission-critical craft, under attack!"
"Mission-critical craft, shields down!"
"Mission-critical craft, hull condition critical!"
"Mission-critical craft, destroyed!"
"Abort mission! Mission a failure!"
- burned into my mind after hours of TIE Fighter. I really don't like it when my mission-critical craft get destroyed.


Wing Commander 3 Arrow cockpit
No, you do not go anywhere near the ship I'm escorting, you piece of crap Darket! Where's Maniac at? I brought him along as my wingman this time because I figured he'd be so annoying that the enemy fighters would target him instead.

I've been doing better in combat by holding the button down and aiming the stream of pew pew pew into the enemy's path, but it's really depleting my weapon energy, and that takes time to recharge. I could redirect some power from the shields or repair systems into weapons, but the power system is so awkward that I can't be bothered. They already had this figured out in X-Wing a year earlier! There is an easy way to make weapon energy disappear faster though, as I can tie the different guns together so I'm firing them all with each pull of the trigger.

Apparently losing this particular mission right near the start of the game will soon put you on the first of many off-ramps leading to the road to inevitable failure. The story branches and there's no way back. A lot of the other missions you can get away with failing, you can still find your way to the good ending afterwards, but not this one. Of course it doesn't tell you you're on the losing path.


And now mission 4 has me protecting another transport from a single tiny missile... that can go invisible. While I'm also being shot at by a wing of enemies. I don't even know how to shoot down regular missiles yet, what the hell Wing Commander 3? Worse this happens at Nav 2 so I have to replay the dogfight at Nav 1 every time I screw up. There are no mid-mission saves or checkpoints.

It doesn't help that the controls have really given up on me this time. I mean it wasn't great before, but now the joystick and keys are barely turning the fighter and it's jerky even when I resort to mouse control. Probably a DOSBox problem.

The mouse controls are a bit like its spiritual successor Freelancer, as I'm moving a cursor which my ship turns towards. The difference is that in Freelancer the cursor is also where the guns are pointing, while this has separate red crosshair showing me where they're facing (and another one telling me where to aim at). So I'm moving an orange cursor to drag a red crosshair over a green crosshair and that's actually trickier than you might expect. I keep moving the cursor over the green crosshair instead. In Freelancer aiming at enemies is so easy that you have to wear them down with a constant stream of damage, while in this every hit is a struggle.

Wing Commander 3 funeral
Against all odds I managed to survive being shot up by several fighters while trying to stay on target and shoot the missile, but then the missile went invisible and blew up my transport. The game had enough compassion to say "UNABLE TO REACH MISSION OBJECTIVES" to let me know right away that I failed, so I flew into the corvette that fired the missile and got myself blown up too.

The game gave me the option to replay or continue, and by that it means 'retry', not 'watch an instant replay of your absolute failure'. I decided to continue and watch Blair's funeral though, because I wanted to see if they still had everyone standing outside in spacesuits like in the old games. No spacesuits this time, but they still have the folks firing rifles into space and they've attached a rocket to the back of Blair's coffin to speed things along.

Well that's one way to end the movie (I got end credits and everything), but there has to be a way to beat this mission. I mean it's mission 4. On normal difficulty.


Wing Commander 3 Thunderbolt cockpit
Okay I looked it up and there's another way to save the transport from the cloaking skipper missile: blow up the corvette before it can fire it. For this I need to fly the Thunderbolt, so here's a third beautiful cockpit for you. This fighter's slower but it's more heavily armed, and I can make up for the lack of speed by hitting the afterburners.

I hit a snag right away: my bloody afterburner key has decided to stop working. Another DOSBox issue I expect. I learned that I can double-click the right mouse button instead, but that's not an ideal solution as while I'm holding it down I can't turn anymore as it doubles as the roll button. Moving left and right just makes the ship spin.

Anyway, I hit the afterburner, flew in range of the corvette, and then let my own one-shot ship killer torpedo fly! But it turned out that I was too late and the corvette had already fired its cloaking missile, so a few seconds later my transport blew up and I lost. And that's when I rage quit!

Funny thing is, it doesn't even matter if I win or lose this mission, I still move onto the next one either way. As far as I know winning here doesn't actually change anything. But I am going to win.


I figured out the secret to taking down the skipper missile: play the Kirathi Saga version instead as the controls work just fine. Also the port itself is running fine in Windows 10 so far. Fingers crossed.

Alright my fleet has made an FTL jump from Orsini to Tamayo, the second star system in the game, and it seems this system has its own plot going on. An ace test pilot called Flash has just dropped by with his advanced prototype Excalibur starfighter, as foreshadowed earlier, and he's being a bit of a dick. He's young, arrogant, and he won't let Rachel take his spaceship apart.

But what's really bad is that we're out here flying to defend the Victory from a surprise Kilrathi attack, and there's no sign of Flash. I found out after the battle that he's just lying in his bunk, and Blair is so pissed off that he doesn't even wait for my dialogue options to come up. He went over and kicked the bed to wake him up, then called him a coward!

Blair's a very by the books kind of guy, not a rule breaking maniac like Maniac, but Rachel offers him the chance to steal the Excalibur and take it on joy ride during the next mission, and the cutscene is leaving the choice up to me this time.


Wing Commander 3 Excalibur
So here I am flying the Excalibur! She's the most powerful and the prettiest fighter in the game. In fact she looks so good that I couldn't start the mission until I'd pressed every key on the keyboard trying to find this camera mode. Then I had to hit them all again to find the button to turn the camera around.

The Excalibur has auto targeting weapons, which makes dogfighting a lot less of a pain, and is generally an unstoppable instrument of destruction.

Wing Commander 3 Excalibur cockpit
Even the cockpit looks more advanced. I love it. Well okay it looked better without all the cracks on the VDUs, and the radar looked better when it worked, but I like how things out in space are distorted by the damage to the cockpit window. Yes somehow I managed to get the ultimate prototype superfighter damaged, I'm just that good. On the plus side, Flash is the one who's going to have to explain all this to Tolwyn afterwards.

I completed my objectives and autopiloted back to the Victory, where I was met by a very angry Flash. He gave me the option to take him on in a simulator duel, and I figured that's exactly the kind of morale boost the crew needs. Plus it'll wrap up the Tamayo story with a happy ending when I win.


Of course I got my ass kicked the moment I stepped into the simulator. Continually. Because Flash is an ace and I'm a guy who's googling for the key reference card to learn how to fire anti-missile decoys. Even when I survived his initial onslaught, he's such a slippery and erratic little bastard that I couldn't land enough hits quick enough to get him through his regenerating shield. So I had to load my save and try again.

I used every trick against the guy: selecting all missiles and firing them at once, using the autoslide to fly backwards, nothing worked. In the end I got sick of it, put the brakes on and just sat there waiting for the inevitable. Though I figured I might as well fire at him while he was charging at me, and his ship somehow got wrecked first. Success!

The Flash plot ended with him losing the bet and requesting a transfer to the Victory to join my pool of possible wingmen, then the fleet jumped from Tamayo to Locanda. So I actually got some closure before I turned the game off. I didn't get to keep the Excalibur though sadly.

There are basically three kinds of video game sequels. There are the ones that are so similar to the predecessor they're basically a long expansion pack (Sonic 2, Doom 2). There are the trailblazing innovators that throw out old traditions to come up with something new at the risk of pissing off existing fans (Resident Evil 4, Grand Theft Auto 3). And then there are the ones that take advantage of newer hardware, iterate on the gameplay, and try some new ideas, but don't rock the boat all that much. Wing Commander 3 definitely belongs to that last category.

The first Wing Commander was a cutting edge space shooter with narrative interludes that demanded the latest hardware to run like it was meant to, and Wing Commander 3 was the same thing, just four years later. It doesn't try to reinvent the wheel, but it does give you the most advanced as and expensive wheel available. It's got live action cutscenes with actual actors and animatronic aliens, it's got elaborate CGI cutscenes, and it's got texture-mapped 3D space battles. Even the most powerful game consoles had to make some compromises to get it running.

Here's something crazy about the game however: it only ever has 256 colours on screen, just like Wing Commander 2.

Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi (MS-DOS)
It looks so much better though, because it doesn't use one palette for the entire game. You are stuck with 320 pixel wide scruffy 15 fps videos of actors on obvious green screen sets, but honestly that kind of adds to the charm for me. Plus if they'd used SVGA resolution video it would've been on 16 CDs, and if they'd doubled the frame rate it would've been up to 32 discs.

The use of live-action FMV really pins it to a specific era that lasted just a few years in the middle of the 90s, but I was surprised at how normal the game felt. I mean, it's not uncommon to find a modern game where you go out to do a bit of gameplay, then come back home to chat with NPCs. Games these days use real time 3D animation for their cutscenes, but it's not all that different walking around the ship and chatting to the crew in this than it is in a Mass Effect game. Well, except for the way that you return to the ship for more story much more often.

Interactive movies got a bad reputation quickly as they tended to be low budget trash with terrible actors, but the acting and writing in this is fine, and it's got a decent cast. It's a bit of a shame that you get one choice to make every three or four conversations, and it's usually between "Be a dick..." and "Don't be a dick..." but it's hard to complain when it's a huge step up over the zero choices in earlier games. I'm definitely not complaining about cutscenes being skippable (unlike in Freelancer). Your actions during combat affect the story as well, but in more of a 'you failed to protect a random cargo ship five missions ago so now you're on the losing path' kind of way, so that's less good.

The leap in technology means that it's basically a live action sequel to a cartoon series and the visual style has been updated to match. Well, more like entirely reimagined. The series has never had great visual continuity, but aside from a bit of the Concordia sticking up out of the water there's nothing of the old Wing Commanders here. I was hoping they'd bring the theme back at least, but nope. I suppose it's using the same logo. The 'Stop' font returns.

It's not a huge step forward in every department however. I'm sure the combat has been improved and the AI is smarter, but this is only a minor evolution of Wing Commander's gameplay. It's got the same kind of mission types, you're still flying between Nav points and dogfighting with cats at various stops along the way, and combat is very familiar. The genre had gotten more crowded since the last game was released and this feels kind of archaic next to X-Wing and TIE Fighter's complex battles. Plus firing slow-ass lasers at erratic enemies can get a bit frustrating. Especially if you keep getting blown up at Nav 2 and need to replay Nav 1 over and over. Sure you can change tactics so you're not just chasing the enemy fighters around trying to get a hit, but I like chasing enemies around! As least I haven't run into any asteroid fields yet.

The combat music is a bit of a step down as well I reckon, though only because the original Wing Commander's soundtrack was awesome. I really wasn't impressed at first, but then I realised that the tunes are fine, they just didn't sound great in my DOSBox set up.

Here's how the different ports compare:

When you're on the Victory it's basically the same game, except for lower resolution rooms and (arguably) better looking videos. Outside the ship however it's pretty different, with lower detail models, reworked missions and more arcadey gameplay. It's much less of a pain to get your shots to connect with enemy fighters, though you do have to remember some button combinations, even if you're using the 3DO Flightstick Pro. There are a few extra videos but you miss out on the ground missions. Not a huge loss.

It's very faithful to the PC game and the system has the power to pull it off. Well, aside from the SVGA resolution and the missing ground missions. There's no Dual Shock support, loading screens punish you for exploring the ship, and the controls are awkward, but you get a few extra videos and different video quality. I've read that the video sound is mono, though I wasn't really listening out for it.

Kilrathi Saga:
I wish they'd included this Windows 95 version with the GOG release, as I actually had more luck with it than I did playing the DOS version in DOSBox. It's still got the same graphics, but the controls worked for me, the music is much improved, and the videos were smoother (though also interlaced, unfortunately).

Wing Commander III's never been one of my favourite games, but to me it feels like it's exactly what it was meant to be. Sure if they had more money they could've built some sets, but it's basically the Hollywood version of a Wing Commander game. Nothing more, nothing less.

I wouldn't keep playing it for the gameplay, but I'd hang out with Maniac and Captain Eisen some more, so I think I have to give this my 'not crap' star:

Thanks for reading my words! I'm sorry that there were so many, but I've found that sometimes writing is hard and writing less is even harder.

If you've got anything you want to say about Wing Commander III then you're in luck because I've got a box down there you can fill full of text. The time for your opinions is now.


  1. That next game has an Amigaish look to it!

  2. You need to set the game to “General Midi” for music when you load the game in DosBox. There should be an option to go to Dos settings when you first open the program. That will fix the music issue 👍


Semi-Random Game Box