Wing Commander IV – The Price Of Freedom – In-depth Review And Journey
A very passionate video review of Wing Commander IV is on my YouTube if you'd like to see it in action.
My favorite video game series of all time is a tie between Wing Commander and Might and Magic. Two extraordinarily different games but forever burned into my mind. I first experienced Wing Commander as a 6 year old child with the Commodore Amiga release in 1991. I watched my father play, ever engrossed in the gameplay, the music, and your incredibly detailed crew members. I played it myself, not getting too far but loving the entire experience. I invented entire dramas with myself and my friends. Using my collection of Match-Box like toy airplanes, I lived Wing Commander. My friends were my wingmen, we had briefings and we launched from a carrier. Sometimes we succeeded… Sometimes they died… hahahah.
I did not experience Wing Commander II as a new game due to us hanging onto the Amiga. There was little thought to other computers at the time because plenty of great stuff came out on or was better on the Amiga. The notable exception for me was Wing Commander II. I remember my dad reading in a magazine that it was unlikely to get an Amiga port and that made me incredible sad. No game struck me as strongly as a child like Wing Commander. I was a child that had the privilege of having an Amiga, an incredible machine ten years ahead of its time. I had a father that was on that very machine playing incredibly detailed games. But I also had the joy of having an NES, Gameboy, and Genesis. I loved Mario and Sonic and spent countless time on them.
Wing Commander was on a whole other level. I knew from the first moment the intro scene started that Nintendo and Sega couldn’t touch this game. It forever burned into me the idea that console games might be fun, but computer games were an experience. Fast forward to 1995 and our first PC came with Wing Commander III. This game was my very first experience with figuring out MS-DOS. This experience would be better left for a WingIII review but I wished to convey just how much this series excited me. Due to my sister getting in a car accident we had to return this PC along with WingIII… Ripped from me before I had completed it.
It’s 1997 and we’ve got a new PC, my dad went and bought Wing Commander IV after a Windows95 patch had come out for it. My dad never did like dealing with DOS even if he did understand the basic concepts. There was just too much that could go wrong, too many configurations. WingIV was developed and released for DOS. It featured (according to manual and confirmed through screenshots) SVGA 640x480 thousands of color movies along with 640x480 256 color gameplay. I always have to note DOS games with thousands of colors because it was a very rare thing indeed. Unfortunately the thousands of color movies are let down by the unavoidable (in DOS) forced “fake interlace”. In order to speed up the movies the designers made the decision to default the game into an interlace mode, putting very obnoxious black bars every other line, essentially making the game 50% faster by taking out 50% of the information. WingIII featured a command to get rid of the interlace while WingIV took that ability out… Well… Until the Windows95 patch…
^Windows95 Patch Notes
Several features were “added” for Windows95. I am of the firm belief that the majority of these should have been in the DOS release but were intentionally left out with the idea that there would later be a Windows95 release. No interlace, joystick throttle support, “faster” with the use of Direct-X… As a person who first experienced this game using Windows95 I do believe firmly that the game is best experienced using DOS. It ran a little too fast with Direct-X, the entire game just “feels” better in DOS. Other than interlace, which is unfortunate, but I’d still rather play in DOS.
Taking place after the war with the alien cat like Kilrathi race had ended in WingIII, WingIV pits you against mankind itself. It features a fairly intellectual politically based story involving the Earth based Confederation being harassed by the Union of Border Worlds which claims the same is happening to them. The player, Colonel Christopher Blair (played by Mark Hamill), has settled down with the life of a farmer after the Kilrathi war. Admiral Tolwyn (Malcolm McDowell), a major authoritarian figure in Wing Commander II-III, personally reinstates us to active duty. We’re to act as his eyes and ears and figure out what’s going down before the future equivalent of congress votes for or against war.
^On Confed's side you fly from the TCS Lexington with one of two fighters
The first half of the game is spent on the Confederation carrier the TCS Lexington. As with all Wing Commander games to this point you’ll play your standard patrol/escort/strike type missions. Unlike other games to this point the roster feels very light. You have essentially three true wingmen to choose from for the first half of the game with many other “fakes”. All the other games to this point featured wingmen you not only flew with but were a minor or major part of the actual story. Wing4 puts many filler wingmen that will never be seen in any of the movie sequences into the game. It feels like they were acted in the gameplay screens by whoever was “in the office” that day. It’s pretty bad. It makes me feel like I’m not connected to this ship.
^All 3 of our storyline Wingmen from Confed
Perhaps a reason for this is the plot element of Captain Eisen defecting to the Union of Border Worlds. You can make a choice to either go with Eisen or stay with Confed. One of many “choices” that are not truly choices. Like many of the full motion video scenes which pause to give you input on how it should proceeded, your choices mean very little most of the time. In the end you feel there was never a choice. Yes, we can stay with confed a little while longer but now we only have one wingman that is a part of the story. Every scene makes it so obvious that you made the wrong choice in Chris Robert’s (creator of Wing Commander) eyes. You will again face a choice of going to the Border Worlds or staying with Confed… Only this time if you stay with Confed your carrier is on a timer to be destroyed no matter what. In other words we had no choice, we could only go to the Border Worlds. This is what Chris Robert’s wanted, and this is what you will have to do.
Now I’m perfectly fine with the story of this game. The drama is intense, it is absolutely the best acted full motion video game that ever existed. My problem is there are good scenes and missions you miss out on by choosing to go in one direction or the other when in reality you’re always coming back together. Most choices in this game are a very black and white, you’re good or you’re evil. Grey areas are very few and far between and I believe that’s a shame considering the story that is being told. If the choices are you’re good or you’re evil than I should be able to play a truly good or evil campaign. I should be able to stay on the Lexington with Seether (a bad guy) and crush the people that went to the Border Worlds. Depending on your good and evil actions there is an altered ending that also makes it so obvious that the games designers are slapping you in the face and saying “Really? That’s how you think the game should end? Go do it again you asshole!”
I feel Wing Commander IV is shortened by its attempt to offer these choices that aren't really choices. The game would have been far more enjoyable and longer had all of it been incorporated together, and it most certainly could have been. I remember beating the game in less than a week, despite both my father and I getting stuck on one particular mission. This was the first Wing Commander game I beat. I had an utter blast along the way and it’s what made me beg my father to buy the Kilrathi Saga (Wing1-3 for Win95) when it came out. I spent the rest of my school aged life playing Wing1-5 in constant rotation. I’ve played them all well over one hundred times. I love the games. I feel the series is so well loved that only fans of it should be able to offer criticism really. I read through some of the contemporary reviews of WingIV at the time of release and none of them are worth reading. I weep that there was ever a time when people got paid to make cynical reviews of games they suck at/don’t understand/don’t give a shit about. Reviews should be a medium for those with passion, never for those looking to make money.
^Gameplay screens, launching from TCS Lexington and an escort transport to space station mission
Passion I have. WingIV is a great game, but it could have been better. Besides the before mentioned movie scenes with choices that aren't really choices we have the actual space flight gameplay. Wing Commander 1-2 had no difficulty settings, you simply either won or lost based on how good you were against what the designers felt you should be up against. Wing III offered an options mode that included skill (and even an invulnerable) settings. The default was “Ace” and I feel the game is very well balanced on this mode. Wing III on “Rookie” mode was an incredibly easy experience. I feel WingIV had its difficulty altered with the idea that “Rookie” mode should be harder, and thus made the default mode of Ace even harder.
In all other Wing Commanders, despite what some pilots might say, your guns are the most important part of your ships weapons. Missiles can be used to make life easier but they rarely kill anything, and the same can be said with missiles that hit you. WingIV feels more like many fighter plane simulators in the best way to kill or be killed is through missiles. This can be “sort of” fun when you’re launching missiles at a bunch of enemies and boom they go… I’m telling you it becomes extraordinarily frustrating when you’ve completed most of a mission only to run out of decoys and be guaranteed a death because one missile hits you. I believe the designers of WingIV were taking X-Wing comparisons way too seriously and sadly made the gameplay much more frustrating than it needed to be. I don’t mind dying because I screwed up along the way, or I couldn’t achieve the mission objectives… But I cannot stand dying simply because there are 10 enemies against 2, one of them got a lock on me, and I’m out of decoys.
Your actual wingmen seem much smarter in this game. It feels like it’s because they’re cheating however. More times than in any game previous you’ll be faced with a kill that was most obviously yours but your wingman is going to take credit for it. Despite this it feels like the first Wing Commander game where they actually provide you with some help. Cheating or not when you send them off to break and attack they will go off and they will get a couple kills. They always felt rather useless in the other games. I would even feel “afraid’ to send them off in Wing Commander and Wing Commander III because they could easily die and you’d be without them in the story from that point on. Nobody dies in WingIV unless it’s scripted, so the worst that will happen is they will eject. That can be a good or bad thing depending on your point of view.
^Two of the ground missions marking an exceptional graphical improvement over Wing Commander III
As in Wing Commander III there are again ground missions in WingIV. They look a thousand times better than their WingIII equivalents. In WingIII the ground missions felt unfinished and rushed. They were 3D grey polygons for the most part. Wing Commander pioneered texture based graphics. They used 2D sprites in a way to make people “feel” like they were seeing a 3D image back in Wing1-2. Finally in WingIV they managed to implement texture mapping onto the 3D polygons making the ground missions look and feel so much nicer. There is even minor physics tweaking in the form of automatic ship role, though gravity does not exist.
^Typical black and white or good or evil interactive movie choices
The game is great at making you think there are “branching” mission paths. Wing Commander has successfully kept the idea that it offers branching story and missions since the first game, even though the first game was the only game that offered such a thing. In Wing1 every mission could be won or lost and depending on which ones were won or lost you’d play a different set of missions. There was the winning path, the in-between path, and the losing path. You could be on the losing end but climb your way back up to win, or be winning and a set of failures bring you back down to lose. Of course you’d miss out on so many good missions once you learned how to beat the game, but while you were learning it offered an experience unlike any other. Wing IV attempts to make you feel like there are branching missions but in reality it’s very minor. I feel WingIII had more branching in terms of missions. There is only one true branching choice in this entire game I feel. You can choose to go to one system and save a bunch of civilians engaged in a civil war (be the good guy), or you can go to another and raid some confed stashes (be the evil guy). Both sets of missions are great missions that you want to play. But you could get the bad ending by not saving those civilians. “The choice is clear. Innocent people are being wiped out…” is what one pilot tells you. Indeed, morally speaking the choice is clear, gameplay wise there is no reason we shouldn’t have been able to play both sets of missions. The “evil” path even gets you new weapons and ships to fly.
^Defecting to the Border World's gives us a new carrier and 4-6 new fighters to fly
Speaking of ships; for the first half of the game with Confed you have a grand total of TWO to fly. The Hellcat and the Longbow, both fighters from Wing Commander III. It’s not until you defect to the Union of Border Worlds where you get a brand new set of 4 planes to fly. Half of the game is done at this point and it it’s very hard for you to “feel” like this is a new Wing Commander game when you’re playing with the same ships from the last game using the exact same game engine. They also left out ships from WingIII like the Arrow, the Thunderbolt, and the Excalibur. All ships that will fight against you at some point in this game but which you’ll never be able to fly. The new ships are mostly fun and you’ll probably find your favorites. As mentioned before there is a ship you can fly if you go down one set of missions that has an Excalibur kind of feel, I feel it’s the 2nd best ship in the game.
^ The Dragon is the best ship in any Wing Commander game
You will also eventually get to fly the Dragon, which I believe to be the best fighter in any of the Wing Commander games. The Dragon has everything. Speed/shields/guns/torpedoes… Everything. I’ve always felt Wing Commander made a terrible habit of sort of naming inside of the game what fighter was “the best” and yet I never felt those were really the best. Wing1 says it’s the Rapier, I think it’s the Raptor. Wing2 says it’s the Sabre, I think it’s the Broadsword. WingIII says it’s the Excalibur, and it is… But it lacks torpedoes making certain missions very annoying with that ship. It might be the best but you’re not always going to want to use it. The Dragon is most certainly the best ship in WingIV and it’s the first time the series ever made “The Best” ship obviously the best.
^New people to meet, old people to mourn
Once on the side of the Union of Border Worlds things start to feel like a new game. You’re meeting new people, new pilots that are in the story. You have a mechanic to joke around with and discuss ships. The story gets filled with ever so much more drama. Friends die, others live, it’s a joy being on this other team and yet a confusing time as well. Captain Eisen eventually leaves the ship on a mission to tell his friends in Confed the truth about who’s behind all of this (people inside of Confed) and leaves you as acting captain. You’ll learn of a disgusting biological weapon that uses nano technology to “select” who should die and live. In a very stealthy and heart pounding mission you’ll stumble across the headquarters to “The Black Lance” the organization causing all the havoc. You’ll find one known bastard and one old friend there. Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn was behind everything.
^We find the Black Lance's HQ, along with some old friends...
Maddened by war, perhaps a little butt hurt that his weapon didn’t destroy the Kilrathi in WingIII, Tolwyn is on a mission to keep mankind fighting at all costs. He’s convinced we will someday face an enemy far worse and we must be prepared. Blair understandable looks on in utter shock. I can’t say I ever liked Tolwyn. I’ll never forgive him for saying “I know the destruction of the Tiger’s Claw was YOUR fault!” in Wing Commander II. He has always been an utter asshole to our character as well as everyone else around us. He was played magnificently by Malcolm McDowell in Wing3-4, and you’ll love to hate him, but hate him you will. It was shocking seeing how far he went but it was very believable. He was portrayed in a much nicer light in the Wing Commander novels, causing many fans to be disappointed at this plot turn. Not me, I played the games and I read the books, I’ll always go with the games.
^Launching the Flashpack against the Admiral's carrier
Besides the aforementioned computer controlled bio-weapons the Black Lance are also using a small UFO looking thing called a “Flash Pack”. This is a weapon much more powerful than a torpedo that essentially burns everything from the inside out. You’ll come across one of them and can choose to use it against a star base, killing many innocent people but making one of the hardest missions in the game much easier, or using it against Tolwyn’s carrier later during a chase to Earth. Despite destroying his flagship of course he’ll get away and that’s when the final mission begins.
^The final mission, destination Earth
In terms of gameplay this is the worst final mission in any Wing Commander game. There’s no massive installation to destroy, no bomb to deliver… There is a “boss” fight with Seether but he’s an utter pushover, I’ve never had a problem with him on Ace mode. And it’s a terrible laugh on lower difficulties. There’s a star base that can be destroyed or slipped by and that’s pretty much it in terms of actual gameplay. All other Wing Commander games did it better.
The final mission is not the end of the game however. Having made it to Earth it is now your job to convince congress (called the Great Assembly) that Admiral Tolwyn (promoted to Space Marshall during this scene) is full of shit. This is the choose your own adventure style interactive movie at its “best” or perhaps its worst. In a very long movie scene you’ll be faced with many choices. How you answer is what will determine the assemblies vote. Most of these choices are fairly black and white, again, just use your common sense and you’ll win. There’s one glaring exception however. The very first option is when you first come into the hall and Tolwyn is getting a round of applause. You can choose to “seize the moment” or to be “careful, fools rush in.” Both of these are fairly reasonable thoughts, a “grey” area, as it were. Finally we get something grey, something many of us could have a valid different opinion on, but what happens with these choices?
If you choose to seize the moment you’ll start screaming that Tolwyn is the cancer that needs to be cut out. He screams for guards to seize you and you plead with Paladin (now a senator) to hear you out. “If any man has earned the right to a hearing, it is Col. Blair. Let him speak.” Understood, we’ve been through a lot with that man. But what if we chose to be careful because FOOLS rush in? You stand there for an extra second or two, Tolwyn sends the guards to seize you, you again plead with Paladin. However, this time he bangs his gavel and says “REMOVE THAT TURNCOAT!” Really? An extra second of waiting and not screaming that Tolwyn is a cancer is what made you go from “If any man deserves the right to a hearing it is Blair” to “GET HIM THE FUCK OUT OF MY FACE!”?
The one grey area is the one time it’s win or get killed. I feel it was put in there as a deliberate attempt to make a whole hell of a lot of people choose the wrong answer in order to make it feel like your choices REALLY matter… No, all the rest of the choices are obvious, this one was not obvious and now you’re making everyone replay the mission again… What are some of your other choices in this segment? Oh there’s “Attack Tolwyn” or “Tell them more.” You can tell them about his “Secret, unmarked fighters” or the “Bio-weapons.” Obvious “no shit Sherlock” answers. Upon winning the game you are greeted with one of two “good” endings, losing the game will also give you a losing ending. The losing scene involves Tolwyn launching a massive attack against the Border Worlds and you being sentenced to death by firing squad. The winning scene will have Tolwyn hang himself and either you becoming a flight instructor (good) or an Admiral yourself (bad).
^Two possible "good" endings - Left, the flight instructor - Right, the Admiral
I utterly adore the interactive movie genre of games. Not just Wing Commander which has superb acting from its main cast. I like a lot of the cheesy interactive movies like Night Trap or Phantasmagoria. It’s just a fun genre in my eyes, even if they’re bad, they’re so bad they’re good. The final scene in Wing Commander IV is the best acting you have ever seen from Mark Hamill. At the very least with no doubt in my mind it’s better acting than ANYTHING in Star Wars. If there were separate categories for academy awards that dealt with acting in computer games both Hamill and McDowell deserved awards for this scene alone, as well as the entire game. But I always felt the choices were very much like a choose your own adventure book. How many of you have ever actually read those things? You pick the wrong answer and you’ll probably die. Maybe there are a couple different endings but the good “chunk” of the book is written with one path in mind. How much more could we have been treated to had so many unnecessary choices been cut and filled with something we all wanted to see?
^Final kill board tally - I believe the larger amount of kills was from the "evil" playthrough
Overall I feel Wing Commander III is the best game in the series. It perfectly blends gameplay with interactive movie elements, the story is great but the gameplay does not suffer. WingIV’s gameplay does indeed suffer due to the attention spent on the story. However, it was the most expensive game ever developed to that point (12 million dollars), they shot it on 35mm film (my God I wish those CIC assholes would get to finding and restoring the master, it should look incredible), and it stars some very well known actors. This might not be the best overall Wing Commander but it is the best story that was ever in a Wing Commander game. It’s the best acting ever in an interactive movie. It’s what made so many people say “Interactive movies suck… Except maybe Wing Commander…” This is an absolute classic of a game. Some reviewers at the time lambasted the large cost, too much story, whatever, then they gave a shitty soccer game that nobody plays today a half star more. What terrible judgment. This game will live on forever regardless of if you think there’s too much story there. It is a one of a kind game and there will never again be something like it. It’s a game everyone must play before they die. You might not like it, but any student of history must play it.
Speaking of games you must play before you die, in my video review of Wing Commander IV.
I did a little shoutout to Gaming Jay.
He has an interesting hook in that he’s playing games that were recommended in a book called 1001 Games You Must Play Before You Die. Books like those I can’t really stand. They always have the author’s particular console/computer/country bias and I feel far too many “must plays” from back in the day in terms of adult computer players are utterly ignored in favor of the children playing NES games. When a computer game makes the list I always feel it’s because the author felt he “had to” not because he actually liked it. However, I very much enjoy Gaming Jay’s trek through the games recommended in the book. He’s got a lot of gaming memories (which I love) to share and I would love for others to check him out. He has stated to me he will soon release his own Wing Commander IV video which I will link when completed.