Monday, 10 December 2012

Retro Rehash - Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger

From the opening full motion sequence I knew I was in for something special with Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger.  Whether it was the appearance of Mark Hamill, the movie style dialogue or just the thrill of seeing Luke Skywalker with a moustache, I'm not sure.  It was likely a product of all three.  But in any event I had found my newest addiction, the fix for which I would spend hours pining and then many more hours strapped to my chair with a bucket over my head and a badly painted starscape mounted over my monitor. The third installment in Chris Robert's Wing Commander series, Heart of the Tiger was released way back in 1994, arguably the golden age of space sims and chronicles the story of one Colonel Christopher Blair (Mark Hamil).  Having been raging for the past thirty years the war with the Kilrathi Star Empire is going from bad to worse as the Confederation is pushed to the breaking point.  Stationed aboard the TCS Victory, you and your rag tag band of misfits, lunatics and xenophobes must help to stem the tide and turn the tables on the Kilrathi, while forming lasting friendships and animosities, all of which are rendered in full motion video.  Now I know what you're thinking.  FMV's are bad.  They're awful.  They're the product of all that is evil in the world, they may even have links to Fascism.  But to this I say, you're right, just not this time.
"I'm an actor, a real actor.  I'd give that Red Alert Tanya a go mind you."
With a huge budget, a professional screenplay, A-list actors such as Malcolm McDowell, Jon Rhys-Davis, and Tom Wilson Heart of the Tiger is possibly the only example (minus Wing Commander 4: The Price of Freedom) of a well blended FMV/Game experience.  For while that other game of FMV fame Command and Conquer can claim the use of FMV's, they're more tongue in cheek and not of the same calibre.  Wing Commander is meant to be a movie and a video game while C&C is a video game with FMV components.  Anyhow, I constantly found myself hankering after the next cutscene, the next character interaction.  For much like in the far newer Mass Effect series you can get to know and develop friendships with your crewmates.  The dialogue options are boiled down to two responses, such is the complication of acting out every branching conversation tree, but it demonstrates how detailed Chris Robert's creation really was.  These weren't just characters who you blindly followed, you had choices, you decided how things panned out.  And this was way back in 1994.
The Arrow: A need for speed!
Kilrathi Strakha: Stealthy SOB's.
So having gushed over the FMV's lets move onto the meat of the game, the combat.  As otherwise we're just watching a film, a very good film but a film none the less.  Simply put, it's excellent.  From the cockpit design, the selection of both enemy and allied star fighter models and the actual learning curve when pacing your weapons fire to strike the enemy, it's all very impressive.  I particularly enjoyed being able to strafe the hangar deck or hull of an enemy carrier in the Arrow, it's slide ability allowing you to deal maximum damage along a capital class vessels entire length.  It makes for an extremely cool and immersive experience, taking both skill and balls of steel to pull off without getting vaped, especially when one misstep will find you buried in a bulkhead or crashing into a parked Kilrathi fighter.  I did that a fair few times and ended up sucking hard vacuum, for all the two seconds it would have taken my fuel cells to ignite and incinerate my body.  As we've come to expect from our space sims the array of commands and controls available are all in attendance, from being able to order your wingman to cover your ass or shunting power to those rapidly weakening shields.  Nowadays, well in more modern games such as Starlancer and Freespace we take these as a given, but it's always worth remembering how seminal Wing Commander was.  How much like Half Life it defined an entire genre and what we as gamers expect as standard.  If you play Heart of the Tiger just like any other game you'll still love it, but taken as a benchmark in video game history you can appreciate its nuances all the more.
Prepare to die... Again.... And Again.
So we've had the worship, the fanatical displays of sacrifice to Robert's creation and now it's time for the harder truths.  The wee failures here and there.  The first and most striking to me, perhaps due to a modern perspective more than genuine flaw, is the feeling of repetitiveness.  This is far more prevalent in the earlier parts of the game as the story slowly builds up a head of steam, as without a definite direction to be following it begins to feel like you're jumping all over the place, blasting some bad guys at various way points and then buggering off.  As the game progresses this does abate, with more capital class ships being thrown into the mix and missions linking more tangibly with the overall story.  For while protecting a convoy of freighters can be fun, it doesn't plug into the experience in the same way as punching a hole through a Kilrathi blockade as to allow the Victory to escape.  Maybe I'm being picky as blending FMV's with game play seamlessly is doubtless difficult, but then again some greats do take their sweet time getting going.  The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Babylon 5 and the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers to name but a few.  That show had less than nothing before Tommy showed up, and then we got nothing but gold.  It should also be noted that on any given mission you can only take the grand total of one wing man with you.  This in itself is a bit limiting, especially given the general incompetence of some of your co-pilots, (cough, Flint).  As I mentioned above however, this could be a failure of the time as we've come to expect super-high-class rendered-bullshit powered multiplayer in our games.   It'd be nice to have a little more backup though.
As always with any review you have to straddle the line between being informative and giving away every detail which defines what you're reviewing.  It can be hard, for how else are you to get people to understand exactly how amazing or truly terrible something is without being specific?  In such a vein I can say only this about Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger.  In my humble opinion it is one of the greatest games I have ever played, and I don't say that lightly.  Granted the only other game I've played is Cricket Revolution, but I learned a lot from that experience.  Some of which can only be properly analysed with the help of a seasoned mental health professional.  So there you go, slow starter, excellent game play, movie style cutscenes.  It's an instant classic.  Now play it.

And just in case you're still unsure, heres a trailer that will blow your socks off.  Or at least mildly impress you.

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