At the end of the Kilrathi War, Colonel Christopher Blair, hero of the Confederation, hung up his pressure suit for a life of farming on a distant planet in a seldom travelled corner of the galaxy. But the hard won peace is uneasy. The border worlds at the edge of Confederation control are reportedly attacking innocent civilian vessels and Confederate ships are being fired upon without warning. Once again the Confederation Senate stands on the brink of declaring war.
The Confederation, in it's hour of need, reaches out once again to its most accomplished fighter pilot, the man the Kilrathi once dubbed "The Heart of the Tiger". Colonel Blair is re-drafted and in no time, is back aboard the Confederation's finest new carrier, ready to do battle with the enemies of peace. Colonel Blair soon finds that this latest struggle is unlike the Kilrathi conflict. The enemy this time is within and the struggle for supremacy more deadly than before.
Wing Commander IV is an epic adventure of unparalleled dimension. Six CD ROMs stuffed with 3.6 gigabytes of the best multi-media, interactive entertainment since Under a Killing Moon puts this game way ahead of its competition (for the moment). The interactive genre has reached a new high point in Wing Commander IV. To cover the possibilities of its branching story line, Origin creators have produced over 70 missions (compared with 50 in Wing Commander III) of which you will fly about 35 in a multi-session game. Professional actors used 38 movie sets and recorded hundreds of scenes to cover all the possible player reactions to the on-screen dialogue. The final film footage on the six CDs comes to more than four and one half hours!
The same cast of primary actors from Wing Commander III make return appearances in Wing Commander IV. Top billing once again goes to Mark Hamill as Colonel Blair and Malcolm McDowell as Admiral Tolwyn. The Kilrathi unfortunately did not dispose of Todd "maniac" Marshall (played by Tom Wilson) but at least you get the chance to wax his tail in the opening sequence, just to remind him who's boss.
In this latest episode, Origin have boldly stepped away from the style of previous Wing Commander games. As Mark Hamill said in an interview about Wing Commander IV, the previous games were all based on a load, fly, fight formula. Wing Commander IV involves far more character interaction and demands more of the user in terms of thinking through plot options and mission strategies. Hamill raises the thought that over the years actors have trained for theatre, film, television and may now need to consider the interactive computer game as yet another form for the profession. He in particular, seems to be enjoying a big surge in popularity through the medium.
Technically the game has a lot of new features and provided you have the hardware to run it properly, the results are amazing. See the platform specifications below, but to my mind, without a fast 486 (DX 4 preferably) or a Pentium 60, with 16Mb of RAM and a quad speed CD player, you won't get the full enjoyment this game has to offer. The soundtrack is now fully 16 bit digital (no more MIDI sound) with Dolby surround sound! Even I think that's taking things a bit too far. The graphics engine has been completely re-engineered to give fast frame rate performance on high end 486s without sacrificing the quality and all video is 16 bit quality as well. The standard installation requires about 26 Mb of space on the hard drive, but I found that unless you were prepared to load all game playing files, object files etc, the game ran sluggishly. In the end I loaded more than 60 Mb worth of files onto the hard drive and still had a few problems. I am sure the residual jerkiness during game play was because the game was accessing files from a compressed hard drive. With a full installation on a high end 486 with an uncompressed hard drive, I'm told the game plays like a dream (and so it should).
The improvements in graphics at SVGA standard are excellent. Fighter and Capital ships have been retextured for a cleaner, more realistic look.
Missile firings, explosions and space effects such as wormholes, shields etc are much improved. The interface design for changing ship loadouts and picking crew assignments have been completely reworked. One major disappointment for me is that no longer is there a cockpit view from inside Confederation fighters. Wing Commander IV provides a clear screen view with a very sophisticated Head Up Display (HUD) instead. This takes some getting used to, but the HUD is well designed and once it has been mastered, it is easier to use than the previous instrumentation layouts.
New missions involving atmospheric flight over alien landscapes are a real buzz. On one mission I was required to take aerial photography of three enemy bases. Unfortunately, in order to activate the camera you have to turn off the guns, leaving you largely defenceless. Of course, as soon as your ship approaches the target, enemy fighters come swarming out of the skies to cut off any escape. By hitting the afterburners and keeping just above the ground, it is possible to use hills, ravines and other ground features to lose your followers and mask the effectiveness of their radar and other tracking sensors. In most other cases space flight missions are very similar in technique to previous Wing Commander games. Targeting, tracking, communications and navigation are all the same, except for the improved graphics.
At some point it is probably worth asking the question about whether computer gamers want to play in "interactive movie" games requiring such powerful hardware resources. Current trends certainly beg the question of where this technology led push will stop. My view is that Wing Commander costs little more than its three CD predecessor, or the multiple floppy disk versions that preceded the CDs. With a multi-path or branched story line and a buffer of more than 30 mission options, this game can be played over and over without replicating the same combination of games. From a value for money perspective, Wing Commander IV is unquestionably a bargain. If you possess the hardware to run it successfully, then I think the total package will impress even the most jaded gamer. If you don't possess the hardware, well, there's always Tetris!
Wing Commander IV. The Price of Freedom.
6 x CD ROMs
Interactive movie/space flight adventure
For the month of May, BitStorm in the Canberra Centre will sell Wing Commander IV to PCUG members on presentation of a current membership card for $97.00.
Suitable for ages 15 and above.
Wing Commander IV requires an Intel 486 DX4/75+ MHz or Pentium processor with double-speed CD-ROM drive. A digital sound board: Sound Blaster, Sound Blaster Pro, Sound Blaster 16, SoundBlaster AWE32, Pro Audio Spectrum, Roland SCC-1, Rap10, Ensoniq Soundscape, Gravis Ultrasound, Gravis Ultrasound Max or 100% compatible. Graphics supported: 256-color VGA or SVGA (VESA driver required for SVGA play). RAM and HD Storage Requirements: 8 Mb RAM; minimum 30 Mb hard drive space, maximum 60 Mb.
(Out of a possible maximum)
For the time being, Wing Commander IV is at the top of the pile. The video sequences, game play, terrain mapping, object artwork and background sets deserve nothing less than a perfect score of 5.
The bad old days of MIDI music scores are gone, replaced with fully digital 16 bit soundtracks during game play and video sequences. Add Dolby surround sound and Wing Commander chalks up another first in the industry technology stakes.
To achieve smoothly scrolling game play will require an uncompressed drive, about 60 Mb of hard disk space, plenty of RAM, a fast video card and a fast CD player.
The game provides enormous variety in mission types, strategies, ship and weapon combinations, character interaction, plot, story line and much more. At the end of some nights I had played this game so hard, my eyes felt as though they were sticking out on stalks. This game is addictive, be warned.
Low level animated violence.
The box comes with a booklet on installation options and troubleshooting, a very well presented handbook covering the ships and weapons available in the game, plus a journal to bring you up to date on all that happened since the end of the Kilrathi war.
Ease of Installation
The instructions provide detailed guidance on installation options for DOS, Windows 3.x and Windows 95. As a Windows 95 user I naturally tried that option first. Unhappily I could not get the game to work after a great deal of frustrating effort. In the end I rebooted from Windows 95 to DOS, did a straight DOS installation and the game ran without a hitch. My advice? Continue to run even the latest games from DOS. It seems there are still some bugs to be sorted out between Windows 95 and the latest crop of so called Windows 95 compatible entertainment software. Why am I not surprised.
Value for Money
Six CD's, 3.6 gigabytes, four and one half hours of cinema quality video, 70 missions, full digital soundtrack and weeks of heart thumping action ... do I have to say more?