Review: Wing Commander Saga
Developer: Wing Commander Saga Team
Genre: Futuristic sim
Released: March 22, 2012
Like a lot of classics from the 90’s, I didn’t play any of the Wing Commander games. In fact I’ve avoided flight simulators for most of my life. The ones I have played ended up being boring, tedious, and monotonous. I’ve yet to come across any flight sim that is the opposite.
The truth is that I came this close to playing a Wing Commander game over 15 years ago. I had a friend who got one of them – might have been Wing Commander 2 or 3, I’m not sure. It didn’t work and it was summarily taken back to the store (back when stores actually took back PC games) and he got Duke Nukem 3D instead. And I can’t say either of us regretted the decision all that much.
But seeing as I saw this freeware indie title for absolutely nada, I figured I owed it to myself to check it out and to make up for all the years I had heard of the original series and yet hadn’t ever had the pleasure of playing those games.
Events in Wing Commander Saga: The Darkest Dawn take place just before Wing Commander 3. The battle of earth has been waged, and at this time the Terran Confederacy, charged with the defence of what’s left of the human race, is losing the war against the Kilrathi Empire, invading aliens who don’t like people too much. Step in to the cockpit of the protagonist 2nd Lieutenant David Markham, callsign Sandman, who is a rookie pilot fresh out of flight training school. He and whatever remains of the Terrans must face overwhelming odds and do what they can to stop the human race from being completely wiped out; becoming extinct.
As I mentioned above, Wing Commander Saga is a freeware title that had been, up until 2012, in development for several years – development started after the source code for Freespace 2 was released, in fact. Seeing as Wing Commander is such a cult classic, this game is obviously highly regarded by fans of the series, with a score of 9.7 on moddb.com (at the time of writing this).
And upon firing it up it isn’t too hard to see why. Right from the intro to the interactive main menu and more, this game screams high production values. I’ve seen less impressive presentation from most commercial games – even recent ones. Overall, it boasts a full length campaign, The Darkest Dawn, with 55 missions, all varied in theme, plus a prologue campaign that acts as one big tutorial to get you to grips with all the controls; voice acting (even some professionals lent their talents for a total of 10 hours worth of dialogue), pre-rendered cutscenes, and other impressive features.
All this results in a download weight of 3.3 GB, and an installation size of 8 GB, which in total makes it bigger than several current commercial titles.
But after starting a new campaign, one starts to see a few (black) holes in the product. Forgive me if this turns in to more of rant than a review from this point onwards. I was instantly transported in to a carrier – a rather large spaceship. There were no tutorials; no instructions. I had to figure out most of the controls just by fiddling around on the keyboard. And playing this game with the keyboard, it must be said, isn’t much fun. It’s too jerky and unresponsive (this can be rectified by downloading and installing the patch, which at least allows mouse control, but the best way is to get a joystick, I would imagine).
Anyway, I digress. Orders came through from my somewhat arrogant, condescending wingman, and we were to fly to the first navpoint (navigation point), which took about half an hour. All in all, it took 2 hours at least to reach the end of this rather simple recon mission with maybe 2 dogfights in it against the Kilrathi, the main enemy in the series (basically cats with beards). When it came time to land back on the TCS Hermes, it was nowhere to be found, forcing me to abandon the mission, lose all of my progress and waste literally most of my Saturday afternoon. It was only later on that I discovered the autopilot feature – a saving grace if I’ve ever encountered one – which cuts down on time spent in-mission drastically. Apparently there was a time compression control in this game, that was present in Freespace 2, the game on which this is based (basically making it a total conversion, but standalone), but it was disabled because it played havoc with the missions.
After I worked up the nerve to try the game out again after much of my frustration had dissipated, I found myself at a completely different main menu than the first one after a few mouse clicks, and after starting a new campaign, I found myself in a completely different mission. This time it was the tutorial mission, which would have saved me a lot of confusion in my first outing in WCS. This is where I learned that there are in fact two campaigns, but this wasn’t ever really made clear at any point besides being printed in the readme file that accompanied the game after installation. It was all a bit confusing and the layout, if I’m honest, could have been better and took a bit of getting used to. This is one of the possible pitfalls of having an interactive menu – because it caters to a whole different audience (those with a sensory disorder or ADHD, probably) and makes us regular folk, who rely on text, look a bit mentally challenged. This is probably why so few games rely on it.
Saga isn’t very beginner friendly, then. While the tutorial campaign is well put together and helpful enough, and you have the contextual help menu (which you will refer to very often in game by pressing F1), other than that you are chucked in the deep end a bit. You get a full flight manual in PDF format, which is probably only second in size and impressiveness to the massive book that accompanied Homeworld (a game Saga personally reminds me of, except in first person) – the average gamer isn’t going to wade through all that. The game relies too much on your assumed knowledge of past games in the original series – of which I know relatively nothing – forcing me to rush over to Wikipedia in order to get an education.
This is a game that although doesn’t belong to one of my preferred genres I should like. It ticks most of the right boxes. It won’t wow you graphically, but it has tremendous atmosphere and charm, being in space in a spaceship – even I have to admit that is pretty cool.
Upon starting the game, it will automatically configure your graphics settings. Make no mistake, this game might look dated at times, seeing as it is, let’s be honest, based on technology that existed in the late 90’s, but it does require quite a beefy rig, and you’ll notice this during some cutscenes and large scale battles, where this is a bit of lag if your rig isn’t up to scratch, and mine probably isn’t although I can run it on “very high” with few issues. Having said that, it tends to be rather pro-Nvidia and anti-ATi. With an ATi card (which I happen to have) you’ll need to use older drivers, and there are a few other issues, most of which I don't have to suffer with, thankfully.
The game runs on the Open Freespace 2 engine, which is kept up to date by some dedicated programmers and the like. And where you’re going to notice this most is with the custom made high quality models.
The sound relies on OpenAL, and the software comes bundled with the game. Without installing it, I couldn’t even get any sound. Even then the sound isn’t all that good. It’s not choppy – more crackly; definitely flawed.
The voice acting, while sometimes decent, is nothing special and for the most part makes me cringe. Some of the wingmen such as Assassin are quite good and show a bit of personality – I think he has a lisp by the sounds of it; not something you’d find in a commercial game I must admit.
While the team thought it necessary to have the soundtrack up as a separate download, in my experience it is rather repetitive. I've been exposed to about 2 or 3 tracks over and over, to the point where they are now ingrained in my brain. Having said that, they aren't bad and do fit the grand stage of space – the final frontier – nicely.
Even though there are reported to be many different mission types, it’s basically the same repetitive formula: launch from the carrier; follow your wingmen; listen to in-flight entertainment which consists of pilots ribbing each other; activate autopilot and travel from navpoint to navpoint; take out pirates/kilrathi/any one who isn’t a terran; fly back to the carrier and dock. I think in the end you can only really divide mission types in to two categories: small fighter skirmishes and full on fleet battles.
I get the impression that the medals and promotions are handed out not according to performance in a mission, but are just part of the overall plot, which is a bit of a shame. I took down 14 fighters and I get nothing. The next mission I could just as well sit back and relax and let the sometimes unreliable friendly AI do all the work and get a medal. There’s virtually no input from me required. I could just coast along for the entire ride and continue to get praise for doing absolutely nothing (sounds a lot like politics, actually, on a side note). Factor in that you get the option to skip the mission after you fail it 5 times, and this only further serves to prove my point. You are just along for the ride.
What's the score?
+ Practically good enough to be a commercial game
+ Exciting battles
- Can become tedious
- Really caters to die hard fans and/or flying/futuristic sim veterans
If there’s one gripe I have with Saga it’s that it’s too finicky; too precise. It’s a bit like one of those old point & click or even text parser adventures from years ago, where if you didn’t click exactly on the spot you should, or type the exact phrase required, then the result you were expecting wouldn’t happen. Here if you aren’t lined up with a carrier or target exactly the right way, then you can’t progress in the game. It’s the same with combat. Hit boxes on ships are seemingly quite small, as it takes numerous shots to hit the sweet spot and take them down. There’s no “shoot past him and you’re still guaranteed to hit” like you would find in other games, particularly in the FPS genre.
On one hand it doesn’t baby you or hold your hand, but it can and does leave you in the dark sometimes.
The AI isn’t very reliable, as I’ve mentioned. Relying on them to guide you during a mission is folly. You should rather rely on other methods such as using your targeting controls to pick up important waypoints or ships. They also tend to get in the way when dogfighting commences, and too many friendly fire shots results in not only the end of the mission, but the end of your career, as you are court martialled. This is why I recommend backing up your savegames in case such as situation arises, then you can just overwrite when the need arises.
Wing Commander Saga is something die hard fans will go mad about, but I don’t see it appealing much to anyone else. And it’s a shame, because if they stuck with it, they would find an absolute gem.
What do you think of Wing Commander Saga?
© 2013 ANDR01D