Games of yore #5: Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom
What better time to write about a Wing Commander game, with Mark Hamill back on the big screen? As Col Christopher ‘Maverick’ Blair, the ‘Heart of the Tiger’, Mr. Hamill has a significant role in my gaming history – which makes me one of that camp who attributes that role to something other than Star Wars.
Looking at my WC4 discs now, all 6 of them in their own WC-branded folder, it’s hard to suppress a chuckle. Those were the days of swapping CDs in and out to keep the damned game moving, and swearing at yourself every time you swapped in the wrong one out of eagerness to see what was next. The Price of Freedom did indeed have that effect on me, as I’m sure it did on many others approaching it as their introduction to the WC franchise.
It was also one of my first flight sims, and I’m really not cut out to be a combat pilot. Did you get stuck on the very first mission because you couldn’t even figure out where enemy fire was coming from? No? Then you’re Top Gun material in my book.
For its time, WC4 was about as lauded graphically as the first Modern Warfare was years later – I seem to recall superlatives like ‘photo-realistic’ adorning the box. Playing it on the cusp of the millennium, a few years after it hit the scene, I was impressed enough to stick with it to the glorious end, despite the frustration of my noobness in the cockpit. (Full disclosure: there was a god-mode toggle in the options – completely legal, no doubt added by some dev with a saint’s pity for casuals and psychomotor morons – and I made judicious use of it. Bite me.)
And of course, Mr. Hamill helped.
I’m positive I’m not the only one who saw the FMVs as the game’s biggest draw. While the plot branches, governed by in-movie dialogue options and critical mission outcomes, weren’t exactly game-changing, they certainly contributed to the game’s immersion and replayability factors. Who doesn’t want to see Luke Skywalker do a Renegade Shepard?
The devs did a good enough job with WC4 to hook players completely in the dark on WC canon. All you needed to know was that you were playing a war hero called out of retirement, and the enemies this time weren’t the aliens you had forged your reputation against – they were your own people. The old ‘humanity of monsters’ line, imbued with curiosity-stoking verisimilitude by a healthy dose of intra-series referencing and throwbacks.
Textbook, but it worked. Even out in the void, dogfighting behind the controls of warbirds from the series’s classic Hellcat to the new and terrifyingly lethal Dragon, I never once felt like I wasn’t deep in the greater adventure. The combat half of the game was integrated with its story half in a way I don’t think I have ever truly seen, even in the most lauded RPGs of our time. It was more than the unrelenting scrum of Call of Duty single-player, or the stage-play of Dragon Age‘s encounters. It was something else – a railroad that didn’t feel like a railroad.
Maybe the fact that it’s a flight sim has something to do with it – or maybe I’ve just got my rose lens on again.
The murkiness around the story of the game’s development, while not something I learned until years later, only embellishes its legacy. Till today, I still have no idea if the rumors of the production going massively over budget (12 million USD, according to Wikipedia) and getting Chris Roberts fired from Origin have any truth to them. Whether or not Star Citizen would exist today without that alleged financial debacle is a debate for another time (and more informed minds), though.
Colonel Blair is, of course, long dead. The devs killed him off in a sequel a few years later, sending him off in a blaze of glory and throwing the torch to some new, younger protagonist. But the star of a franchise like Wing Commander will never truly die in the hearts of the fans. Like mine – despite the fact that The Price of Freedom was my only WC adventure. That’s saying something.