Hello all and welcome to another installment in my video game review series! Today, I will be tackling an old (and I mean really old) favorite, a special installment in the Wing Commander series known as Privateer. Falling in between Wing Commander II, one of the best selling space combat simulators of all time, and WCIII, this game was a diversion for the series in that it dealt with the dark underside of the WC universe. Rather than delving into the Kilrathi War, which was central to the series, this game addressed the lifestyle of merchants, mercenaries and pirates.
And that’s what makes this game so cool. In fact, each game in the series had its own particular appeal, choosing to do things a little differently than the last. In the first, you flew missions and were promoted in rank and to new squadrons based on your performance. Over time, your success was mirrored in the course of the war and the theaters of operation you were sent to. In game two, much the same was true, except that you did not move in rank and the entire game was story-driven rather than based on your personal progress.
This time around, players were entirely independent, flying missions for private contractors or government payees, building up their savings, and using that money to buy new ships, new weapons, and new equipment. There was a story within the game, but you could either follow that or play entirely on your own. Naturally, the best approach was to combine both elements, playing freelance until you had a descent arsenal, and then taking on the storyline missions. And once it was all over, you had the feeling that a pretty damn good gaming experience had just occurred.
The game opens with the player’s character – Burrows, a privateer – being introduced aboard a mining station in the Achilles system. As you play your first missions and attempt to make your bones, rumors begin to spread that a mysterious ship is attacking shipping in the system. Eventually, you find your way to the New Detroit system, where a private contractor named Sandoval hires you to take an artifact off his hands. After running a mission for him and returning to the planet, you discover that the man is dead.
You are left with his artifact in your hands, and a lady named Tayla who offers answers, in exchange for a few missions. These take you to and from a Pirate base located out on the rim, where you run a series of missions hauling Brilliance (the designer drug of the day). Once complete, Tayla indicates that Sandoval was not the original owner, and sends you to the station of New Constantinople to meet Mr. Lynch, the notorious mob boss who will take you further.
Once again, you are contracted to fly a series of missions in exchange for information. After confirming that the artifact is of alien origin, he double-crosses you and sends his body guard Miggs to kill you. After beating him, you head for Oxford where the University and Archives are located to conduct research on the artifact yourself. Upon landing there, you work out an agreement with Masterson, the dean of the university. In exchange for running missions, he will allow you access.
Once you’re finished scanning the artifact, it concludes that it was uncovered by an archaeological dig in a far-flung system, led by a doctor named Monkhouse. Apparently, the doctor was investigating an ancient civilization known as the Steltek, a super-advanced species that is believed to have died out. Monkhouse was last seen in the Palan system at the edge of known space, so its off to Palan you go…
To find Monkhouse who is looking to get out of the system as soon as possible. There is a standoff between bounty hunters who have the world blockaded, and they must be defeated before he can be evacuated. After fighting with Lynn Murphy, the woman who is running a resistance against the bounty hunters, you are able to fly Monkhouse out of the system and learn that the artifact comes in two pieces, and he gives you the other half.
It seems that the two form an ancient star map, and the coordinates they give indicate a system just beyond the fringes of charted space. To find the indicated system, you have to travel to the Rygannon system where you find Taryn Cross of Exploratory Services. She contracts you to investigate the rim and this eventually leads you to a Derelict at the edge of known space. Once you land, you find the ship is deserted and adrift, and an inoperative fighter with a weapon you are able to take.
As soon as you leave though, the Steltek ship – the alien one that has been causing all the trouble – shows up and begins pursuing you. Once you find your way to a mining base (any mining base in the game), you are met by a woman named Sandra Goodin, the attache to Admiral Terrell, the supreme commander of all Confederation Forces in the sector. She tells you the Steltek ship has been on a path of destruction since it was woken up, and seems to have been following you all along.
You are persuaded to go to Perry Navy Base and meet with Terrell, who contracts you to lure the enemy ship into a trap. On your way there, you are met by another Steltek ship, an ambassador ship that explains to you that the vessel that’s been marauding the sector is an automated drone left over from the old days. It was designed to destroy advanced tech since it was this very thing that did the Steltek civilization in. They want to stop it, since it is a remnant of their old ways, and agree to help you.
After getting your weapon supercharged, you meet with the Confed fleet and engage the Steltek ship. After a pitch battle, the ship is destroyed and you report back to Perry Naval Base to get your reward. Admiral Terrell offers you a position with the fleet, but you turn it down so you can continue to be what you always have – a Privateer!
Pound for pound, this game is one of my oldest favorites. I loved the Wing Commander series ever since I got my hands on the first game, and this installment was especially cool in that it delved into the seemy underbelly of it all. What’s more, there were aspects of the universe which didn’t make it into the main series of games, not to mention some themes and motifs which seemed very much inspired.
For one, you have a number of locations located in the fictitious Gemini Sector, a place which is involved in the war but not featured in the other games. Here, you have such planets and installations as New Detroit*, Oxford, Perry, New Constantinople, mining installations, pirate bases, agricultural colonies, and pleasure bases. Each has its own character, feel, and these determine the nature of trading you can conduct.
Then there are the factions featured in the game. In addition to the familiar warring parties – the Terran Confederation and the Kilrathi Empire – you also have a number of interesting parties that play their own role in the game. For example, there are the traders and mercs that are basically like you – privateers who are just doing there business and who’s guilds you can join.
And then there the perennially hostile parties such as the pirates, the ones engaged in illegal trade who will prey on you if you’re a merchant or merc, but can easily become friends, assuming you’re willing to embrace a life of crime. Then there are bounty hunters who just may be trying to fulfill a contract on your head. And then there are the Retros, a fanatic religious sect that is determined to force humanity to abandon its addiction to technology and embrace a simpler existence.
And on top of that, there is the added benefit of being able to buy and upgrade your own ships. In other games, you fly increasingly advanced vessels as you increase in rank or move farther along with your missions. And by the third installment, you even get to customize your loadouts. But it is only in Privateer where you have total freedom to arm, equip, and outfit yourself. As long as you can afford it, you can make it happen.
And last, there was the storyline, which I really enjoyed the first time I played it. I was still in my teen years at the time, and this was one of the first franchises that introduced me to the concept of ancient aliens. And having been able to play it again years later, when my understanding of science fiction and classic motifs has matured considerably, I think they did a pretty good job of it.
In fact, the mission where you land aboard the derelict Steltek ship remains with me as a spine-tingling moment in gaming history! And the fact that the entire story is set against the backdrop of the war, an ongoing affair which really isn’t going so well for humanity, gives everything a dark and somewhat desperate feel. It’s like the universe is coming to an end, but you got your bills to pay and in the midst of all that, there’s an even more urgent menace making the rounds.
Gemini Gold Edition:
I should also mention that given the cult status of this game, a fan-made version was released in 2003 which boasted updated graphics and gameplay. In fact, it was one of several fan-made products released over the years by enthusiasts who were looking to introduce subsequent generations of gamers to its glory. Having played it, I can attest that it is certainly more fluid and visually impressive, but it just didn’t feel the same.
Yeah, we’ve all come to be pretty pampered with modern gaming, so much so that we think those DOS games that were once visually stunning are pretty laughable now. But if you want to appreciate a classic, appreciate it as is. As Billy Joel once sung, “Don’t go changing to try and please me!”
*I should also mention that the idea of this planet seemed so inspired to me that I felt obliged, years later, to borrow the name for my own science fiction series (titled Legacies). In fact, there were several details of this game and others in the franchise that crept into my consciousness and stayed with me through the years, forming the basis of my appreciation for science fiction and influencing my writing today.