Wing Commander: Privateer A Review

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.

Plot Synopsis:
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.

wcprivateer_ndOnce 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.

wcprivateer_derelictIt 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.

wcprivateer_steltekAs 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.

wcprivateer_perryYou 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.

wcprivateer_gemini_gold_14After 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!

Summary:
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.

Wing_Commander_privateer_01Then 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.

wcprivateer_shipupgradeAnd 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.

wcprivateer_tarsusIn 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.

Of Faster-Than-Light Travel

It’s a popular concept, the fictional technology that could help us break that tricky light barrier. And it’s not hard to see why. The universe is a really, really, REALLY big place! And if we ever want to begin exploring and colonizing our tiny corner of it – and not have to deal with all the relativistic effects of time dilation and long, long waits – we better find a way to move faster.

And this is where various franchises come up with their more creative take on physics and the natural universe. Others, they just present it as a given and avoid any difficult, farfetched, or clumsy explanations. And in the end, we the viewers go along because we know that without it, space travel is going to be one long, tedious, and mind-bendingly complex journey!

Alcubierre Drive:
Proposed by Miguel Alcubierre as a way of resolving Einstein’s field equations, the Alcubierre Drive is an untested by possible way to achieve FTL travel. As opposed to Warp, Foldspace, or most other proposed means of FTL that involve some kind of internal propulsion of jump drive, the Alcubierre Drive is based on the idea of generating a wave that a ship would then “surf” in order to travel.

The creation of this wave would cause the fabric of space ahead of the spacecraft to contract and the space behind it to expand. The ship would then ride this wave inside a region of flat space known as a warp bubble and be carried along as the region itself moves through space. As a result, conventional relativistic effects such as time dilation would not apply in the same way as if the ship itself were moving.

The Alcubierre drive is featured in a few different science fiction genres, mainly those of the “hard” variety. This includes Stephen Baxter’s Ark, M. John Harrison’s novel Light, Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran’s Orbiter, and Ian Douglas’s Star Carrier where it is the primary means of transport.

FTL Drive:
The primary means of interstellar travel in the Battlestar Galactica universe, where every ship larger than a in-system transport is equipped with an FTL drive. How it works is never really explained, but it is clear that the technology is complex and involves a great deal of calculation. This is not only to ensureolve n accurate relocation through space-time, but also to make sure they don’t up jumping too close to a planet, star, or worse, right in the middle of either.

Whereas Colonial ships use their own computers to calculate jumps, Cylon ships rely on the Hybrid. These “machines” are essentially semi-organic computers, and represent the first step in Cylon evolution from pure machines to organic beings. Apparently, the hybrids were more sophisticated than Colonial computers, especially the aging Galactica. Hence, they were able to calculate jumps more quickly and accurately.

Holtzman Drive:
This FTL drive system comes to us from the Dune universe, and is otherwise known as a “Foldspace Engine”. Relying on principles that are not entirely clear to those in the Dune universe, the system involves depositing a ship from one point in space-time to another instantaneously. Though the workings of the drive are never really explained, it is intimated in Chapterhouse: Dune that tachyons are involved.

Another key component in the system is a Guild Navigator, a mutant who has been given natural prescient abilities thanks to constant exposure to spice. Using this prescience, the Navigator “sees” a path through space-time in order to guide the ship safely through. But in time, the Ixians invented a machine that was capable of doing this job as well, thus making the entire process automated and breaking the Guild’s monopoly on spacing.

Hyperspace:
Like the Warp drive, the terms hyperspace and hyperdrive have become staples withing the science fiction community. It’s most popular usage comes from Star Wars where it is the principle means of interstellar travel. Though it is never explained how a hyperdrive works, it is made abundantly clear through a series of visuals in the first and subsequent movies that it involves speeds in excess of the speed of light.

In addition, Han Solo indicated in the original movie that the Falcon’s top speed was “point five past light-speed”, indicating that it can travel 1.5 c. All other references to hyperspace speed factors in the franchise are similar, with velocities given in terms of a decimal point value. As a fast ship, the Falcon can reach point five, whereas most of the larger Imperial and Rebel ships can make only point three or four at most.

Though Star Wars is the most popular example of hyperspace, it is by no means the earliest. The first recorded example was in John Campbell’s “Islands of Space,” which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1931. Arthur C. Clarke’s also mentioned hyperspace in his 1950 story Technical Error. However, the most enduring example comes from Asimov’s Foundation universe, where hyperspace is the principal means of travel in the Galactic Republic. In I, Robot, the invention of the “hyperspatial drive” is the basis of one of the short stories, and was meant to provide a sense of continuity with his earlier Foundation series.

Other franchises that feature the concept of hyperspace include Babylon 5, Homeworld, Macross/Robotech, and Stargate. Combined with Star Wars and the Foundation series, it is the most popular – albeit the most ill-defined -form of FTL in the realm of science fiction.

Infinite Probability Drive:
The perfect mixture of irreverence and science: the Infinite Probability Drive from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. This FTL concept is based on a particular perception of quantum theory which states that a subatomic particle is most likely to be in a particular place, such as near the nucleus of an atom, but there is also a small probability of it being found very far from its point of origin.

Thus, a body could travel from place to place without passing through the intervening space if you had sufficient control of probability. According to the Guide, in this way the drive “passes through every conceivable point in every conceivable universe almost simultaneously,” meaning the traveller is “never sure where they’ll end up or even what species they’ll be when they get there” and therefore it’s important to dress accordingly!

Subspace Jump Drive:
Here we have an FTL concept which comes from one of my favorite games of all time, Descent Freespace. Subspace jumps, relying on the drive system of the same name, represent a very quick method of interstellar travel. By relying on subspace “corridors” that run from one point in space-time to another, a ship is able to move quickly from one star system to the next.

The only drawback to this concept is the fact that travel must occur along officially designated “nodes”. These nodes usually pass between large gravitational sources (i.e. between stars systems) but also can exist within a system itself. Virtually all nodes are unstable, existing for mere seconds or minutes at a time. However, nodes which will last for centuries or longer are designated as “stable” and used for transit.

Another favorite franchise which uses a similar concept is the Wing Commander universe. In all versions of the game, particularly Wing Commander: Privateer, interstellar travel comes down to plotting jumps from predesignated points in space. One cannot simply jump from one spot to another provided accurate calculations are made, they have to use the mapped out points or no jump is possible. This, as opposed to hyperspace travel, posits that subspace is a reality that exists only in certain areas of space-time and must be explored before it can be used.

TARDIS:
Officially, the Time and Relative Dimension in Space is a time machine and spacecraft that comes to us from British science fiction television program Doctor Who and its associated spin-offs. Produced by the advanced race known as the Time Lords, an extraterrestrial civilization to which the Doctor belongs, this device that makes his adventures possible.

Basically, a TARDIS gives its pilot the ability to travel to any point in time and any place in the universe. Based on a form of biotechnology which is grown, not assembled, they draw their power primarily from an artificial singularity (i.e. a black hole) known as the “Eye of Harmony”. Other sources of fuel include mercury, specialized crystals and a form of temporal energy.

Each TARDIS is primed with the biological imprint of a Time Lord so that only they can use it. Should anyone else try to commandeer one, it undergoes molecular disintegration and is lots. The interior of a TARDIS is much larger than its exterior, which can blend in with its surroundings using the ship’s “chameleon circuit”. Hence why it appears to outsiders as a phone booth in the series.

Warp Drive:
Possibly the best known form of FTL travel which comes to us from the original Star Trek and its many spinoffs. In addition to being a prime example of fictional FTL travel, it is also perhaps the best explained example.Though said explanation has evolved over time, with contributions being made in the original series, TNG, and the Star Trek technical manual, the basic concept remains the same.

By using a matter/antimatter reactor to create plasma, and by sending this plasma through warp coils, a ship is able to create a warp bubble that will move the craft into subspace and hence exceed the speed of light. Later explanations would go on to add that an anti-matter/matter reaction which powers the two separate nacelles of the ship are what create the displacement field (the aforementioned “bubble”) that allows for warp.

Apparently, Warp 10 is the threshold for warp speed, meaning that it is the point at which a ship reaches infinite speed. Though several mentions are made of ships exceeding this threshold, this was later explained as being the result of different scales. Officially, it is part of the Star Trek canon that no ship is capable of exceeding Warp 10 without outside help. When that occurs, extreme time dilation, such as anti-time, occurs, which can be disastrous for the crew!

In addition to Star Trek, several other franchises have made mention of the Warp Drive. This includes StarCraft, Mass Effect, Starship Troopers, and Doctor Who.

Final Thoughts:
Having looked through all these examples, several things become clear. In fact, it puts me in mind of a clip produced by the Space Network many years ago. Essentially, Space explored the differences between FTL in past and present franchises, connecting them to developments in real science. Whereas Warp and Hyperspace tended to be the earliest examples, based on the idea of simply exceeding the speed of light, thereby breaking the law of physics, later ideas focused on the idea of circumventing them. This required that writers come up with fictional ideas that either relied on astrophysics and quantum theory or exploited the holes within them.

One such way was to use the idea of “wormholes” in space-time, a hypothetical theory that suggests that space is permeated by topological holes that could act as “shortcuts” through space-time. A similar theory is that of subspace, a fictional universe where the normal rules of physics do not apply. Finally, and also in the same vein, is the concept of a controlled singularity, an artificial black hole that can open a rift through space-time and allow a ship to pass from one point in the universe to another.

Explanations as to how these systems would work remains entirely hypothetical and based on shaky science. As always, the purpose here is to allow for interstellar travel and communications that doesn’t take decades or even centuries. Whether or not the physics of it all works is besides the point. Which brings me to two tentative conclusions.

  1. Explanations Need Not Apply: Given the implausible (or at the very least, inexplicable) nature of most FTL concepts, the best sci-fi is likely to be the stuff that doesn’t seek to explain how its FTL system of choice works. I’st simply there and does the job. People hit a button, push a lever, do some calculations, or fly into a jump gate. Then boom! seconds later (or days and weeks) and they find themselves on the other side, light years away and ready to do their mission!
  2. That’s Hard: Given how any story that involves relativistic space travel, where both time dilation and confusing time jumps are necessarily incorporated into the story, only the hardest of hard sci-fi can ever expect to do without warp drives, hyperspace, jump or FTL drives. Any other kind of sci-fi that is looking to be accessible, and therefore commercially successful, will have to involve some kind of FTL or face extinction.

Well, that’s all I got for the time being. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the skies and don’t stop dreaming about how we’re one day going to get out there. For even if we start sending ships beyond our solar system in the near future, it’s going to be well into the distant future before they get anywhere and we start hearing back from them. At least until someone figures out how to get around Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, damn bloody genius! Until then, I’d like to sign off with a tagline:

This has been Matt Williams with another conceptual post. Good night, and happy spacing!

Coming soon: Video game reviews!

A short while ago, I did a review on my top ten favorite nostalgic games. I might have mentioned somewhere in there that this was an intro to a new segment I was thinking of getting into: video game reviews! Well, I’ve decided to take the plunge. In the next few weeks and months, I’d like to do full reviews on the sci-fi video games that have made an impact on me over the years, or that I’ve just taken the time to enjoy.

I’ve prepared a tentative list below and would like to know if anyone has any games they’d like to add. Keep in mind two basic criteria: One, it should be a sci-fi or fantasy game, or at least something that’s mildly futuristic (which is how I justified adding Modern Warfare to this list). And two, it needs to be something I have or will be able to get my hands on in the near future. But anything’s possible given time, so just make your suggestions and I’ll let you know if I can or can’t find it!

Thanks you and happy gaming! Expect the first reviews soon 😉 *Note that the list is a mock-up and the actual reviews need not occur in that order.

  1. Knights of the Old Republic
  2. The Sith Lords
  3. Star Wars: Force Unleashed (I and II)
  4. Sid Meiers Alpha Centauri
  5. Halo (1, 2, 3)
  6. Starcraft (and Brood War)
  7. Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty
  8. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
  9. Modern Warfare (1, 2 and 3)
  10. AVP (2010)
  11. Wing Commander (I, II, III)
  12. Wing Commander Privateer (1 and 2)

Top 10 Most Nostalgic SF Games

Hey all. The other day, a revolutionary idea came to me. What with all the other sci-fi stuff I cover, why haven’t I made any mention of sci-fi videogames? Not sure, really, seems kinda obvious now that I think about it. God knows I love talking about the stuff that inspired me, and I’m not ashamed to admit it that sometimes, those things have been games.

Whether they were first-person shooters, space combat simulators, or strategy games, there are some games which have stuck with me over the years. It might have been their cool game-play, inspired backstories, or classic sci-fi elements. Who knows? Point is, I liked them then and, with some exceptions, I like them now.

Anyway, here are the top then that stand out in my mind, in ascending order:

10. Halo 2
Granted, this game has not been with me too long, as I came to it a bit late in its existence. But I still count it among my top sci-fi nostalgic classics. And in that, I am hardly alone! For gamers, Halo 2 was one of the most anticipated sequels of the last decade. Combing kick-ass gameplay, a cool storyline, and some badass weapons and vehicles, Halo 2 remains a game that I can play over and over.

My favorite missions are the earliest ones when the Covenant are assaulting. Room to room and street to street combat with automatic weapons is much fun! And commandeering a Warthog and joyriding through the transit tunnels of New Mombasa? Pure action gaming art! And while I never really got into the multiplayer thing too much, I have to admit that it’s both extensive and endlessly entertaining.

In addition, I found the storyline highly respectable. In addition to having a classic sci-fi and space opera feel, it contained some genuinely respectable themes and plot devices. The whole backstory about the Forerunners was interesting; but then again, anything involving an ancient and extinct species who’s technology still litters the Galaxy is cool! And the way the Covenant theocracy was following what they believe to be the path to salvation, when in fact they were walking headlong into their graves – tell me that’s not significant!

9. Doom
Granted, it didn’t have the most inspired storyline, but do you think a 16 year old boy gives a damn about stuff like plot and character development? No, he cares about shooting guns and blowing shit up! And that’s precisely what this game was good for when I was a surly teen looking for some fun and adventure on my PC.

And in a lot of ways, this game was a pioneering piece of software. It’s first campaign was made available through shareware, it was one of the first first-person shooters of all time, and it established a new standard when it came to gore and violence.

Thousands of others would follow, each following Doom’s example of a varied arsenal, raw firepower and bloodletting! It was also spawn a slew of sequels, comics, and RPG, and even a horrible, horrible movie. It also provided me with the means to mispend my youth. Good job Doom!

8. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Speaking of time poorly spent, I can’t tell you how many hours I dedicated to playing this game when I first got it. As I recall, I was in my early 20’s at the time and living in a tiny bachelors apartment in Ottawa. One day this game came in the mail courtesy of one of my best friends (thanks Chi!). I spent the next three days playing it all the way through, pausing only to eat, sleep, and maintain some semblance of a life.

Yes, it was just that addictive. And all because it combined quest-based gameplay with lightsaber duels, a detailed universe, and a genuine Star Wars-esque storyline. Granted, its replay value is a little shaky given that most of the fun comes from completing quests and uncovering the whole mystery plot, but I still found ways to waste time with it!

Another appealing feature about this game was the fact that it took place during the Sith Wars, something that gets mentioned in the expanded universe but never really covered in any detail. So while you’re playing, you get the added benefit of having some important background info filled in for you. If you’re a Star Wars geek, which I admittedly am, this is kind of a big deal…

7. Starcraft
Granted, it took Blizzard FOREVER to make the sequel, but they been busy, what with Diablo, Warcraft, and all their various sequels. And in the meantime, they did give us that fantastic expansion pack to tide us over.

In any case, Starcraft has to be one of the most infinitely replayable games in the history of real-time strategy games. It’s creative, got a good storyline, and some genuinely awesome characters. The Terran Marines are delightful hicks, the Protoss religious zealots, and the Zerg horrifying beasts. What’s not to like? And let’s not forget the multiplayer, which kept gamers entertained for years after the original release date.

And as I said, the expansion pack was really great. As if the original storyline and units weren’t enough, they managed to make some truly worthy add ons with Brood War. I especially loved the Medics and the Dark Templar, the former making Marine shoot em ups more effective, and Dark Templars who’s dark look and hyperblades were just so cool. But the storyline was still what I liked best. Terran exiles, invading aliens, complicated alliances, double-crosses and intrigue. Can’t wait to see how what happens in SC II. Just need me a faster computer before I try to play the damn thing is all!

6. Command and Conquer
Speaking of real-time strategy games, the next up is the classic Command and Conquer! Though I didn’t take to the sequels so much, I thoroughly enjoyed this baby for like a whole summer between grades 11 and 12. And much like Starcraft, the multiplayer was the icing on the proverbial cake, taking all the guerrilla fighting and strategizing to new heights.

And the storyline, once again, is something which I certainly appreciated, being an alternate history and all. To break it down, the story takes place in a world where Hitler never came to power in Germany and Stalin became the big menace of the century in his absence. Once he was defeated, a global coalition known as GDI (Global Defense Initiative) was formed.

And in a way, the game predicted the “war on terror” a bit early, predicting that this coalition would have to fight against a multinational terrorist organization (Brotherhood of Nod) for global supremacy. This war was triggered by the arrival of an alien substance, known as Tiberium, to Earth, an organic-mineral compound that is also radioactive. Pretty cool, real science fictiony when you get right down to it. And the varied units were also neat, each side having their own distinct soldiers, vehicles and special abilities. These made things like rushing virtually impossible, as all units had their own strengths and weaknesses, and could not therefore make offensives unless they had support.

5. X-Wing
Another classic game and one of the most popular flight simulators of all time. Maybe it was because it combined space dogfights with the Star Wars universe. Maybe it was because every kid who grew up with the franchise wanted to fly X-wings and take down the Death Star. Who knows? Point is, it worked, and I for one got a real kick out of it.

Taking place before and during the events of the original movie, X-wing follows the exploits of a Rebel pilot who fights for the Alliance in a series of campaigns. These include raids, escort missions, seizure operations, reconnaissance, and ultimately, large scale assaults. While most missions involve piloting the venerable X-wing, you also get to fly A-wings, Y-wings, and even B-wings (in the expansion pack).

Over time, these campaigns culminate in an attack on the Death Star from the end of the first movie. In the expansion pack, the story continues with the evacuation of Yavin and the search to find a new base of operations, eventually leading to the establishment of a base on Hoth. These events, which took place between movies one and two, are fertile ground and get a good showing here. The same is true with all the early events of the franchise, stuff we hear about in the original movie and expanded source material, but never got to see.

One of the coolest things about this game was the details. When assaulting enemy ships, you could disable them as well as destroy them. This could include disabling subsystems with ion guns or missiles, or targeting things like engines and weapons and destroying them. When assaulting capital ships, you were also able to take out weapons and missile turrets, not to mention shield arrays. This made for a more realistic gameplay, something which other space combat games would emulate in years to come.

4. Wing Commander II
Coming in fourth on this list is the second installment in the Wing Commander series. Another space-combat simulator, this game emerged at about the same time as X-wing and was, at least in my neighborhood, its chief competitor for all the mispent hours we would play games!

In truth, I’m kind of hard pressed to pick one game in the series, since I loved the first three games. But when it comes right down to it, I think I spent the most amount of hours on this one, so WC II for the win! Picking up where the first one left off, this game in the series is set aboard the TCS Concordia and follows the exploits of the series’ protagonist Capt. Christopher Blair.

This is something that set the WC series apart from other space-combat simulators, which is the story-driven and personal nature of the game’s story. Even though the protagonist wasn’t given an official name until the third game (gamers got to use whatever name they wanted), everything centered around the life of this one person, their experiences being yours and helping to shape the course of the game.

In short, after being humiliated and demoted due to the destruction of your former ship, the Tiger’s Claw, you are relegated to a backwater assignment aboard a space station. You remain there, until the TCS Concordia shows up in-system looking for help. After defending her, you are transferred aboard her and become part of its campaign to fight the Kilrathi for control of the Enigma sector (if this is starting to sound familiar, then chances are you read my blurb on the Tiger’s Claw in the Cool Ships series).

In any case, by game’s end, you clear your name, defeat the Kilrathi, and gain control of the sector. Much fun! And because it was personally focused, you find yourself getting emotionally involved and being that much more concerned with winning each mission in your campaign. And of course, as with the first game in the series, this one also had spinoffs which added to the fun as well.

3. Wing Commander Privateer
Though this game bears the WC name, it was more of a spinoff than part of the series. And that’s one of the things I loved about it. Though connected to the main storyline, it was a standalone space combat simulator with a story of its own, and which delved into the world of pirates, smugglers and privateers.

Arriving in my game pile between WC II and just after Doom, I spent the better part of a year playing this game because it was just so replayable! What made it fun was the fact that with this installment in the WC universe, you were a private contractor, you pulled missions for hire, and you used your money to upgrade your ship and buy new ones altogether.

You also got to choose your focus in the game. You could become a merchant, a mercenary, both, and add to that with a little pirating and illegal trading. And of course, there was a larger story set to the backdrop of the Confederation-Kilrathi war and your own drive to get rich. Basically, it involved an ancient ship that was roaming around the quadrant, killing ships on both sides. If you chose to partake of this campaign, you followed clues, pulled jobs, and pieced together the mystery of the ship until it was destroyed.

But above all, the most cool aspect of the game was the richly detailed universe. There were literally dozens of systems and planets for you to venture to, as well as space stations and pirate hideouts. Every place had its own feel and aim, and the jobs you could pull on any given one were suited to match. Years later, I would remind myself of this game when it came time to develop my own sci-fi universe (again, the one I used to write Legacies).

2. Descent: Freespace
One such game was the smash hit and personal favorite of mine, Descent: Freespace. Released in 1999, this game remains one of the best fighter simulators I have ever seen. And I’m hardly alone in thinking that, seeing as how several games (including the online BSG game) have used its engine as a platform. Much like Half Life 2, this game has had many imitators and borrowers due to the sheer wickedness of its design.

But again, one of the things that I loved about this game was its backstory. Set in the 23rd century, the GTA (Galactic Terran Alliance) is at war with an alien race known as the Vasudans. This war has been ongoing and spans several star systems, with losses numbering in the millions. However, all this changes when a new race, known as the Shivans, appears suddenly and begins attacking both sides indiscriminately. After several attacks, the GTA and the Vasudans agree to put aside their differences and focus on this common threat, as the Shivans are clearly not playing favorites.

Also, the Shivans possess vastly superior technology. Their ships are shielded – something neither side has – and are very difficult to track on sensors. Their capital ships are also very tough and hard to disable, and their largest vessel, the Lucifer (expect to see it in the next Cool Ships installment) seems invulnerable to conventional attack. As a result, much of the game is spent conducting intel gathering and raids to procure pieces of the aliens technology. And things really escalate when the Lucifer discovers the location of Vasuda Prime and Earth.

What I loved about this game was how much it reminded me of Babylon 5 and the whole Earth-Minbari war, how Earth Force found itself so outmatched and struggled to try and find a way to beat Minbari technology. I often wondered if the game designers had been inspired by it, given the common elements. On top of that is the fact that you never really get to learn why the Shivans are attacking, or even what they look like. The mystery of who and what they are remains well into the sequel.

But even without all that, the gameplay itself was nothing short of awesome. The missions were realistic, the ships were realistic, and the space combat was realistic (and detailed). I’m not ashamed to admit that this game actually formed part of the basis for my own sci-fi creation, the novel Legacies and the kind of universe it was set in. Being gritty and realistic, I thought I’d found my perfect muse, and did my best to adopt, if not outright copy, a lot of its feel.

Ah yes, and according to an article I read recently, it appears that there might be a third installment at some point in the future. Efforts have kind of stalled, but apparently the developers who worked on the first two games said that they “would kill for a chance to develop Freespace 3.” Given how the sequel ended on a cliffhanger and just how kick-ass this series is, I count myself among them! Tell me who’s gotta go, I’ll take care of ’em!

1. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
Finally, coming in at first place, is Sid Meier’s sci-fi spinoff, Alpha Centauri! Much like the Civilization series which bore his name (and which I adored!), this game was a turn-based strategy engine that focuses on civilization building and conquest, with the player choosing a faction and then ensuring that they become the dominant force in the game.

However, what set this game apart from the Civilization ones was its uniquely speculative and futuristic undertone. Based in part on the Civ games, this story is basically an extension of the original series, where games would end when a player either conquered the world or won the space race by sending a colony ship to Alpha Centauri.

But far from just picking up where these games left off, this game revolves around the idea that Earth was abandoned by the people on the colony ship because of its rampant overpopulation, war, famine, chaos and environmental destruction. This puts the stakes much higher, as the mission is not just to colonize but ensure the survival of the human race.

The story begins with the colonist splitting into five factions before they make “Planetfall”. These include the Morganites (a bunch of monopolistic capitalists), the Gaians (environmentalists), the Hive (totalitarians), the Believers (religious zealots), the Spartans (survivalists), the University (rationalists), and the Peacekeepers (humanitarians). Together, they represent the entirety of the human race, all its particular drives and obsessions. Their struggle clearly mirrors of that of humanity in the present day world.

On top of all that, there’s a planet-wide organisms which is made up of pink fungi and “mind worms”. This organism, as a whole, grows and evolves towards super-sentience every few million years as the planet’ sun reach perihelion. Naturally, this has coincided with the arrival of the colonists, and therefore poses a threat to their survival. So in addition to dealing with the threat of the other factions, there is added threat coming from the planet itself.

In the end, there are any number of ways to win the game. You can conquer the other factions, in which case it is reasoned that you will be able to face the growing threat from “planet” unimpeded. There is a an economic victory, in which a single faction corners the “energy market” (energy being the basis of currency on this world). Then you have diplomatic victory where you basically ally yourself with every faction left in the game, followed by the “transcendental” victory where you become the first faction to achieve union with the planetary organism.

This last option is the biggest and best, being the one that deals with the biggest problem of what to do about the planet and in such a way that ensures humanity’s virtual immortality. By merging humanities consciousness with the planetary organism, you not only achieve a degree of immortality, you also help ensure that the organism won’t regress this time around. And it gives you the highest final score, which is why I always preferred it.

And then there’s all the cool units you get to make. As with the other Civ games, new technologies give you the ability to craft new units. This grows more complex and varied the more technologies you unlock, giving you the means to equip units with new weapons, armor, and special abilities. But the best thing about this game, aside from all the classic sci-fi elements, is the inspired nature of it all. Some serious thought went into the technologies you research, as well as the philosophical models you can adopt.

I’m telling ya, its like some serious sci-fi geeks got together, read all the classics, swallowed the works of Sartre, Plato, Nietzsche, and then waded through the theories of Einstein and Hawkins. This game was a favorite of mine during the early 2000’s, and recently, I managed to get an a copy of it through Amazon.com and have been wasting time on it once more. I’m a happy manchild!

Okay, now I’m feeling kinda weird, geeky, and like I got some serious wasted time to make up for…  But hey, I’m not sorry! Like most people my age, I grew on the dubious combination of television, movies, and video games, with a few genuine experiences thrown in for good measure. If we can’t appreciate the stuff we wasted our youth on, then what good is it? Until next time 😉