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.

Utopia in Popular Culture

Aeon Flux:
Fans of this animated cult-classic are sure to understand why this show has made the list. In the futuristic setting of the show, events revolve around an ongoing conflict between two societies. On the one side, there is Brenga, a police state run by the autocrat Trevor Goodchild. On the other is the anarchist state of Monica, where the show’s main character – Aeon, a Monican agent and spy – comes from.

Much like the world of the Cold War, these two sides are locked in an ongoing state of detente, where espionage and skirmishes take place back on both sides. The border region between them resembles that of Cold War-era Berlin, where a massive wall separates the two and those trying to cross are either shot or cut down. In one particular episode, people who are missing limbs were a focal point, demonstrating just how many people have fallen victim to the border defenses.

This is a common feature in the story, as it seems that the people of Bregna (known as Breens) would like very much to live the lives of Monicans. Its for this reason that one of Aeon’s duties as an agent is to make regular runs into Bregna to get people out through a series of underground passages. It is also suggested that it is precisely because Monica has no official representatives that it is impossible for Trevor Goodchild to deal with them. He does not seem to understand how their society works, and therefore cannot bribe, threaten, or intimidate them into a peace settlement.

Avatar:
Here is a perfect example of the traditional Edenic civilization being threatened by the evil progress-driven bad guys. Though it was not my favorite movie by any means, it’s undeniable (aka. blatant) utopians themes are quite clear. In short, the Na’vi live a peaceful, contended existence with their environment, and are even telepathically linked to a planetary intelligence known as Eywa.

Borrowing elements from Native American lore, the Gaian hypothesis, and the concept of an ecological utopia, Cameron created a world where paradise was to be found by anyone with appreciative eyes. Whether it was their communion with animals, the trees, or Eywa, the Na’vi elevated the concept of living in harmony with their environment to literal levels.

Demolition Man:
Again, we have what is often classified as a dystopia, but which is made so because of its apparent utopian elements. Set in the not-too-distant future of San Angeles – the mega-city formed from the merger of LA and San Diego – the story revolves around the social experiments of one Dr. Raymond Cocteau.

In addition to being the man who invented the cryo-stasis prison system, which was central to the plot, he is also the man who pioneered the San Angelans “utopian” way of life. In essence, this way of life is bereft of violence, crime, and drug use. The people live what can only be described as a peaceful and contented existence, believing that everything that came before them was characterized by violence and brutality.

The price tag was high, to be sure. People are no longer allowed to swear, play contact sports, own guns, or eat anything remotely unhealthy. Violent and/or sexual entertainment has also been banned, as has real sex. However, the people of San Angeles seemed to accept all this based on the state of society prior to Cocteau’s “revolution”.

The proliferation of violence, chaos, drug use and venereal diseases pretty much left them thinking they had no choice.  Such is the nature of utopian engineering, in the end, where people willingly surrender certain aspects of their lives in order to achieve something better. Much like collectivization, the banning of money, or the elimination of monogamy.

Futurama:
This might seem like a bit of a stretch, but I’ve always felt that anyone who loves science fiction can’t help but notice the classic themes and elements in this show. Usually this takes the form of dystopian elements – suicide booths, career chips, the tax monster, etc. However, at other times, some decidedly cheery and optimistic tones make it in.

For example, in one particular episode (season 1, episode 8: “A Big Piece of Garbage”), Earth finds itself being threatened by a massive ball of garbage. They deduce that only a similar ball would be able to deflect it, but unfortunately, no garbage exists. Everything on Earth is now recycled, used cans are recycled to make robots, and used robots are used to make cans. Nothing goes to waste, which is why Fry must teach them how to litter!

And then again, in season 6, episode 2: “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela”, Leela and Zapp Brannagan land on what appears to be a mysterious, Edenic planet. Here, Leela and Zapp begin living freely as if they were Adam and Eve, which includes shedding their clothes, talking to a serpent, and living off the land. Of course, it was all a ruse by Zapp who once again just looking to get Leela in the sack, but the illusion was complete!

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri:
There’s a reason this game is one of my all-time favorites, and that is because it’s so inspired! One immediately gets the feeling upon playing this all the way through that a lot of classic sci-fi elements went into the making of it, as well as genuine cultural, sociological and scientific research.

For starters, there is the concept of colonizing a new world and the social experiments that it naturally will entail, which is in keeping with KSR Mars Trilogy. Each faction in the game represents a different take on engineering the perfect society. There are the humanitarians, the believers, the Gaians, the hive-mind people, the free-marketeers, the militarists, and the rational empiricists.

What’s more, the technology tree that is featured in the game contains many options for social engineering, the intended end result of which is a perfect society in one form or another. These include Thought Control, Cybernetic, and Eudaimonic, three basic visions of utopia which are dependent upon repression, post-humanism, and a utilitarian, social welfare approach meant to enrich the lives of as many people as possible.

There’s even the option of achieving transcendence, which is one of the victory condition’s of the game. This is achieved by merging with Alpha Centauri’s planet-wide organism, becoming part of its mass consciousness and ensuring a sort of quasi-immortality as it were. This is considered the biggest and best victory option since it ensures planetary peace, as opposed to conquering all the other factions, united them, or cornering the planet’s energy market (the three other victory conditions).

Star Trek:
When it comes to commercial sci-fi, Star Trek pretty much has the market cornered when it comes to utopian elements. Whether it was the original series, TNG, or its subsequent spinoffs, it was clear that humanity had reached a state of technical and social perfection thanks to advances made in science and technology, not to mention good old fashion optimism.

For starters, the United Federation of Planets was an egalitarian democracy where all member races were entitled to representation, a constitution guaranteed extensive rights and freedoms, and all wants and needs were addressed thanks to replicators, abundant energy, transporters and warp technology.

And of course, numerous references are made to the fact that Earth is crime free, all known diseases have been cured, and troublesome things like poverty, slavery, exploitation, inequality and human drudgery have all been eliminated. No real explanations are given as to how, but its clear it happened by the 22nd century.

Star Wars:
Though not a utopian series by any stretch of the definition, there are some tell-tale aspects of the franchise which warrant examination. For example, though the bulk of the story takes place during the “Dark Times”, when the evil Empire rules, numerous allusions are made to a time before the Empire where things are described in somewhat idealistic terms.

For example, here is how Obi-Wan describes the role of the Jedi in the good old days as follows: “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.” In addition, it is also made clear that the Old Republic was governed by an interstellar democracy known as the Galactic Senate. Between the Jedi and the government, things like slavery, conquest, blatant racism, genocide, and all other forms of behavior common to the Empire were highly illegal.

In having this era of peace and relative prosperity to compare their current circumstances with, Lucas was able to drive home the point of how the Empire was illegitimate and had seized power by unjust means. It also made the heroes current predicament seem that much more emotionally involved.

Wing Commander:
Calling to mind such franchises as Star Trek and Man-Kzin Wars, the Wing Commander series takes place in the distant future when a semi-utopian humanity is engaged in a war with a militaristic foe. As with the violent Kzin, the enemy in this series known as the Kilrathi, are a race of feline anthropoids.

Governed by a strict hierarchy and warrior code, the Kilrathi are driven to war and conquest and have been fighting humanity for generations. Though no formal description is ever made of the Earth government or human customs, many hints are given that suggest that the Terran Confederation is governed by the comparatively enlightened ideals of humanitarianism and democracy.

For instance, in the first Wing Commander it is said that Kilrathi do not place the same importance on alien life as the Confederation. Evidently not, since conquest, slavery and genocide seem to be par for the course for them! In addition, several alien species are allies with the Confederation, usually for the sake of mutual defense against the Kilrathi.

And as with Star Trek, the bad behavior of the enemy species is held in contrast to the comparatively peaceful and egalitarian behavior of humans. And as always, this is designed to illicit a point about history and human nature.

Conclusions:
When it comes to popular culture, there never seems to be a shortage of inspired science fiction elements. This is true of movies, television, and the gaming world. However, I can’t help but notice just how more common dystopian movies, shows and games are. For whatever reason, it just seems like tales of dark futures are much more popular. Is it because dark futures seem more realistic, or might it have to do with the proliferation of dystopian literature in the last century or so. Either way, believe me when I tell you that examples of modern utopian sci-fi franchises were much harder to find. No wonder Neal Stephenson challenged the sci-fi writers of the world to come up with something cheerier!

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 😉