Written by: Rik

Date posted: April 18, 2005

Extras:

Around four years ago now, when FFG was in its infancy, I described Wing Commander: Prophecy as a ‘hollow space shooter’ with crap FMV sequences that ‘felt markedly out of synch with the rest of the series’. Perhaps some of this was a little harsh, and maybe in my haste to sing the praises of the strongest WC games I gave the impression that Prophecy was a lazy, cut-corners sequel with very few redeeming qualities. In truth, it’s a little more complicated than that, but for those of you still reeling from the injustice of it all, let the FFG record now state that Prophecy is not a bad game.

It says 'Eject', but there's no point, is there? It's not real - so you may as well just fight to the death. Unless you want to see the 'amusing bollocking' cut-scene.

The development of a fifth Wing Commander game was always going to be tricky. Opinion on WC4 – The Price of Freedom was divided: some people were mightily impressed by the fantastic storyline, while others pointed to the fact that virtually no work had gone into improving the space-combat sections. Moreover, the real sets and actors’ salaries made The Price of Freedom the most expensive game of all time, a record which still stands, and to try and match it without the presence of the departed Chris Roberts would have represented quite an enormous risk.

With all this in mind, perhaps Origin took the logical route when developing Prophecy: cut down on the expensive FMV and concentrate on improving the spaceflight, pitching it all as a ‘return to roots’ for WC, aiming to win new fans unimpressed by Roberts’ increasingly overblown efforts. With many loose ends tied up nicely in the epic finale of WC4, the focus would shift from the old guard of the Kilrathi wars and towards a new bunch of characters ready to take on a new, mysterious enemy, with a flash new, 3D-accelerated combat engine for company. Meanwhile, existing Wing fans could be placated by the retention of video cut-scenes, not insubstantial in length, featuring appearances from a few old favourites such as Blair and Maniac (that’s Hamill and Biff to most of you).

For the first time in Wing Commander, you no longer take the role of war-hero Blair, but of Lt. Lance Casey, an eager young cadet fresh out of the academy. No sooner have you arrived on the Confederation’s brand new super-ship, the TCS Midway, you find yourself up against a mysterious insectoid enemy, more formidable than anything previously encountered. In fact, the ‘prophecy’ of the game’s title refers to ancient Kilrathi writings predicting a time of great darkness. It had previously been thought that this referred to the destruction of Kilrah brought about by Blair in WC3, but it transpires that this was only the beginning of ‘Kna’thrak’ – a time of great peril which would be brought about by a fearsome new enemy.

Firing aimlessly into the distance. Look at those pretty lasers.

Early impressions of Prophecy are mixed: while the introduction is lengthy, it’s immediately clear that the video sequences have been done on a budget. The ships in the cut-scenes are unconvincing and cartoony, while the acting is wooden, with the new actors doing themselves absolutely no favours in the initial scenes. Still, the space sequences have certainly been re-vamped, and while the Direct3D graphics might not be as jaw-droppingly amazing as they once were, the combat is much less clunky, shaking off the sluggishness which blighted previous WC titles.

Unfortunately, these mixed feelings persist throughout, and once you’ve played a couple of missions, you’ll have worked out that while on the one hand you may have the much-improved combat, on the other you’ve got the dreadful, wooden FMV sequences which are frankly awkward to watch. But what do you play a space-combat game for anyway? It’s for the game itself – all the rest is just window dressing, right? Well, kind of. While in gameplay terms WC3 & 4 were never in the same league as TIE Fighter, the storyline and sense of atmosphere kept you going through their less interesting moments. With storyline and atmosphere lacking in Prophecy, the game has to be judged on the combat alone. And while the enhanced engine certainly delivers a decent blast, it still isn’t really any better than TIE Fighter, and won’t convince any Freespace fans either. There are some nice touches, such as the enemy ships which split into several little fighters once attacked, but many space-combat fans will find the action a little too fast and arcadey for their tastes.

Then there’s the FMV, which will irritate normal human beings and Wing Commander fans alike. Possibly as a tribute to the original WC, but probably to cut costs, the cut-scenes either take place in the bar or in the briefing room; you can talk with other pilots about the current campaign, or receive instructions about your next mission. And that’s pretty much it; aside from the occasional shot of the Midway or enemy cruisers, and a pretty cheap-looking sequence in the last mission, the storyline all unfolds in one of two locations. Which would be fine, except they’re still pretty long (Prophecy comes on three CDs, and that’s still plenty of video) and badly acted. Hamill and Biff do their best when they’re on screen, but most of the time it’s smart-arse Casey and his annoying young buddies hanging around in the bar. Actually, Casey’s not too bad when compared with the rest: your sidekick Maestro is irritating in the extreme and clearly trying to ape Maniac’s act, squadron leader Stiletto is wooden and unconvincing, while Zero’s troubled past is just plain dull.

Maestro and Casey. Don't look like Earth's finest, do they?

To be fair, the developers have tried to keep the Wing Commander legacy alive: Casey is the son of Iceman from the original game, the Kilrathi turn up at one point, the script mentions events from previous games, and a few familiar faces other than Blair and Maniac are to be found on the Midway. Unfortunately the script is also chock full of cliches, including the usual crap about Casey having to live up to his father’s reputation, and the previous games’ events are ham-fistedly shoehorned into conversations: put simply, it’s just not very good. Neither does it feel authentic: if The Price of Freedom was the epic movie realisation of the Wing Commander vision, then Prophecy is a low-budget TV spin-off.

So what to make of WCP? The action is fast and frenetic, and still looks pretty good, and if you don’t like the cut-scenes you can always skip them (they’re not interactive, y’see, so there are no awkward choices to make). But space combat fans are unlikely to be impressed unless they happen to have exhausted all other options, and Wing Commander fans will be let down by the cruddy story, underdeveloped new enemies and wooden acting. But then they already know that, because they’re a loyal bunch who went out and bought it several years ago. If however for some reason you’ve only just got into the series, then take a look at Prophecy by all means: like I said before, it’s not a bad game.