Sunday, April 29, 2012

Wing Commander Saga Review

The pros and cons discussed in this Wing Commander Saga Review:

  • Freeware sci-fi space sim action at its best
  • Brings back a well-loved series using a (relatively) modern game engine
  • Tough-as-nails difficulty should please hardcore gamers
  • Good story
  • It’s a space sim. Don’t expect levels filled with myriad eye candy effects
  • Punishing difficulty will put off a lot of casual gamers
  • The inability to save mid-mission (and to skip conversations) might prove exasperating for some.

I oftentimes yearn for the bygone era of the 90s. For all the crude graphics of that period, developers doggedly capitalized on every aspect of the new frontier that was 3D. In their quest to make their games as close to reality as possible, they followed game design paths that would be considered nowadays as bizarre. Some were works of genius; some were ungainly. Nearly all had rage-inducing difficulty. That trend has, for the most part, sadly died down in favor of catering to a wider audience base as possible. This has given way to steadfast (and sentimental?) old school fans lamenting the dearth of games that do not spoon-feed their players.
It’s a refreshing turn then that a group of developers has resurrected a series that garnered a huge following during the 90s. The Wing Commander Saga Team (that’s what it says in their ModDB page), after a decade, has released Wing Commander Saga: The Darkest Dawn, a freeware sci-fi space simulator that puts players in the struggles of the Terran Navy; a military campaign that transpires before Wing Commander 3.
Has this free space simulator game managed to capture the feel of the series? Is it difficult enough that it can set itself apart from the scores of vapid, anemic games today that litter store shelves? Read this Wing Commander Saga Review to find out.  


First things first. Is it legal? Yes, according to the game’s site, it is. You don’t even need to own Freespace 2 (whose game engine powers this freeware space sim). I don’t know how they did it, considering all the takedown notices that have killed a good number of freeware PC full version games, but I’m not complaining either. Mayhap, EA (the current owner of the IP) deems that this freeware full version space sim will pique the curiosity of anyone playing the game that they can’t help but be enticed to buy the other Wing Commander games. Myself, I’m buying the entire series after I play through this one; Wing Commander Saga is that good. 

This freeware space sim puts you in the role of David "Sandman" Markham, a fresh graduate of a Terran Confleet academy. Right after your assignment to a carrier group, the game draws you in a vortex of events that shape the outcome of a critical segment of the Human-Kilrathi Wars. (Man-Kzin? Sorry, couldn’t resist; don’t shoot me.) Don’t expect Wing Commander staples like Christopher "Maverick" Blair and Todd "Maniac" Marshall to take the center stage though; this is a separate segment of the war from that of the main series. (This is evidenced by the developers inserting the following in the massive PDF manual that comes with the download:

“Following the attack on Earth, the Terran Intelligence Agency deploys a top secret, tactical search party through a previously uncharted Kilrathi jump point. A heavy carrier (name unknown for security purposes) is equipped with self sustaining recycling systems, mining apparatus, and a 62 person Special Operations team.” And “To date, no known communications have been received from this special mission.”).

For those unfamiliar with the series, all Wing Commander installments are military sci-fi games. Considering that your character is a plebe, don’t expect that you can pilot anything you want and fly off and gallivant across the far reaches of the cosmos searching for adventure. This is not Eve or any of the X games.  While this might seem off-putting to those who have grown accustomed to sandbox space games, this gem of a download does what it does well—this is one of the few games that lets you feel as if you’re really part of a space-faring navy at war with a genocidal, equally advanced alien race. The first time you get to see gargantuan alien cruisers inexorably making for a friendly capital ship, the line between playing a game and witnessing a climactic scene in a space opera series begins to blur. 

And a space opera it is; Wing Commander Saga needs to be. Unlike conventional PC first-person shooters, space sims are different in the sense that there’s no collection of ingeniously-designed levels wherein gamers play through; there are no perches to snipe from, no doors to storm through. There’s just the relatively featureless vastness of space. Thus—just like this one—all successful space simulators feature well-developed universes, character conflicts, and edge-of-your-seat mission parameters to keep things interesting. Wing Commander Saga: the Darkest Dawn pulls this off successfully in multiple fronts. In the span of the game, you get to witness civilian habitats being left behind as the navy makes a tactical withdrawal, form bonds with wingmen only to see them vanish later in flashes of superheated gases and mangled steel, and hear exclamations of despair when an enemy fleet unexpectedly warps into the sector you’re patrolling. You’ll also likely to cheer with your beleaguered wingmen every time the space equivalent of the proverbial cavalry drops in and begins to train anti-matter capital ship batteries and missiles at hostile ships. Experiences like these set apart Wing Commander Saga from the usual PC FPSs. 

It’s not just banter and emotionally powerful set sequences that make this free full version space sim a success though; Wing Commander Saga is an excellent space fighter simulator. Controls are responsive and in fact, the developers have been thoughtful enough to provide players with control scheme options in their latest patch: that of Freespace’s (which lets you steer your craft like traditional first-person shooters) or that of the old Wing Commander games (which accelerates the cursor even more the farther you move it from the center of the screen, making for a floaty but a more realistic approximation of how a space fighter would handle). 

(Note: I can’t say anything about playing the game with a joystick though as I only have a Logitech MX-518 with which to play my games but I’ve heard several users in the official forums that they’re more comfortable with a keyboard and mouse set-up.)

In the spirit of recreating believable dogfight experiences, the developers have taken care that hostile pilots aren’t mindless zombies. These activate afterburners, drop missile countermeasures, and do loops to evade enemy fire. Your companions aren’t slouches either; they do what they do well. In fact, in the easier levels of difficulty, they will rack up more kills than you. The experience sometimes even gets frustrating if you’re not nimble enough—more often than not, they will beat you in destroying an enemy bogey if you don’t take it down fast enough. 

While the AI isn’t smart enough to do complicated moves such as doing barrel rolls or cutting their engines abruptly to let you overshoot hostiles, it’s agile enough that the whole experience is vastly unlike what you will experience in, say, id Software games where you get to cut down waves upon waves of enemies. 

The missions are diverse enough to be largely entertaining—in the course of the game, you’ll get to escort carriers and civilian ships, ambush hostile troop transports, and even chase after swarms of capital ship missiles beelining for friendlies.

My only complaint with the game is the way it is structured. As with other Wing Commander games, missions typically are made up of several sub-missions that end when you’ve auto-piloted from them through nav points. Die (or fail to achieve a critical mission parameter) in one of these, and you get to repeat the entire chain from the very beginning (i.e., events before reaching the first nav point of each level). In true Wing Commander fashion, you cannot save mid-mission. Given that the developers have infused this game with a 90s feel, this downloadable free space sim will give you a devilishly hard time. You will die multiple times and get to hear the same banter from your wingmen over and over and over again. In difficult missions—escort ones come to mind—you will fail enough times that you will get to memorize a substantial amount of the conversations that will replay every time you try another go at the levels. 

The game’s difficulty is a divisive point; casual players will most probably quit in exasperation while hardcore ones will find this game a worthy challenge.

There’s also the fact that the tutorial fails to point out a few of the important controls. Also, owing to an odd menu screen design, most players will never know there’s a Wing Commander Saga tutorial. Clicking on the door that says “start or continue a campaign” from the very first screen you see takes you to the opening phase of the Darkest Dawn campaign, a move that will plop you into the action with no idea of what button does what.

>>>Click here to see how to access the Wing Commander Saga tutorial

Not taking a tutorial is a disaster; as a PC space flight simulator, Wing Commander Saga has a whole bevy of controls. I’ve listed Important Wing Commander Saga Hotkeys in a separate article. While hardcore simulator fans will have a grand time getting used to the various controls, some might find the learning curve too steep. There are controls to equalize shields (useful when you’ve taken multiple hits on a single side), drop countermeasures, match speed with your current target, and target a specific subsystem of a capital ship (radar, turrets, etc) to name a few.  


Wing Commander Saga’s graphics are light years ahead of even the last installment to the series (Prophecy). Powered by the Freespace 2 engine, the game touts several modern features like specular lighting and sun flares. It’s nowhere near Crysis of course but seeing a Kilrathi heavy cruiser rendered by the new game engine should be a jaw-dropping experience for Wing Commander fans.

The PC game’s engine is not cutting edge but you’d still be wowed by several of the backdrops---you’ll dogfight above the debris ring of a planet, seek enemy assets around asteroid belts, and even defend a civilian capital. The last is one of those rare moments in gaming that really catches you by surprise. Doing atmospheric dogfights with Kilrathi heavy fighters is something I never thought I would experience. 

On the downside, some of the textures in Wing Commander Saga appear outdated, namely carriers’ flight decks and briefing room cut scenes. While these visual weak points are certainly not game breaking, it’s odd to see the aesthetic deviations. Landing in carriers feels as if you’ve just passed through a time portal; the anachronistic texture of the ships’ interiors just contrasts greatly with the sheen of the exteriors. 

Also, Wing Commander Saga isn’t as smooth in terms of anti-aliasing relative to other games. I’ve tried adding both exes just to be on the safe side to the Nvidia Control Panel’s “Manage 3D Settings” menu and have tried both 2x and 4x settings but the results still aren’t as satisfying as say, Darksiders' or FEAR's. 

Briefing room cutscenes are arguably the game’s lowest point. They just can’t match up with anything within the game—even the menu screen, which is the closest thing to the cutscenes. There’s no specular lighting and no deeper shadows that would have lent them a greater sense of depth. Still, they only make up a small percentage of the game though so this isn’t a serious concern.


Explosions and hostile and friendly fire sound accurate enough that it brings me back to the days when I was playing Prophecy. The hollow thump and hissing sound as a capital ship missile leaves its launcher is exhilarating to hear (or chilling if its target is a friendly); you’d know something massive was hurled out from a ship’s rack when you hear one of these demolishers fly out. Granted, there are more games there that emit a better sound effect when a missile is launched but it still is good to hear that the developers thought to give capship missiles a different sfx. 

The con to the aforementioned pro: capship turrets sound almost the same as the lasers of interceptors.

The music is upbeat enough in tense situations and serene enough at idle times. It’s good, really good but it’s not something I’d remember several months from now. 

Voice acting is great and for the record, this free space sim elicited from me more guffaws and snickers than any other game to date. (“’Commandeer’? I guess someone’s mommy got him a thesaurus for his birthday. Aww…”) A wingman’s obsession with women, another’s banter with a longtime friend, and an elite wing’s preference for classical music—all these lend Wing Commander Saga with a tangible life of its own. Every time you play the game, you’ll never get the feeling you’re flying with just masses of extra hit points. You won’t find a Jen Taylor here, much less a James Earl Jones, but the voice actors of this freeware downloadable space sim did an impressive job. (Kudos to the writers too!)

(Note: I haven’t tested this yet on a 5.1 surround sound system as my Logitech X-530 just died but I’ll be updating this review as soon as I get one.)


Wing Commander Saga: The Darkest Dawn also brings back a universe that has been well-loved by fans and game critics alike; you get to revisit a genre that has long remained dormant. In all probability you might not finish all 50 missions due to the game’s difficulty, but—because this is freeware—you don’t have anything to lose if you do. 

Wing Commander Saga: The Darkest Dawn didn’t start out as a retail game so this just might be the most well-polished (stand-alone; single player) downloadable freeware game out there that doesn’t have an item mall. Give it a go.

Tilt: 8.0 – To date, I haven’t experienced any glitches much less crashes so as a whole it’s a seamless experience. This would have scored an 8.5 or a 9.0 but the difficulty and the way the game is structured—lengthy unskippable comms between pilots and ships in even the most difficult missions—guarantee that you’d be wasting your time listening to the same lines over and over when you replay them. An option to skip the talky bits would have helped. As it is, this is one of the best freeware full version games out there. Download it now. 

Graphics: 7.5 – Space. There just isn’t much to see. Still, what the game has are gorgeous; the angular, angry, maroon-dominated design of the Kilrathi ships and fighters give a good contrast to the sleek aerodynamic symmetry of the predominantly blue-hued Terran Confleet ships and fighter craft. Explosions are awesome to behold and planets, nebulae, and star flares bestrew the game with much needed splashes of color.  

Gameplay: 9.0 – The space sim genre is largely dead at the moment. (What (popular!) space games are thriving aren’t even strictly combat games; most are geared towards economy aspects like the X series.)  At the moment, the experience offered by this free PC space sim is unparalleled; you just can’t find anything out there that can compare to this one. Dearth of competition aside, Wing Commander Saga is a game that can stand on its own. Its punishing difficulty guarantees that veteran fans of the series won’t be disappointed. Casual gamers might give this a lower score though; the game's appeal largely depends on your preferences.

Sound: 8.0 – Talkative teammates breathe a whole new dimension into this space fighter game. Explosions sound powerful and the music tracks keep you engaged. 

Replayability: 8.0 – I’m playing this game on the default difficulty and I’m pretty sure I’ll be playing this again at a higher one once I finish this just to see how dogfights play out. I’ve been playing this for more than a week now and the game shows no sign of stopping (the game’s developers claim this game has 50 missions; that’s a stupendously large amount!). 

Final Score: 8.1


Anonymous said...

Just FYI - that bit in the manual refers to Wing Commander Armada, sort of a turn-based strategy game set in the WC universe.

Ildamos said...

Thanks for the heads-up! I copy-pasted that from the Wing Commander Saga PDF file though. I didn't know it also made a reference to another game.