What do Gimli, Biff Tannen, Luke Skywalker and Alex from a Clockwork Orange all have in common? The actors that portrayed them all starred in Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger. I’m not talking about the Wing Commander theatrical release of 1999, the campy suck-fest starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard. I’m talking about the famed space combat simulator created by Chris Roberts and released by Origin Systems in the early 90s.
It’s hard for to me believe that Wing Commander III (WC3) hit the shelves twenty years ago in 1994. For those of you too young to remember, or for those not even born yet, the Wing Commander series pit the Terran Confederation of Earth against a vicious cat-like alien race known as the Kilrathi. The first two games featured heavy doses of space combat with animated (and I use the term loosely) interaction between fellow pilots and crew members between space missions. The missions themselves ranged from simple search and destroy missions to full-on attacks on massive capital ships. Every now and then you would come across a Kilrathi Ace, whose piloting skills were far above average. The between mission cut scenes where nothing more than an animated image of a stationary character whose mouth just happened to move. Dialogue consisted of subtitles.
This all changed in 1994 though, with the release of Wing Commander 3. The game itself was designed to immerse the gamer into the world in which he or she was playing. It was created to make it feel as if you were part of a movie. At the time, few if any games had tried such a thing. And none attempted it with the $4 million budget WC3 had. All cut scenes in WC3 were actual full motion video (FMV) sequences using live actors and animatronics (for the Kilrathi). The result was a blockbuster game with an all-star movie cast that could rival many feature cinema releases of the time.
The gamer assumed the role of Colonel Christopher Blair, played by none other than Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill. If you are thinking that’s the biggest name, or even the best actor in the game, you are in for a surprise. Augmenting Hamill in the cast were other big stars like Malcom McDowell, John Rhys-Davies, and Tim Curry, who voiced one of the Kilrathi. In addition to the big names, there was a host of several B-list actors such as Tom Wilson (Biff Tannen from Back to the Future), Josh Lucas, Courtney Gaines and Jason Bernard. Even porn star Ginger Lynn Allen entered the fray, portraying a mechanic and one of two possible love interests on the space carrier TCS (Terran Confederation Ship) Victory. Looking back, WC3 probably boasts the greatest cast of any game ever produced, and I stand firmly by that.
The cut scenes pushed the game and storyline along, and every now and then the gamer would come to a point where the cut scene would stop and a decision would have to be made based on the current situation. This decision would alter the current cut-scene, and the entire course of the game. You see, in WC3, not only did your gaming abilities change the outcome of the game, but so too did your decisions. And Wing Commander 3 didn’t just boast big-screen production values. The space combat held its own with engrossing and challenging gameplay that was bolstered by cutting-edge polygon based graphics. WC3 was the complete package. It was fun to watch, and fun to play.
One could argue that Wing Commander 3 changed the course of gaming and set the standard for future games. Though games rarely employ FMV like they used to, you can find it in titles like Mass Effect and Halo, games that were influenced by WC3. Gamers not only wanted a good story, they wanted to be a part of that story, and to lose themselves in the experience. Wing Commander 3 achieved this. Back when consoles were still stuck in side-scrolling platform games (Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was released in 1994), the PC witnessed the birth of modern gameplay. Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger is largely to thank for this.
If you missed out on it the first time, you can find it on Origin for the paltry sum of $2.49 right now at https://www.origin.com/en-us/store/buy/wing-commander-3-heart-of-the-tiger/pc-download/base-game/standard-edition. Even now, WC3 offers a fun escape and a historical look at some of the best the PC had to offer.
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