Reviewed: August 5, 2007
Released: July 25, 2007
Whenever I hear (or see) the name “Wing Commander” my attention is immediately brought to focus on the source like the twin cannons of the Tiger’s Claw. I’ve been a hardcore Wing Commander fan ever since the game literally forced me to purchase a 386 computer back in 1990 just to play it. It was soon afterwards, that this same game forced me to purchase a Roland MT-32 to hear the wonderful MIDI score. That was about $2,000 dollars to play one game…and worth every penny.
I played that game, and the subsequent Secret Missions and sequels for nearly a decade to follow, going through numerous generations of PC’s, joysticks, HOTAS, sound, and video cards. I stuck with the series when they moved from animated cutscenes to FMV starring Mark Hamill and a lot of other famous and semi-famous Hollywood talent. Heck, I even bought a Panasonic 3DO ($699) just to play that version of Wing Commander. I did have to draw the line when it came to the lame theatrical release, and that line gets even thicker today.
You see, Wing Commander Arena has just arrived on the Xbox Live Arcade, and what had me chomping at the bit for months, now leaves me in total despair and disappointment. I’m not sure exactly what this game is or even how to play it, and that is after a week of trying. Whatever this is, despite the fraudulent use of one of the most revered franchise names in gaming history, it is NOT “Wing Commander”…not in gameplay…not even in spirit. Somebody hijacked the title and a few ship names, slapped them on a boring 2D shooter that barely evolves past Asteroids, and they now want you to spend 800 precious MS points.
I would have been happy if Wing Commander Arena had simply been the arcade machine version of the game you played in the bar onboard the Tiger’s Claw, or even a multiplayer version of the original game sans story, but alas, we get some funky squad-based online-focused space-shooter where you try to take out individual enemies as well as capital ships. With 18 ships, 9 maps, 4 game modes, and for the first time ever on the Live Arcade – 16 player matches, you’d think there would be something to enjoy in Arena…there’s not.
You can probably have as much fun as possible with Wing Commander Arena by simply playing the free Trial version. If you do venture into the online expanse of space and multiplayer you’ll find your troubles start almost immediately with a severe lack of training or even a useful tutorial. I’m not one to ever read a game manual – I always rely on in-game training, but in this case you really do need something beyond the few pages of “How To” info screens provided.
It’s not that flying the ships is that hard…it’s not. You move around a scrolling star field steering with the left stick and using the right stick to perform evasive moves like a loop or barrel roll. Then it’s all about getting into position and unleashing a barrage of lasers, rockets, and missiles. You can get a feel for the various ships and their controls in the offline modes of Proving Grounds, an open practice arena, or you go up against extremely difficult AI-controlled pilots in Melee mode or play a funky version of Asteroids in Meteor Storm where you must protect a space station from incoming chunks of rock. And then you have Gauntlet, where the meteors are replaced with wave after wave of enemy ships, each wave increasing in difficulty.
There is no denying the heavy focus of the online gameplay in Arena – in fact, if you don’t plan on playing this game online then don’t even bother. Online modes included Deathmatch, CTF, One-on-One, and even a Capital Ship mode where teams try to destroy the giant enemy cruiser. With only four modes and 9 maps, the Arena can get a little stale after a few hours of gameplay.
Wing Commander Arena is pure arcade, both in presentation and gameplay hearkening back to the classic days of Asteroids and Bosconian. It’s a far cry from the innovative game design of the original Wing Commander that paved the way for modern 3D flight and space shooters. Wing Commander was always more about the story and characters, with the gameplay only facilitating your ability to see the next chapter of the plot. Arena has none of this, and as such just comes across as just a shallow shooter riding on the coattails of a famous franchise.
Visuals are impressive for a 2D shooter, but are generations behind the glorious 3D ship models from the last chapter of the PC game or even the 3DO version for that matter. The game looks pretty much like any of those shareware shooters from the mid to late 90’s. There are nice scrolling star fields, nebulae, asteroids (or meteors), and some nice ship designs, at least in the selection screens. Once in the game these ships are reduced to icon status in the far-away camera view and only get marginally larger in the chase view.
Expect plenty of special effects, particles, glowing beams, fiery explosions, and such. It all looks flashy and fun…a lot more fun than the game really is. In fact, you’ll probably enjoy this game more if you watch somebody else play it. There is also support for widescreen and the various high-def modes – a nice next-gen touch to a last-gen game.
It took a few years before the Origin pioneered the marketing tactic of releasing speech packs for Wing Commander, and then everybody jumped on the bandwagon. And back before CD-ROM’s that meant installing disk after floppy disk of speech modules. No worries – there’s no floppy add-ons for Arena…and no speech either.
The acceptable, but lackluster audio package consists mainly of orchestral score and a few futuristic sound effects tossed in for lasers, missiles, and the resulting explosions. Again, acceptable for an XBLA game but not worthy of the Wing Commander legacy.
I’ll say it again – do NOT buy this game if you aren’t going to play it online. The solo-offline portion is minimal at best and most of it can be played in the free Trial version. If you want any of the 200 Achievement points you’ll also have to go online as all objectives are multiplayer-based.
As with any multiplayer game your length of enjoyment is solely based on others, which is always a risky proposition. At this time there seems to be enough people playing Arena to find a few games just about any time of day. This number may grow or shrink to nothing as new XBLA titles arrive. If you act now, and play the game a lot over the next few months you can probably get $10 worth of fun out of it.
Personally, I didn’t like Wing Commander Arena for several reasons, mostly because I had a vision in my head of what the Wing Commander name implies and Arena is no part of that vision. As long as you go into this game realizing that it in no way resembles anything truly Wing Commander, and are prepared for a shareware style 2D space shooter with limited fun and potential, knock yourself out. For me, there are a lot better offerings in the Xbox Live Arcade.