Wing Commander Saga: The Darkest Dawn – A Labor of Love
I am, I’ll admit, an unabashed Wing Commander fanboy. I’ve played all the PC games and enjoyed all of them (Privateer 2 doesn’t count), and have logged several hundred hours in the various iterations of the Confed/Kilarthi universe. Now we have a new, fan-based peek into that universe I and many fans love so much. Entitled Wing Commander Saga: The Darkest Dawn, it’s a game with a long history, almost as long as the series on which it’s based. Please join me now as I take a look at this new entry into the Wing Commander mythos and see how well it fares.
A little history is necessary to set the mood for this review. Right before the original Wing Commander came out in 1990 – my god, has it been that long?! — I recall seeing an advertisement for it in a gaming magazine, and just being blown away. My head danced with visions of The Last Starfighter and Star Wars, and I knew I just HAD to have that game. Thankfully, the game itself wasn’t a disappointment, and spawned four more games in its main series — the fourth being my favorite — as well as several offshoots such as Privateer, Armada and Academy.
Fast forward to 2001, years after the final game in the series, Prophecy, had been released. The creator of this project, known as “Tolwyn”, had the idea to create a Wing Commander-based mod for the recently released RTS Conquest: Frontier Wars. This sadly never materialized, and neither did a mod based on the Starshatter engine. Finally, in 2002, Tolwyn and his team settled upon the popular and flexible Freespace 2 engine, which had recently been released as open source.
Now, as someone who loves both Wing Commander and Freespace 2, I was excited as HELL at the time. Here’s a game based on a favorite series using the engine from my favorite space combat sim ever — how could it NOT be amazing? Sadly, as with many fan-based projects such as this, it lapsed into obscurity for many years. Their site released several updates a year, but I honestly never thought the game would launch, so I’ll admit I lost touch with the game for a long while.
Fast forward again to around mid-2011, where fans got word that a beta test was finally announced. My level of excitement increased yet again, and I waited patiently for what I hoped would be a release. FINALLY, earlier this year, the game was released, and space sim fans rejoiced (or maybe it was just me, I dunno…) in what they hoped would be a fresh and exciting installment in this iconic sci-fi series. Did the ten years and hundreds of hours of work pay off?
In a word, yes. In one more word, abso-frakking-lutely. Before I get to the nuts and the bolts of the game itself, I’ll explain why The Darkest Dawn is, to me, such a huge success, and it all comes down to one word…love. From the moment you launch the game, to the moment you first launch off the catapult of either the TCS Wellington or Hermes, to the moment you kill your first Dralthi fighter…you can tell this game was made by people who truly know and love Wing Commander and its mythology.
You can see the love in the ship models, which look fantastic. You can hear the love in the music, which is VERY Wing Commanderesque. There is just so much detail, so many little things that only a Wing Commander fan would notice — like the missile bay/pod underneath the Arrow for example, which I always enjoyed — that the love of Wing Commander is evident from the word go, and it makes this game both feel classic and fresh at the same time, thanks to a new story, new characters, and new challenges.
The game itself takes place around the time of Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, which allowed the team to use well-known and well-loved assets to create a side-story that occurs alongside that iconic game. While Blair, Maniac and Paladin are off helping to save the universe, you take the role of David “Sandman” Markham. In the first campaign, called a prologue, you’ll serve aboard the TCS Wellington, an older carrier that’s seeing some unexpected front-line action.
While there is an underlying story taking place in the missions, between missions you’re presented with giant walls of text to read, which is a replacement for the ability to visit the ship’s bar and talk to your crewmates which was present in the original games. This is true of both campaigns, and I missed this, but I understood it was likely not feasible for the project. Regardless, I barely skimmed all this text — I have a very short attention span — and only paid attention to the dialogue spoken in the missions themselves, which can be of…inconsistent quality.
Back to the story: the first prologue campaign serves as something as a tutorial, but the difficulty can ramp up severely between the first and last mission — there are five in total — so new pilots really need to pay attention and get comfortable with the controls. While this first campaign was a bit cheesy, I actually found myself getting attached to the characters, so well done, game. As with any Wing Commander game, however, don’t get too attached to anyone.
The game’s main campaign finds Sandman and his compatriots aboard the TCS Hermes, a more recently-built carrier than the Wellington, with a larger task force as well. This campaign consists of around fifty missions, of which I have played several at this point, but still have several in front of me to go. While the prologue campaign has a bit of cheesiness in the beginning but which gets very serious at the end, the main campaign starts off decidedly uncheesily and ramps up the stakes accordingly as you progress. I won’t dive too fa into the story, but suffice it to say that as a big Wing Commander fan, I’m very satisfied with how it’s turning out. It feels like a very fitting addition to the mythology of the series as a whole.
In terms of gameplay, it’s top notch. I mean, this is built on the exceptional Freespace 2 engine, which is still the best space combat simulation created by mankind. Mixing what is an amazingly flexible and capable engine with a beloved spate of ships to fight in and against was nothing less than thrilling. The “WWII in space” turn-and-burn style of combat that the original Wing Commander helped to pioneer is perfectly suited to the Freespace 2 engine, which shares the same style. This means that combat just feels…right. It’s intense, fast paced and tactically challenging.
One thing that this game gets right is using the Freespace 2 engine to its fullest. None of the Wing Commander games had an escort list, or such a robust selection of targeting and communication controls, but all of them are used to their utmost here, which only adds to the immersion and intensity. Unlike most of the Wing Commander games, wherein you could fly around as the lone hero half-cocked and let your wingmen do their thing, here you decidedly need to rely on your wingmen to help handle the bevy of targets available to you in a given mission. The Freespace 2 engine is also used to great effect in building tension by creating sensor ghosts, shipboard fires and other little touches that just keep you on your toes.
Overall, whether you’re new to Wing Commander or an ace pilot, The Darkest Dawn is a rousing success on nearly every level. Besides niggles like walls of text or making the prologue campaign less than intuitive to find, there is barely anything wrong that I could find with this game. So what are you waiting for? It’s free, go play it! You can thank me later. ;)
Thanks for reading my review, I hope y’all enjoyed it, and now I invite you to enjoy a gallery of all the screenshots I took below. :) Have a great day!