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Wing Commander: Darkest Dawn, Fan-Made Goodness
Date: Mar 26, 2012
Author: Joel Hruska
Last week, we previewed the launch of Wing Commander Saga: Darkest Dawn, the fan-built companion to Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger that's been in the making for the past ten years. We were excited for its launch. But now that the game is available, how'd the team do?

Descent 2 had beautiful explosions -- a feature Darkest Dawn preserves

How good is Wing Commander Saga: Darkest Dawn? Let me illustrate it thusly. The game dropped on Thursday, I started playing Friday, and as of this writing (Sunday afternoon), my weekend chore list is gathering dust on the fridge. I've been too busy cursing my decision to chuck my Microsoft Sidewinder Precision 2 to notice. "If I'd kept it just one more year I wouldn't have this problem," I mutter, fingers splayed over the keyboard in a vain attempt to convince my Hellcat to bank like something other than a Centaurian Mud Pig.

Yeah. It's like that.

Wing Commander Saga: Darkest Dawn is a fan-made Wing Commander mod that uses a highly modified form of the open-source Freespace 2 engine. It's Wing Commander infused with Freespace DNA; the game's models and textures are pure WC, while the lighting, effects, and certain flight elements are Freespace-infused. Freespace's subsystem targeting, engine wash effects, and shockwave damage blend smoothly into each other -- for the most part.

This is sufficient to make Mark Hamil punch a puppy. Thankfully it's a one-time occurrence.

There are a few rough spots, some less-than-stellar voice acting, and a truly unfortunate choice of font that makes reading anything a chore. This last is made worse by the game's decision to present a truly agonizing Great Wall of Text right after the introduction movie. The good news is, this only seems to happen once. The game's plot is delivered by a combination of animated 3D briefings, a few Descent-style cutscenes, and in-cockpit dialog. The game's default difficulty setting is "Easy"; we'd recommend veterans crank it up a few notches once you've remembered how to play. A joystick is highly recommended.
Visuals and Gameplay

Wing Commander Saga's visual style takes its cues from Wing Commander 3 & 4's software-rendered polygonal engine. That's a bit disappointing if you loved the richer colors and lighting effects of Wing Commander: Prophecy -- which I did -- but Darkest Dawn's models and textures are amazingly good given the age of the Freespace 2 engine and the game's lack of development budget.

Compare where we came from -- that's the Victory (Wing Commander 3) on the left and the Lexington (Wing Commander 4) on the right...

With the TCS Hermes in Wing Commander Saga.

That's just the beginning of the eye candy. Here's a snapshot of some of the game's capital ships and fighters. All images are taken from in-game missions.


Two legacy ships (the Ferret and the Sabre) alongside the Longbow bomber from WC4. There's just one mission in a WC2-era fighters, but they're just as lovingly detailed.


Here are some shots of the TCS Bradshaw, a Lexington-class carrier. The Lexington pictured above is a Concordia-class carrier, a class that was named for -- but not the same as -- the Concordia you flew off in Wing Commander 2. Confused? So am I. 


And here we have the TCS Hermes, a Jutland-class carrier and your new home.


The Kilrathi Fralthi II-class (above) and a Vaktoth and Dralthi below.

Darkest Dawn isn't just a pretty face; its missions play out in the expanded, multi-fighter style that was the hallmark of the series' later games. Instead of throwing you + a wingman against every flight, most missions pair you up with various fighter wings with specific roles to play, from bomber escort to point defense.

Headed home after defending the civilians on Vega Prime

It's not uncommon to have upwards of 30 fighters (including hostiles) in flight at once, with 8-10 cap ships in total. Capital ships retain their Wing Commander characteristics and pack a wide range of anti-fighter turrets with some classes supplementing this with plasma cannons or similar weaponry. It's technically possible to attack capital ships in a fighter though, much the same way as its technically possible for a chihuahua to attack a tank.
Missions and Storyline, Conclusion
I haven't finished the game yet, so I can't give an opinion on the entire story, but the first 10-12 missions of the 55 mission arc are quite encouraging. You play as Sandman, a rookie pilot assigned to the TCS Hermes. The story opens just before the events of Wing Commander III, at a time when the war with the Terran Confederation and feline Kilrathi Empire has both sides staggering. The Terran Confederation is on the defensive, abandoning systems and rushing older vessels to the front the lines.

Sandman joins the Hermes in the Vega Sector, a location instantly familiar to any Wing Commander fan. It's a good choice, as it anchors the new game in the nostalgic turf of the original game. Early victories are challenged by a massive influx of Kilrathi forces, until you find yourself fighting just to safeguard fleeing colonists without any chance of stemming the Kilrathi onslaught. Initially, I thought the game's lack of a branching mission tree would be a weakness, but the mission objectives are varied sufficiently that there's a real sense of challenge.

The in-game mission chatter, meanwhile, is actually much better than its counterparts in previous Wing Commander games or even in the single expansion pack Origin released for Wing Commander Prophecy. If the voice acting is occasionally wooden, it's never bad.

Wing Commander Saga is a fan-made game that's good enough to be worth paying for; if there was a "Donate" button on the website I'd have used it already. Not only is it better than a lot of schlock companies expect you to pay for, it pays homage to its source material while improving on Wing Commander's classic gameplay and graphics. Playing it makes me wonder if the team ever dared ask Mark Hamil to help out with a few Christopher Blair lines for a mission, or talked to any of the other actors / developers associated with Wing Commander; but Darkest Dawn doesn't rely on cheap tricks or cameos to generate appeal.

Returning from a bombing run and landing on the Hermes

The only downside to Wing Commander Saga is that it highlights the sad state of space combat games in general. If a group of fans can build a game this great and see over 50,000 downloads in 24 hours, you'd think a commercial team could actually build a game that people would pay for. Hopefully Darkest Dawn's success will encourage game developers to take a look at this segment and possibly do something with it.

Until they do, I'll be flying the Vega Sector. Hope to see you there.

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