Wing Commander: Privateer

I don't want to be doing this right now.  I'm sitting at my computer, typing; usually this is something I enjoy doing, and I think it's pretty comical that I now get paid to type out opinions that I'd normally pester people with for free.  This time, however, I've got other things on my mind.  You see, I just traded in my geriatric rust-bucket and picked up a shiny new Galaxy, and I'd like to get in a couple more milk runs so I can pick up some star maps and a well-needed shield generator.

In English:  I'd rather be playing Privateer.  (Hey, Origin, wouldn't that make a cool bumpersticker?!) If you're reading this now, you probably play computer games.  And if you play computer games, you probably have at least a passing familiarity with Origin's Wing Commander series of starfighter games.  (If not, shame on you, silly person.)  If you've vaporized so many Kilrathi aces you're starting to cough up hairballs, I suggest you clear off a good chunk of hard drive space and dive into Privateer.  But tie a rope around your waist and affix the other end to your desk, loved one, or cat, because that may be the only way you'll find your way out again.

Like the other games set in the Wing Commander universe, you spend the majority of the game in the cockpit of a well-armed (sometimes) spaceship.  Unlike the previous WC games, the main point of Privateer isn't combat.  But it can be.  But it doesn't have to be.  That's part of this game's beauty:  you do what you want, when you feel like doing it.  But I'll get back to that later.

Here's what's going on:  you were doing fine as an officer onboard a merchant ship.  Then you got a space-age telegram from your very removed grandfather.  In short, the telegram said, "Grandson, I'm dead.  You're my only relative, so I'm leaving you what money I haven't managed to blow and an old decrepit ship that may not even work anymore."  This didn't interest you too much.  You had a good job, decent pay, and a hot girlfriend waiting for you on the science station you were en route to.  That was before the Church of Man came along.  Also known as "Retros," the Church of Man are a bunch of fanatical religious pinheads.  The C of M hate all technology, and consider it their holy mission to blow the hell out of every man-made object in space.  Without provocation, they killed your captain, blew up your girlfriend, and made Swiss cheese out of your merchant ship.  All of a sudden, granddad's offer doesn't sound so bad.

So now you're in command of a Tarsus, an out-dated ship that's been out of production for 10 years.  There's only two good things that can be said about your ship:  it works, and it's upgradeable.  You can fasten on new equipment, but don't expect any miracles; trying to make a first class warship out of a Tarsus is like trying to make a CAD station out of a PC Junior.  Luckily, you don't have to put yourself on the front lines and defend humanity against the Kilrathi onslaught in your little beater of a ship.  Although you'll be forced to defend yourself on many occasions, the name of this game is trade.  You start out with a limited ship and even more limited funds.  There are two ways to make the money that you'll need to upgrade your Tarsus and eventually purchase a new ship:  you can accept a paid mission from the mission computers found on starbases, or you can purchase goods from one starbase and sell them at a higher price at another.  Usually, a combination of the two is a good plan.

You thought you had it tough in the ConFed Navy in the first two Wing Commander games, being thrown into increasingly tougher battles against some of the best fighter pilots in the Kilrathi Empire.  That was cake.  If you made it home, the ConFed Navy sent you to the bar and immediately went to work repairing all the damage you ensued, ensuring you a brand new ship loaded with enough ordnance to choke an admiral.  Not so in Privateer.  Try completing a mission or cargo run, only to dump all the money you just made into repairs for the ship some sleazy pirate nearly shot out from under you.  That's life in the private sector, buddy, take it or leave it.

As far as updating the game from the previous WC installments goes, Origin have done quite a bit.  Privateer uses Strike Commander's cinematic engine and Wing Commander 2's gaming engine.  This results in a game that is smoother, faster, and prettier to look at than its predecessors.  The cinematic sequences have much more detailed graphics than those in WC2, those blocky MCGA images replaced now by actual VGA, and the animation is smoother and faster.  The digitized voices are also of better quality, and take a little less time to load from the hard drive, allowing digitized passages to flow better.  Combat itself is also much faster and smoother.  The close-up bitmapped images of ships and bases are much improved, being more detailed and far less grainy than those in WC2.  The enemy also have a slew of new moves; even the technologically handicapped Retros execute graceful rolls and slide elegantly into directional changes.  They're quite beautiful to watch, until one of them shoots you in the face.

Probably the greatest feature of this game is the freedom you are given when playing it.  In a market where games try desperately to be non-linear, Privateer is the least linear game I have ever played.  There are a huge amount of missions available to you, but you don't have to take any of them if you don't want, and if you don't the game is still perfectly playable.  (Just don't expect to make money very quickly.)  You can eventually discover subplots that can lead you in a logical path if you choose to accept it, but never do you lock yourself into a chain of events that you must see through to the end.  You are free to explore the world of Privateer at your leisure, and that's about as close to an alternate reality as I've seen a game come.

All this freedom, beauty, and excitement comes at a price, however.  Privateer and its optional speech pack (and I'll get back to that little item later) require about 22MB of hard drive space.  Anyone who thinks they can make do with the mouse or keyboard for a controller had better think again.  Although these two devices are fully supported as flight controls, a good solid joystick is a must.  Also, Privateer plays dismally slow and choppy on a 33Mhz 386DX.  A 486DX is the optimal machine for this game, and a fast hard drive sure won't hurt, either.  The installation manual details a few system configurations that will run Privateer well, and DOS 6.0 owners will do well to include one of these in their startup configuration menu.  Although the box says Privateer supports Doublespace, anyone foolish enough to use this little software gem should expect some noticeable delays due to the huge sacrifice in hard drive speed.  Still, if you have the hardware and are willing to use it, Privateer is truly a landmark game.

Like many of Origin's recent games, Privateer sports an optional speech pack, sold separately.  I've always hated this idea; to me it seems like a sleazy way to squeeze the gamer for more money.  When you buy a game, you should pay one price and get all the features; you shouldn't have to pay more for what should have been there in the first place.  If you don't have a Sound Blaster compatible sound card and have no use for digitized speech, an option to disable it from the installation program would keep the included speech routines from unnecessarily taking up hard drive space.  I'd feel a little less abused if Origin put their games into one package and charged one price for them, even if they were a little more expensive.

Privateer is, without a doubt, one of the greatest accomplishments I've seen in a long time.  Finally there's a game that lives up to the claim of non-linear play.  Origin has created a huge gaming world, and invited us to explore it as we see fit.  Make an honest living as a trader, offer your guns to the highest bidder as a cold-blooded mercenary, or become the terror of the spaceways as a pirate preying on the cargo of innocent merchants.  Or find your own combination of work.  Just remember that you live on the planet earth; you only vacation in outer space.