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Game Over Online ~ Wing Commander: Secret Ops

GameOver Game Reviews - Wing Commander: Secret Ops (c) Origin, Reviewed by - Pseudo Nim / Umax /

Game & Publisher Wing Commander: Secret Ops (c) Origin
System Requirements P-133, 32MB RAM
Overall Rating 86%
Date Published Tuesday, September 1st, 1998 at 09:29 PM


Divider Left By: Pseudo Nim Divider Right

Wing Commander... that name... the name that dates back to 1991 when the original hit by Chris Roberts was released. You must've heard of it, lest you lived in a trailer park with a broken satellite dish, no TV and no Internet for the past 8 years. Much has happened since then, and, having released Wing Commander II, III, IV, Chris Roberts left Origin. Was that why Prophecy was ... different? We'll never know. The storyline was radically different, the atmosphere, even the cast started to mutate - we all know what happened by the end of Prophecy. In any case, building upon the events outlined in Prophecy, Secret Ops, at the same time, shines with a few new features, namely the fact that it's free. Admittedly, Origin could afford to release a free game, as this is basically Prophecy with the FMV's stripped out - but nevertheless, it's a Wing Commander, and an excellent one at that. But more to the point, and, mind you, if you want a usual review of strictly Secret Ops, jump to Umax's review - mine's about SO with flashbacks as well as elements of epic nostalgia and digression.

Origin has been widely criticized for their server problems with Ultima Online, and I feared this would be the case with SO... and so it was. I was fortunate to drop by their site on August 24th, about 10 - 15 minutes after registration started, so their servers were not yet swept by a tidal wave of people trying to get their usernames, but, as you'll see in Umax's review, he was not as lucky. I also happened to stumble upon ftp.download.com's release of it about 20 minutes before it was posted on their site, so I had a chance to get it off before their lines saturated, as well. In any case, this time, Origin did a better job, in my view, of mirroring downloads (well, fine, UO wasn't downloadable, but at least corporate policy didn't prevent them from offloading the WC:SO archive them to multiple servers). I believe they should've done a better job with mirroring registration, as I'm sure many people would've volunteered ATM links just for the Wing Commander cause.

'Mais retournons au nos moutons.' The idea behind SO is similar to that of a soap opera, but without the lamented crying and trying to figure out for about 15 - 20 years who is whose son. After the initial download, which includes 5 missions, there will be an 8-mission addon each week, for a period of 7 weeks. That idea sounds pretty good, until you try the game and find yourself compelting the initial download missions in under an hour - or so I did, anyway. A neat feature, incidentally, is that when you register, depending on the data you provide Origin with, such as your past Wing Commander experience, etc. your game settings will be somewhat different, in particular, game difficulty. Of course, you can chicken out and lower the difficulty, but I find it's still a neat feature.

A word has to be said about cutscenes. I'm not sure why this feature is so overlooked in most games - perhaps, because it's much easier to just do an FMV shoot and get it over with, but so far, I've seen two games that implemented it, one well, the other well enough - Final Fantasy VII and WC:SO. I'm talking about engine-rendered cinematics. What I mean by that are cutscenes, but which are rendered using the game engine - like you saw your character walk around, etc. but without your control. If done properly, like I believe it was done in FF7, it could help the game greatly, as you will no longer play a character that look a certain way, make up your own opinion of him, etc. - then have an FMV where he looks like a bum from that street next to you. Engine-rendered scenes, though, always use the same 3D models throughout the game, so you never feel like you're suddenly seeing some weird guy that you've never noticed in the game. There is, of course, the other extreme - fully FMV-based games, such as Gabriel Knight II, but that requires significant amounts of media, and stresses your CD-ROM a lot, thereby automatically raising the requirements plank. In WC:SO the engine-rendered cutscenes are not earth-shattering, but, on the other hand, the reason why it's so small (comparative to, say, Prophecy) is that FMVs are no longer used in the game, and they sure get the point across.

The gameplay closely resembles Prophecy, as well as the previous Wing Commanders, which is a great thing. Umax compares this game to Descent: Freespace, but I really doubt there's a comparison - Freespace is a _spinoff_ from a pretty good game, and Wing Commander IS the good game. It has a story to it, it has an atmosphere, it has the dedication of fans, it has something Freespace can never have. The flight models are somewhat simplified in SO, I admit - but many nifty tricks can be done, which truly shows off ace pilots: for example, the Vampire has incredible pitch rate, but a relatively low yaw rate - so when you need a quick turn to the starboard, you'd roll your ship right, then pull up - instead of just turning right - thereby doing a quicker turn than you normally would. There's also the autoslide, which is, perhaps, one of the cleverest inventions of all time - and other space sims don't seem to have it for some reason. The story of the autoslide is interesting. It was originally called the Shelton slide, and was implemented in WC2 on the Sabre, then later on on all ships in WC3 and 4, and then, in Prophecy (and SO) only on some, which was pretty disconcerting, if you got majorly used to it (given that it saved your life way more than once, you really should have). Missiles and guns stick to the tradition, which was briefly violated by WC3 where all guns looked similar, just with different colors. The Cloudburst is a pretty neat weapon, and the Swarmer AB is still there, as well as the usual array of Pilums, HSers, Imrecs and torpedoes. And one thing that I completely adore about Wing Commander, which LucasArts never put in any X-Wing games, or Volition in Freespace - is the waypoint idea. You never know what'll hit you on the next waypoint - it could be a lone Moray that strayed from the flock, could be void, could be a whole fleet - and it's always fun to find it out. (Although I preferred WC2's waypoints, where surprises were always much more accentuated - you'd fly into an area, and find three Dorkirs complete with a Jalkehi escort... now that was fun.)

The graphics in the game are very similar to Prophecy. The company states that improvements have been made to the engine - I reserve judgment on that, but so far I haven't seen too many. That is not to say they're bad - they're perfectly beautiful-looking... but there's something to the whole Prophecy line that I still can't put up with... I still maintain WC3 and 4 were the best Wing Commanders ever made (even though I know general opinion seems to tend towards them being the worst). And I still find the ships in Prophecy/WCSO are somewhat unoriginal. That is, the ships and the whole Aligned (=Alien) idea is original, but ... somehow I liked hanging on the tail of a Vakthoth in WC3, and seeing him get ripped apart with my cannons, see pieces of the ship fall off, then the explosion.... you see none of that in SO. And while I'm at that, why does shooting asteroids count towards your percentage hits? That doesn't make much sense.

And while I'm on the complaint bandwagon, here's one, which will no doubtedly raise some controversy - the flight stats. I was always proud that WC was story and skill-based, but where every shot you fire wasn't kept track of, a la X-Wing. Then Prophecy came... and I don't know if it's a good thing at all. Obviously, the kill score should be kept track of - that's sacred. But every single laser?.. I'm not so sure.

In any case, to the sound issues. I found the music to be pretty good, but not for long - it's a bit repetitive after a while. It seems to be the music from the ending credits of Prophecy, though - and back then I liked it, but I guess I never entertained the idea of listening to it endlessly during missions. The radio chatter is the same as always, but admittedly, some variety could be thrown in. In that sense, a neat feature of Descent: Freespace was when one of your wingmen would scream at you when you pick up a shadow - which is useful sometimes, in case you want to either drop a mine or got somewhat carried away with your pursuit. But then again, skill comes into play here - shake the shadow, and try to take him out. However, even on nightmare difficulty, I found it to be all too easy - those bugs just don't fly well enough. I mean, this is nightmare - why does it fly in a straight line when I get on its tail and start filling its tailpipes with explosives?

The overall feel of the game is great. There's still no force feedback support, but I find the shockwave of an explosion is so well-timed with the boom in the woofer that it almost gives you a realistic feeling. Granted, the shockwave is completely fake, as there's nothing in space to _produce_ one, but then again, this one's for fun, not authentic recreation of space.

In resume, this is an incredible addition to the Wing Commander saga. The storyline, at the moment, is at a cliffhanger - but that's the point. I find some missions could be made harder, say by exponentially increasing the number of enemies for nightmare level. And that 75% kill ratio bonus is just annoying... but that's my personal opinion. In any case, this game is most definitely worth your download time (I've wanted to say something like that for so long) - and, even though I whined about so many things in it, it's an incredible game. (Things balance out in life... you try to search out positive things in a despicably bad item, and you try to 'dump' on a good item... same here.) And the story truly justifies the 'Price of freedom is eternal vigilance...'

Pros: great graphics, good control, innovative idea of a free game, 'soap opera' idea sounds like it'll work out well, fast-paced, action-packed gameplay;

Cons: somewhat easy, relatively annoying 75% kill bonus (as if you don't kill 75% of the enemies, your mission score is lowered, so what kind of bonus is that?).

 

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Rating
90%
 

 

 
 

 

 

Divider Left By: Umax Divider Right

For those of you who may not have heard, or have been living under a rock, let me explain the premise behind Wing Commander: Secret Ops. The game was established as the next in the series of Wing Commander games, to carry on where Prophecy left off. This would ordinarily be no special thing, its just another game, in a long running, successful series. Well, not exactly. The folks at Origin have pulled a really sweet trick here, Wing Commander: Secret Ops is the first game of its kind, to be offered completely free over the Internet to the masses. There have been other "free games" offered online, but they were games like Sierra's Red Baron, which is old. This game is brand new, with a new plot and new characters and ships, offered completely free. There's just a couple of catches though. As good as this offer sounds to most of us, the file you must download is 118 megs with all the bells and whistles (or 58 megs without, where bells & whistles = speech pack), which makes it as large as the demo for Mech Commander. However, let's keep in mind this large file does include the first episode (made up of 4 missions) and speech and music. I thought I was set, I was surfing around on my cable modem, hooked up with it the night before the 27th and began downloading the game. Yikes was it ever slow! The game must have been the most downloaded file of the 26th, maybe even August. Being the dedicated gamer that I am, I struggled through the night, with no errors. The next morning, I woke up, and ran over to my computer, installed it (it came out to 137megs installed) and realized that to run the game, you had to register your callsign and get a key code from Origin's website. Hastily, I booted up my net browser, went to secretops.com and tried to register. Then tried to register again. And again. And again. Not to upset anyone at Origin, but it seems they missed one little detail with there 'free game' venture. Offering it for download is one thing, you can get it, however slowly it may trickle onto your hard drive. However, making gamers register online before the game will work is another thing, especially when the servers that the registration process is running off of seemed wholly inadequate to handle the volume of traffic this created. Eventually, I did manage to register my callsign and get my registration number. Off I went unknowing into WC:SO...

The first thing that greeted me was a screen saying "Downloading Mission". This freaked me a little because I thought I might have to actually download the missions again, but no, this was just a loading screen. Shortly, this disappeared and up shot the opening cinematic sequence. This gives you a basic background on what has happened and why, and who you are. Even if you are unacquainted with the Wing Commander universe, it would be quite easy to catch up.

Following the cinematic sequence, you are placed aboard the new carrier Cerberus, which is very good-looking in the fine Wing Commander tradition. In fact, all of the ships are beautifully rendered and look downright gorgeous if your gaming rig is equipped with a 3D accelerator. (Yes, it works from the first shot with a Voodoo2, no patches.) There is sourced lighting throughout the in-game sequences, all true to the stars in the system you happen to find yourself inhabiting. The stars themselves give off lens flares, which you can turn off if they become a hindrance in combat. Other lighting effects include some very nice reflection effects and other miscellaneous lighting effects like the countermeasures. When hit, your ship releases blue sparks as it flies, and as it becomes more damaged, more of these blue sparks fly out. I honestly thought this was a loose attempt at copying FreeSpace's very nice sparks. FreeSpace, however, seems to have chosen the wiser color and refined its particle system a bit more because the sparks were nothing special in WC:SO. That aside, the different weapons were very nice to look at, although they all looked very similar. Firing missiles resulted in the familiar missile and victim views, which were also quite impressive. As ships get hit, their shields absorb the damage, as in most past Wing Commander games. In WC:SO however, the shields were beautiful. The weapon was absorbed across the shield, in a moving flash of blue. Explosions, too, were beautiful. Shock waves were very well done, and different ships each had different explosions. The background starfield was your basic affair, with the now standard 'blue and green milky ways' (my own phrase) and background stars. One thing bugged me though, the planets were integrated into the starfield and thus looked very unreal. They would even warp when flying in quick, opposing motions. It seems to me it would have been better to have just left out the planets; it worked in FreeSpace.

Gameplay felt just like the past Wing Commanders (with the exception of perhaps 1+2). This was very nice I felt because the hardcore Wing Commander game players should feel a sense of continuity with the game. The plot so far (I say so far because the plot expands each week) is actually nothing special, but the action in the missions does partly make up for it. I found that the missions were organized into waves actually, where you fly from one waypoint to another and at each successive waypoint, there were more enemies for you to destroy. This sort of "missile command" style of action was not a bad thing, in fact, it almost helped because of how predictable it made the enemies. You always knew they will be there in force at the next WP. Flight mechanics were the classic WC style, with slight drift incorporated into it. It is by no means a simulator, it is definitely an arcade style game with the classic arcade style gameplay. The only elements of the in-game missions I truly disliked were the communications chatter. It was unbelievably pointless. The members of your wing just repeated their classic inane comments over and over. And over. And... You get the point. Yes, I admit, you can turn off the comms completely, but I thought it would be nice not to have them say such inane comments. Perhaps comments that actually related to the mission would have been more appropriate than "pump, PUMP!" and "We did it before, lets do it again" repeated every 10 seconds.

Sound in the game was satisfactory. There were no amazing sound effects in the game, but everything was incorporated. Speech was put in, although you can download a smaller version of the game without speech, which I would recommend because it really serves no point in the game. (Providing you're literate, that is, as you can have close-captions.) The music in the missions was that hardcore tune they have used before, which I found myself muting in the first minutes of playing WC:SO. It really depends on your own preferences.

Unfortunately, WC:SO has no multiplayer option. While it would have been very complex to work the multiplayer element into a game with an ever expanding fleet of ships, I think they could possibly have put in a solely combat oriented multiplayer with only the fighters available in the first episode. (Much like Armada had)

Pros: Excellent overall graphics, fast arcade action, follows in the Wing Commander tradition and story, free game, excellent idea: new downloadable missions/episodes weekly, first time support for Voodoo2 video cards.

Cons: Large game size, annoying speech, relatively high system requirements, unsophisticated gameplay.

 

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Rating
90%
 

 

 
 

 

 

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