My entry for the Escapist’s Review Wars 3.
The year was 1993. When it came to the childhood fantasy of space flight I still clung to with the tenacity of a baboon hanging from a branch over a cliff, two computer games had dominated most of my free time in the previous years. When I wasn’t playing a LucasArts game (back when they were interested in smart & funny adventure games and not just squeezing more life out of Star Wars), I was playing either Elite Plus, the seminal space flight & trading game that had finally made it onto DOS systems, or one of the games in the Wing Commander series, which not only let me shoot at alien invaders with lasers from a space fighter cockpit but also featured a branching storyline with winnable medals and multiple possible outcomes. Even now, to me this seems like a great way to tell a story in a video game. So back when I was fourteen, this blew my fool mind. Two years and several expansion packs after that first foray into character-driven space shooting, I learned of the release of a game called Wing Commander: Privateer. When I found out the premise behind the game, seeing it as a combination of the aforementioned games, I think blood shot out of my nose or something. I can’t clearly recall. Seriously, at the time, chocolate and peanut butter ending up in the same mixing bowl had nothing on this feat of gaming alchemy.
Cue 16-year-old me jumping up & down like I was 10 years younger.
Normally this would be where I break down my thoughts on the title into what I like and don’t like. If I loved it, I’d end with what I love, and if I hated it, I’d sharpen my verbal knives and get to stabbing in the last paragraph. But I can’t do that with Privateer. There isn’t anything I don’t like about the game.
Privateer casts players in the role of Grayson Burrows, a guy just getting his start in the somewhat untamed Gemini Sector of the galaxy thanks to his grandfather leaving him an old, beat-up scout ship. The military organization of the Wing Commander universe, the Confederation, is busy keeping the feline Kilrathi at bay but, for the most part, Grayson has nothing to do with that sort of military drama. Instead, Privateer sets you on the tracks of a pretty standard science fiction plot: “Here’s an alien artifact, go talk to nerdy scientist X on world Y about precursor species Z.” It’s not a world-shattering epic by any stretch, but the simplicity of the story keeps it from getting in the way of the game play.
Clockwise from top left: The cramped cockpit of your starting scout ship, the docking bay area of one of the game’s many ports of call, the fat cat who gives you Merchant Guild jobs and the reasonably hot secretary working for the Mercenary Guild.
Long before Grand Theft Auto brought out the kind of open-world game play mechanics that everybody and their mom would try and emulate, Privateer‘s Gemini Sector was designed to be a very particular kind of sandbox. Instead of sand, dump trucks and toy soldiers, this sandbox is full of stars, asteroids with valuable minerals and space pirates. But don’t expect to need to mine those asteroids like this was EVE Online or even Mass Effect 2. All that hard, boring work is done for you.
The most work you have to do other than not getting shot at by the aforementioned space pirates is keeping track of what sells cheap on which world, and where you can sell it at profit. This is what hearkens back to the days of Elite Plus and even Trade Wars. However, trading is not your only option for earning cash if you can’t get your head around the “buy low, sell high” rule of thumb or if you just find it boring. The Merchant Guild will pay you to act as their own personal Planet Express, and the Mercenary Guild is always looking for pilots willing to expose other pilots to hard vacuum using energy based or mass accelerated means. You can also take odd jobs from fixers in bars or public terminals, or you can just eschew the whole “missions” mechanic entirely the red-hot second you get a tractor beam, and embark upon a life of piracy. While you don’t necessarily need a tractor beam to blow things up, pulling in cargo containers left spinning in the void after you liberate them from their legitimate owners tends to pay the bills a bit more effectively.
Kilrathi blow just as good when you’re a merc as when you’re a Confed fighter jock, but the pay’s better and nobody in a uniform yells at you when you mess up.
Chances are, by reading this far into my review, you’ll know if this is the sort of game for you or not. If you think EVE Online would be improved by removing the floating rocks that require mining and replacing them with bloodthirsty cat-people and religious fanatics with laser guns, or you remember long nights of Trade Wars wondering what your ship might look like outside of ASCII art,Wing Commander: Privateer is going to deliver hours of entertainment. Playing the game without dealing with commodities is possible, as I’ve mentioned, but it’ll actually take a lot longer to get yourself a decent ship that’ll survive some of the later space battles.
The best news for fans of the game or newcomers who might be interested in Wing Commander: Privateer is that it’s not just for DOS anymore. While applications like DOS Box can help you play the old retail version if you really want, some diehard fans recompiled the game with a new graphics engine and real 3D spaceflight. And best of all, it’s free. That’s right – FREE. Gratis. You don’t pay a dime, and it’s available in Windows, Linux and Mac formats. Look up Privateer Gemini Gold for all the details. I fired it up on my middle-aged laptop running Ubuntu and it loaded and ran without any major problems. Considering the sort of experience it delivers and the fact it’s now available without any cost other than some download time and hard drive space, I think it’s very, very hard to go wrong. For both a shot of space sim nostalgia and solid space trading gameplay that works to this day, as evinced by EVE Online, Wing Commander: Privateer doesn’t just delivers the goods, it does so in a turbo-charged spacecraft bristling with ray guns. And really, what more could you ask for?