Wing Commander: Armada
To say that Wing Commander was a bit of a turning point in 3D space shooty games would be an understatement of near galactic proportions. Not only did it manage to be a jolly super game that was lots of fun and all that... it also started a trend in PC games development which has driven the market for the past couple of years. Back in the olden days, before Chris Roberts and his merry band lashed Wing Commander together, everyone was quite happy to trundle along with their trusty 286 PC with virtually no memory and crap graphics. Then along comes this spanking new game and all of a sudden everyone needs a bloody great ninja PC with all the trimmings.
Several years on and the game has now spawned a host of sequels and supplement disks, and is about to thrust into its third mighty incarnation as Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger (which I'll mention later). Before all this happens, though, we find this... a game set to hit the shops a couple of months before the next 'biggie' but quietly managing to break a bit of new ground along the way.
Significantly different from the last Wing Commander thing to be launched, namely the bloody awful Wing Commander Academy, Armada is actually quite a bit of a major product on the quiet. Not only is it the first of Origin's space blast 'em products to make use of the advanced Realspace 3D graphics engine, but it also features multiplayer network and modem support, a fancy split-screen two-player thing and a relatively simple strategy game. On top of that, it also takes a leaf out of LucasArts' book and allows you to play the bad guys as well the angelic Terran Confederation peeps.
At its basic level, Armada is a totally bastardised version of the original Wing Commander. Gone are the tedious symmetrically faced goons that make up the 'interactive movie' sections (thank God) and in their place we now have a much wider variety of gameplay options. Split into several different modes, it accommodates a number of play styles, both single player and multi-player, which range from a sort of scaled-down Master of Orion-style galactic domination campaign to simple one-on-one dogfights.
Battle mode is the absolute bog-standard version and simply allows you to choose one of ten ships from a menu of both Terran Confederation and Kilrathi Empire vessels. This mode is pretty much what you'd expect from the name. Two ships hurtle towards each other with guns blazing in a bizarre game of intergalactic chicken. Both players (yourself and either the computer or another pilot) have unlimited combat resources and the winner is basically the person left in one piece at the end of the scrap. It's a particularly uninspiring game and although a bit of a laugh at first it soon becomes stupendously boring. Never mind, though, there's more interesting stuff knocking around.
The second play option is referred to as Armada and is described in the manual as "a strategy-based conquer the sector game", which pretty much sums it up. You are placed in control of a vast carrier ship with a huge range of resources available and your job is simply to move around a sector of space wiping out bad guys and plundering planets for their resources as you hop from planet to planet. The control of this mode is very much like a seriously stripped-down version of either Starlord or Master of Orion and is actually very easy to control. Your view of the proceedings is via a very simplified galactic map which gradually opens up as you move around the sector. As you reach each planet, you have opportunities to set up mining colonies and manufacturing facilities, and the eventual aim is to control such a vast proportion of the sector that the enemy force doesn't have a hope in hell of coming anywhere near you. Should you make contact with any enemy forces, the game automatically jumps into battle mode where you have full control over the combat situation.
It's at this point that one of the major differences between Wing Commander: Armada and any of its predecessors becomes glaringly apparent. In pretty much every other game in the series you have been placed in control of an individual personality whose career you develop through the course of the game. Here things are very much different as you are actually the overall commanding officer type who gets to shout at people and boss everyone around. Should a pilot get killed he is simply replaced by another from the resources found on the carrier ship. Dead pilots are simply replaced until you have absolutely no one left.
While I'm on the subject of major differences between this and other WC games, it's also worth mentioning that whilst playing the strategic bits you don't necessarily have to fly the combat missions yourself. Should you so desire you can tell the computer to calculate all the odds and simply speculate on the result of combat without you actually having to go through the ordeal of flying around and shooting things. Given the overall nature of the Wing Commander theme I would have to say that this is a distinctly odd idea which seems to go against the whole concept of the series. Still, I'm sure some people might appreciate it.
Where the Armada mode really comes into its own is when you play it as a multiplayer game. Players can either team up together to have a bash at crushing the enemy, or alternatively you can opt to have a crack at each other. The simplicity of the game engine, coupled with the turn-based nature of the strategy element, makes this an ideal link-up game, but to be honest I was amazed at just how effective it is as a two-player game played on a single machine. All the strategy bits are played in turns, whilst any combat is presented through a split-screen set-up which is remarkably effective.
While I'm having a bit of a ramble about the multi-player support I do feel that I have to say that this is certainly a damned friendly game when it comes to comms and network support. Modem and null modem support are presented by means of a very friendly graphical menu screen and networking is presented in a similar manner. As long as you have your own netBIOS sitting in memory before you load the game you shouldn't have any trouble getting a bunch of machines linked up.
If I could find any problems at all it would have to be that there is a bit of slowdown every now and then when you're playing the game on a modem link. It's not shatteringly godawful, but it is still noticeable.
The final mode of the game is known as Campaign and is basically very similar to Armada but consists of a large number of sectors which we're reliably informed contain more than 2,000 worlds for you to plunder. To be honest, although the strategy game engine itself is only very simple, when you play the game in Campaign mode it transforms the whole package into something which is actually a very respectable strategy sim.
Bitmapped Polygon Thing
Aside from the fact that there is a variety of play options, the most noticeable new feature in Armada is that the graphics have been enhanced enormously. Gone are the naff sprite-based bitmapped graphics and in their place we now have some dead impressive looking texture-mapped polygon spacecraft with all the relevant bells and whistles. We're informed by sources at EA that the 3D model for this is actually an extremely early version of that developed for Wing Commander 3. If you think that this looks impressive, imagine what it could look like with twice the number of polygons and at double the resolution. Pant-wettingly smart I'm sure you'll agree... and no doubt wallet-cripplingly power-hungry on the old CPU.
Unlike any other games in the Wing Commander series, the graphics engine here is pretty much a glorified flight simulator engine and because of the way everything is presented it means that we can now get all sorts of fancy external views and spinning, fly-by cinematic type bits that could quite possibly make you go "ooh" for at least the first few minutes that you're playing the game. If you've come across RealSpace before (in Strike Commander or Pacific Strike) you'll know pretty much what to expect... impressive-looking graphics that look gorgeous but require absolute shitloads of processor power to shift around. OK, this might not be as demanding as Strike was but you still really need a 486 PC to get the most out of the thing. Funnily enough, it's not just the 3D engine which has been enhanced on the presentation front.
The whole caboodle has been totally spruced up. The cockpits in all ten ships are considerably better than anything found in previous Origin titles and to be honest they bear an uncanny resemblance to the those found in the recently released 3DO version of Wing Commander. Gone are the bright and garish colours and the almost cartoon-like representations and in their place we now have some far more realistic looking cockpits with lots of spinning flashy looking bits and utterly useless bits of instrumentation. Smart. Jump into a Kilrathi ship and you even find that you've developed an awful manicure problem when you look at the now obligatory moving hand in the centre of the cockpit.
For the pure combat freaks out there, though, you'll be pleased to find that the entire cockpit representation can be removed just like in both X-Wing and TIE Fighter and you can experience a full-screen 3D affair with only the bare minimum of instruments present on screen.
It's Not Crap
To be honest I was really surprised by this, mainly because it had an enormous amount of potential to be totally and utterly shite. The last 'in-betweeny' game in the series. Wing Commander Academy, was really quite terrifyingly awful and when I first heard about this I was expecting something along similar lines. Fortunately, it seems that the Origin team had a mass brainstorming session and dumped all sorts of excellent ideas together into a marketable product. There are a lot of good features here... the only problem is that it doesn't really hang together as well as something like TIE Fighter. The link-up feature, the new graphics engine, the strategy element these are all really great features and I'm sure when they're transferred to the new full-blown game in the series they will add to the overall quality of that product. I'm not sure if you know what I'm really trying to get at here. I guess it's just that this product seems to be more of a dumping ground for good ideas than a game that has been really thought out and actually 'designed'.
As it stands. Armada is a good quality product but is really only going to appeal to those of you who really love Chris Roberts games and can't wait to get your hands on his latest little bit of production wizardry. On the other hand, any of you out there who care to indulge in multi-player games on a regular basis, the PC 'swingers', you lot will love it. If you've got Doom ensconced on your network but now feel an urge to beat your workmates up in a different way, you could do far worse than invest in a copy of this.
Download Wing Commander: Armada
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP