Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Gaia Industries
Release Date: Q3 2007
Wing Commander commands a devoted fan following with an intensity few other franchises can muster, and with good reason. Wing Commander wasn't just a pioneering space combat simulator, but popularized a lot of the storytelling techniques that modern gamers take for granted in their titles. Most notably, Wing Commander popularized the use of cinematic cut scenes for storytelling purposes. The live-action cut scenes used in later games in the series never quite caught on, but probably paved the way for the trend of Hollywood actors lending voices to today's CG cut scenes. At the time, getting the likes of John Rhys-Davis or Mark Hamill to show up in a video game was a very big deal.
The basic narrative of the Wing Commander franchise was the saga of humanity's battles against the Kilrathi in a space-faring future. The Kilrathi were bipedal felines, but more importantly, had awesome space fighters that could dogfight spectacularly with Terran designs. The various Wing Commander games traced the war between Terrans and Kilrathi to its climax, and then began to falter when the Kilrathi allied with Terrans against a new enemy called the Nephilim.
Wing Commander Arena attempts to revisit Wing Commander's glory days, leaping ahead to 20 years after the final defeat of the Nephilim. Arena takes place in a distant part of the galaxy where tensions between human and Kilrathi have begun to rise again. In this remote area, forces use whatever technology they can lay hands on in order to assault enemies. This means ships from several differential historical eras — that is, Wing Commander games — rub shoulders as squads of pilots fly into battle against Kilrathi enemies.
Arena is an online multiplayer arcade-style shooter, so players can opt to fight as Kilrathi or Terran. There are nine ships for each side to choose from, and up to 16 players can participate in a single match. In keeping with the theme of classic Wing Commander, the emphasis of Arena's gameplay is on squad-based combat. So, the 16 players in a match can form up into two squads of eight, one Terran and Kilrathi. Once combat begins, the gameplay is a mixture of pure arcade action and tactical action.
Winning a battle involves shooting down the enemy's carrier as well as the enemy fighters, and shooting down carriers is a methodical process that involves taking out certain blocks of the enemy ship in sequence. There's also a Satellite mode that plays essentially like Capture the Flag, one-on-one duels, and a "Bearpit" mode, where spectators can watch the action and take potshots at the competitors. Wing Commander's multiplayer possesses the full array of features players might expect from any 360 multiplayer title, including TeamSpeak support that allows only your teammates to hear your voice when speaking. In total, players can expect eight different online modes.
There are some offline single-player content, although probably not enough to justify a download by itself. Playing through the single-player campaign modes unlock various ships for a player to use in online multiplayer, and players can also play an amusing variant of Asteroids. There's also a Training mode to let players work to improve their skills when not online. Gaia Industries hints at a fourth online mode, but what that mode might be is unrevealed at this time.
Visually, Wing Commander Arena is almost an unbelievably beautiful game to be an Xbox Live Arcade release. The 3D graphics are exquisitely detailed and have a crisp, bright quality to them that seems almost like cel-shading. The levels on display were the carrier battles, which actually present your fighters to proper scale. The ship you controlled in the fight was absolutely tiny, with most models agile and maneuverable to a fault. Weapon arrays vary from ship to ship, but usually include some form of blaster and missiles. Adjusting to the loadout of each ship takes a while, and some are much harder to use effectively (or more powerful) than others.
Still, weaving your ship between waves of fire from an enemy carrier while countering with your own attacks was impressively thrilling, as were dogfights with other players' ships. There appeared to be no voice acting or story segments, in deference to the game's purely multiplayer nature, but the Wing Commander feel was definitely there. The ship designs were authentic, as was the feeling of tension as you battled rival squads of ships to win a particular mission.
Gaia Industries currrently claims that Wing Commander Arena is the apex of Xbox Live Arcade titles to date, with better graphics, more depth, and more features. In terms of original titles, this is probably the case. Even accounting for classic XBLA titles, only Symphony of the Night offers serious competition for depth. The game is scheduled to appear sometime this June, so fans can shortly expect to judge Wing Commander Arena's merits for itself. Purists may complain that it's "not really" a Wing Commander title, but head producer Sean Penney is a longtime Wing Commander fan who eagerly sought out input from Wing Commander's original creators. Clearly, the hope behind this project is a renaissance for the Wing Commander franchise despite the nearly 10 years it's been left to sit fallow. Arena's gameplay is solid, so there's no reason to doubt that it may be the game to bring back Wing Commander.