When my former housemate packed up his things and departed to enjoy another phase in his life, he lazily, but quite happily, bequeathed his Logitech Attack 3 to me. It's been sitting in my living room for a good while, and for a while I've started at it pondering its best usage.
I thought about firing up X-Wing Alliance or TIE Fighter for a while; maybe even taking on Elite: Dangerous or checking out the Star Citizen modules. But instead, partially spurred on by a stream from the developers of the latter, I decided to exercise my joystick skills in a different arena.
I went to a fan game, one that made use of the ageing but still robust Freespace 2 engine. I went to Wing Commander Saga and the world of Sandman.
Sandman isn't a place or a song in this instance, but the player's callsign as they are forced to rapidly adjust to having their previous home, with the TCS Wellington being blown to smithereens after multiple Kilrathi ambushes and a failed attempt to escape through a jump point.
If you're out of touch with old-school flight sims, then even the semi-tutorial that is the prologue will seem incredibly daunting. It's not helped by that old chestnut of the 1990's either: massive walls of backstory, novels of exposition that the creators decided to batter players over the head with at the start of every mission.
There's a solid six or seven pages of not particularly well-written backstory before each mission — and by God, are there missions. The Freelancer 2 engine doesn't have the ability to replicate the branching paths that made Wing Commander such a treat, but it doesn't have any troubles handling 55 missions for a single campaign.
Ooft. Given that even simple missions will take around 10 minutes, if you sit through the cut-scenes, listen to all the dialogue and don't know the shortcuts — because you'll be playing them for your first time — you're in for a long, long campaign.
And that's if you nail everything in the first try and don't forget the controls. Even though you can automatically cycle through every target, you can also have like 15 different buttons for targeting too. Target a turret? Sure. What about the nearest hostile target? Done. Closest bomber or torpedo? Done. Want to target an escort? No problem.
It's a bit much to remember, even if I did love playing these games back in the day. Mind you, back in the day you also had a reference card which made studying — or at least remembering on the fly — far less taxing.
The prologue is 5 missions on its own and even if you play on the easiest difficulty and run through everything as fast as possible, you'll still spend over an hour going through the motions. It's what you'd expect for the initial outing of a space game campaign: run through some navigation points, mysteriously run into pirates, go through the asteroid belt and shoot a few rocks, escort a ship and don't let it die, the usual fare.
Pretty sure Wing Commander and TIE Fighter had very similar openings; I remember the original WC's first mission was literally three nav points, an asteroid belt and some angry Kilrathi, before landing on the Tiger's Claw.
It hasn't held up that well visually by 2015's standards, but Darkest Dawn deserves some points for being wonderfully compatible with modern systems. I didn't have any issue running the game on Windows 8.1 or Windows 10, it had no qualms picking up my joystick, was just as happy to work with my DualShock 4 controller that was masquerading as an Xbox 360 pad, and even mouse control worked without a fuss.
It wasn't great — certainly no Freelancer — but it worked all the same.
The Wing Commander Saga website is still live and you can download the game, without requiring a prior Freespace 2 installation. At 3.32GB, it's a decent download compared to other mods, indie games and other fan remakes, but that shouldn't trouble Wing Commander fans or recent converts to Elite: Dangerous or Star Citizen.
In fact, if you're waiting for either of the aforementioned Kickstarter darlings to eventuate into more of a game than what they currently represent, you could hardly do worse than take Sandman and the Kilrathi for a ride around the galaxy. It's rough in places — the voice-overs aren't great and the amateur cut-scenes are more a thing to appreciate than behold.
But it's a throwback to a time when space had character, a covenant that E:D has been accused of violating and something that has been absent from the gaming landscape for several years. Plus, it's a way to use my Logitech joystick. So here's you to, Wing Commander and your fan-made tribute that should serve me well for many weekends to come.