Monday, February 13, 2012

Wing Commander

With the recent release of titles such as Sol: Exodus and Evochron Mercenary the space combat sim is seeing somewhat of a revival. Thinking back I can recall some of the greats such as Freespace and Tie Fighter but the series which stands out in my mind most prominently is the Wing Commander series. Rather than making a post about the games themselves though I've decided to discuss the novels. Granted this is only tangentially related to video games, but please indulge me. I promise not to talk about the movie or cartoon.

Published first, Freedom Flight covers events in Wing Commander: Secret Ops (the expansion to the first game). Tonally it is much closer to the games than the rest of the books. Readers are given some insight into Kilrathi culture although they retain their cartoon villainy which always felt like what the creator, Chris Roberts, saw them as. Think Cobra from G.I. Joe or Skeletor from He-man and your on the right track. The story itself revolves around the defection of a Kilrathi noble, Ralgha nar Hhallas (a.k.a. Hobbes), and the rescue of prisoners from a race of technologically primitive avians. Interestingly enough, Blair (the player character in the video game) only makes a brief cameo while the hero of the story is Aussie pilot - Hunter. Personally, I never really held this entry in high regard simply because it's a bit bland in the action department. I does work well as a stand alone novel despite the drawbacks.

The prologue and main story of End Run are written by different authors. As a result there is a jarring transition in style about a quarter of the way through the book. That said I really enjoyed the action in this one. Lots of battles featuring fighters, capital ships and a chunk of ground pounding too. Always good to see a little internal conflict to up the stakes. The ship captain which is at the center of this conflict reminds me a lot of Captain Queeg from the WWII movie "The Caine Mutiny." There is also tensions between marines and navy personal. It has a romance subplot that (while cheesy) does give the story more emotional weight. The Kilrathi come off as being a bit dumb in this entry, but overall the plot moves which kept me hooked until the end. I should also note that I found the focus on a single outclassed escort carrier interesting the first time, but not so much all the times after that.

A lot of major events happen in Fleet Action. For lack of better word the story is "epic" and spans a large number of characters as well as locations. The basic story arc revolves around the Kilrathi faking an armistice agreement in order to give themselves a chance to prepare an overwhelming surprise attack on Terra. Of course it's up to our plucky heroes to reveal the truth and convince those gullible politicians that it's a trap. Just replace Admiral Ackbar with Admiral Tolwyn and your on the right track. Exciting? Yes. That said I couldn't get into this novel as much as some of the others. Something about the pacing or perhaps the fact that Wing Commander has always been more about the grim and gritty personal experiences of unique individuals rather than grand sagas in a space opera backdrop. I will give this book props for pressing the threat of a third mysterious race.

Heart of the Tiger deserves praise simply because it's a adaption of Wing Commander 3 and sticks very close to the plot without the author feeling the overpowering need to add his own artistic spin. Unfortunately, I don't particularly like the direction the original creator, Chris Roberts, decided to go in. Frankly, It feels like he's channeling a bit too much Star Wars as well as throwing in some implausible story twists to boot. Hobbes turning out to be a double agent really stands out as a plot contrivance. I guess you could argue that the Temblor bomb is supposed to be a nod to the atomic weapons used on Japan at the end of WWII (just swap nuclear with tectonic), but all I could think of at the end was Death Star trench run. To his credit Forstchen makes the battles intense as ever. He does a good job of giving the Kilrathi an almost tragic quality to them at times despite the fact that they are the antagonists. It's also nice to see the trilogy close with an end to the war.

A novelization of Wing Commander 4, Price of Freedom is the first entry in the series in which the Kilrathi are not the main antagonists. It's interesting to see the internal conflicts of the Terrans play out. But the absence of everyone's favorite fur-balls makes everything a bit more generic sci-fi. I also can't help but feel that Tolwyn's role in the story has more to do with the fact that the actor portraying him is Malcolm McDowell than anything else. Regardless it does give the character a much more tragic angle to his story arc. Enjoyable if you want a more European spin on the "WWII in space" genre that is Wing Commander. I could have done without the return of Maniac. Wasn't he killed at the end of the previous story? I guess he has his fans, but I could have done without the guy. He gets annoying after a while. Again I wonder if he was resurrected simply because the actor that portrays him, Tom Wilson, has some recognition as a comedic individual in what is otherwise a dark story.

Action Stations is my personal favorite in the series. Yes, it rips off real life history like crazy and yes the action doesn't really get going until the third act, but I feel like this story of how the conflict began added a missing dimension to Wing Commander. The Kilrathi are made into much more plausible foes rather than cardboard cutout suicidal faux-demons. They have a cast of slaves made up of conquered races which handle the drudgery while the cats can bathe in the glory of battle. Readers also learn that the Kilrathi became a spacefaring race by being gifted advanced technology from a benign race which they promptly betrayed. I loved the detailed discussions of carrier operations in space along with other sci-fi gadgetry, but this did result in some contradictions in terms of what technology became available at what point in the conflict. I guess you could argue for a canon rewrite, but I can see why some nit-picky fans might get annoyed with the inconsistencies.

While not my favorite entry in the series I really like the direction this post-Kilrathi-war-story was heading. Characters and situations seemed more believable than ever before. The black and white morality had been somewhat phased out in lieu of more shades of grey. Overall the Wing Commander universe felt like it was growing up into a more thought provoking setting than it had been in the past. Kilrathi and Terran working together against renegade elements in small proxy wars had great potential to take the Wing Commander series from its WWII copycat roots to a more Falkland Islands inspired conflict. Sadly, co-author Andrew Keith passed away ending this planed trilogy rather abruptly. Yes, I know it says William H. Keith on the cover. That's actually the author's brother and an incredibly massive typo on the part of Baen Books. False Colors indeed. Perhaps Forstchen will continue the series when he gets tired of writing alternative history books with Newt Gingrich?

There are also two (three if your counting the unpublished third entry) novels based on the movie (sorry...I know I said I wouldn't talk about it again but I kind of had to...). I won't bother to go into detail on them partly because I feel like the new author, Peter Telep, failed to grasp what was good about the earlier novels...or the games for that matter. Then again rebooting the franchise didn't fundamentally work either because it tried to return to that Saturday morning cartoon level of complexity when fans of the series had outgrown that and newcomers were more into first person shooters or real time strategy games. Space combat sims haven't changed much over the last decade which hasn't done the genre many favors either. That said I still think there's a place for this series in the vein of Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest or maybe even Battlestations Pacific. That's a post for another day though so I will end it here.

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