Wing Commander: Prophecy delivers a ton of space fighting fun, but not quite up to the standards of its predecessors.
I can remember seeing Wing Commander: Prophecy for the first time on the shelf of some now forgotten computer store. I, being ten years old and susceptible to all things with spaceships on the cover, thought it was looked like the coolest thing in the world. It's been more than a decade and a half since then and, in many ways, the ten year old inside me is still alive, well and eager to blow things up with lasers. You can probably understand then, why GOG's recent addition of Wing Commander: Prophecy to its retro library was so exciting for me. It's the only entry in the Wing Commander franchise that I had yet to really play.
It's with a bit of sadness, in turn, that I have to admit it's not the strongest thing the franchise has produced. Mind you, it's not bad by any means. In fact, even held up against some of the modern games I've played recently, Prophecy would be very far from the worst. That said, when stood up next to the rest of the series (one that I personally hold very near and dear), it's merely adequate. It takes the structures and styles laid out by predecessors and uses them to fashion something blandly competent.
The gameplay, for instance, feels very much like a copy and paste job from the previous games in the franchise. It boasts unique ships, as well as some new weapons, but the core of each and every mission will generally boil down to flying your fighter through a series of nav points and destroying everything hostile you come across. It's still fun and frequently challenging (on the standard difficulty, at least). But you will start to notice of grinding repetition the further you get into the game.
To be fair this isn't an issue that's isolated just to Prophecy. The series as a whole never really expanded much in terms of gameplay and, to a degree, if you've played Wing Commander I you've pretty much played the rest of the series too. What made this more forgivable in the entries prior was just how darned good the story was. They drew you in and made you care about the context and characters involved in the battles you were fighting. It wasn't unusual to find yourself desperately trying to push through a tough mission just so you could find out what was going to happen next in the plot. Prophecy never managed to grab me like that, for several reasons.
Taking place some years after the Kilrathi War that served as the primary backdrop of the first four games, it drops players into the flight suit of rookie pilot Lance Casey. When the story begins a new alien race, the Nephilim, appear and launch an invasion that could apparently engulf the entire galaxy. It's all supposed to be very epic, but honestly, I never really got that feeling of big things happening while I was playing it.
You can lay the blame for that largely at the feet of both its protagonist and antagonists. Casey is never really developed into anything more than a vaguely defined avatar for the player and the Nephilim don't amount to much more than a generic doomsday force. Comparatively, Christopher Blair, the hero of the prior games was an interesting character with a lot of personality. Granted, he also had Mark Hamill playing him, but he was also just better written. Likewise, the Kilrathi in the earlier games often shared the limelight with the human characters. They were cultivated to be not just your foes but real characters with tangible motivations. The Nephilim aren't even remotely as intriguing, leaving you with little to chew on besides the been-there-done-that drama of a straight-laced rookie coming into his own during a largely generic war. There's just never anything to really care about and, in the absence of that, its effort at the grandiose fall frequently flat.
None of this is to say that Prophecy is a poor experience. The story, even if it wilts in the shadow of its predecessors, has some good moments and possesses branching paths based on your gameplay performance as well as occasional moments of player choice. Likewise, the combat, even if it doesn't break any new ground, is still tight and frequently addictive. If Prophecy suffers, it's mostly because the games that came before it were just so much better. Setting past iterations however aside, Wing Commander: Prophecy is easily worth a play, and at only $5.99 at GOG, there's not much reason to not to give it one.
Come back next Saturday where we'll heading back to the series' roots with a double review of Wing Commander I and II.