Wing Commander: Privateer review

Written by Julian Schoffel on . Posted in Simulation

Privateer game image

Back in the early 1990s Origin’s Wing Commander dominated the genre of space combat simulations. The series’ combination of smooth gameplay, animated cut-sequences and incredibly detailed (for the early 1990s) in-flight graphics cemented its place as King of space combat sims.

Released in 1993, Privateer took the technology of the Wing Commander series about three steps forward. Firstly the graphics were absolutely stunning! At the time I had only seen this level of graphic detail in one other game: Strike Commander. Secondly the sound-effects matched the graphics in quality and realism. Thirdly, and most importantly, gameplay was smooth and could be totally non-linear, although there was a storyline which you could pick up on when you felt like it.

Wing Commander, but not as we know it…

The game took place in the Wing Commander universe, but rather than flying for the Confederation, you were a “Privateer.” This meant that you could ship cargo, collect bounties on other ships or act as a mercenary for refineries, planets and so forth.

You started the game with a “Tarsus” ship which you inherited from your grandfather. The Tarsus was fairly limited because it had no turrets and could only be upgraded to level 1 engines and shields.

The other three ships you could buy were the “Orion,” the “Galaxy” and the “Centurion.” The Galaxy was more of a merchant ship because of its large cargo capacity, while the Centurion was a heavy fighter with four gun-racks and high visibility from the cockpit. The Orion was a good all-rounder which started off fairly weakly, but was the only ship which supported level 5 engine and shield upgrades.

While all of the ships had their strengths and weaknesses, you had to be wary of buying any of them if you wouldn’t have enough money left over to outfit them with shields and firepower. I learnt this the hard way and after finally managing to scrape together enough money to purchase a Centurion, I didn’t have enough cash left to give it good shields and guns so I was blown away by a couple of “Kilrathi Gothri” ships on my very next mission…

Non-linear gameplay

The best thing about Privateer was the incredible amount of freedom to do what you want. You could choose from an endless supply of missions, and then use the money to tailor your ship. As I mentioned the game did have a storyline, which began in a bar on one of the many planets. You ended up in possession of a strange artefact, and your search for information about the object took you into some fairly precarious situations. At one point in the game you had to defend an academic who had written a radical paper about some religious extremists called “Retros,” the academic in question looked exactly like “Salman Rushdie…”

The most satisfying aspect of Privateer was successfully completing missions and then using the cash to upgrade your ship. At the time of the game’s release (1993) one of my main concerns was that after you completed the main storyline, the novelty of Privateer’s fairly limited mission structure would have well and truly worn off.

Customize your ship to win the game

In order to complete the central storyline of the game you needed a ship with good shields, good engines and lots of firepower. The missions you flew as part of the central plot just wouldn’t give you the money to get a ship like this, so you’d have to spend hours flying additional missions to get the necessary capital.

If you wanted to make some easy money in Privateer you needed to get yourself a tractor beam. If you upgraded your ship with good guns, you could cripple any merchant ships you came across and then use your tractor beam to steal their cargo! The only problem with this ploy was that you would instantly be classified as an outlaw by “Confederation” ships and pursued relentlessly. However on the plus side most pirates would treat you as one of their own.

I found Privateer to be addictive and lots of fun. To anyone buying it, I highly recommended a good joystick (I used a Flightstick back in the early 1990s when I first played the game).

In order to squeeze a little extra dough out of PC gamers, Origin used to make a habit of selling the “Speech Pack” for certain games separately (Privateer was one). At the time of the game’s Australian release this Speech Pack cost an additional $60.00. While it may have been something akin to highway robbery the Speech Pack definitely added another dimension to the game.

Review Summary
Score: 91%
Info: Originally released in 1993, Privateer was a non-linear space combat sim based in Origin’s “Wing Commander” universe. When I first reviewed this game some 19 years ago I found it to be an absolute gem and highly addictive. In those days the now defunct games giant “Origin Systems” was at the bleeding edge of PC gaming. It was a sad day when Richard Garriott and his brother sold Origin to EA – who eventually squeezed the creative juices out of the company, effectively ending its tenure at the top of PC game development.
The Good: Non-linear gameplay. Stunning (for 1993) in-game visuals. Great ship customization component. Loads of missions. Oodles of slick space combat.
The Bad: The “Speech Pack” was sold separately and cost $60 I might add (an old Origin trick). Required a pretty high spec (by 1993 standards) PC to run – we’re talking a 486DX2 66 baby! Of course the game didn’t require a 3D accelerator – mainly because they weren’t invented for another 4 years or so…

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Julian Schoffel

From 1994 to 2007 Julian was a contributing editor for Australian PC User Magazine. He has also written for numerous publications which include Australian Personal Computer, PC PowerPlay, Hyper, Ralph, Megazone, The Disc, PlayNow, TechLife, The Sydney Morning Herald and IGN.

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