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Review: Wing Commander: Secret Ops

By GRAEME ADAMSON (claymore@iname.com)

Origin Systems have done very well out of their Wing Commander series of space combat simulators, Wing Commanders 1 through 5 and Privateer 1 and 2. Now they’ve released a version of Wing Commander free onto the Internet, and called it “Wing Commander: Secret Ops”. Let’s see if it passes the Gadget Four Question User Test…

  1. Is it ready to use? Well, first you have to download it. So you head over to http://www.secretops.com, register for it after waiting for the Macromedia Flash web interface to download, and then download the core files, the speech pack files (if you want speech), the documentation, and any new episodes (they’re up to Episode 4, as of the time of writing). 130Mb and several hours later, you can run the installation, which is quick and easy. Secret Ops runs under Windows 95/98 with DirectX 5 or higher loaded, and supports most 3D video cards, such as the Voodoo or Direct3D-supported cards.
  2. Is it easy to use? If you’re familiar with the Wing Commander games, particularly Wing Commander 5: Prophecy, you’ll be able to play Secret Ops almost immediately. If not, it could be a while before you get used to the various keystrokes used for various functions within the game. You can play Secret Ops without a joystick, but it isn’t easy, so a joystick (preferably one with a throttle and lots of buttons) is highly recommended. The keystrokes are most suitable for a right-hander, but a leftie can get by too.
  3. Does it operate as advertised? As a space combat simulator, there’s very little on the market that can match Wing Commander. The graphics are excellent, especially with a 3D video card (I use a Diamond Viper V330), the screenplay is smooth even on a low-end 200MHz machine, and the feel of the various spaceships you fly is good, reflecting their differences. The sound is amazing, with your wingmen and the alien enemy shouting on the comm system, and the sounds of your weapon fire hitting other ships (OK, there’s no sound in space, so sue me), or the enemy hitting you. Unlike the other games in the Wing Commander series, there isn’t any action between missions. In the previous games, you would have video segments in between missions (and the video segments would take up several CDs worth of space), whereas in Secret Ops all the action is in your spaceship. Every week on a Thursday, Origin is releasing a new “episode”, basically a new batch of missions, with each episode being about 600kb in size, and you can get information relating to your missions on the web site.I had a problem with Secret Ops locking up my system, but it turned out that running my system in 32-bit colour instead of 16-bit colour fixed the problem; other than that, it has worked flawlessly.
  4. Is it value for money? Although Secret Ops is free, you have to figure in the cost of a phone connection to your ISP for several hours while you download it. If you download in non-peak hours, the cost shouldn’t be too high, and thus Secret Ops is a real winner in the “value for money” category – it’s at least as good as Wing Commander 5: Prophecy in most respects, and Prophecy sells for at least R300 (about $50) in most stores.

If you’re into spaceflight simulators, or even general flight simulators, this game is a winner.

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