So this PC version is from GOG.com, and uses DosBox. Well, this is a game that certainly shows its age from 1990, coming out 3 years before Doom, that had 360 degree movement. So in some respects, Doom is actually a step back in terms of gameplay compared to this game, but on the other hand Doom also had cooler weapons, monsters, and puzzle solving (although the puzzle solving aspect frustrated the hell out of me in that game, but that’s another story).
First off, the controls. Using a mouse and keyboard, the game is playable, but frustrating. This is clearly a game that was meant to work with a joystick. I haven’t used one of those since the very early 90s when I had the X-Wing game, which I don’t remember very well because I wasn’t able to play it much. I thought about getting a joystick for this, but then I thought, what about using a gamepad? What about using an emulator to make the game think that a controller is a joystick instead? Well, I didn’t have a made for PC gamepad, nor did I have a X-Box 360 controller. But I did have a PS3 controller, and emulators exist for converting it to X-Box 360 control settings (they both have the same exact type and amount of buttons/joysticks/d-pads anyway, some originality Microsoft had there). So I downloaded MotioninJoy 0.7.1001, installed it, then ran it (after dealing with a few web pop-ups, which concerned me a bit). After using that to install the ps3 controller, I then went on to download Better DS3, which is used to map the keyboard/mouse buttons to the controller (or even just make the PS3 controller mirror a 360 controller, a mapping already built into Better DS3). So after doing that and going to a website to figure out what the keyboard setting are for Wing Commander and mapping them to the controller the best way I saw fit, I was finally ready to go. And after playing a couple trial and error levels, finally got comfortable with it.
So, does the game play well with a controller/gamepad? Yes it does. Probably every bit as good as a joystick. Once you get used tot he mapping configuration, it plays like a charm.
Graphics: For 1990, not bad. In fact, these graphics were top of the line back then. If you focus on the sequences where characters are talking, and focus on the lip movements, you’ll notice there was an attempt to make the lips match up with the subtitled words (the game has no voice audio, just music and sound effects). And I should mention that the music during the opening sequence of the game is basically a rip off of Star Trek. Rest of the music is fine.
Story. Who cares? Yeah there is a storyline going on in the game, but it’s irrelevant for the most part. The pilot characters are more memorable than the story, and that’s not saying too much. While they have their own personality, it’s not on par with characters from a game like, oh say, Planescape: Torment, or The Witcher, or Sam & Max. Basically, in a nutshell, you’re a pilot aboard the Tiger Claw (ironic name considering you’re fighting against cat people), a large spaceship that carries a bunch of smaller fighters that go out and kill the Kilrathi (the cat people). You keep doing missions until you destroy the Kilrathi High Command space station, or fail to do so. That’s basically it. To try to make it more interesting, there are multiple paths to victory and defeat. The game is divided into sections, which contain around 3 levels. If you do well enough in each section, you progress along a good path. Otherwise, you progress along a bad path. You’ll potentially be able to play the game differently each time, theoretically, since this allows different missions to be flown through. But for the most part, the missions are repetitive. Fun, but repetitive.
Gameplay: It’s fun. It’s difficult at first, because you don’t realize how vulnerable you really are in the game until that first time you smash head first into an asteroid, or into another fighter, or continually get shot from the front, or behind, without taking evasive maneuvers (the Afterburner will save your life). Eventually, you will be forced to adapt and fly around with a bit of skill and precision, learning when to dodge and when to stand your ground, when you should fire missile or conserve them, how to moderate you laser fire, etc.
Concluding thoughts: After a while though, the game does get tiring with the repetitive nature of the missions. Without an engrossing story to back it up, it becomes a bit of a chore. Luckily, the game is short, only about 18 missions or so (for 1 playthrough). I felt the repetitiveness get to me about 8 missions in, then it felt like a chore 12 missions in. They try to mix it up by giving you different ships that have a different variety of missiles, guns, and speed, but it’s not enough to elevate the game to a higher level. It’s fun, but only for a while.