After the success of Wing Commander II, the franchise received its first spin-off game. Wing Commander: Privateer or simply Privateer. It can be looked at as Origin Systems take on open-ended gameplay, and their take on the legendary Elite (1984).
Released in the Fall of 1993, Privateer had an interesting development history. The working title for the game was “Trade Commander”, and at one point Origin Systems considered naming all of their games with the suffix “Commander”. The game uses a vastly improved Wing Commander II engine, with some features that were also used in Strike Commander, a different Origin game. It was designed by Joel Manners, and it was helped by Chris Roberts, who at the time was working on Wing Commander II, Strike Commander and Privateer.
The story is set in the year, 2669 sometime after Wing Commander II, and instead of a Confed pilot, you play as a “privateer” (canonically known as Grayson Burrows, but you can enter your name), the newest freelancer in the Gemini Sector. The backstory is told in the manual, and it explained that you inherited an old ship from your grandfather, and after the “Scarab”, the ship you worked on got ambushed and badly damaged, you decide to start working as a privateer. From this point on, you are free to do whatever you want.
At the beginning of the game, you start with the ship (Tarsus), that you inherited from your grandfather. It’s an old and obsolete ship, that only has one laser, a missile launcher, bad radar, and no jump drive. You can upgrade your ship until you can afford a better ship and can do this in a variety of ways. There are several ways to make money in the game, and they consist of trading, piracy, taking missions from the mission computer, joining guilds and story missions. Trading can be quite lucrative if you buy low, sell high and piracy can be done by blowing up freighters, but they usually have an escort guarding them. Missions can be taken from the mission computer (patrol, bounty, delivery, etc.) and form guilds. There are two guilds in the game: Mercenary and Merchant guild. Each of them has a 1000 credits joining fee, but they offer better payouts. By visiting the bar, you can gather rumors that will lead to the story missions.
Due to your starting with a bad ship, you start without the jump drive. By not having a jump drive, the game prevents you from traveling to other systems. At first, you can only fly around the first system (Troy), which serves as a tutorial area. Once you gather enough money to buy the jump drive (and star maps), you are free to explore the rest of the galaxy. There are about 70 systems in the game, all populated with different factions. Privateer is technically set behind the frontlines, and the Gemini Sector is right on the frontlines with the Kilrathi. There are several factions in the game: Pirates, Retro (Church of Man), Pirates, Mercenaries, Merchants, Local Militia and the Kilrathi. You can befriend any of the factions, except for the Retro (a Luddites of sorts) and the Kilrathi. To become an ally of a certain faction, you would need to either destroy their enemies, or alternatively you communicate friendly with them, but this takes time (and you may get damaged in the process). Also, some factions have their own special bases that you can visit, such as pirate base or the Confed HQ.
One of the main features of Privateer is its customization options. Once you gather enough money, you can choose which ship you want to buy. There are three of them to choose from, the first one being, the “Centurion”, an interceptor which high cockpit visibility, speed, and maneuverability and is perfect for mercenary work but has limited cargo space. The second one is the “Galaxy”, a ship best suited for trading, with large cargo space, with two turret slots, but has lower top speed. The third ship the “Orion”, a gunship of sorts, with the best armor and plenty of weapon slots. However it’s a bit slower, but with enough upgrades, it can be turned into a powerhouse.
Privateer, also gives you plenty of options for upgrading your ship. Since you are no longer a military pilot like in the previous games, you must purchase the upgrades yourself. There is a huge amount of items available, everything from weapons, missiles, torpedoes, armor, shields, engine upgrades, ECM, tractor beam, even maps, and radars. For instance, by buying a more advanced radar, you will be able to see more accurate reading, that is even color-coded. You can also purchase, a repair droid, that can repair your ship after the battle and naturally save you money on repairs. You must also buy sector maps, to progress further, and can even choose between quadrant maps, or the whole package.
There is a huge amount of locations you can visit in the games, ranging from agriculture planets, mining colonies, pleasure planets, refineries, pirate bases and story relevant locations. The story relevant locations, all have a unique look and feel to them. Some places will not buy what you have to sell, and in some systems, patrols will scan you for contraband. This can also be turned into a lucrative smuggling career if you can pull it off.
There were also several cut features from the game, most notably the fifth ship (The Speeder), and the cloaking device. The developers couldn’t implement this feature, as they were constantly running into problems, but this is probably for the best because the cloaking technology was an experimental technology by the Kilrathi, and probably wouldn’t be available on the black market.
The game’s graphics were cutting edge at the time, and the game has a few graphical improvements. For instance, the cockpits are aesthetic bitmaps, and where are 3D sprites, and were built using 3D meshes. Privateer also has a speech pack, which was initially sold separately (for 60$ at the time) but was later included in the CD version of the game. The voice acting in the game is decent, and everyone addresses you as the “Captain” or “Privateer” because you could enter your name and callsign when starting the game. Music in the game is quite good and is composed by Nenad Vugrinec. It sounds best on Roland SC 55 or Roland SCC-1 sound cards, probably the best sound cards at the time.
Privateer is not without problems, however. The game is unfriendly towards beginners, and you will probably need to read the manual before starting the game for the first time unless you played the previous games in the franchise. If you fail story missions, all you can do is load your previous save, so be sure to save often. Lastly, the overall plot is kinda underwhelming and focuses on ancient alien technology. Fortunately, the freedom that the games offer makes from most of these problems, and as a bonus, you can continue playing the game even after the story is finished. One of the strongest aspects of the game is its immersion and the way it was achieved in 1993. The UI is simple, and the cockpits have enough detail put into them to make them all unique.
Wing Commander: Privateer was a huge success, and even bested it’s rival Frontier: Elite II (the sequel to the original Elite). The game received an expansion pack Righteous Fire in 1994, which continues the story, and adds even more items and weapons. It also received a sequel called, Privater 2: The Darkening, which wasn’t a direct sequel, but a spin-off game. Unfortunate, the game didn’t receive many ports, but it was released in Japan and Koran for their version of MS-DOS.
The dev commentary of sorts can be found here, and the rest of the behind the scene stuff, such as artwork, design documents, etc. can be found here.
The game was a fan favorite, and even a remake: Wing Commander: Privateer – Gemini Gold, released in 2005 using the Vega Strike engine.
The game is also available on GOG, with both the Speech pack and the Righteous Fire expansion.
So, if you are looking for an open-ended space sim from the MS-DOS era, Wing Commander is the game for you. With its amazing graphics, sound, music and the vast freedom it offers, it’s a must-play. It has that 90s sci-fi look and feels to it, and the immersion is amazing, and once you get into it, you will be wasting countless hours on it. Just be sure to read the manual, if you play it for the first time.