Wing Commander Arena Hands On Preview

By Chris Remo, Feb 22, 2007 10:00pm PST
Electronic Arts, which has its hand in just about every gaming genre and platform out there, was surprisingly slow to hit Xbox 360's Xbox Live Arcade, having never released a game on Microsoft's successful console game download service. Now, the publisher has announced two games for the platform and, surprisingly, neither is a port or remake. First up will be Bizarre Creations' rhythm game Boom Boom Rocket, which is due out this spring--check back next week for a hands on preview. Announced just yesterday was Wing Commander Arena, a spinoff of Origin Systems' acclaimed PC flight combat sim franchise. It has been coming up on nine years since there was an actual new game released in the Wing Commander universe, so yesterday's announcement quickly set the hearts of longtime PC gamers aflutter.

Some words of warning, however: those pining for a new sweeping space epic structured around in-cockpit dogfighting are unlikely to find Arena the game about which they have been dreaming for the better part of a decade. Co-developers EA and Gaia Industries (creator of the upcoming Live Arcade game Street Trace NYC) have taken a different path with this title, one more suited to the Live Arcade environment. Arena is not a first-person 3D space combat sim framed by live-acted cutscenes, it is a third-person 2D arcade-ish space melee game heavily focused on multiplayer. This week I had the chance to get some hands on time with Wing Commander Arena and chat with producer Sean Penney about the team's goals for the game.

For those familiar with Wing Commander lore, Arena picks up with the Nephilim invasion repelled but with the Kilrathi in poor shape, the Confederacy having been knocked back to a somewhat primitive state, and the core worlds in the process of being rebuilt. Arena takes place in out in the frontier, where things are a bit rougher. Unlike prior games in the franchise, players can pilot either human or Kilrathi vessels, and in free for all or head to head modes it is possible for humans to go up against humans or Kilrathi to go up against Kilrathi. Penney noted that early in development, EA sought out input from original Wing Commander contributors such as creator Chris Roberts, and since then the company has solicited opinions from the online Wing Commander community, which remains remarkably strong. "We looked at [the space combat] area and said we want to dominate it," said Penney. "There are a lot of titles that haven't lived up to what that space can be. We wanted to innovate there."

Wing Commander Arena is played on a 2D plane from a top down perspective. On a basic level, it is somewhat reminiscent of the Melee mode from Toys for Bob's classic Star Control series, which Penney said he recently loaded up again while in development on Arena. The game's 3D environments, however, allow more intricate control. The left analog stick controls thrust and steering, while the right analog stick is used to perform a variety of special maneuvers including strafing, forward and backward loops, and 180 degree flips. Plus, you can do a barrel roll. Weapons, up to four per ship, are fired with the shoulder buttons and triggers. There is a straightforward HUD containing recharging meters for weapon power, shield strength, and fuel (consumed when using afterburners). The hull meter does not recharge. Maps frequently contain pickups corresponding to the various ship stats.

Series fans will recognize all of the ship classes in Arena. Each of the two races has nine available craft across three classes: light fighters, heavy fighters, and bombers. Each class consists of three ships based on classic Wing Commander models, with a basic version and then two bulked up versions piling on progressively more armor and armament. Out in the low-tech frontier, more heavily armed ships don't have stronger armor, they simply have more plating. This creates a trade-off between armor and maneuverability, so while it might seem attractive to immediately go for the ship with the most equipment, depending on the game type it may frequently be more appropriate to exercise restraint and go for something more agile and quick. The gulf between the maneuverability of the lightest-armored light fighter and the most heavily armored bomber is immense, and the seven ships in between fill in the spectrum.

On the human side, the light fighters are variants on the F-27 Arrow, heavy fighters are models of the F-44A Rapier II, and bombers are based on the A-17 Broadsword. Kilrathi light fighters are modelled off of the Darket, heavy fighters off of the Dralthi, and bombers off of the Paktahn. Weapons too will be familiar, and as in past Wing Commander games the weaponry of the two races largely overlaps. Ships are armed with guns such as the laser cannon, meson blaster, tachyon gun, neutron gun, ionic pulse cannon, plasma gun, and mass driver cannon; heavier weapons include the dart DF (dumbfire, i.e. unguided), javelin HS (heat-seeking), vampire HS, porcupine mines, and lance torpedo.

Turn the page to read about Wing Commander Arena's various game types.

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Up to 16 players are supported in multiplayer, a first for Xbox Live Arcade. There numerous game types, team based and otherwise. Most straightforward is the free for all mode, which simply thrusts up to 16 players into an arena and has them duke it out to see who can achieve the highest kill count. Duel mode is similar, but is limited to one on one. Blending the two is the Bear Pit, which accepts up to 16 players in the game but allows only two to face off at any given time. Once that duel has been completed, the winner stays in the pit and a new challenger is thrown in. The objective, of course, is to keep as long a winning streak as possible. Meanwhile, the observers can watch the game or participate in various mini-game activities. In a Bomberman-like twist, they even occasionally get the chance take potshots at the contestants from the sidelines.

There are three team games, the first being a simple team deathmatch. I was able to check out a deathmatch map, entitled Boneyard, used in both free for all and team versus battles. It is littered with derelict ships, planetoids, large colorful crystals, alien artifacts, jump gates, and other sci-fi trappings. "It's just a really wild space environment," offered Penney. The next team game is called Satellites, similar to a control points game type in a first person shooter. Each team has its own zone containing three satellites, with a neutral area containing four satellites in between. Docking with a satellite will change its color to that of your team and put it under your control, granting benefits such as fuel and ammunition replenishment. To win the game, one team must acquire and hold eight of the ten satellites, meaning at least one must be held in enemy territory. Finally, there is a mode that sees a Condfederate capital ship and a Kilrathi capital ship facing off in a broadside battle. Each team endeavors to take out the opposing capital ship by attacking it and stripping it of its outer hull, then its inner hull, and finally its bridge.

There is no single-player narrative in Wing Commander Arena, though there is a text prologue as well as various bits of flavor text scattered throughout the game to provide context and color for the setting. Despite the lack of a campaign component, there are four single-player gameplay modes. The straightforward

Melee puts the player into a bot-filled space station for all arena with a time limit, attempting to achieve as many kills as possible before the clock ticks down. The Proving Ground is a free for all set in a more spacious arena, and does not have any goal or end; it is simply an open ended practice mode. Meteor Storm is essentially Wing Commander Arena's take on Asteroids. The player must protect a space station from wandering asteroids, which break into progressively smaller chunks when destroyed. As the player completes more waves, more hostile elements such as enemy ships are introduced. Finally, the Gauntlet tasks the player with protecting the capital ship Midway (sure to be a familiar name to series fans) against increasingly powerful waves of enemies. With the exception of the Proving Ground, these modes feature online leaderboards ranking those who last the longest or kill most efficiently.

There are of course a number of Achievements corresponding to various feats. Some are more about overall endurance than anything else--"Paladin" requires players to shoot down 1000 pilots in Xbox Live games--while some will likely require some serious chops--"Gunfighter" is awarded to players who have won a ranked head to head duel using every ship. Then there are the requisite completionist Achievements: recipients of "Navigator" have traveled through every teleporting jump gate in the game.

All in all, Wing Commander Arena does not particularly feel like a Wing Commander game, but it does feel well suited to Xbox Live Arcade. It is more ambitious than most recent Live Arcade releases, and it is encouraging to see a newly developed title in a segment that has gotten little attention of late. Asked to sum up the game, Penney said, "It's a great space fighter building on one of the greatest IPs the games industry has ever produced." Could the investment into Wing Commander Arena indicate that Electronic Arts is considering further plans for the long dormant franchise? Penney seems hopeful. "We all loved Wing Commander back in the day," he said. "If it does well, [EA] publishing might say, 'Wow, there's all this interest in this IP? Really?' You never know."

Electronic Arts plans to ship Gaia Industries' Wing Commander Arena for Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade this summer. Pricing details have not yet been announced.

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