Chronicles of a Wing Commander, Part 2

Wing Commander: The Secret Missions

The Saturday afternoon phone conversation that led to many a late night and spent case of Mountain Dew:

*phone rings*
Me: Hello?
My friend: Hey, it's Joe. There's a new Wing Commander game down here at Software & Such.
Me: A new game?
Joe: Yeah, it's an undercover operation, I think. It's called "The Secret Missions."
Me: Oh, sweet! How much is it?
Joe: It's used, but it's 15$.
Me: Do you have 15$?
Joe: My mom gave me 5.
Me: I have some dough saved up. I was saving it for a movie or a trip to the arcade or something, but this is good, too. Where are you?
Joe: I'm here now. I'm using their phone. I wanted to tell you about this before I forgot.
Me: Give me 15 minutes. I'll meet you down there, "Raider!"
Joe: Roger that, "Gunslinger!"

I'm sure that right about now, you're thinking: "That's pretty cheesy. He must be exaggerating." However, I can say in all honesty that I'm not. This is how much the game has stuck with me through the years; I can remember the phone conversation from when I found out about it verbatim. When Joe called me up at home to tell me about Secret Missions, we were both very excited. I raced the 2 miles or so down to the store, imagining my bike was one of "Blue Devil Squadron"'s Scimitar-class medium fighters from Wing Commander. Why a Scimitar? I liked the name. Scimitar. I'm going to slice you wide open with my scimitar.

It took way more than 15 minutes, though.

When we got it back to my house and installed the game, we were excited, because we could never get the "Start Secret Missions" button to work for us (since we didn't own it). Clicking on it without Secret Missions installed would simply redirect you to a screen informing you that you could order the game from Origin via a customer service number. We either forgot to call the number, or figured it would be too much money, hence our excitement when Joe came across it at Software & Such. In retrospect, I should have called the number then, just so I could think back as an adult on the novelty of calling a customer service line and speaking to a real live person right away. Try to keep in mind that the internet then was nothing like what it is today; news of games like this were spread mostly through word of mouth. Joe and I were just lucky he happened to see it.

The box was pretty cool in the way that it didn't have anything particularly revealing on the cover. Just enough to get the point across and keep the mystery alive. Even though there wasn't some cool graphic on the front of the box, that was ok; I mean, they were "secret" missions, right?

It should be noted here that since Secret Missions is an expansion to the original Wing Commander, the gameplay is virtually unchanged, as are my "favorite/least favorite" sequences. A few different enemy captial ships were added to the game to give the universe more flavor, but outside of that, it's still the same game; the player is just flying new and different missions onboard the Tiger's Claw. However, Secret Missions added a lot of variance to the Wing Commander mythos. In Wing Commander, the premise is very simple: there are bad guys out there who do very bad things, and as the good guys, we need to take them out. In Secret Missions, the player is sent on a mission to


...the colony of Goddard after having received a distress call that suddenly and ominously went dead during transmission. This operation was dubbed "Operation Thor's Hammer" in the game's documentation, which was very cool sounding in my early teens.

Not pictured: Operation "Iron Man's Armor."

You fly a few aggressive missions early on to score some relief supplies for the colony, and insure that some extra help arrives to lend a hand in beating back the Kilrathi.

Except that you're too late.

The Colonel breaks the bad news.

This was the first of the Wing Commander games to feature a scripted failure. Up to this point, the player had sole control over victories and losses in the story's cut scenes, which were directly proportional to their performance in the cockpit. In Secret Missions, there is nothing the player can do to prevent Goddard from being destroyed. Also, Secret Missions did not follow the same "mission tree" that its predecessor had, instead opting for the straightforward approach. Players either won or lost, and winning or losing the game was dependent upon each series of missions; if you lost one series, that was it, you wound up playing through the game's "retreat" missions, with the ultimate result being losing the game. However, the "scripted failure" at Goddard did not cause this to happen; Goddard was the only series of missions you could lose without it meaning that victory was impossible.

I remember being a kid and thinking that this took away from the game. Before, I could simply fight my way back to victory tooth and nail, and still win the game if I lost a mission or series of missions. Only chronic failure would result in losing the game; with Secret Missions, a loss meant loading a saved game and re-trying the previous mission I'd failed, hoping for victory. I liked the idea of a failure being out of the player's hands, though, as the hero does not win 100% of the time.

The game concludes in one of two ways:

1.) The player and their wingman fly a clandestine mission deep in enemy territory to destroy the Kilrathi secret weapon known as the Sivar; a gigantic, monstrous dreadnought which carries with it the super-weapon which extinguished millions of human lives when it was used to destroy the colony at Goddard. Destroying it leaves the Kilrathi strike fleet broken and bleeding while you and the rest of the crew onboard the Tiger's Claw cruise home to Terran space to celebrate.

Things are not so hunky-dory back on the Kilrathi homeworld, however.

2.) The player covers the Tiger's Claw as it beats a hasty retreat from enemy territory, hoping to fight and run away, and live to fight another day. However, since you were not able to destroy the Kilrathi super-weapon, enslavement of several colonies worth of humans ensues, who are forced into the Kilrathi slave labor camps as the cats use the weapon to assert galactic dominance.

Not really the ending you want to see.

Best features:

  • Transfer program: Secret Missions came with a transfer program that allowed you to bring all the data from your previous missions in Wing Commander with you when you played the expansion. This allowed you to rise to the second highest rank in the game at the time: Lieutenant Colonel. You couldn't become a Colonel because ... well, because Colonel Halcyon was the Colonel, not you. However, it was nifty to see your progression continue.

    A number 1, baby.

  • Story: Not only does Secret Missions go more in depth with the Terran Confederation's struggle against the enemy, the game also incorporates little "side stories" into the main story as a mysterious adventure for the player to embark on. One of the first conversations the player can have in the game is with our old friend, "Bossman." Boss tells the story of a mysterious Terran ship, the Gwenhyvar.

    Well, that's not ominous at all.

    Iceman isn't so sure, though.

    This topic comes up again during the course of the game, when you are sent on a mission to answer a distress call from the Johann, a Terran Exeter-class ship that is under attack by the Kilrathi. You're to meet her out on the space lanes, and guard her flanks while she makes the repairs necessary to follow you back to the Tiger's Claw.

    However, when you find the Johann, you find that she isn't left unguarded; there's a contingent of Kilrathi aces guarding her flanks. Wait just a doggone minute, those don't look like Kilrathi ships, they are Terran fighter-craft! The Kilrathi have captured the Johann, and are guarding their captured prize with 4 Rapier-class medium fighters!

    Best of luck.

    You conclude upon landing, however, that the Johann was really the Gwenhyvar.

    The whole thing was a trick to set up an ambush.

    How can you be sure it's the Gwenhyvar, you ask?


  • Missions: The missions feel more personal after the destruction of Goddard colony. Wiping out the Kilrathi super-weapon and cruising to victory is all the sweeter, as revenge is a dish best served cold.

    Worst features:

  • Asteroids and accidental crashes still apply.

  • The lack of a "mission tree," making 99% of the game's missions "all or nothing."

  • "Series Overflow": A bug in the game dubbed the "series overflow bug" made random wingmen appear on the bar's chalkboard as "KIA" (killed in action), and these wingmen were no longer available for you to fly with. I believe it has to do with the fact that transferring your character data from Wing Commander to Secret Missions causes your character to have more sorties under his belt than there are in the actual game, though I could be wrong. The point is, wingmen disappear, and I had to fly more than one mission solo against sometimes 20+ enemy fighters because of it. I can't remember this happening as a kid, but it was frustrating to me as an adult. However, it is worth noting that an enterprising fellow created a program that allows you to edit your Secret Missions game and restore lost wingmen; I just couldn't figure out how to use it.

    Most memorable mission: Taking down the Sivar, of course. Close second would be a mission in which you learned that the Confederation has managed to capture a Dralthi-class enemy medium fighter, and must fly out to protect it for further use by the Confederation.

    Most frustrating mission: Encountering the Gwenhyvar and its compliment of Kilrathi aces in captured Confederation Rapier-class fighters. Due to the series overflow bug, I was flying this mission alone; best of luck with that one.

    I saw this screen a lot while flying that mission.

    Overall rating: 4.25 stars out of 5 possible.

    Next game: The Secret Missions 2: Crusade
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