Privateer 2: The Darkening PC Gamer preview, October 1996
Privateer 2: The Darkening
Origin's Wing Commander universe is about to grow bigger yet again, with another ambitious and star-studded interactive movie set on the fringes of the galaxy. Gary Whitta took a near-complete version for a test flight...
Your spaceship is attacked by a mysterious force and crash-lands on the planet Hermes. Ten years later, you awake from cryogenic storage with no memory of your life before. All you know is that you've suddenly got a very attractive credit rating and one hell of a bank balance. All you have to do now is figure out who you are...
That's the enigmatic premise surrounding the player in Privateer 2: The Darkening, Origin's elaborate interactive movie sequel to the 1993 original. Like the first game, The Darkening is another extension of the ever-growing Wing Commander universe, but one where the troubles of the Kilrathi War are far from your mind - here, far across the galaxy, in a world of cut-throats, smugglers and assorted interstellar scum, your problems are the local cops, the mafia, and whoever else feels like giving you a hard time today.
Fans of Privateer are in for a treat - The Darkening represents as big a leap forward for the series as Wing Commander III. Goodbye cartoon characters, hello swanky full-motion video with Origin's most talented actors to date - a predominantly European cast led by John Hurt, David Warner, Jurgen Prochnow, and Clive Owen (in the lead role) is joined by the ever-bankable Christopher Walken (as a sinister prison governor). And the space combat engine has moved up a notch since Wing Commander IV for even more detailed ships, intelligent instrumentation (HUD details switch off when not in use to help increase frame rate) and lots of cute graphical touches like lens flare when flying towards stars - oh, and did I mention this is the first Wing Commander game to feature throttle support? The British design team based in Manchester, England, and led by Erin Roberts (brother of Wing Commander creator Chris) has pulled out all the stops to make The Darkening Origin's most impressive space opera yet.
Nevertheless, Privateer players will find a lot of familiar things here - the mix of space combat, commodities trading, and planet-hopping remains the same, although the interfaces have been refined, and the vital statistics increased considerably - there are now 60 different ship types, 18 of which the player can buy and customize to their heart's content (so long as you've got the money to pay for it, of course). That customization is now much more sophisticated, with six weapons hard points for the various lasers, missiles, and mines, plus large cargo ships for transporting big loads (anything from refugees to medicines to illegal weapons). There are around 30 planets and space stations to visit, each with their own culture and economy, so there's much money to be made simply by ferrying the right cargo to the right people. As with the original Privateer, you can also pick up hefty fees by flying missions for wealthy clients, the bounty increasing depending on the danger involved.
And, of course, there's the interactive movie element, but Origin's product manager in charge of The Darkening, Patrick Bradshaw, is keen to point out the differences from the cinematics in previous Wing Commander games. "The whole game's set up kind of randomly, you don't have to go through the plot piece by piece," he explains.
"The story is a mystery - the video sequences are all story, not just mission briefings, and the player needs to follow the clues from each piece of video to find the next clue." The movie sequences are longer than in the Wing Commander games, but there's less of them (one of the reasons why the game uses only three CD-ROMs).
The Darkening's main strength looks to be its potentially unlimited replay value - the game doesn't end when the movie does; in fact you don't even have to watch the cinematics if you don't want to. "If you hate video and never want to see another piece of live-action footage again, you can just play it like Elite, trading and building up your ship," says Bradshaw. The bulletin boards provides plenty of missions, there's unlimited scope for trading and random pirate generation at every jump point makes for lots of different combat situations."We've stayed true to a lot of the things that worked in Wing Commander, but you'll find that as you play through it, the combat's really not the same as in the Wing Commander games," says Bradshaw, adding ominously, "Things are not quite as clear cut in this part of the universe."
Although, technically, The Darkening is part of the Wing Commander family, fans of that series' epic war story won't get much of that here - this game is set on the other side of the galaxy so you won't see any Kilrathi, Confederation ships, or even hear much mention of the ongoing conflict, although there are some subtle references on the fringes of the story if you look out for them. But Bradshaw is excited about bringing these two diverse halves of the same universe together, in some kind of Star Trek-style crossover episode tentatively planned for the future. "Do not be surprised see some kind of crossover game from us in the future," he says. "When you've got two properties as strong as Wing Commander and Privateer, you definitely want to pool the best elements from each one together."