Wing Commander Privateer review
Privateer is an adventure space flight simulator that features trading, missions and space battles. It was released by Origin in 1993 for MS-DOS. It’s an spin-off of the acclaimed Wing Commander space simulation game series, so it shares same universe.
This is one of the most influential space sim and I played it a lot. That the reason I chosen it for review on behalf of other games. Well… to be true, Elite (1984) was the game that started everything, but I think Privateer was the game that better exploited the formula and brought it to the present day. And EVE Online brought the it to MMO world.
Usually, space simulators are focused on the spaced combat. This is focused on adventure gameplay in a sandbox-like universe that feels very vivid. The concept is great and inspiring. Player has total freedom, which is more common today but it wasn’t back on the epoch. There is also a story to follow up as you see fit
- Player is a freelancer that can fill many roles, like in a RPG: scout, trader, smuggler, bounty hunter, pirate… In fact, there are random missions to earn profit with every role and it’s also related with game factions.
- Trading: mission based and also player can freely buy commodities and sell them in other bases to get a profit. There are even illegal commodities to smuggle with.
- There are missions to protect merchants or attack pirates but also, in pirate bases, there are missions to attack merchants. Pirates and merchants/bounty hunters are rival factions.
- You can also scout Navigation points on the system, on missions, to earn money.
- There are various factions: militia, Terran Confederation, pirates, retros (fundamentalists), merchants, bounty hunters and Kilrathi. The player actions affect the relation with them.
- There are many planet/base types, which affects the commodities supplied and expected.
- There are lots of star systems to scout, organized in various quadrants. Every star system is different. There are dangerous systems with asteroid fields and few secret places to be found.
- The game feels very vivid. There are random events all time: you find friendly ships sometimes, hostile others, even 3rd party battles as two factions clash and you can join them, of course. You can also be scanned by Confeds (as they search for contraband).
- Interesting story to discover as you do fixer missions when tired of freelancing and exploring.
- In the vanilla game, there are 4 ships to choose, some focused on combat, others on trading.
- There are many weapons, divided between 3 types: beams, missiles and torpedoes. Weapons can be mounted on front or on turrets.
- There are other components like shields, power generators, scanners, quadrant maps… but also interesting things like a tractor beam.
- Nice space themed OST.
- Not all AI is same for all ships, some are smarter.
- There are two guild to join to get better reward / harder missions.
Privateer is a classic game and it has been influential on many games to come.
Privateer has not aged very well. Back in the 486 epoch it was awesome. It’s still playable and can give fun, but there are issues related to the time passed:
- Game controls are not fluid. It gets better when using a Joystick but still it’s not good. In dogfights, it feels like fighting against your own ship. You can somewhat get used to it but still is not good at all.
- Game is inintuitive. It fails on introducing you into basic mechanics like activating weapon systems, lowering shields, jumping to other systems, which are just a keypress. Any modern game would hint that but here you must rely on game manual.
- Game UI is not very good. Games now usually have interfaces meant to help the player so he can focus on important things, but here you must switch panel screens by pressing various hotkeys and there are no numbers, so you must rely on intuition (is this damage ok or should I consider retreating? is it ok to trade this here? etc).
- Some ship cockpits are cramped with stuff on purpose, to difficult dogfighting maybe.
- Difficulty curve: game start is a bit rough, unless you’re experienced at space sims. That is, until you get used to combat, you cheese combats with IR/heat missiles or you get a Centurion, whichever comes first. Late game is mostly easy because of that. Just beware of Kilrathi.
- Story could be longer and more developed (btw, there is an expansion). Also it seems secondary, just there to push players into discovering the game world. It’s fine for a sandbox game, but a more robust story would improve the experience.
- Roleplaying is superficial: there is no impact other than switching friends by foes.
- Space ships are ok but slightly imbalanced, as they designed it like a tier (worse to better). Stats don’t make sense for every ship class supposed role:
- The light fighter (Tarsus) is a light ship but strangely it’s the worst scout (low speed) and it’s not very good at fighting because it’s weak. And maneuver is just ok. Funnily, it’s a fine cargo ship until you get a bigger/stronger ship, so ok for early trading.
- The heavy-duty gunship (Orion) is not well armed and it has bad maneuvering, bad cargo capacity too. It’s only advantage is to be resilient. Maybe you can find it an use but for me it’s just worthless.
- The freighter (Galaxy) carries a lot of cargo so it’s fine for trading goods. The ship feels like a direct upgrade to Tarsus as it’s just better on everything. For long range merchant missions I think max speed afterburner is a winner, so you’re likely to be safer and go quicker with the Centurion.
- The heavy fighter (Centurion) is a bounty hunter ship. It’s the best scout (max speed). It’s also the best combat ship because of it’s excellent maneuver and front weapon slots. In the end, this makes it the best ship overall as it’s the best suited for all kind of missions. Its only downside is having the smallest cargo capacity and slightly lower armor.
- So, to summarize for fun: a heavy gunship without gun firepower, a light fighter that is a bad light ship and bad fighter, a trading ship that you’re likely going to switch for a more versatile fighter, and the über fighter Centurion. Ship design is not actually bad but just too tier-minded.
- Game would make use of more music themes for the space.
- Turrets are not very useful because these are not capital ships, so you’re expected to dodge or escape with afterburner if you’re overrun by enemies. You focus on your front and avoid the side/rear attacks. Turret automation or maybe hotseat multiplayer would make them interesting.
- Using tractor beam occupies a weapon slot, it’s difficult to use when mounted on up/down/rear and it sucks.
- As it happens on other sandbox games, you’re free of objectives to do anything you like, so once you got your heavily armed Centurion, unless you like exploring or playing role with factions, there is only a bit of story.
Why to play?
The best reason to play this game is that it’s a open world game with soul. You feel like an actor more in the universe, between some factions and some shady people with shady business going on.
A random video showing intro and gameplay:
The mercenaries guild will happily give some fun missions for the bravest freelancers:
The player starts in Troy system and it’s locked there until he buys a Jump drive (which is not expensive):
An enemy Talon on radar with its shields hit. The most used enemy ship and only a real menace on high numbers if it’s not dealt quickly:
How to acquire
The classic game can be bought in www.gog.com for MS-DOS and I recommend it to have access to some goodies like the game manual. Also it includes the Speech pack (to add voices) and an expansion called Righteous fire.
Version / Platform
I’m mostly describing the vanilla game, as the expansion is like a second part and just extends the story and add fews things.
The game was popular for both fans of Wing Commander saga and other more casual players. There were various fan made remakes that resulted in fully playable games:
- Privateer Gemini Gold: This is probably the remake I like more until today. It’s like the original, improving few things and it’s complete. You can download it here.
- Privateer remake 1.2: This is based on Vega Strike engine and adds some interesting things like own multiple ships. The 3D renders are not so good today (it’s a old remake, like the others). Download here.
- Vegastrike: This is a engine that mimics Privateer mechanics to make new games. Sadly, the engine got old quick and lost interest. You can download here as it’s fully playable.
- There is a new engine (2019) going on!
Wing Commander Privateer is an aged game but the concept is so cool that still there is interest on it. I’m sure there will be more fan attempts to revive it on a modern engine.
Sadly, Origin is dead (as a developer at least), so it’s unlikely there will be any future for Wing Commander series.
Games like Privateer
There are various 3D space trading simulators more or less inspired by Privateer:
- Freespace. Or it’s sequel. You’ll switch Wing Commander universe for a more polished saga.
- X Reunion. The “X” saga is modern and well known.
- Elite. A long time saga, with the modern Elite Dangerous as it’s lastest release. First Elite is legendary.
- Darkstar One: I still didn’t tried it but it’s in gog and it seems a fine game.
- No Man’s Sky. Well, I’m trolling a bit here, as this game is actually a environment-survival focused game while Privateer is an adventure game with serious combat.
If you’re more interested in old-school combat oriented space simulators:
- X-Com Interceptor: It’s not the best game in the saga, but I think it’s underrated and I had a good time playing it.
- Wing Commander (1-3 or Academy): If you’re interested in space combat, you can’t go wrong with these.
- X-Wing VS Tie Fighter: I’m not a big fan of the Star Wars games but it got its fans.
There are also 2D games like the Smugglers series but, sadly, I think those are subpar when compared to the 3D games. And I like 2D shooters, but it’s not so good.
There are other genres more focused on real time strategy (e.g. Homeworld). Those are cross-genre and out of the focus here.
Privateer is a interesting old school game that recycled the Elite mechanics and incorporated them into an existing solid universe, Wing Commander, to create a great space opera.