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classic sci-fi time-wasters (3 of 4): Privateer

by Rob Friesel

Privateer coverIn the previous two installments of this series, we discussed two “classic” science fiction games from the PC world: Sierra On-Line’s Outpost and Microprose’s Lightspeed. A theme common to both of those games is a sense of isolation — you’re cut off from the rest of humankind and you’ll have to live by your wits (and a little luck) if you’ve any hope for survival. Both of these games also share a sense of grim responsibility. That “hope for survival” we were just talking about? That’s the survival of the entire human species, pal.

How’s that for escapism?

Certainly not all science fiction games are like this. Realism? Adherence to the laws of physics? Doomsday scenarios where only you can stop our extinction? Who needs to be worried by all of that petty nonsense when you can strap yourself into a modified Centurion-class heavy sloop1 and rip through the sector with the haughty derring-do that only a pirate privateer possesses?

Privateer cockpit screenshot

Privateer cockpit screenshot

Privateer was a space sim2 by Origin Systems set in the Wing Commander milieu. Though there were two Privateer games, only the first was recognizable as part of the franchise3; and though gameplay for both was nearly identical and though both games were intensely fun, we are going to focus on the first Privateer game.

One of Privateer‘s big draws for me as a player was that it had an RPG-feel to it. Or (allow me to rephrase) the ads gave me the impression that this was a Wing Commander-esque take on the sci-fi RPG. And to some extent, there was the sense of limitlessness and freedom that one expects from an RPG. There were so many different paths that you could take. You could hunt pirates or be a pirate yourself. You could join the Merchants Guild or trade independently. Compared to military-assigned missions of the original Wing Commander games, this was indeed a renaissance of open-endedness. Playing the role of this “free-trader”, this “privateer” was great… Galavanting around the galaxy4, ferrying cargo, improving your ship, dodging pirates. It was all so exciting. Until we realize that a linear, goal-oriented plot was surreptitiously woven into the fabric.

Archeological artifacts? An ancient and occult alien race? Steltek gun?

But it had such potential as an RPG!

Privateer in-base screenshot

Privateer in-base screenshot

Were we “to do this right” and create an updated Privateer… Firstly, modernized graphics; that goes without saying. Second, the focus should remain on the “space sim” flight/transit and combat, as well as the commerce element. The commerce element really is the key here. Privateer would be a great MMORPG and would reap the benefits of a persistent, interactive environment immensely. Lose the plot all together; it really just gets in the way of what makes the game really enjoyable — making your own destiny. As an MMORPG, you could forge alliances with other members — joining Trade Guilds or Pirate Clans or vying for government defense sub-contracts would actually mean something. Your reputation would mean something. This approach to the gameplay opens up other possibilities, as well: which systems in the sector are allied vs. adversarial? what Letter(s) of Marque do you carry? what Guild memberships open doors for you on which worlds? which ones slam doors in your face? Taking it to the next level: what if (at sufficiently advanced levels of gameplay) you could buy into “profit-sharing” arrangements with specific Guilds? or buy controlling interests in certain colonies or space stations?

And really, really open up the customization options. More ships. More ways to customize those ships. Mutually exclusive customizations for ships. Contraband customizations like Han Solo’s smuggling compartments. And maybe (just maybe) let us play as different species5?

At any rate: Privateer was a fun change-of-pace for the Wing Commander universe at the time and I could see it making a comeback as an MMORPG space fighting/trading game. Perhaps even finish what Privateer 2 started and just completely divorce it from the Wing Commander franchise all together. Could be a winner.

Previously: Lightspeed

Up next: MegaTraveller 2

  1. I admit it: I made up the “heavy sloop” part. []
  2. Please note that we use the term “space sim” here rather loosely. And mostly because the phrase appears in the marketing collateral. []
  3. The emphasis here is on “recognizable”. Both were branded as Wing Commander games (though the branding on the second was less prominent) but the second Privateer game seemed related in name only. Its references to “the Terran Confederation” were oblique when they were present at all. Both of them downplayed the Confederation, eschewing references to the Kilrathi War as much as possible. In a way, it is necessary to divorce these games from the franchise’s mainstream; after all, it was an effort to revitalize the franchise with a fresh perspective and a new approach, right? But at the same time, cut out too many of those elements and the connection starts to become tenuous. []
  4. OK, well: galavanting around the sector. []
  5. I bring this up because other than the Kilrathi, every other alien race in the Wing Commander milieu seemed to be a throwaway. Remember the Firekka? The Mopoks? Whatever happened to them? I bring this up because (1) it seems weaksauce to discard them so easily and (2) isn’t it kind of a cliche to build the original plot around The Ancient Alien Master Race anyway? []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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