Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wing Commander: Freedom Flight review

    Oh God, Wing Commander.

    Wow, we're really going back to the Dark Ages of Science Fiction gaming. Jesus, it was like 1990 when the first game came out. Vikings were still roaming the high seas back. King Arthur had yet to pull the sword from the stone. The sad thing is, I never actually got to play any of the Wing Commander series. I was aware of them but I wasn't the type to go out and buy them. To paraphrase a successful commercial, they were a PC and I was a Nintendo.

    It's kind of sad. I was playing Street Fighter II on Super Nintendo, thinking "graphics will never get any better than this" while Mark ****ing Hamill was doing video clips for Wing Commander III. If I'd had a computer worth a damn, I probably would have played the **** out of these games. Really, I think the closest I actually ever got to playing Wing Commander was the, in-retrospect, obvious clone in Star Wars: TIE Fighter.

    From what little I know of the series, Wing Commander was a huge hit in gaming circles with lots and lots of semi-successful spinoffs. There were novels, as this review will attest, and even an animated series. Eventually, though, they made a horrendously awful movie starring Freddie Prince Junior and Mathew Lillard that killed the franchise. I mean, killed it dead. There's talk about remaking everything in video games but I haven't heard a peep about a Wing Commander reboot.

    The plot of Wing Commander is pretty simple. The Kilrathi (Kill + Wrath - get it?) are a race of seven-foot-tall lion-people who ape Medieval Japanese culture while pursuing Imperial Japan's objectives IN SPACE. No, stay with me. It's not nearly as silly as it sounds. The Kilrathi are opposed by the Terran Confederation, which is exactly what you'd expect from its name. There's no Force or mystic mumbo jumbo and the two sides beat the hell out of each other with starfighters.

    Enter our hero. Four games later, the war ends.

    Freedom Flight, as written by Mercedes Lackey and Ellen Guon, is not a novelization of the first game. Instead, it is a wholly original story about a minor Wing Commander character named Ian Saint John a.k.a Hunter. It follows Hunter as he's caught up in a Kilrathi lord's defection and the invasion of a minor alien world allied to the Terran Confederacy. Hunter is completely oblivious to the larger political ramifications of his actions but tries to do what's right regardless. Surprisingly, the book is fairly typical mass-market science fiction. It's nothing special but I enjoyed reading it. If that's all you want to know, you can stop reading now. If not, I'll go into the plot in a little more detail.

    My initial thought reading the book was surprise, primarily due to the identity of one of its authors. Mercedes Lackey? The fantasy chick-lit girl? Frankly, having read some of our other books, I don't see much similarity. Hunter is about as far removed from her typical protagonist as humanly possible. He's a self-styled ladies man and a party-animal whose personality can best be summarized by the words raging jackass.

    It takes skill to make Tom Cruise's character from Top Gun look like the height of military discipline but Hunter accomplishes it. There's like five or six occasions when I think he should have been court-martialed and thrown in the brig. Given I'm usually willing to overlook anything in my military science-fiction, that's bad. No, seriously, Hunter acts like he's a frat boy at a all-night kegger. He hits on everything that moves, steals military property, and thinks orders are suggestions.

    It's difficult to hate him because the authors do an excellent job of establishing he just doesn't think through the consequences of his actions. Because, yeah, that's the kind of guy you want as an officer in your military. There were several times I just wanted to reach in the book and strangle the guy. So, obviously, the rest of the book has to be quite good to get over its central character.

    Thankfully, it is.

    The rest of the book centers around three characters: Lord Ralgha, Kirha, and K’Kai. All three are aliens and provide a different perspective on the universe than our incredibly dumb human protagonist. Lord Ralgha is a noble of the Kilrathi and Kirha is his second. In feudal terms, Ralgha is a lord while Kirha is a samurai warrior. K'Kai, on the other hand, is a six-foot tall parrot. Only in Wing Commander could you make that the premise for a new alien race and not have it come off as outrageously silly. In fact, K'Kai came off as the sanest person in the book.

    The book's description of Kilrathi culture is intriguing, treating them as basically samurai with a tiger's predatory qualities. Proud Warrior Races are a dime-a-dozen in science-fiction but the Kilrathi are nicely alien and vicious without being truly evil. At least, they don't come off as any more evil to me than the majority of cultures throughout human history.

    Sure, the book goes overboard on the concept of duty and honor but those two things have been focused on by writers for centuries so the authors are in good company. It's easy to get into the mind of Lord Ralgha and Kirha both, two men trying to understand human society when it's drastically different than the structured Medieval one they're used to. Compared to Hunter, both also came across as noble and deeply introspective. I hope to see more of both in future installments.

    K'kai? K'kai is just a female trying to make her way in the universe. I wish her luck.

    The action is pretty good, mostly consisting of Hunter hot-dogging his way through the Kilrathi fleet. Despite being a starfighter series, there's a good deal of ground action here as well. My favorite of the conflicts was a mutiny aboard a Kilrathi warship that shows a surprisingly large number of subversions to "typical" space-opera tactics. The character of Paladin, who is written like Scotty from the original Star Trek series, is a surprisingly engaging character. I liked him a great deal more than Hunter and wished the authors devoted more time to him.

    If there's any other flaws for readers to be warned of it's the fact the book has a surprisingly large amount of ethnic stereotyping. For example; Spirit a.k.a Mariko the Japanese girl is a demure little flower while Angel a.k.a Deveraux the girl from Belgium speaks with a highly exaggerated accent just to remind us she's foreign. She uses gratuitous French words every other sentence, just in case we forget she's from another country.

    Both women are also mourning their men, which grated on me. There's a third woman in the book but what happened with her irritated me even more than the ethnic stereotypes.The irony the book came off as sexist despite being written by two women is not lost on me.

    Overall, I liked the book but it had some serious flaws that affected my enjoyment.


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