It may be just a computer game, but it boasts an early sequence worthy of the Star Wars series: On a dusky, red-tinged planet, Christopher Blair and his bearded colleague Paladin survey the massive, half-submerged wreckage of a lost starship. Meanwhile, in a distant sector of the galaxy, the grand council of the Kilrathi (a race of belligerent, lion-headed humanoids with whom the Confederation the good guys has been at war for decades) summarily execute a group of captured pilots. Only one human receives a temporary reprieve for the delectation of the Kilrathi leader: Blair's girlfriend, Angel, who would rather die than be subjected to well, you get the idea.
Thanks to unrelenting improvements in PC-game technology, Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, the latest installment of the science-fiction action series, emerges as not only the best of the lot but probably the most advanced CD-ROM to date. The disc had a production cost in excess of $4 million, with which its developers managed to integrate 3 1/2 hours of live-action video with futuristic sets created on Silicon Graphics workstations and the kind of three-dimensional space-flight simulation that not too long ago could only have been rendered on a NASA supercomputer.
All this whizbang stuff aside, Wing Commander III's biggest hook is its casting of Mark Hamill Luke Skywalker himself as Colonel Blair. Sporting a scruffy beard and a hangdog expression, he's a bleak, grizzled presence who lends the fantastical proceedings a surprising gravity. And the supporting actors (including Star Trek Generations' Malcolm McDowell and Raiders of the Lost Ark's John Rhys-Davies) do wonders, especially erstwhile porn star Ginger Lynn Allen. She's surprisingly low-key and effective as the space station's chief technician, even if she does get saddled with leering lines like ''I can't wait to get my hands dirty with one of those pups.''
What's most gratifying about the live-action interludes is that they don't slow down the game action. In fact, they're a welcome relief from the exhausting space-combat sequences. You think commanding a search-and-destroy mission is easy? Well, then try initiating radio contact with your wingman, arming and disarming missiles, keeping track of seven or eight blips on a radar display, accelerating, braking, steering, and ring all while listening to a plug-ugly alien broadcast aspersions on your ancestry.
As a measure of how involved these proceedings are, Wing includes not one but 10 practice missions to prepare you for the 50 real ones. Though it may take you a while to learn the game, the payoff, in terms of downed Kilrathi, is more than worthwhile. Just be careful to familiarize yourself with the entire manual; imagine my chagrin when, after arduously completing my first mission, I returned in triumph to the mother ship only to unceremoniously crash and burn in the docking bay.
If Wing isn't perfect, that's more a function of the hardware it's designed for than the software itself. You might not want to even think about playing this game unless you have a Pentium-processor computer the box says it'll work on a 486/50, but I suspect you'd have to wedge it in there tighter than a Kilrathi in a wet suit. And while the game can also be played using a mouse or keyboard arrows, believe me, you're better off with a joystick. Wing is one of the first games designed to run optimally on a triple- or quadruple-speed CD-ROM drive, which, considering that most PCs are equipped with double-speed units, seems rather unfair. Those numerous disc-access delays (which occur when the computer downloads information) aren't Origin's fault it's your soon-to-be-rendered-obsolete CD-ROM player huffinng and puffinng to keep up with megabytes upon megabytes of data.
But none of this overshadows Wing Commander III's strengths. The fact is, the disc represents as great a leap over previous CD-ROM games as Star Wars did over previous science-fiction movies. And that Mark Hamill appears in both should be a tribute to the actor or, at least, to his agent. A