Released originally in 1995 (for MS-DOS PCs), WC4 was produced on the then-unheard-of budget of USD $12 million. The majority of this budget went into the production of the game's full motion video, which were shot on actual sets instead of a bluescreen.
The first game set after the end of the Terran-Kilrathi War, WC4 depicted a galaxy in the midst of a chaotic transition, with human civilians, Kilrathi survivors and former soldiers on both sides attempting to restabilize their lives. The game includes a large number of branching conversations in which the player must choose what response his character, Christopher Blair, will give; the choice may affect the other person's attitude toward your character, the morale of the entire crew, the player's next assignment and even the game's ending. As the man giving the orders, Blair often gets to choose what ship he will fly, what missiles it will carry, and what wingman (or wingmen) he will take with him.
WC4 was also the first Wing Commander game to have "redshirt" wingmen, who had minimal character development and were not important to the plot (as opposed to the flight groups of the previous three games, which contained at most ten pilots with distinct personalities). These redshirts are never killed in combat. Like the main-character pilots always eject unless their death is mandated by the game's plot. Only two of the Redshirts have brief touches with the plot. Profiles of the redshirts used the names, photos and voices of some of game developers, programmers, and musicians. Not all names accurately reflect the pictures and voices. In an online conversation om September 18, 2008, visual artist Jennifer Ayers commented: "there was a screw up with the LA crew, and they lost a lot of the wingman's recordings, so they ran around the development team and drag folks into George [Oldizey]'s sound booth to re-record the missing lines."
The original MS-DOS edition shipped on 6 CD-ROMs. Origin later released a native-client for Windows/95. The Windows client added a deinterlace-option to improve the appearance of the cutscenes, but was identical to the original MSDOS game in all other respects.
In 1997, a special DVD-ROM edition of the game was released. In the special-edition, the cutscene-video was upgraded to full-DVD quality. As host PCs were insufficiently powerful to play the (MPEG2) DVD-video, the game-client relied on Windows/95's multimedia player to stream the video from DVD to a hardware-decoder. This dependency on external hardware rendered the game unplayable outside Windows PCs equipped with the decoder-board. Hence, the game was strategically bundled with DVD-ROM kits that included the necessary decoder-hardware. Later, the gaming community developed patches to allow this version to play on modern hardware where no hardware based MPEG2 decode was available. There was also a separate DVD-release which lacked the enhanced video, and was hence playable on all PCs capable of playing the original CD-ROM release.
The war between the Kilrathi Empire and the Terran Confederation has been over for several years. Confed is attempting to stabilize its economy and social structure, after the abrupt end to thirty-five years of war. The Kilrathi survivors, now led by Melek, retainer to the late Prince Thrakhath, are having even greater problems, since so much of their racial and societal makeup revolves around hunting and killing. Tensions between the outer colonies and inner Confed worlds are higher than ever. And the Savior of the Confederation Colonel Christopher Blair, retired, is trying to make out a living on a desert world as a farmer.
Salvation comes in the unlikely form of Major Todd "Maniac" Marshall, who bears orders: Blair has been recalled to active military service by Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn. Tension between the Confederation and the Union of Border Worlds has deepened, most recently with a monstrous attack on an unarmed medical transport. This transport is destroyed by a wing of mysterious fighters equipped with a bizarre new anti-ship weapon that doesn't explode, but rather incinerates the target's contents, leaving only a burning shell behind. Maniac is able to relate very few details on the recall order, but Blair gets an eyeful within five minutes of taking the cockpit when the station he's heading to is attacked by an Avenger-class fighter claiming Border Worlds allegiance. Border World claims that similar strikes that have occurred on their ships are ignored. James "Paladin" Taggart, now with his days in the Confederation Military behind him, has become a senior governor of the Assembly. In an effort to calm the calamity of threats and accusation, he makes the decision that the Assembly must cast a vote, and Admiral Tolwyn is the man who must present the evidence in order for the voting process to begin. In two weeks, the Confederation's governing Assembly will vote on whether or not to declare war on the Border Worlds, with Tolwyn assigned to a fact-finding mission which will essentially decide the issue. To assist him, Tolwyn assigns Blair to the TCS Lexington with the task of unraveling these tensions and getting to the bottom of the story. Returning from Wing Commander III are Lexington's new captain, William Eisen, Maniac, and Lt. Winston "Vagabond" Chang. Blair also meets Lt. Troy "Catscratch" Carter, a Kilrath-o-phobe who joined the military a couple of years too late.
Blair can find no concrete evidence, other than the fact that no one can positively identify the harassing ships. Soon, Tolwyn transfers a new officer to the Lex, Captain Hugh Paulsen, who replaces Eisen in command. After flying sorties under Paulsen's command, Blair faces a seemingly ordinary situation in which he decides to either head to the officer's lounge with Maniac or to venture down to the flight deck without proper authorization and face the threat of winding up in the "brig." If Blair chooses to head to the lounge, Maniac abruptly leaves him at the lounge bar remembering "something he has to do." If Blair chooses to sneak onto the flight deck, he witnesses none other than "Seether" arriving in a shuttle and meeting an unexpecting Paulsen with the claim that "things haven't been progressing as anticipated." Soon after, Paulsen calls Blair and Chang in for a surprise mission briefing: Eisen has just defected to the Border Worlds and is fleeing in a shuttle, with Maniac piloting. Once in space, Vagabond announces that he is going to follow Eisen over, and the player must choose whether to defect or not. If he does not, Blair returns to the Lexington to meet a new cadre of pilots brought in by Paulsen: cold, efficient, and extremely talented. The best, and coldest, is a man known only as "Seether." Blair flies with them for several missions before being confronted with a Border Worlds attack, led by Maniac, who gives Blair another chance to come over. Staying loyal to the Confederation leads to certain death, making it clear what series creator Chris Roberts expected the player to do. Blair and Maniac succeed in downing the Lexington, though Paulsen escapes in a shuttle with Seether. Shortly afterward, Seether slits Paulsen's throat with his trademark knife, because of his "mistake" in not killing either the Colonel or Captain Eisen when he had the chance to do so.
If Blair chooses to defect with Vagabond, he arrives with Eisen, Maniac, Vagabond and Catscratch at the BWS Intrepid, an old Durango-class carrier that has recently suffered immense damage from a Confed attack. Much of the senior staff has been killed, including Eisen's contact (and old friend) Captain Dominguez, and the two officers currently sharing the command are Colonels Jacob "Hawk" Manley and Tamara "Panther" Farnsworth, whom Blair recognizes from "the Astoria system" during the war. Hawk and Panther assign Blair as Wing Commander for the Intrepid's flight group, and Eisen becomes her captain, owing the lack of any other senior Navy personnel. Other notable Intrepid natives include Chief Technician Robert "Pliers" Sykes, far older and less pretty than Rachel Coriolis but just as canny with the planes if Blair is friendly to him; Col. John "Gash" Dekker, head of the ship's contingent of Marines; and Communications Technician Velina Sosa, whom Catscratch quickly takes a shine to. Eisen also takes the time to confide the reasoning behind his defection: he's been in touch with connections back on Earth, and it seems that this nascent Confed-Border Worlds war is being encouraged by elements within Confed—including whoever sent Paulsen. If he wanted the whole story, Eisen saw no choice other than to defect, but because he respected Blair's piloting ability and loyalty to Confed- he wanted Blair to make the decision to defect himself, which is why he asked Maniac to defect with him, and not Blair.
Pliers comes up with a number of new inventions, such as a jury-rigged cloaking device and a "Manned Insertion Pod"—a torpedo-sized coffin that can be used to land ground troops. Blair takes two of them in against a communications station in the Orestes System, where Sosa and Vagabond collect valuable data on the conspiracy. Unfortunately, only Sosa makes it out alive, as Vagabond is killed in the gunfight.
It is at this point that the two plot paths rejoin and the game proceeds identically for all players, inaugurated by a video sequence of the Vesuvius being launched and in which Tolwyn tells James "Paladin" Taggart, that Blair has defected. Tolwyn is sure this means treachery; but Taggart, who has faith in Blair, wonders if he might have had a good reason for it.
Blair picks up a distress signal from the Kilrathi Melek and rescues his friend's convoy. Melek brings with him flight recorder data of the sleek black ships using their incineration weapon against a Kilrathi transport. Sosa plays back the recording and Blair, Eisen, Melek, Hawk, and a few other pilots look over the footage. One of the ships pulls exactly the same move that Blair saw earlier in the attack on the space port, using the ship's afterburners to supercharge and detonate an explosive mine which essentially pushes the ship away at a faster rate. Blair tells everyone that he's witnessed that move before, and so has one other pilot: Hawk. He tells them that when he first signed on with Confed, there was a rookie pilot on his ship who was the only man he met that could pull such a calculating maneuver. He also informs them that there was some talk of a 'G.E.' program, but that he never found out what it was, and the rookie pilot was transferred from the flight roster and into Confed Intelligence Operations. Hawk doesn't know the pilot's real name, but he does recall that the pilot's callsign was 'Seether'. Then Eisen leaves the Intrepid, intent on sneaking back in to Earth and uncovering whatever he can; he leaves Blair in command, with Border Worlds Rear Admiral Eugene Wilford as his immediate superior. The player's next challenge, in the Peleus System, involves a giant electronic warfare ship that is capable of jamming radar, targeting sensors and even shielding. Finally, the player is given a choice on what system to attend next: at Circe, a fierce civil war has erupted pitting Confed forces against innocent Border Worlds civilians, but the Sparadon System contains many of Confed's latest munitions and vehicles of war. Panther advocates the former, Hawk the latter. Blair's choice immediately affects gameplay, since he receives captured Confederation weaponry if he chooses Sparadon, and also affects the game's ending. In both systems Catscratch gets in over his head while flying a solo mission, and Blair has to decide whether to abandon another mission to bail him out. Besides the obvious loss of a wingman, Sosa is frosty to Blair should he abandon the rookie.
Finally, the Intrepid catches wind of a secret Confed freighter sneaking through the area, and Blair is assigned to subdue it so that Dekker and his boys can capture it. Pliers, clambering aboard in the aftermath, discovers a squadron of sleek black fighters and a single example of their incendiary weapon, called "Dragons" and "Flash-Paks" respectively.
The next mission takes place in the Telamon System, which is under biological attack. The vast majority of the colony, particularly Planet FT957, has died. Few survive the attacks, hale and untouched, evidently due to some sort of innate immunity; regardless, the death toll is atrocious. The survivors at the colony implicate sleek black ships in the destruction; supposedly, the visiting Dragons dropped canisters that undoubtedly contained a biological weapon which weeded out the "weaker" elements of the population. Blair traces the attacking Dragons to the Axius System, which he infiltrates. There he discovers a secret starbase, guarded by the TCS Vesuvius, and thousands of black-clad soldiers, led by Seether, who commands when the true leader isn't there. But, today, he is, and Seether respectfully steps aside for his commanding officer: Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn. His "Black Lance" operation is instigating a war between the Border Worlds and Confed, with the goal being constant war-driven evolution of tactics and technology, to prepare the Confederation to meet the next hostile alien race. The Gen-Select Bioweapon, recently tested at Telamon, is the next obvious step in the plan: a virus that kills off all but the most genetically superior. Blair, barely getting over his horror in time, is forced to fight his way out.
The Intrepid, pursued heavily by the Vesuvius and Tolwyn's Black Lance pilots, makes a run toward Earth. Since Tolwyn needs Congressional support to launch his war, it's obvious what he plans to do, and Blair needs to get there first and stop him. The Intrepid must bypass a major starbase in the Ella System, and the player is given the choice to sneak past it or Flash-Pak it—killing thousands of civilians in the process. Besides affecting the game's ending, this choice also determines whether Blair will have the Flash-Pak when it comes time to take out the Vesuvius, a job made slightly easier by the intervention of the TCS Mount St. Helens, sister ship to the Vesuvius and its new captain, Eisen. Finally, Blair duels Seether one-on-one above Earth and then lands at the Congressional Building.
The game's final battle involves not weapons but words. Tolwyn, who has just been promoted to Space Marshal, is in the midst of his "report" on the Border Worlds' "warmongering" when Blair, a shabby figure in his dusty flight suit, slips in. If the player makes a silent entrance and waits for Tolwyn to finish his speech, Tolwyn alerts the chamber guards to arrest Blair and he is not given a chance to speak, instead being executed- which ends the game. If the player instead chooses to make a dramatic entrance, Paladin gives him the chance to speak before the Assembly. The player must then choose from an array of conversational choices, deciding how to best bait Tolwyn into revealing his true agenda and thus prevent a Terran civil war:
BLAIR: (to Tolwyn) What is the expense of these achievements, Admiral? The lives already lost to your Black Lance forces? The millions more who will die if this Assembly votes for war? (to the Assembly) Space Marshal Tolwyn believes that our victory over the Kilrathi was a fluke, that we, as a race, need tinkering with, engineering! If a few billion die along the way—well, they weren't worthy, anyway! Why can't we be more like the Kilrathi—addicted to conflict, the only meaning of life being found in death?! Tell us all, Admiral! Is that the price of freedom?!
TOLWYN: Mankind was at his zenith when fighting the Kilrathi. Now our society is crumbling. We have no goals, no focus. We've grown complacent and confused. Who will protect us when the next race wishes to dominate us? Who can tell where that threat will come from and when? No. We must be prepared.
Progress only comes through struggle. Fighting keeps us fit! Conflict ensures our readiness and survival. The Kilrathi understood this. They endured for millions of years, and so will we if we continue fighting. If we continue to perfect our methods of killing—
Paladin will cut Tolwyn off at this point, and if the player has scored enough points against Tolwyn, the Senate votes against war. Tolwyn is then indicted and convicted for his actions; lacking an appeal, he hangs himself in his jail cell, rather than be executed for his betrayal.
The game has multiple endings. If the player won through and outdueled Tolwyn in the war of words, Blair will either be seen helping Panther train new pilots at the Academy or using Black Lance assets to crush rebellions with Hawk at his side, depending on the general tone of his choices throughout the game. If the player made the wrong choices facing Tolwyn, Blair is convicted of treason and executed as the war begins. This also happens if at any time Blair is captured by Confederation forces after his defection, for instance if his carrier is destroyed. If Blair fails enough missions before his defection, he is simply sent back to his farm.
Forstchen and Ohlander made a number of significant deviations from the video game with their novelization, rewriting large swathes of background information. Changes include the following:
- In the opening sequence of the novel, Blair accidentally replays a holographic message from Rachel Coriolis, establishing why she left him.
- Catscratch and Vagabond are missing almost entirely; they do not defect with Blair and their fate after the loss of the Lexington is unknown. Sosa romances Blair instead of Catscratch, despite a few false starts in which Blair points out that he could be her grandfather (to which Sosa replies, "you'd have to have started early").
- Maniac serves as Blair's second-in-command and begins to grow into the role, developing maturity and no small amount of leadership skills. At the end of the novel he is given a long-overdue promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and assigned as Wing Commander aboard a light carrier. (Despite this, during Marshall's next appearance in Wing Commander Prophecy he is still a free-wheeling, irresponsible major; this inconsistency in plot and/or canon has not been resolved.)
- The Border Worlds' technology is totally rewritten, replacing the video game's Banshee, Vindicator and Avenger with Wing Commander II-era fighters.
- Tolwyn, though stripped of his rank and ultimately a suicide, is acknowledged by the novel's characters as something of a tragic hero, a man taking on the bitter and unwelcome job of ensuring humanity's survival at any cost—essentially reversing the moral of the video game by suggesting that the ends justify the means. The other difference is that Tolwyn's sentence is life imprisonment in the novel whereas it is execution in the game.
- Blair is known primarily as the "Heart of the Tiger," his Kilrathi warrior-name and the most famous title of the man who ended the war. (Pilots' call signs are often bestowed by friends or instructors, and this particular call sign allows Blair to use the considerable weight of his celebrity status as a weapon in combat.)
- Colonel Christopher "Maverick" Blair: the player character, played by Mark Hamill, returning to his roots as a farmer on a desert-bound world.
- Major Todd "Maniac" Marshall: the frenetic, irresponsible egomaniac to Blair's more calm personality, played by Tom Wilson of Back to the Future fame. An inspired but undependable flyer, Maniac is the source of much of the humor in the game. His self-centered attitude ends most of his socializing options, creating a running joke in which he constantly checks his armpits for an odor problem.
- Lieutenant Winston "Vagabond" Chang: rarely found far from a deck of cards when off duty. He is older than Blair and has seen quite a bit of the galaxy. Though still a consummate survivor, he is killed at the Orestes listening post in 2673—just after losing at cards to Maniac for the first time. Played by François Chau.
- Lieutenant Troy "Catscratch" Carter: afflicted with a case of hero worship toward The Heart of the Tiger, Catscratch soon finds out that Blair is as human (or Kilrathi) as anyone else. He can be killed permanently during the Circe/Speradon missions. Played by Mark Dacascos in an early role.
- "Seether": real name unknown, this brown-haired, brown-eyed man is the finest of the Genetic Enhancement program, now known as the Black Lance. He stands as Blair's final combat challenge on his run to Earth. Played by Robert Rusler.
Border Worlds pilots
- Colonel Jacob "Hawk" Manley: a battle-hardened warrior, Hawk serves primarily as the voice of decisive, aggressive action. A fellow TCS Tiger's Claw veteran, he flew in the Battle of Earth and had 96 kills before Blair's Temblor run. Played by Chris Mulkey.
- Colonel Tamara "Panther" Farnsworth: a veteran of the Kilrathi War, she flew alongside Hawk in the Astoria System. She is known for a much more pacifistic approach, preferring stealth and trickery to a stand-up fight. Played by Elizabeth Barondes.
- Captain William Eisen: Jason Bernard plays the middle-aged captain of the Lexington. He was Captain of the TCS Victory, with Blair, Maniac, and Vagabond under his command at the end of the Kilrathi War, and the pilots remain very loyal to him.
- Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn: played by Malcolm McDowell in a portrayal so celebrated that it has been retroactively incorporated onto all of Tolwyn's previous appearances. He's the primary antagonist of the game. Wily and charismatic, although unbalanced and narcissistic, he is still one of the finest and most respected admirals in the fleet.
- Brigadier General James "Paladin" Taggart: Blair's fellow Tiger's Claw survivor who has now turned to politics. He now serves as a senator in the Confederation Assembly. Played by John Rhys-Davies.
- Captain Hugh Paulson: another member of the GenSelect conspiracy, and briefly Captain of the Lexington. He is killed by Seether for failing to prevent Eisen from acting on his suspicions. Played by the late John Spencer.
Border Worlds personnel
- Chief Technician Robert "Pliers" Sykes: an old man—very old. Nonetheless, he loves his work and can be counted on for several improvements to the game's fighter craft, including jury-rigged cloaking devices and upgraded storage space on missile racks. Played by Richard Riehle.
- Lieutenant Velina Sosa: the friendly face seen by pilots departing and arriving at the Intrepid, Sosa is a pleasant young woman seemingly untouched by the war. Played by Holly Gagnier.
- Rear Admiral Eugene Wilford: a lifelong denizen of the Border Worlds, he fought with distinction in the Kilrathi war and returned to protect his beloved homelands afterwards. Played by Peter Jason.
- Lieutenant Colonel John "Gash" Dekker: he received his nickname as a trainee when he gave himself such a fierce paper cut on a foil packet of rations that he had to be medevac'd out. Despite these ignominious origins, he survived the Battle of Repleetah and escaped a Kilrathi POW camp, one of the few living men who can claim either feat. Played by Jeremy Roberts.
- Melek nar Kiranka: Thrakhath's retainer, the first Kilrathi to bow to the Heart of the Tiger. Now the nominal leader of the Kilrathi nation, he helps maintain peaceful relations between Kilrathi and Terrans. Voiced by Barry Dennen, played by Christopher Bergschneider in an animatronic costume.