Zeus’ Own Heavy Fighter

The Confed HF-66 Thunderbolt VII – The fist of the fleet

The Thunderbolt is one of the mainstays of the Wing Commander FMV era. We got to know and love it during the heaviest missions of Wing Commander 3, and it reappeared as a perfectly dangerous adversary in Wing Commander 4. It survived, along with the Excalibur, into Wing Commander Prophecy as a guest star in the Ella series. So it’s only fitting that we give the ship its due.

The art department uses the following criteria, in this order, when making any new asset for the remaster:

  1. Wing Commander 4 FMV source video
  2. High quality renders from official Origin promotional material
  3. Game manual schematics
  4. Original model textures
  5. Artistic license

As with any creation, these product of the artist so most of the assets are a little of “all of the above” with a heavy emphasis on 1 & 2.

Sean Murphy's high quality render of the Thunderbolt.  Used for reference.
Sean Murphy’s original render of the WC4 Thunderbolt courtesy of www.wcnews.com

More Art than Science…

Sadly, the Tbolt never featured in any of Wing4’s cinematics; however there are a number of promotional renders that give us a fair amount of detail to reference when making the fighter – this image in particular was used as the visual touchstone for building the new version. Though rendered at what appears to be a 4:3 aspect ratio and not 1:1, we get enough detail in the textures to accurately model the position of the surface detail. We sampled the colors from the renders as well, to make the paint schemes as accurate as we could. The mesh itself was scaled against the original mesh from the game so whether you choose to play in remastered, or the original mode, the game models will transition seamlessly.

Unfortunately all the promotional renders were taken from this, or very similar angles, and some surfaces are lacking in the same level of detail as the upper wing surfaces and gun pods, so that’s where we look more at the in-game model and lot of artistic inspiration.

What a Difference 24 Years Makes…

A comparison of the original 96 asset vs. 2020.
The original 1996 game asset and the new remaster version

Clearly there is a point at which, in the context of a remaster, it doesn’t make sense for slavish adherence to the source. We do have the advantage of infinitely better PCs and tools at our disposal. We can push more triangles and our graphics cards generally have more RAM than our entire systems did back in 1996. The goal from the art department is not to make a cleaner carbon copy, if we wanted to do that we would simply AI upscale the textures and have done with it. No, the mission statement is that we want the transition between the full motion video sequences and the gameplay to be as seamless as possible. To finally be able to make it feel like you’re really “playing the movie”, and to recapture that lost magic that came from a big budget video production coupled with a first rate action space sim.

But didn’t the Remaster Already Have a Thunderbolt?

Well, yes. The older model featured in the early gameplay videos as well as the turntables in the media section. We started out knowing that there would be some placeholder assets from other mods or projects I’ve worked on while we built out the final assets. The original Tbolt here was a reskin from the Secret Ops Model Upgrade pack. The model was a fine workhorse and helped us refine the workflow for import/export in Usagi as well as turret animation and code but she just wasn’t as polished as the game demanded – and in case anyone disagrees, I’m just going to leave this here (with a special thanks to ODVS)…

A comparison of the website turntable animations – old vs. new