I’ve come to the conclusion that the Wing Commander series has two reasons for existence: to prolong the career of Mark Hamill (who has leveraged his big-screen space-jockey credentials into this most prestigious of CD-ROM franchises) and to force technological laggards to trade in their old PC clunkers for the whiz-bang models of the moment. There’s nothing in Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom to dissuade me from this opinion. Once again, Hamill admirably underacts as dour flyboy Christopher Blair, summoned to fight not the Kilrathi (the evil, lion-headed aliens from the three previous games) but rather some rogue groups within the good-guy Confederation. And once again, Wing Commander is best savored on a pumped-up PC you may or may not be able to afford.

Like its immediate predecessor, released just over a year ago, Wing Commander IV comprises cinematic interludes in which Blair shoots the interstellar breeze with colleagues on various space stations and hyperkinetic, first-person-perspective space-combat sequences. The cast does a creditable job: It’s especially fascinating to watch Hamill’s Blair mix it up with the duplicitous Admiral Tolwyn, played by Malcolm McDowell looking exactly as he did in Star Trek Generations (have two more diminutive actors ever shared such a cramped screen)? Most of the video clips hover resolutely above B-movie level, a remarkable achievement considering the C-level production values of most so-called interactive movies. But as accomplished as they are, Wing Commander IV‘s live-action elements are blown out of orbit by its animated deep-space dogfights; I found myself skipping impatiently through crucial plot developments just to get to the next battle.

Which brings us back to the hardware issue. Don’t pay any attention to the laughably optimistic minimum-system recommendations printed on the box; to really enjoy all the neat stuff crammed onto this disc, you’ll need something resembling a Pentium PC running at 100 megahertz, 16 megabytes of RAM, and a quad-speed drive (though oddly enough, I had trouble getting the sound to work on my brand-new Pentium 150). In the Wing Commander universe, it seems, the price of freedom is not discounted. A-