Look at the size of that thing!
Freespace 2Platform: PC | Genre: Space Combat Sim
Publisher: Interplay | Developer: Volition Inc. | Released: 1999
Sci-fi flight sim games are deader than a doornail, at least on the PC. Although there are still blips on the proverbial radar, such as X2: The Threat and Freelancer, it seems that the sun has set on one of the premier gaming genres of the 1990s, a decade that brought us a number of fantastic entries into the Wing Commander and X-wing series, and which was capped off by one of the finest PC games ever (of any genre), Freespace 2.
The first game in the series, the awkwardly titled Descent: Freespace - The Great War, an offshoot of the popular Descent series of free-flight 3D corridor crawlers, told the story of the eponymous Great War between Terrans (humans) and an aggressive race of aliens called the Vasudans. The galactic balance of power was soon shifted, however, with the appearance of the Shivans, a third race with highly advanced technology that quickly started cutting a swath through the opposing forces. All attempts to communicate, let alone negotiate, were met with silence. Faced with mutual extermination, the Vasudans and humans quickly ended their hostilities and formed a pact to fight against the Shivans. They were ultimately successful in repelling the invaders, although at the cost of permanently cutting Earth off from interstellar travel. The memorable final battle took place inside hyperspace, as you commanded a squadron of bombers tasked with taking out the massive Lucifer warship while it traveled toward Earth.
Freespace 2 continues with the storyline 32 years later, as a rebel group of humans, the Neo-Terran Front, fights a civil war against the Terran/Vasudan alliance, who are accusing the human leadership of selling their race out to the Vasudans. Amid this tense background, the Shivans reemerge from the void of space, forcing the alliance to fight a war on two fronts. Things start to get strange, however, when the separatists learn how to communicate with the Shivans and appear to join forces with them.
Freespace 2 wasn't a game that shocked the world with innovative features or a new type of gameplay. Instead, it's great simply because of the fact that it executes. With the proving ground of Descent: Freespace behind it, Volition left the crutch of the Descent license behind and set about making a resoundingly solid game that takes the standard features of the space sim and genre and turns the volume on all of them up to 11. The confidence and variety of the mission designs are exceptional, and the feel of the dogfights and mission flights is outstanding. The new additions to the game are notable as well. Whereas the first game was mostly fought with missiles, bombs, and laser weapons, Freespace 2 includes deadly beam and flak cannons for the capital ships, leading to some ferocious battles. Some of the more entertaining portions of the game take place as you simply watch some of the massive, 5-kilometer-long capital ships duke it out while you and the rest of the fighter peons swoop and dive around, attempting to dodge the beam weapons that are ripping through space. In addition to the asteroid field battles of the first game, the sequel also adds battles that take place inside a nebula, where your vision and radar is clouded, making it impossible to see or detect threats until they're almost on top of you.
The game is also notable for its smooth-as-silk learning curve, one of the least-appreciated aspects of designing a game as complex as a space sim. Although at the beginning of the game you are assigned tasks as simple as aiming and shooting at enemy fighters, you eventually ramp up to tasks like ordering different wings of AI teammates to go after different targets, shooting down enemy bombs after they're launched toward a friendly ship, and cycling through the systems of enemy ships until you can disable their weapons or their engines without destroying them completely. You even eventually engage in such cloak-and-dagger exploits as staging a defection to the NTF in order to sabotage their efforts from within, and taking a captured Shivan fighter behind enemy lines to obtain critical scans of their capital ships.
One of the ways Freespace 2 deals with this critical mass of information and button pressing is to spread the tutorials out through the game. This allows you to play through tutorials to learn what you need to know before you begin the missions. You then go through more tutorials when you earn the flight wings needed to fly a new class of ship. The game strikes a perfect balance between giving the player plenty of commands and options to fool with and actually making the interface usable for people without the time to memorize a 400-page manual.
All in all, Freespace 2 isn't one of those games that's remembered as being particularly innovative, but the sheer quality of the presentation and the gameplay makes it a fitting sunset to a once-beloved genre, and one of the greatest games of all time.
-- Matthew Rorie