Saving the best for last
In the Freespace universe, humanity has spread out into space but gets embroiled in a war with another starfaring race, the Vasudans. With both sides evenly matched, the war degrades into a stalemate. In the first Freespace, a third race, the Shivans, attacks both sides. Terrans and Vasudans ally together and win but the Shivan's advanced technology extracts a heavy toll. The Vasudan homeworld is destroyed and Earth is isolated, cut off from the network of subspace gates that make interstellar travel possible.
Freespace 2 takes place a generation after the first game. The Terran-Vasudan Alliance still holds, but human words have had a more difficult time recovering from the prior war than their Vasudan counterparts. Frustration leads a number of human worlds to rebel under a charismatic leader who blames the Vasudans for Terran woes. The rebels stand in as the adversary for the first act as you are gradually introduced to the game's mechanics.
The game is more than just run and gun. Each fighter has three systems - weapons, engines and shields - among which power can be adjusted (a nod to X-Wing/Tie-Fighter) They also have afterburners and a slide mechanic (a nod to Wing Commander) There is a communication system that allows you to relay orders and request for repairs or resupply. In a nice touch, as the com system takes damage, vocal communication starts to static out. Even the accompanying subtitles replace the missing words with dashes.
The interface is entirely pragmatic. Instead of a cockpit graphic, you get a full-screen view of the area in front of your ship with an overlaid HUD. The HUD itself is elegant: In addition to the standard targeting information, it also communicates whether your target is pointing his guns at you, how far you have to turn to put your guns on him, and how far away any incoming missles are. It also lists the health of up to three friendly targets - useful in the inevitable escort and protect mission.
One of the selling points of the first game was size of its capital ships. The sequel makes them bigger and more meanacing. Capital ships in Wing Commander were pushovers. They had only a little more firepower than a standard enemy fighter, but a whole lot more mass and a lot less maneuverability. They were large targets begging to be blown up.
In Freespace 2, cap ships put fighters in their place. Stray too close and you get a fistful of flak. Get past that and laser beams lance out to finish you off. It's entirely thrilling to hear the sounds of flak bursts exploding around you, seeing your ship shake as you start taking evasive action. Then you hear the beam weapons charging up and you hope that after all that dodging, the beam will flash harmlessly in front.
Capital ships were meant to engage other capital ships and that is what they do here. Some of the more exciting missions have your half dozen fighters tangling with a dozen enemy fighters while the capital ships pound away at each other.
In the second act, missions start taking place in a nebula. The graphical effect of flying through the gas cloud is well done and imparts a sense of mystery and dread: shadowy shapes loom in the distance and remain undefined until you're almost on top of them. Some areas are more violent with lighting flashing around, disrupting your communications and targeting systems.
The story twists and turns as connections between the human rebels and a new Shivan invasion are revealed. The plot plays itself out through communications between characters in-mission, putting you in the middle of the narrative as the Half-life series did. This really makes you want to take on just one more mission! Of course if you find yourself unable to pass a one (n00b!) it can be skipped without penalty.
The story ends with several questions left open. As the space-shooter genre is nearly dead, there's very little chance of getting those questions answered in the near future (outside the world of fan fiction.) But hope springs eternal and as I wait for the genre to resurrect, it's comforting to know that its last game was also its best.