Since the early 1990s, Totally Games' X-Wing series and Origin Systems' Wing Commander series have maintained a stranglehold on the space-sim genre. Until last year, the space sims released by other companies were derivative of those two series yet generally had less impressive graphics, substandard gameplay, and dull plots. But some worthy challengers finally appeared in 1998 when Particle Systems unveiled Independence War and Volition released Descent: Freespace.
Of those two contenders, Independence War was more original, as it featured a complex physics-modeling system and put you in charge of a large capital ship. Descent: Freespace was more of a traditional space sim, as it effectively cannibalized the best elements of the genre's classics in addition to providing an outstanding interface and several other refreshing innovations. But while Particle Systems' follow-up game, Independence War Deluxe, was a mild disappointment, Volition's FreeSpace 2 is an outstanding sequel that significantly improves upon its enjoyable predecessor. Even if Totally Games had not effectively abandoned its X-Wing franchise earlier this year, and Origin had not decided to focus solely on multiplayer games, there's no doubt there's a new king in town. FreeSpace 2 is one of the best space sims ever made and is a solid candidate for game of the year.
FreeSpace 2 picks up 32 years after the events of the original game. In Descent: Freespace, a 14-year war between Terrans and Vasudans was rudely interrupted by the appearance of an ominous and technologically superior race, dubbed the Shivans. To avoid extinction, the Terrans and Vasudans were forced to set aside their differences and forge a desperate alliance. Even though Descent: Freespace concentrated most of its plot developments into the first third of the game, the story ended effectively, granting the isolated remnants of the Terran and Vasudan civilizations a Pyrrhic victory.
The plot of FreeSpace 2 ties deeply into the events of the original game, but new players can quickly learn what they missed through the game's comprehensive and interesting database. The Terrans and Vasudans remain allied and have rebuilt their societies, but their harmony is disrupted when a rogue group of Terrans secedes from the alliance because of its apparent distrust of the Vasudans. When the Shivans burst back into alliance space, the Terrans and Vasudans are suddenly faced with war on two fronts. But the alliance has had a generation to prepare for the reappearance of the Shivans and has spent that time developing formidable weaponry. Has the alliance now surpassed the mysterious Shivans? What are the real motivations of the xenophobic, secessionist Terrans? Will the alliance discover a way to reestablish contact with Earth, which was lost after the events of the original game? The complex plot of FreeSpace 2 is often surprising and consistently captivating.
There have been great stories in space sims before - some gamers prefer the plots in the Wing Commander games to the actual gameplay, and TIE Fighter's story kept Star Wars fans enthralled for its duration - but FreeSpace 2's plot feels both deeper and darker. Some gamers may be disappointed that the game ultimately doesn't wrap up all the story's loose ends, but I felt that FreeSpace 2's ending worked exceptionally well. To Volition's credit, both Descent: Freespace and FreeSpace 2 effectively establish seemingly invincible foes and yet find plausible ways to permit you to seize victory from apparent defeat without diminishing the stature of those enemies. Far too often in games, a previously deadly antagonist is quickly dispatched with the assistance of a conveniently, and improbably, discovered weapon/weakness/bauble. Volition has now avoided that trap for two successive games, and, in spite of the lack of closure, the ending to FreeSpace 2 is as intriguing as the events that transpired before it.
As in the original, the story unfolds in FreeSpace 2 through a combination of mission and command briefings, sporadic cutscenes, and, most effectively, through events depicted within actual missions. Gameplay in FreeSpace 2 will be very familiar to Freespace veterans, but there are several significant improvements. You'll still pilot fighters and bombers, but the capital ships in the game have been made considerably more dangerous. The cruisers and destroyers weren't exactly puny in the first game, but they're positively gigantic in FreeSpace 2, and unlike in many space sims, the capital ships are as deadly as their ominous size suggests. Almost all the capital ships in the game are now equipped with powerful beam weapons similar to those that were on the Shivan dreadnought, the Lucifer, in the original game. The main beam weapons are primarily used in battles between capital ships, but most of the larger ships are also stocked with smaller, anti-fighter beam weapons. Capital ships have been decked out in flak cannons as well, which let them make quick work of bombers and fighters foolish enough to wander in range. They are also still equipped with laser turrets and missile silos as in the original game, collectively making capital ships flying fortresses you'll learn to fear.
But best of all, the capital ships in FreeSpace 2 aren't relegated to being exotic targets for your bombing runs. Too often in space sims there's very little contact between opposing capital ships. However, in almost every FreeSpace 2 mission capital ships will end up clashing with each other, adding an epic feel to the overall conflict and the individual battles. It's highly entertaining just to sit back and watch these titans pound away at each other, ripping through each other with their tremendous beam weapons. FreeSpace 2 is the first space sim to depict epic capital-ship battles in a manner that both plausibly reflects their importance and demonstrates their raw power in an entertaining fashion.
Space-sim sequels will often either just rehash the same ships that were used in previous games (the X-Wing series is obligated to do so because of the Star Wars license) or completely abandon previous models in favor of original designs (as in several of the Wing Commander games). Neither approach is entirely satisfying. Replaying battles against the same ships you've seen dozens of times before isn't an entertaining prospect, but it also seems difficult to believe that an entire fleet would be redesigned and replaced during the supposedly brief span of time that passes between any two games in a series. After all, our modern navies and air forces are still using craft more than a generation old. FreeSpace 2 takes a credible approach by adding dozens of newer craft without completely abandoning older designs. Older capital ships are still in service, and although they've been retrofitted with modern weaponry, such as beam weapons, they're understandably less effective than newer capital ships that have been designed from the outset to accommodate the latest technology. Fighter and bomber designs have realistically proven to have less longevity, but several of the better ships from the first Freespace do return, at least in some capacity.
It would be even less plausible if the Shivans, a race that has effectively stalked through galaxies for thousands of years, redesigned its forces every few years. Accordingly, almost all the Shivan ships encountered in the original game return in FreeSpace 2. But there's no shortage of new Shivan ships either, and their existence is easily justified on the basis that the Terrans and Vasudans only encountered a small portion of the Shivan forces in the original game. Ship design is just another example of how Volition has carefully crafted a believable and constantly engaging gameworld.Another notable addition is the nebula in which you initially encounter the Shivans. The nebula is beautifully depicted and envelops the entire screen, limiting your line of sight and making navigation difficult. Certain areas of the nebula are subject to entertaining but harmless energy flashes, and other areas are prone to EMP pulses that completely disrupt your HUD. The graphics in Descent: Freespace garnered plenty of well-deserved accolades even though they were limited to 640x480 resolution and were consistently quite dark, but FreeSpace 2's graphics are fantastic. A new high-resolution 1024x768 option has been added, and 32-bit color depth is supported if you have a capable video card. The game requires 3D acceleration, but it's used to good effect to depict the nebula, beam weapons, flak bursts, and the most impressive explosions yet seen in a space sim.
I was concerned that the beam-weapon effects would look incongruous with the other graphics (in the same way that many of the 1970s Star Wars movie rip-offs featured laser-blast effects that looked like they'd been scratched onto finished film prints), but they look great and blend perfectly with the 3D ship models. Battlefields are reminiscent of some of the more impressive Babylon 5 conflicts or scenes from Japanese anime space battles; huge goliaths blast away at each other and hammer at the fighters and bombers that are scrambling in between. Fighters and bombers explode in different ways depending on the instrument that caused their destruction - shattering into small fragments as a result of a direct hit from a flak cannon, being incinerated by a beam weapon, or just colorfully exploding from a hail of missiles. There's plenty of attention to detail in FreeSpace 2.
Mission design is varied and almost uniformly excellent throughout the game. Objectives change in response to scripted events, and there's plenty of wingmen chatter to further develop the plot and give context to mission events. There are very few missions in the game that are as simple as the "kill all the enemies you encounter" type commonly encountered in space sims. There's almost always a twist or two in each mission, but the missions are beatable and almost never feel puzzle-like as they do in some other games with heavily scripted missions, such as Independence War. FreeSpace 2's campaign is linear, but rather than having to play each mission until you succeed, you can skip the ones you've failed five times or more, which should appease gamers who are easily frustrated.
The game's interface is virtually unchanged from Descent: Freespace, but if there was ever an appropriate use for the cliché "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," it's to describe Freespace's outstanding interface. Valuable information that is rarely displayed in space sims, such as the status of craft being escorted, is accessible at a glance. The HUD lets you instantly identify craft that are targeting your ship, the heading of missiles homing in on your ship, and your current target's relative orientation to your ship. The interface used by the Freespace games was clearly designed by experienced space-sim players, and as a result, it's just about perfect. As in the original game, the interface is also completely customizable, and you can even useyour own pilot picture for multiplayer opponents to grow to detest. And force-feedback joystick support gives afterburner thrusts a tangible feel and physically rebukes you for colliding with other craft.
While Descent: Freespace promised a plethora of multiplayer features, its multiplayer aspects didn't work well, at least not in the game's initial release. Online lag was a real problem, and Volition was exceedingly optimistic in contemplating 12-player conflicts. But lag is now handled much more effectively, making multiplayer battles a lot more fun, especially if you're fortunate enough to have a high-speed Internet connection. You can find plenty of games to join on the free Parallax Online servers, which also maintain comprehensive pilot statistics records. (Volition actually threw a couple of the pilots who had racked up the most impressive records with Descent: Freespace into one FreeSpace 2 campaign mission.) Even more interesting is the addition of Squad War, another free multiplayer service that lets squads of pilots conquer other squads' territories, ultimately giving you the opportunity to dynamically change the gameworld in a way that massively multiplayer games have yet to permit. Finally, in addition to a lengthy campaign and the multiplayer options, FreeSpace 2 is also packaged with the latest edition of Volition's mission editor, which lets you craft and trade your own missions and campaigns. Very few games offer as much inherent value as FreeSpace 2.
All my complaints with the game are relatively minor. Wingmen and enemy AI have improved since Descent: Freespace, but they're still occasionally disappointing, as ships tend to collide with each other too frequently and then seem to become unable to accomplish their objectives. Capital-ship explosions aren't just eye candy and can be deadly to nearby fighters and bombers, but wingmen and enemies seem incapable of effectively dodging such effects. There's also no 800x600 resolution option, which will disappoint Voodoo2 owners in particular. If you don't have a powerful system and a capable video card, you'll have to play at 640x480 resolution, but even that resolution boasts graphics more impressive than those in Wing Commander: Prophecy or Descent: Freespace. The music and sound effects in FreeSpace 2 are both excellent, and 3D sound is well supported, although the game shipped with a bug in the A3D support. Fortunately, DirectSound can be chosen as a viable alternative. FreeSpace 2 is an outstanding game. It retains the outstanding customizability and interface of the original game and presents a more involving story and the best graphics seen in the genre to date. FreeSpace 2 also retains all the gameplay features that worked well in the original game and adds formidable new weapons, 32-bit color effects, and improved mission design. The inclusion of a variety of multiplayer options and a mission editor should also ensure that the game has plenty of longevity. Descent: Freespace was a solid game with the potential to be even greater, and that potential has been fully realized with FreeSpace 2. FreeSpace 2 is a true classic of the genre and one of the best games to be released this year.