Saturday 18 July 2020

Wertzone Classics: Freespace 2

AD 2367. Thirty-two years have passed since the Terran-Vasudan Alliance defeated the invading Shivan fleet, destroying its flagship, the Lucifer whilst it was in subspace en route to the Sol system. The destruction of the Lucifer in the jump node collapsed all FTL links between Sol and other systems, leaving Earth cut off from the rest of the galaxy. Whilst scientists have worked to find a way of reestablishing the link, the Terrans and Vasudans have worked together with recovered Shivan technology to dramatically improve their weapons and capabilities.

However, a new civil war has erupted: Admiral Bosch has formed the Neo-Terran Front and established a new state, encouraging Polaris, Regulus and Sirius to secede from the Alliance. As the Alliance military struggles to recover the three systems and end the war, it also discovers an immense alien megastructure in the Gamma Draconis system, through which an even greater threat is waiting...

Freespace 2 was released in 1999 as the sequel to Conflict Freespace: The Great War and its expansion, The Silent ThreatFreespace had been a late but successful entry to the space combat simulator genre, selling and reviewing well and with its laser-like focus on gameplay winning over gamers tired of other series in the genre becoming far more obsessed with story and FMV cutscenes. Freespace 2 was rushed out of the door when publishers Interplay started having major financial problems and was released three months early without any publicity whatsoever. The game also had the misfortune to come out during the Great Space Combat Crash of 1999, when the entire genre effectively ceased to exist. Even the latest game in the perennially popular X-Wing series, X-Wing: Alliance, fared badly that year and very few new games in the genre have subsequently been released (StarLancer was a notable exception in 2001). Space games since this time - including the recent mini-resurgence spearheaded by Elite: Dangerous and No Man's Sky - have focused on trading or exploration over narrative and combat.

There is another explanation for why the genre crashed (beyond other ideas like the declining popularity of joysticks as game controllers): after Freespace 2 the genre had nowhere else to go. Freespace 2 was such a masterpiece that it rendered all other space combat games completely pointless.

Freespace 2 at first glance is identical to its predecessor. It controls exactly the same way, even down to the keybindings and functions being almost exactly the same, and the structure is similar. The game is similarly divided into campaigns, which is each subdivided into missions, for 35 missions in total. Each mission opens with a briefing about your objectives, with you able to jump straight into the action with a pre-prepared ship or you can select your ship and weapons loadout yourself.

The big changes become more obvious once the game starts. Capital ships now tend to be bigger and they are equipped with massive beam weapons, huge stream of continuous energy which can literally cut lesser vessels in half. It was overwhelmingly impressive in 1999 and, now upgraded with much better models and effects, it remains so in 2020. Capital ships are also defended by massive flak barrages, which are again hugely impressive (and, I suspect, a key reason why the relaunched Battlestar Galactica employed the same technology in its CG space scenes). There's also been a rebalancing of weapons, shields and armour across the new roster of fighters, making them more entertaining to fly. Controls are also more finely tuned than previously.

The big shift is in tone. Early missions revolve around a civil war between the Alliance and the Neo-Terran Front, but this becomes complicated by the discovery of a massive alien superstructure, which can generate jump nodes leading to a remote nebula. This gives rise to a huge number of missions set inside the nebula, with the player having to fight off enemies they can barely see. The nebula is a fun setting for missions, forcing the player to adapt to the changing circumstances.

These elements introduce a genuine SF sensawunda to the game which was wholly missing from the original title. The pacing then ramps up as events in the nebula trigger a renewed contact with the Shivans...and the discovery that the Shivan fleet from the first game was, at best, a minor scout force compared to what is really out there. The resulting alien onslaught feels like what the Reaper invasion from the much later Mass Effect 3 should have been, a relentless tide of superior alien vessels inexorably advancing for motives that can barely be comprehended. Unlike Mass Effect 3, which wimped out and provided an altogether corny (and overly-familiar) explanation for the Reapers' motivations, Freespace 2 never robs the Shivans of their mythic power through rote exposition. Instead, it provides ways for the player to fight and slow them down without ever really understanding what's going on.

The result is one of the best SF narratives gaming has ever seen, a fighting against the dying of the light until the final mission (which comes literally out of nowhere) puts a rather abrupt capstone on things. Freespace 2 moulds the traditional, cliched military SF narrative with more of a hard SF sensibility (and even a Cthulhu-esque sense of utterly powerless horror) and it's something that the genre has never really done before or sense.

Along the way the game delivers numerous twists and turns, such as sending you undercover into a NTF squadron and having to potentially commit war crimes to keep your cover intact or on a long-range, near-suicide run lone wolf scouting mission deep into Shivan space, which make things more interesting. The first game's tactical command approach also returns with the success of later missions being often down to how you command entire wings of fighters mid-battle. A relatively smooth learning curve, a highly adjustable difficulty rate and very impressive AI make all this a lot easier than it sounds.

Freespace 2 (*****) is, simply put, one of the greatest video games ever made, featuring exceptional space combat with a hard-boiled and ruthless attitude to storytelling and character that is quite remarkable.

Playing the Game: Playing games that are 21 years old can be a bit of an uphill experience, especially for a franchise that's never had an official remaster. Fortunately, that's not much of a problem; back in 2002 Volition released the source code for all three games in the series and that's allowed a very passionate modding community to continuously update them with new graphics, sound effects and voiceovers. The easiest way to play them is to get a copy of Freespace 2 from GoGdownload and install the Knossos launcher, and, once that's done and found your copy of the installed game, you can then select which mods to use. The ones you really want to install are Freespace Port (which adds the original campaign), Freespace Port MedivaVPs (which updates all the graphics and sounds), Silent Threat: Reborn (which adds the latest version of the expansion campaign) and MediaVPs (which updates the Freespace 2 campaign with all the latest models and effects). Then you're good to go. Just remember to hit "play" on MediaVPs, not the actual Freespace 2 campaign, otherwise everything reverts to its 1999 version.

As a bonus, there are also dozens of fan-made mods for the game, including ones for well-known franchises like Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, as well as a fan-made new game in the Wing Commander franchise. There are also numerous mods which expand on the Freespace and Freespace 2 storyline.

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