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Game Over Online ~ Descent FreeSpace 2

GameOver Game Reviews - Descent FreeSpace 2 (c) Interplay, Reviewed by - Pseudo Nim

Game & Publisher Descent FreeSpace 2 (c) Interplay
System Requirements Pentium 233, 32MB Ram, 3D Accelerator
Overall Rating 97%
Date Published Monday, October 18th, 1999 at 08:14 PM


Divider Left By: Pseudo Nim Divider Right

When the original Descent: Freespace was released, I was skeptical. After all, who would dare take on the fame, the fortune, the glory of the epic Wing Commander series? Nah, thought I, this is nay but another wannabe space sim, with above-average graphics. With such a prejudice, I started playing it - and to my complete amazement, the more I played, the more I realized how revolutionary, “innovative” the game was. And it by no means stepped on Wing Commander’s toes, either - these were two completely different styles of gameplay, that just happened to be set in a space scenario. Wing Commander was always about a superhero flight jock, who, throughout the game, became the center of the universe, respected by admirals and captains, and feared by the Kilrathi or the Aliens; by the end of the game, he was usually a Colonel, a Lieutenant Colonel, or someone else with an equally important-sounding rank. In Freespace, you’re a nobody. Nobody knows you, nobody cares. And even as you begin to make a name for yourself, you don’t have legions of fans sweeping your quarters’ doorstep - in fact, you don’t even get a high rank increase. There’s never a sidekick Wingman, either - capitalization intended - that carries the honour of flying on your wing and is sometimes almost of the same caliber as you (but always just a little bit below, so as to not lower your prestige) - both ego-wise and achievement-wise. In Freespace, your wingmen are nobodies. You don’t know them, they don’t know you. Sometimes they know you. But you almost never do. You hear of them as Alpha 2, 3, 4; then, once they’re wiped out, Beta 1, 2, 3, 4; when those are gone, here comes Delta, Epsilon, and so forth. Should they happen to be demolished, you’re on your own. There’s no service after the mission; no goodbye; the mission ended, and the losses will be carried by those that are somehow affected. There are no FMV [Full-Motion Video] sequences of your pilot looking hyper-macho and trying to pick up the mechanic chick; and even less so, there’s no Mark Hamill that’s supposed to look like you. Your pilot has no personality other than that you build in the cockpit; no social life (that you’re aware of); and most of all, none of that Skywalker charm. All he has is skill, and the will to fly.

Freespace 2 builds on the post-Great War era, which ended with the destruction of the Lucifer and the sealing of the Earth’s jump node in Freespace 1. Times have changed now; now you have to deal with the Neo-Terran Front led by Admiral Bosch, which believes that a Terran-Vasudan alliance is detrimental to the Terrans, and that all Vasudans should be wiped from the face of the Universe - or, in any case, so you have to believe, lacking Omega and Phi security clearance. Finding a Knossos portal device, you encounter a Shivan presence, as well - but nothing like the scary Armada that the Great War epoch carried. While the Lucifer was an impressive ship, it was destroyed - and, after all, it had a name - it was, to a degree, unique. Well, none of that anymore, the Shivans have learned. Now you face a slowly unraveling fleet of many, many, many Juggernaut class warships, each one being a 6-kilometer-long monster that would make any Lucifer cower in fear. Coupled with new destroyers, and a new array of bombers and fighters, the future of the GTVA [Galactic Terran-Vasudan Alliance] has never looked brighter and merrier.

Therein comes in your role. As mentioned in the somewhat lengthy intro of mine, you aren’t a son of a legendary pilot killed in the Great War, nor are you an admiral’s son, nor, for that matter, are you anyone important. You know nothing of your past, neither care; war is at hand, and that’s all that concerns you. There are three Acts in Freespace 2, each act being a series of missions that center around some sort of a central task. The FS2 website claims about 30 missions total, but somehow, I feel like I’ve flown about 60 so far; Act 1 being a mere dozen or so, and Act 2 essentially neverending. However, looking back now that I just found out I’m one mission away from the grand finale, I suppose Acts 2 and 3 aren’t as distinct as 1 and 2 are. The difficulty of the missions varies, some being ridiculously easy and some being so difficult switching to Very Easy doesn’t really help. Some missions have slight glitches, too, and that comes from the original Freespace: if you destroyed a ship that was later required in the game, the game used to crash. Instead of that, weird things start happening now: as an example, there was one mission that I flew approximately 25 - 30 times (and that is not an overestimation). The goal of the mission was to protect a friendly destroyer and have it escape before being destroyed by a few bomber wings, which was trivial. However, a Shivan destroyer warps in early in the mission, and I haven’t found a way to destroy it: it warps out immediately after the friendly ship leaves the system, thereby lending a very limited amount of time during which to effect damage. Twice I’ve gotten it down to 1% or 2% before it escaped, and once I disabled its engines right as it was about to split. Thinking, “Ha-ha, got you now, you bastard,” I flew off, rearmed, then eventually took out every single subsystem, turret, and whatever else was targettable on it: that brought the overall hull integrity down 2%, from 88% to 86%. “Ok,” thought I, “want to play it hard?” So I set my gun power to the max, linked them, enabled 4x time compression and squeezed the trigger. I waited a few minutes’ worth of real time, and noticed the hull integrity went down another three percent or so. I tried again; next to nothing again. So I went to seek (tm) the Web, and found a Freespace 2 message board (located, conveniently enough, on Volition’s Freespace 2 site). Turns out I wasn’t alone: some people took much more extreme measures, such as putting Scotch tape over the trigger and leaving to have dinner - and no luck, either. In any case, it’s just kind of annoying. And while I’m complaining about glitches, why is it that more often than not wingmen don’t mind you shooting them? A friend of mine took out half of his squadron for a doze of sports fun, and nobody even complained, much less dubbed him a traitor. They do mind sometimes, but, as I said, more often not than so.

The graphics in FS2 are significantly improved over the original, and this was an area the original shone in. There is no 800x600 mode; you either play in 640x480, or opt to install the 280MB High-Resolution addon and play in 1024x768. Let me tell you, it’s worth it. High-res modes don’t help much if the textures and other effects aren’t appropriately re-rendered (stretching looks -really- ugly), but here, everything was reworked for 1024x768, and the results are spectacular. The framerate on my Voodoo 2 SLI was amazing, as well - not once did I experience a slowdown (perhaps once, when a *REALLY* big thing blew up). Everything is exquisitely detailed: ships, explosions, particle effects and the omnipresent nebulae, galaxies, planets and other stellar bodies. In regards of nebulae, no longer do you fly in boring black space for every single mission - there are nebulae missions, where sensor interference prevents you from seeing farther than a certain amount and everything around you looks like a really, really, really big blue cloud; there are missions in ship-unfriendly nebulae, where EMP interference breaks your communications, targeting, aspect locking and everything else that can be disrupted by EMP shockwaves. Ship detail is also quite good, and though I always thought Wing Commander III and IV hit the absolute peak of any ship designs I’ve ever seen, they’re quite good in FS2. Some ships are reused from the original, including some of the capships - like the GTD Bastion. Fighters/bombers are also reused, both with the GTVA and the Shivans. One thing that was worked on is capship battles: beams blazing, laser turrets firing, and you staying out of their way: that’s the way, baybee. The above-mentioned turrets are much easier to take out than in FS1, too: you can actually snipe them if you’re good. On the other hand, the supply ship is just as slow as ever - hey, 32 years, one would imagine propulsion technology has improved somewhat.

The controls are daunting. That is, unless you have a proper joystick and can map a good number of them to the buttons. Some of them are semi-redundant, but can come in quite useful. It’s unlikely, however, that you’ll use all of them. For that matter, Force Feedback is amazing in this game. I’m borrowing a FF joystick from a good friend of mine, and this is the second game where I would consider FF to be a part of the game rather than an unnecessary addition (the first was, surprisingly enough, Star Wars: Racer). Directional hit, recoil, et cetera - fun, fun, fun. On the other hand, what’s up with turbulence when a ship flies by close? Space? Hello? Oh right, it’s that whole ether topic.

Mission design is quite good. Things actually make sense, and missions tie in together, painting the whole story. It’s also nice how sometimes mission goals change in mid-mission, if something really bad happens somewhere close that in some way affects you. For that matter, the atmosphere of the whole game, anywhere from the menu look to the background music convey a feeling of desperation, weariness and strain. Or so was my impression of it, but I imagine it’s not too far from the truth. The story seems to have some unexplored avenues, as well, which, I would imagine, could be grounds for an addon or for Freespace 3. It’s nice, as well, how extensively you can customize what you fly - from the choice of a ship down to the guns and missiles, you can customize everything. I also liked the possibility of having a fairly destructive gun combination at a relatively low energy cost (who needs shields, anyway). While I’m more or less on the subject of sounds, I’d like to complain about the Vasudans: the translator is completely incomprehensible. I found that the only way to understand them was to read the captions - but sometimes you don’t have the luxury, like when you’re busy fighting off a dozen enemy fighters. All other voice acting is really good, though, except for the occasional horrendous mispronunciation of foreign words, such as the GTD Delacroix and “en route,” which aren’t pronounced the way they should be (i.e. the original French way), but as if they were English words. Very funny indeed.

Multiplayer has been greatly improved from FS1. In the original, even though I had a dialup modem and expected lag, I never thought things could be that lagged - which is why I almost never played multiplayer. In 2, lag has been reduced (and so was my connection speed), and PXO [Parallax On-Line, Volition’s free Descent 3/Freespace/Freespace 2 match-up service] is quicker than ever (though I think that as the game makes its way into stores the lag will go up, sort of as with Battle.Net, Ultima Online and many, many, many other online gaming examples). Nothing beats a direct IP to IP connect, especially with people on the same connection as I am - pings as low as 40 ms. Freespace 2 supports up to 8 players, but I would imagine at full load you’d need a LAN to play without lag - and some heavy processing power, as the graphics detail could get rather taxing. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many multiplayer missions (that are fun) - but, I imagine, it’s just a matter of time until people make custom maps. Dogfights are also not too enjoyable, unless many people play, since it’s really hard to get the opponent in the crosshairs if he’s even marginally good.

I should perhaps expand a bit on the gameplay, for those who haven’t played many space sims, a la Wing Commander or the original Freespace. There are a few types of missions you can fly, such as recon, escort or strike. Wing Commander pioneered the idea of single-type missions (technically, that wasn’t pioneered by Wing Commander, but hey, they -were- the first ones to make a space combat sim). “Fly to Nav point 2, destroy the Dorkir transport last seen there.” In Freespace 2, you’ll often have to protect a fleet of transports, or some other sort of a friendly capship, while destroying a wing of attacking fighters backed by a cruiser. There are also rescue missions, where you fly into uncharted territory and attempt to save some sort of a valuable asset of the GTVA, most usually a lifeform (if it’s a thing, it’s a “salvage” operation). You usually have anywhere from 2 to 11 wingmen (depending on the complexity of the mission), and sometimes reinforcements are available which you can call in if some of your wingmen get demolished. There are, however, missions where you have to fly solo, whether for stealth or other reasons.

Being a hardcore Wing Commander fan, it’s just natural that I’d like to draw some parallels and outline some of the differences. Most of the points that pertained to the game per se that I wanted to make I have made, but I’d like to digress slightly and judge Freespace 2 from a different point of view now. What follows is more of a critique of the Freespace universe, rather than the game itself.

The way I outlined the story at the beginning, and the lack of personality to the main character, may have sounded as if I preferred that more and judged the Wing Commander way negatively. While that wasn’t entirely my intention, I imagine it sounded fully so; yet, the WC way of presenting the character has its own share of merits, and it isn’t small. The main plus of Wing Commander is that it often feels much more than an adventure game than it actually is, and the fact that it’s just a space combat sim is somewhat moved off to the background. The story is rich, but character development is also a factor: while you have no say over what the character says or does, at least you identify with him, and often (especially in WC3 - 4) feel like you’re watching a pretty good movie, while taking part in some of the scenes. (It baffles me as to why the cast of the Wing Commander movie was so off-beat and had nothing to do on the whole with the game - but, I suppose, the powers that be knew what they were doing, or thought they did, anyway.) In Freespace, the relative lack of personality to the character might be a turnoff for some people; in fact, in a lame attempt at a comparison, Freespace might be compared to Mortal Kombat, where the emphasis is on the fight, and all other information not relevant to the fight is brushed off as redundant. That isn’t necessarily bad or good, but, demographically, it is aimed somewhat in a different fashion. WC hinges on the Narcissus complex, where the character is the center of everything; Freespace (perhaps, more realistically) focuses on a scenario where the character makes his way through the “regular” channels. Sometimes, though, we have a bit too much reality - and fantasy epics like WC are just what we need.

More down-to-specifics, I like the way Nav points work in WC. In FS2, there are two missions where you sort of fly through an array of Nav beacons; but I really, really, really like the idea of an autopilot. Somehow, it makes me feel like the area of engagement is much bigger than it actually is - in FS2, everything happens around where you are. For that matter, what’s up with warping out? The best mission-ending system was in Wing Commander 1, where you had to align yourself for an approach with your carrier, and actually watch the approach speed et cetera. It was dumbed down in 2, 3, 4 and 5, up to a point where you can just hit ‘A’, and the auto-pilot will land you. The idea of warping back to your carrier that was pioneered in FS1 (and before that, in X-Wing - which completely didn’t make any sense, if you ask me) estranged me: I felt that if you have to return to your ship, it should be in the same system as you are. On the other hand, lacking the idea of Nav points, that would mean you had to defend it each time - which, admitted, could have gotten to be rather annoying.

The AI baffles me, sometimes. In WC, you had one wingman (in the Kilrah Run, at the end of WC3, you had two), but that one wingman was worth my two wings in FS2. Having them survive? Hah. Very funny. But if at least each one of them, before dying, took one attacker out, that would make them worth it. Unfortunately, more often than not, most of the wingmen are gone by the time you -really- need them. Usually, they’ll take on a corvette or a cruiser - and will be wiped out, almost instantly. You’d think that they’d think that a light fighter against a corvette - there’s something not exactly right there. But they don’t think - perhaps, that’s why they die. Then, in another mission, you’ll have three wings of support, you’ll fully expect them all to die, and bang, mission ends, all intact. Where’s the logic? Why is it, that if we all fly identical ships, I can take out five bombers in under fifteen seconds, and there’ll be four of my wingmen targetting a bomber with no shields and 43% hull, and they’ll take a minute or two, and the bomber will end up being blasted by the capship it’s bombing? This means, on a deeper level, that this all resorts to the WC phenomenae, where you still are the one saving the universe - it’s just that there’s a pretense to having someone help you. As a good friend of mine said… “Your wingmen are dumber than a Shivan on crack.”

And last, but not least… what’s up with the wing names? Constellation names are cool when you need hostnames for computers on a network, but for enumerating wings? On the other hand, kudos for some of the actual ship names, such as Nephilim, Naheema, etc.

Anyway, before this digression turns into an essay, I’ll cut it short. Phew, say you, after all that gibberish about Narcissus, megalomania, stereotypes of the single man on whom the freedom and the fate of the Universe depends and so forth, is Freespace 2 a good game? That’s all that matters, after all, doesn’t it? Well, it is. We don’t see many space combat sims these days - heck, the last one was X-Wing Alliance, and, frankly, that sort of sucked. It carried the Star Wars charm, but little more. Freespace 2 carries an adrenaline-packed storyline, spectacular graphics, great music track, and otherwise a great ambiance - making it one of the best games to come out this year. Now, if I only got on their beta test way back when…. [Hey J.! :)]

 

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Rating
97%
 

 

 
 

 

 

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