While much of the buzz on the Internet between space combat sim enthusiasts surrounds Chris Roberts’ upcoming epic Freelancer, due out a full year from now, Interplay quietly released a follow-up to the award-winning surprise hit of ’98: Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War. And oh Lordy, what a sequel it is. By building on the strengths of its predecessor and addressing a handful of beefs (including messy multiplayer code), Volition has proved to joystick jockeys everywhere they are a serious force to contend with.
FreeSpace 2 takes place 30+ years following the perilous pandemonium of The Great War. As illustrated in the lengthy (and well-produced) pre-rendered intro movie, the Terran and Vasudan races were forced to ally in the first game to successfully ward off a new superior rival, dubbed the Shivans. In FreeSpace 2, both sides have remained allies and after rebuilding their respective civilizations, a small band of Terrans, with a strong distrust towards the Vasudans, breaks away from the treaty to form a rebel faction calling themselves the Neo-Terran Front. This, in turn, causes resurgent combat between the two races, until things get even more heated as the Shivans rear their ugly head once again. Without giving away anything of the story, the single-player campaign throws the gamer a few plot twists and turns via cut-scenes, radio communication information and scripted, mid-mission events. It certainly does not feel Volition slapped together a last-minute story to wrap around a space combat game – all the races, their motivations and the effectiveness of their varied spacecraft (fighters, bombers, cruisers, destroyers, capital ships, etc.) are all thought-out and well implemented in the game.
Much like the first FreeSpace, the 30+ linear missions will place the gamer in a number of challenging situations, such as full-on assaults, stealthy reconnaissance goals, escort and convoy assignments, nebula patrols and much more. Gamers can command squadmates during battle and order them to attack, defend, disarm and disable targets. Speaking of targets, as with the first game, it’s possible (and will be necessary) to destroy areas of enemy spacecraft and not the entire vessel. For instance, a mission may call on you and your wingmen to destroy only the turrets or missile bays or perhaps to disable the engines.
As if dog-fighting with dozens of different ship classes wasn’t fun enough (some even stretching six kilometres long!), new nebula environments add a twist to the gameplay because of the impaired vision, lack of radio communications and troubled targeting controls. They’re also very appealing to look at as well, comparable to those found in popular sci-fi TV shows today.
Graphically, FreeSpace 2 is absolutely stunning, with support for Direct3D-compliant accelerator cards and resolutions topping 1024 x 768 (32-bit color). If played on a large monitor (17 inches and up) with the lights out, gamers are likely to catch themselves smirking at the meticulously detailed ships, backdrops and lighting effects. Um, just wait until you see one of these massive capital ships…
The opponent AI is quite cunning, as with the FreeSpace – The Great War, but if multiplayer is your bag, then forget about the highly-publicized shortcomings with its predecessor -- FreeSpace 2 features smooth and relatively lag-free gameplay over a LAN or Internet, hosted by Parallax Online (PXO), a free matchmaking service. It should be noted up to twelve players can engage in a single arena (DeathMatch mode) or eight players in a team vs. team cooperative mode, though I was only able to test the game with three, and then five, players in a head-to-head match. Even still, gameplay was fast and fierce. Simply use the server listings at PXO to find available games or choose to host one yourself. Alternatively, a new multiplayer gameplay addition “Squad War", which pits player squadron against squadron in a ladder-based ranking system. OK, say you’ve completed ALL thirty levels and indulged in a handful of multiplayer matches, now you can create your own custom scenarios with FRED 2, a free editor bundled with the game. To learn more about designing and swapping your own missions, visit http://descent.gamestats.com/swapmeet/designer.shtml
In short, space sim fanatics or sci-fi junkies with a fast PC, good 3D accelerator card and solid flight stick should definitely consider picking up FreeSpace 2 this holiday season. If you’re looking for something to tie you over until Digital Anvil’s Freelancer, this gem from Volition is the one for you.