13-Aug-2001 After sticking last month's free flappy bit of card to his monitor, Richie Shoemaker has been patiently waiting to play the game that goes with it. His patience was rewarded; yours will be tested
Conflict: Freespace has been through a few name changes in its time. Initially calling itself Descent: Freespace, we thought we'd be seeing an all-outdoors version of the claustrophobic 3D sci-fi shoot 'em up Descent (PCZ #25, 94%). Now, of course, it's called something entirely similar and is an all-outdoors version of the claustrophobic 3D sci-fi shoot 'em up. Based in the infinite expanse of deep space, the game bears little resemblance to its forebears, although for anyone interested in such things Volition, the team responsible, are an offshoot of Parallax, the creators of (you guessed it) Descent. And that's where the tenuous link between them begins and ends.
To all intents and purposes, Freespace is a space-based combat sim along the lines of countless others, although for brevity we'll compare it most rigorously to the Wing Commander series - Prophecy being the latest. The story behind Freespace is certainly nothing new. You are a rookie pilot (obviously), flying for the Galactic Terran Alliance. Currently you are at war with the Vasudans, an amphibious-looking bunch of guppies who are soon to become your allies as a mysterious alien race threatens both cultures. No prizes for originality, then, but a second-hand plot does not a second-rate game make.
The first thing that grabs you about the game is the ease of use of all the controls. The HUD is a work of genius. Everything you need to know is but a millimetre of an eye's movement away and easy to read too - and without having your vision obscured by struts, flashing dials and fluffy dice. Acclimatisation is made even easier by spanning out the three tutorial sections through the first few missions. You start off learning the basics of flight and targeting, then get to try out your skills for real before going back to the classroom to learn about counter-measures. Genius, I tell you. Genius.
The other great thing about the game is the explosions. Score a couple of hits on a fighter and sparks fly and fire-trails flare out convincingly; a couple more hits later and the ship explodes into a shower of debris, fizzing out into the blackness of space. Obviously the large capitol ships come apart in even more spectacular fashion, breaking in two and leaving great hulks of debris for you to avoid, all with electrical fires dancing across their surface. The whole game is full of the most spectacular effects; a retinal circus with your eyes walking unaided across a pit of fire... Or something like that.
Get yer rocks off
Of course, what makes a great game is not the eye-candy, which helps, but the AI and mission structure. In the past, missions have been far too linear for their own good. In Prophecy you either complete the mission or you don't; in Freespace you're given a number of objectives, only one of which is mandatory for success. The rest is just a bonus. For example, early on you have to guard a consignment of cargo until your watch is relieved. Stay on a while longer, however, and a Vasudan ace makes an appearance. Destroy him and he won't be around to throw his amphibian spanner in the works later on. Each mission carries on in much the same way: in some you might complete all the objectives fairly easily, in others you'll be hard-pushed to complete the main one. You can still move on though, and this edges up the replayability factor no end.
The missions themselves are suprisingly varied. The meat and veg of the game naturally involves escort duties, and your basic dog-fighting is central to that, but there are some other missions that stand out. One example that immediately springs to mind is where the Galatea, your main support ship, slides slowly through an asteroid field while you and your wingmen have to take out any asteroids that threaten it, as well as any surprise attacks from Vasudan fighters. The asteroids themselves don't just explode, but split into two - reminiscent of the old coin-op classic, no less.
It doesn't stop there...
Oh no, it gets better. The AI for your wingmen is also mighty impressive. You do have to fiddle through a few keys, but the speed with which your team-mates react to your orders makes up for the fumbling. Give them a target and they'll attack it with human precision. Fighter pilots will get stuck into dogfights and escort the bombers - who will actually hold back if they don't get enough cover. In fact you don't have to issue too many orders, because your comrades usually do the right thing. They'll order in a support unit if supplies are low and if the enemy aren't about. They'll even take out any fighters who've locked on to your six if their own isn't already occupied. And you can't ask for any more than that, can you?
In all honesty, there isn't much wrong with Freespace. It would have been nice if the developers had given your team-mates a bit more personality: one pilot dies and you get a new one next mission who'll be just as good; there really is no feel of responsibility to keep your best pilots alive, which is a bit of a lost opportunity. Another slight disappointment is the much-promised planetary missions. Initially Freespace was to have both space-based missions and missions where you could enter a planet's orbit. This would have made the game unique, but for some reason it hasn't happened. Maybe a job for Freespace 2.
A Classic? Well, no. From start to end, Freespace is as engaging a game as you'll ever see. The story, while wholly unoriginal, lends the game its epic feel. All the ships look and feel different, and the dogfighting is second to none. 'Surely, then, this begs a Classic award,' you say. Well, the only thing I can offer to counter Freespace is Privateer 2. Granted, Freespace just about beats every other space combat sim in all departments, but the depth of involvement in Privateer 2 is second to none. You may think it an unfair comparison, but while playing Freespace it was difficult to lay the comparison aside.
Don't get me wrong, both novices and hardened space sim fans will get an awful lot out of this. If, however, you prefer a space sim with a bit more depth to it than completing a load of missions, you might want to wait for something else. But until the next big thing comes along you could do a hell of a lot worse than buy Freespace. Bloody marvellous, and no mistake.
As original as a Wing Commander rip-off can be
Sumptuous graphics, especially those explosions Non-linear missions (sort of) Impressive wingman AI Lots of multiplayer options
Derivative and unoriginal storyline Adds nothing fundamentally new to the genre Gameplay isn't particularly deep Where are the planetary missions?