It was only four months ago that my coffee-stained, ash-strewn desk found itself supporting a brand new PC, a machine that now, thanks to the ever-increasing demands of PC gaming, is prematurely approaching early retirement. At the time I naively thought it would take years to fill its cavernous 10Gb hard drive. Now, just a few months later, I'm having to hunt down the smallest of text files to fit the next game on. FreeSpace 2 didn't help matters. Needing a massive 1.5Gb on full install (I wouldn't have it any other way), it's ironic that a game calling itself FreeSpace leaves you none at all.
Still, I managed to find the room from somewhere and now the game, sequel to the best space combat game in living memory - if you've yet to reach the grand old age of two -has taken up semi-permanent residence. I say 'semi' because just two minutes ago I completed the game after five hard days of incessant dogfighting and capital ship assault. During that time, my palms have poured sweat, my eyes have run dry and the coffee machine has popped its Colombian clogs. I don't know if I can go through all that again.
Like its relatively youthful predecessor, itself barely a year old, FreeSpace 2 is a punishingly addictive game. Five days may seem like a relatively short life-cycle for a game, but it's the intensity of those five days, the sheer unadulterated excitement that takes hold throughout the 40-odd missions that makes FreeSpace 2 such a joy to play. Even a game that could take you months to complete would be hard pushed to provide the same level of relentless chair-bound agitation. Of course, once completed, the question is whether you would want to try over again? I'm not sure I would, but maybe that's just me.
Set 30-odd years after The Great War, FreeSpace 2 sees you flying again for the Galactic Terran-Vasudan Alliance (GTVA). Since joining forces to defeat the Shivan incursion in the first game, the Alliance has miraculously managed to survive the three intervening decades, exchanging technologies, ideas and cylindrical meat products. Unfortunately, some human xenophobes see the alliance as a threat and have formed the Neo-Terran Front (NTF), waging a pseudo-civil war against the Alliance with a view to splitting the two races apart. On starting the game, the war against the NTF hangs in the balance. In your role as rookie fighter pilot, your job is to hold off the fighters and take out a few bombers. As the war wears on however, new equipment and machinery become available, and more specialist squadrons require your emerging talents giving you the chance to fly Vasudan ships in special operations.
Although the mission structure is pretty linear, the sorties themselves are incredibly varied. You could be sent to escort a supply convoy to a jump node, when, unexpectedly, a huge battle group appears. Bomber attacks on your capital ships are a particular highlight, shooting down slow bombers as they unleash their ordinance. When you shoot down your first missile - no doubt more due to luck than skill - you'll whoop for joy. Even more impressive are the assaults on Cruisers, Destroyers and Juggernauts - massive behemoths sporting beam turrets that can cut through the hull of the bigger ships like the proverbial knife through butter. Woe betide any fighter that gets in the way of these weapons.
The style of FreeSpace 2s action is much like that of a WWII dogfight simulation, only without the effects of gravity. It's close-up-the-arse action all the way. Buzzing around the hulking cruisers, flak guns track the enemy ships with human precision, while you slip through their jutting structures to line up your next target. Watching your wingmen form up alongside and pummel fire into the still sparking hull of your foe, you almost feel as if you are playing the lead role in Star Wars, Battlestar Gatactica, or any one of a number of sci-fi films where space combat featured heavily. FreeSpace 2 may not be the most original game ever released, but it has been faultlessly designed with a view to making gameplay king. Unlike most games of this type where you are made to feel indomitable, in FreeSpace 2 you are part of a vast navy. You have your assigned duty, so going after a capital ship, no matter how well armed, will almost certainly get you killed.
If you're in a bomber, you must make sure your fighters stay to protect you, while you target the weapons and sub-systems that will make your part in a mission a success. All very well and good if you do manage to exceed your objectives, but most of the time you won't. FreeSpace 2 is nothing if not well balanced.
Let's Talk Graphics
It's no secret that FreeSpace 2 uses the vaguely tweaked graphics engine of Its predecessor. To some that may sound as If developers Volition have just created a mission pack and could have released this as a simple add-on. Perhaps they could have, but that would only have served to devalue the game. Even today the original FreeSpace towers above its peers in its graphical finesse, and yet FreeSpace 2 looks even better. The textures may lack detail close up (very close up mind), but the explosions are still out of this world, especially as the great capital ships split apart. Fires erupt from damaged ships, electrical fires sparkle across damaged hulls and the arc of intense laser fire as two massive fleets engage across the void and will very likely have you running to show your kids/parents/friends (delete as applicable). Epic is perhaps the word I am wrangling for, especially in relation to the size of the battles and ships. Take part in one of the missions in the dense cloudy nebulae, where spacecraft emerge like ghost ships and lightning forks across the vast billowing expanse, and the tense atmosphere multiplies still further.
There's Always A But...
FreeSpace 2 is not without its faults. Again, like any Wing Commander-stye title, the game is a mixture ot escort and assault missions, played out in the backdrop of a galactic war. If L you've played through the L original FreeSpace, you'll probably get through the B first half ol the sequel with a tangible feeling that you've seen it all before To be honest, originality isn't a problem. As you progress, the game gets better and better. When the war is over, you'll sit back and look back on a job well done. I guarantee you will have enjoyed yourself. Whether or not you'll feel that Pound-40 is worth it for a few days play is another matter. If you are one of those people who is quite happy to do the whole thing again on a harder setting or determined to fulfil those secondary objectives you missed first time around, then FreeSpace 2 certainly has weeks of playability - so feel free to add to the score. Me, I'm done. Time to think about freeing more space on my hard drive before FreeSpace 3 appears. Frankly, I don't rate my chances.
The Great Spacewar
Checking out FreeSpace 2s online bits
Reading through the manual, FreeSpace 2 really does boast a frightening array of multiplayer options. As well as straight free-for-all deathmatches, co-operative missions and entire campaigns can be played out online. Get a squadron together and you can even compete in SqaudWar, where teams fight over a number of galactic 'maps', vying for domination. There's even the option for real-time voice communication, speaking to team-mates via a headset, without the need to mis-type phrases and invariably end up vaporised. While a bog-standard 56K modem can just about handle a four-player deathmatch with all the graphical settings at minimum, you will ideally need a faster Net connection to play the game at full whack with pilots shouting down your ear. If you do have the capabilities, FreeSpace 2 is without doubt the best online space game you can buy, dwarfing X-WIng Alliance by miles. I played a few games using more conventional means, and got kicked out with annoying regularity. No doubt the speed of the service will improve with patches, until then I would advise trying the demo, which is admirably well supported - and popular - on the Parallax site.
Download Freespace 2
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Dropping the Descent name, Free-space 2 is ready to fly on its own merits, which is completely warranted considering last year's stunning space shooter. And if you thought the capital ships were huge before, wait until you see 'em this time--they're 10 times the size of the Lucifer superdestroyer from the first game.
New elements include beam weapons and flak cannons on the capital ships, lightning-laden, radar-jamming nebulae, and improved dogfighting. Stiff competition looms from Microsoft's Starlancer and Sierra's Babylon 5, however, so expect an interstellar shootout.
Last year's ace of space returns to a galaxy near you with Freespace 2, a promis ing overhaul that should have dogfighting fiends drooling with anticipation.
Freespace 2 takes place 32 years after the first game in a chaotic time when rebellions threaten the GTVA (the alliance between Terrans and Vasudans), and even worse, the dreaded Shivans are preparing to take on the GTVA once again. Playing as a pilot leading a four-person squad, you tackle 30 single-player missions as the games epic story line unfolds. On the multiplayer side, up to eight pilots can clash over LAN or Internet connections, and Freespace 2 retains the originals real-time voice messaging for all the smack-talk you can dish out. If that's not enough action, you can design your own missions with the included mission editor.
Freespace 2 also packs in more than 70 ships and a host of new weaponry, the coolest of which are the beam weapons that the enormous capital ships carry. Slicing out across space, beam weapons annihilate fighters with a touch or carve larger ships to pieces.
In the Cockpit
The most innovative addition to Freespace 2 is the battles that go down inside nebulae--otherwise known as giant clouds of colorful gas floating in space. Although you can't weave between the nebulae and regular space, the nebulae make a fascinating environment for dogfighting as electrical storms can damage your ship, interrupt communications, or provide cover for a sneak attack.
Once you're behind the controls. Freespace aces will feel instantly at home...largely because the heads-up display (HUD) and controls remain identical to the original's. But this is anything but a hastily slapped-together sequel; slick new graphics, highlighted by cool ship models combine with the impressive new features for one of the year's most exciting prospects.
30 years ago your grandfathers flew a desperate campaign against the monstrous Shivan invasion. Their bravery in the face of desperate odds saved the Earth but stranded them on the unhappy side of an intentional jump gate collapse.
That battle taught The Terran-Vasudan Alliance a valuable lesson: it must be better prepared. Thus it has spent the last 30 years building an Armada with the most impressive technology imaginable. The Alliance now sports capital ships that would dwarf the Shivan planet-killer Lucifer. Against your current technology, the original Shivan force could not hold a candle. You could defend yourself from a similar Shivan invasion handily.
As a pilot in the GTVA fleet, you help bring strong-arm justice to this empire without a home. Battles with renegade factions lead to the discovery of an ancient technology that could provide a gateway back to Earth but its investigation brings an old friend knocking at the door... The Shivans are back and they're wondering what happened to their scouting party.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
One of the best games ever made just got better.
Freespace 2 works very much like its forerunner. You are an anonymous pilot in the GTVA fleet; you are assigned missions in briefings and you can outfit your own craft as you see fit, with more options becoming available to you as you advance in the game. Once you have your orders and are loaded for bear in your favorite ship, the fun starts. You fly your chosen craft through deep space and around capital ships and through chaff and gun fire, carrying out your mission objectives as any good soldier should.
Missions in Freespace 2 are furious and fun. At times the laser fire, missile locks, and flack bursts are so thick on the screen that it is all you can do to keep your shields up, let alone remember your mission orders.
As advertised, capital ships are huge -- around 10 times larger than the biggest ship in Freespace. They sport some new technologies as well: beam cannons and flack turrets. Large beam cannons are huge solid beams that rip through other capital ships like a buzz-saw through soft Downy tissue (reminiscent of those used by ships on the television show Babylon 5). The ships also have smaller versions of these deadly weapons for handling pesky fighter jocks, like you, at a distance. If you manage to get close enough, they will bomb you with flack. Both weapons not only do you damage but jolt you around pretty hard, knocking you off course and making it tough to steer. It's a blast. Literally.
Once your mission is complete, you return for debriefing and maybe a medal or advancement. During these intermissions a story is told. Most storytelling is done in the form of mission briefings and debriefings but some comes from general messages and cinematic cuts scenes.
Missions are fairly linear but there is a bit of branching involved in some missions based on your performance. It's not like the Wing Commander games where the outcome of the entire story is based on your decisions and performance; instead Freespace 2 occasionally lets you take different paths to the same end.
The graphics in Freespace 2 are the best to date in any space combat game. The nebula effect is awesome. Nebula, you ask? Yes. Many of the missions take place inside a dense nebula that interferes with your instruments and guidance systems a la Star Trek 2. The effect is truly spectacular -- it's like tumbling through an endless purple cloud. The demo missions take place inside the nebula so if you'd like to see it firsthand, download the demo.
Besides the nebula effects, Freespace 2 boasts some of the best looking ship textures and space backdrops ever. Some backdrops include binary star systems, colorful distant nebulae, and suns blocked by... well, better not give too much away.
As in its predecessor, Freespace 2's ships bleed fire and explode into impressive balls of flame. Larger ships will give off shock waves that can damage your ship. Laser and missile fire is impressive. But best of all, beam weapons look amazing. As their pulsating beam tears across the bow of a capital ship, it leaves behind a trail of fire and explosions. Screenshots do not do them justice, they must be experienced.
The musical score is very good, although it is not overpowering or inspiring like in the X-Wing series. Instead, it is more subtle and moody. The music even gives clues as to what is going on -- when bad guys appear the music switches from a neutral theme to a tense one and then becomes lighter once the mission objectives are complete.
The sound effects are superb! Everything sounds as it should, only bigger and badder! Things rumble and shake with the sound effects or at least they seem like they do because the sound is so good. My wife begs me to turn it down but I just can't. I must get the full experience. The game ought to come with a coupon for a sub-woofer; you're really missing something without one in this game.
One sound of special note is the popping of chaff. Its crackling sparks are accentuated by thundering spurts of pow pow pow. It's really cool.
Pentium 200Mhz, 32 MB RAM, Win 95/98/NT, 3D graphics accelerator (supports Glide or D3D), 250 MB hard drive space minimum, the standard is like 1.2 gig. Whoa. 8X or faster CD-ROM drive, Direct Sound compliant sound card, 100% Microsoft-compatible mouse (joystick recommended).
Multiplayer: Eight player TCP/IP over LAN or Internet
Documentation is good. There is not as much of a story laid out in the manual as in some other games. Instead it just gives a little history and plops you anonymously into the story told within the game, letting you create your own history and background with your own imagination if you care to.
Each feature is fully documented which is why the manual is so thick. It's not Falcon 4.0 thick, but it won't fit in a CD jewel case either. There are many, many commands, some of which you will need to know and others you may want to know and still more you may never care to learn. But just in case you want the commands, they are available and each can be customized to your keyboard/mouse/joystick configuration preference.
To help you learn, there are tutorials in game in the guise of training missions. You can skip them if you are an experienced Freespace pilot, but may want to try out at least the first few if you are new to the game. I mentioned that the storyline isn't covered in the documentation but that doesn't mean Freespace is without plot or story. In truth, the story in Freespace 2 is better told than the one in Freespace. I think the storyline is not nearly as dramatic or tense as the original (how can you get more intense than defending your home world from an unstoppable enemy?) but the telling of it is much improved. Better voice acting and more believable wording make up most of the improvements. Also, the mission briefings and debriefings reveal just the right amount of information in just the right way; they reveal the story in a believable way.
The multiplayer support is very much improved. The original was entirely unplayable over the internet out of the box. Volition, the game's developer, did not make this mistake again. In fact, internet play has been enhanced in more ways than just improved latency handling. Their PXO network offers a style of play only available online called Squad War. In it, you and your squadron battle for control of a nearly perpetual universe. You can win special awards and medals for your performance and each squad is ranked according to its performance. I've not tried it myself but I see many people participating in it online.
Simple options let you play simple missions or campaigns with your friends in either cooperative, dog-fight or team-play modes. At a recent LAN party, Freespace 2 stole the show as four of us duked it out among stars, missile locks, and beam cannon blasts.
This game is wonderful. Its only shortcoming is that it is too short. It seems to set itself up for a sequel or an expansion of some kind but Volition has recently indicated that there will be no expansion and, if I understand it correctly, no sequel. Noooooooo!
On a brighter note, they include a very full-featured mission and campaign editor with the game. It has the ability to do everything the game does and more! You can import AVIs and custom .wav files for in-game chatter as well as mission briefings. Already people have begun posting their own epic tales for us to live out in the cockpit and some of them are pretty darn good.
The bottom line is that this is one great game. With Starlancer and some other exciting games coming up, it may be tempting to let this game slip by, but do not. If you are any kind of space combat game fan, don't let this one get away! You won't regret it.