I am a sucker for space games. It can be an RTS or a simulator and as long as it has spaceships, I will eat that stuff up. However, there are few that stand out as innovative or influential. Freespace 2 is one of these few. Nearly thirteen years old, it infuriates me to see how every other space flight simulator is nothing like Freespace 2. Volition, the developer, understands how to appeal to hardcore sim players while making a complex game accessible to people new to the genre.
A Well Tailored Chassis
After the regular company shouts outs, you are thrust into a command center. Here you can select pilots, go to the mission room, select a different campaign, or modify game options. Through the pilot select screen it is possible to play multiplayer but since the game is so old, no one really plays it anymore. Instead of having the oh-so-popular splash image with highlightable text for menu options, deciding to place the player within the ship carrier enhances the immersion. After your first briefing, you are “required” to qualify to pilot the ship you are about to be assigned. This is totally skippable for returning players but acts as a crafty and well-incorporated tutorial; even the repetitive introductory command at the beginning of each tutorial session, “You will fail this session if you do not follow instructions carefully,” coupled with the fact that the player can ignore most of the instructions without repercussions feels convincingly human. Each time a new ship is made available, the player is given the choice to take more lessons on its unique capabilities. The mildly complex control scheme utilizes the keyboard and most of its keys for a multitude of the ship functions. From shield allocation to managing energy inputs, the player feels intimately in control with their ship. It is a steep learning curve, but once muscle memory sets in, intense dog-fights escalate into intricate dances of death. Luckily each time you return to the command center, you are welcomed with a helpful quick tip that reveals or reminds you of a control command you might have forgotten or didn’t know.
No Cheesy Love Story Here
It is exactly as it should be. Compared to many mainstream titles emphasizing the one man army toppling a seemingly unstoppable force idea, Freespace 2 manages to convincingly deliver the sensation that you are a minor piece in a massive war machine. There are missions that you fail due to forces outside of your control, such as being overwhelmed by enemy forces, while there are others nearly impossible to fail thanks to the assistance of the powers that be. As you “advance” through the ranks, I use quotes because it isn’t earned through any particular user achieved feats, your pilot receives higher priority missions that bring you closer to important key enemy targets but never does it feel contrived to where the main character feels like a super-human. Instead, you remain dwarfed by the massive corvettes and cruisers of your allies and enemies as they brutalize each other while you struggle to shake multiple enemy fighters in the far reaches of space. As the story progresses, however, it is hard to find a mission that does not ultimately end in some sort of major dog fight with enemy pilots. So by the end of the game, the sensation has long worn off and only remains engaging to those that truly enjoy the tense and frustrating gameplay.
It Really Is All Pew Pew
The keyboard acts as a perfect control panel by providing Volition the means to implement complex actions available to the ships into a single key. This is arguably one of the best control choices for a space flight sim. Unlike current games where it seems to be a trend to use as few buttons as possible (Star Raiders, I scoff at thee!), Freespace 2 takes the PC’s many buttoned keyboard and turns it into one of the most complex controllers outside of Steel Battalion’s. It is hard to say how Freespace 2’s controls compare to modern day simulator control schemes, but I firmly stand in that they are missed. Each player will have to fine tune their controls for a more convenient and desirable layout, but once they do, they will be ready for a rewarding experience.
The AI in the game is, to say the least, unforgiving. Even on the easy to normal settings, I found myself screaming profanities at the screen and slamming my fists on the keyboard. In multi-ship skirmishes, successfully tailing one ship earns you are tail or two of your own who endlessly assault your six until you break engagement and take evasive maneuvers. Acting as a lone wolf invites your pilot to take an eternal swim in the infinite abyss making it apparent that utilizing your squad mates is your only chance for survival. This quickly gets frustrating when you are also trying to manage your shields, allocate energy, and sift through the confusing targeting options. However, once you are able to vanquish all of your foes with shield and hull integrity to spare, you can own your own kills with pride.
Sometimes ILM Could Be Useful
Easily but understandably the biggest issue with this game are the visuals. Having been made in 1999, the game lacks a lot of luxuries current graphics have to offer especially when compared to newer games like EVE Online and the X3 series. Though capital ships are intimidating due to their sheer size, their low-poly models look blocky and dull. The low-res backgrounds fail to convince the player that they are suspended in a great expanse millions of miles away from the nearest friendly celestial body. This fact, coupled with the lo-fi sound quality, ripped me out of the experience; both missiles and lasers sound very hollow and disconnected from their modeled counterparts. I would have even preferred no sound other than the frantic radio chatter, triumphant music tracks, and the sound permitted by the self-contained atmosphere of the ship since there would be no other source of sound in space. Duh! Luckily, this is a perfect segway into my next section.
Cue Hallelujah! Mods make this game’s value skyrocket. Imagine spending your entire little nerd life watching your favorite science fiction movie not being able to simulate what it is like to pilot one of your favorite fighters. Once Volition released the source code for Freespace 2, modders quickly set out to rectify this. Specifically, the Freespace 2 Source Code Project sets out to fulfill this endeavor. It updates all of the graphical issues I mentioned and more. Not only that, it adds tons of other fixes and content for players to choose from. For those who don’t like ship pitch control restricted to the numberpad, the FS2SCP offers the option for mouse control of pitch and weapons. Away from this project are other mods that overhaul the game and turn it into a simulator of sci-fi shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5. When I first installed FS2SCP, my interest in Freespace 2 spiked dramatically. By far, Freespace 2 now holds a set place in my heart along with Homeworld 2.
So How Does It Hold Up?
Regardless of the visuals and sound, the original version of Freespace 2 certainly has influenced and received praise from other space flight simulators and fans. For those who have played other Descent games, it is hard to believe it has come from narrow corridor shooting to epic space battles. Even without mods, the game contains a well-structured story with difficult but fun gameplay that is extremely enjoyable. With Freespace 2 being open source and the availability of FS2SCP, all obviously antiquated portions are brought up to par with the rest of the game making it strong competition against any game hoping to take its title.
Freespace 2 Technical Summary:
- Time Played – 20 Hours
- Widescreen Support – No
- 5.1 Audio – No
- Control Scheme – Keyboard
- Game Acquisition – Purchased By TPG
- Availability- GOG.com
- Demo- No
- System Specs- Core 2 Duo, GeForce 9800, 4GB RAM
TPG Review Classics is a feature where we jump into the Wayback Machine to offer a modern look at PC games released during the 80s and 90s.