In the fall of 1998, Interplay and Volition made their entry into a market that was largely dominated by Origin & Lucasarts. Descent: Freespace was perhaps a tad derivative, but it was most certainly a good time, and a solid addition to Wing Commander's extended family. Now, a year later, we have Freespace2. Freespace2 occurs some thirty years after the events in Descent: Freespace, which are now known as "the Great War." (It's hard not to appreciate the irony in that.) What could I say about Freespace2 that the box copy doesn't already say better?
"Your nemesis has arrived, and they are wondering what happened to their scouting party". (oooh, I like it already.)
There aren't too many ways to say this. Freespace2 is shockingly good looking. Virtually the entire game is a graphical tour de force the likes of which I have never seen. Gorgeous ship models zip around the screen with smooth, fluid animation. Awesome, enormous, massively detailed capital ships trade giant energy beams in light shows that make the fourth of July look like a bike ride. Bombers and fighters trade massive volleys of ordinance with smooth vapor trails that look like hornet swarms. The high res. backgrounds look like they might well have been lifted from Hubbell photographs of parts of the galaxy that we didn't know existed. The nebula missions feature some visual effects and fade in techniques that make the whole thing feel like flying through low-grade pea soup.
For the most part, Freespace2 sounds as good as it looks. Weapon effects and explosions are excellent, especially capital ships. If you fly within the range of a flak cannon, you'll know it. (Trust me, you'll know.) All of the usual special effects are present (afterburners, missiles, flak, warp gates...etc.), and virtually all done to the same high standard. Make no mistake, Freespace2 is a workout for your speakers, and you may want to use headphones if you don't want the family thinking there's a war in the living room. Let's face it folks, it doesn't get a whole lot better then this, but what about the game play? After all, the proof is in the pudding. (mmmmmm...pudding)
Freespace2's game play, much like Descent: Freespace, is relatively derivative. Freespace2 is a pure blood member of Wing Commander's extended family. Players fly a series of missions with varying objectives, search and destroy, defend, recon...etc. There are exceptions, for example, a number of missions take place in a nebula, placing a new set of challenges squarely on the player. Much like its father, (Descent: Freespace), Freespace2 places a HEAVY emphasis on the role of capital ships. I would go so far as to say that Freespace2 takes that emphasis one notch further. The capital ships are the enormous powerhouses that they appear to be, and they are not to be messed with lightly. (The real war is fought with cap ships; you're just trying to keep the enemy fighters occupied so the cap ships can concentrate on each other.) God help if you get caught in-between them.
The story is very epic. Those who liked Wing Commander's individual character approach will be disappointed. Though it does contain well-crafted cinematic sequences; Freespace2 doesn't follow individual characters, it follows a war. Like it's grandfather (Wing Commander), Freespace2 has formidable enemies that are both distinctive and a joy to lock horns with. The Shivans aren't well fleshed out. Very little is actually known about them, however, they sure now how to operate cans of wupass. Freespace2 doesn't pretend to do everything, but what it does do it does EXTREMELY well.
It's difficult to explain the thrill of this particular brand of game if you've never experienced it. Space sims, much like many different kinds of games, thrive on chaos. It's a difficult mix to strike, it's like a puzzle, but it can be done. When a developer does it, and gets all of those puzzle pieces in right, there's nothing quite like it. You're streaking through the middle of an enormous dogfight, hot on the tail of a bogie ace. Your HUD is perilously close to giving you the weapons lock that you so desperately need. Your proximity alarm is going off wildly and your wingman is screaming, "Watch your six! YOUR SIX!". The incoming missile alarm goes off and you think, "NO NOT YET!" You get your lock and dump a spread volley of missiles after the bogie. Pulling up hard, you launch your LAST countermeasure, and slap the afterburner. The ship rumbles and lurches away from the missiles that would have pulverized you a half second sooner. For a few seconds, you savor the thrill of narrowly escaping a swift death, before you realize that the guy who missed, is still on your back, and he's brought friends.
It's this kind of chaos in space that Freespace creates near seamlessly. Enemy AI is aggressive but not infallible. They'll work in teams, and aim for specific objectives. They are your technological equals, and they want to walk away from these battles as much as you. Whether you're literally chasing bombs, or dodging flak cannons from Shivan juggernauts, Freespace2 is a thrill ride that grabs you and never quite lets go.
I've heard it said that Freespace2 is THE definitive space sim of 1999, and I wouldn't care to dispute that. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing like this in the genre, much less among the space sims released in 1999. Is it an all-time classic? Probably not, but it's damn close. If you wondered whether or not Interplay and Volition could compete with the giants like Lucasarts and Origin, wonder no more. Your time would be better spent wondering what Volition has in store for us next.
Graphics: HOLY COW!!!
Sound: Much like a movie, be assured, the audience is listening.
Enjoyment: Strap in and make sure all of your chairs and tray tables are in the upright position, it's take-off time baby!
Replay Value: The energizer bunny of games, I have no idea when this thing is going to stop going.
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