For most of the 1990s, space-combat simulation fans only had two real choices -- the Wing Commander series or the X-Wing series. In 1998, Volition made its entrance into the genre with Descent: Freespace. While it can be accused of simply taking the best from both Wing Commander and X-Wing and adding a few features to their basic designs, Descent: Freespace -- The Great War still has much to offer due to its fast action, superb graphics and replay value.
In The Great War, the player is thrust into an immediate wartime situation. The Galactic Terran Alliance (GTA) has been at war with the Vasudans, a rival alien race, for several years. The political and military scene soon become complicated as another race, the Shivans, invades Terran and Vasudan space. No longer alone in the galaxy, the former rivals team up against the Shivans who pose a much greater threat to both races.
Through cut-scenes, bits and pieces of the Shivans' background are exposed through glimpses of the past. The Ancients' cut-scenes are very stirring and intriguing, although they can be somewhat ambiguous at times. Overall, they add a mysterious aura to the Shivan race (and to the Ancients themselves) but it is somewhat disappointing that the universe isn't more fleshed out than it is.
The majority of the storyline is uncovered through mission briefings and debriefings. Don't expect major plot points to unravel during missions as in the Wing Commander series or for your character to evolve into a super-hero responsible for saving the universe. One of the few gripes a player can have with this game is the under-developed universe and the fact that the player is never really personally drawn into the conflict.
A reasonable trade-off for the lack of personalization is the relatively novel reliance on your wingmen. While space-simulations have utilized wingmen for quite some time, none of them have ever given them a decent AI. At best, they've been useful diversions during heated missions but they have never been reliable enough to depend on to fulfill important mission objectives. In Freespace -- The Great War, not only is intelligent use of your wingmen required, in some missions it's a necessity for success.
Mission design overall is quite good with a mixture of mission types. One of my favorite missions is a non-combative reconnaissance probe into Shivan territory. The goal of the mission is to remain far enough away from enemy fighters as to not be scanned but to get close enough to the transports and capital ships to positively scan them. Sprinkling in more innovative (or perhaps just rarely seen) missions intensifies the combat missions and enhances the quality of gameplay overall.
Graphics in Freespace -- The Great War, while limited to 640x480 resolution, are still excellent. Explosions are vivid and the displacement of debris, particularly after the destruction of a capital ship, is superb. The engine itself runs in Glide, Direct 3D or software modes and there are several graphics options that can be tweaked in order to get optimal frame rates out of your system.
The HUD is fully customizable, from readouts to color schemes, which is a great bonus for space-simmers used to having HUD layout set in stone.
Freespace -- The Great War also includes fairly robust multi-player capabilities (although performance on PXO can be rather shaky and the LAN setup is also somewhat awkward). Multi-player modes consist of Cooperative, Team vs. Team and Dogfight modes. While pure melee combat, which pretty much consists of turning and burning, can get boring after a while, the cooperative and team play modes add depth to the gameplay.
Volition also had the foresight to bundle the Freespace Editor (FRED) with the game. FRED ensures availability of new missions and campaigns since the game's release and greatly adds to the longevity of the game. Although Descent: Freespace -- The Great War doesn't break the space-simulation mold, it does offer a very polished and well- designed game to the genre. If you're looking for a fast, graphically pleasing simulation with loads of replay value, this one should be near the top of your list.
Graphics: Graphics are very polished and highly configurable -- from detail levels to the HUD.
Sound: The dark classically-inspired music fits the game well and adds tension to the gameplay. Sound effects and voice-overs are also well-done.
Enjoyment: Descent: Freespace -- The Great War is great for fast action, but the lack of a more detailed universe detracts from the player's level of immersion.
Replay Value: With multiple multi-player modes and the FRED mission editor, you'll have a reason to keep the game on your hard drive for some time.
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