|Volition Freespace 2 1999-10-21 02:09:00 - Yingzong|
"Starcraft really rocks!"
"Tomb Raider busts the competition!"
"Tiberian Sun kicks ass!"
"Unreal Tournament absolutely dominates!"
"Quake 3 Test is King of the Hill!"
Mind you, this list is not at all exhaustive. I'm sure many of us have caught these evangelistic comments from buddies around us. One genre of games which is not championed is sadly, that of the combat space simulator. Where does it fit in? Is the great combat space simulator a lost breed? It seemed ages past when games like Wing Commander : Prophecy and Privateer were the talk of gamers around town.
Those of us who played the Wing Commander series can testify to new standards of gaming which virtually placed us in the hot seat of the space jockey. Epic wars were fought (The Kilrathi Saga) and new worlds explored (Privateer). The thirst for more was unquenchable. Unfortunately, this was not helped by the fact that Origin Systems signalled an end to its space simulator legacy to focus on the multiplayer market. Fans were hugely disappointed.
Then came Volition Inc's Descent : FreeSpace. Initially, the Descent moniker prevented me from giving the game a chance. I believed it to be a multiplayer-centric game. However, rave reviews from buddies prompted me to give the title a try. I was not disappointed. In fact, I was quite impressed. Immersive gameplay and unprecedented battles of epic proportion were the trademarks of the game. And now, Volition has dropped the Descent moniker and produced FreeSpace 2, a continuation of the FreeSpace saga. Is FreeSpace 2 a worthy successor? Or is it a dud evident by a great many title?
So?? Tell me Already!!
Volition has produced a worthy and spectacular sequel! FreeSpace 2 not only exceeds my expectations, it also creates a new standard for the industry to follow. It has been a long time since a game has impressed me such. Before I go on, special mention must go to Jacilyn of New Era Entertainment for providing the game package for review.
The game package comes with an instruction manual, a kinky cardboard keyboard map and a cardboard sheaf that contains 3 silver CDs. Minimum requirements stated on the box are :
Contents of the Package
Of course, a better machine translates into a better gaming experience.
FreeSpace 2 takes place 32 years after the Great War of Descent : FreeSpace. The Great War was an interstellar battle desperately fought by two sentient races, the humans and the Vesudans, to save themselves from a Xenophobic race, the Shivans. At the end of the Great War, the Solar System was cut off from the rest of humanity due to a collapse in the sole jump node leading to it. As a result, the space-faring human community was isolated from their homeworld. The Galactic Terran-Vasudan Alliance (GTVA), a pact between humans and their former enemies, the Vasudans, was subsequently formed to rebuild their shattered worlds.
However, the 32 years of respite was not to last. Civil war erupts in the human race, resulting in a splinter faction, the Neo-Terran Front (NTF). The NTF is committed to end the GTVA to bring about a superior human society. This is further complicated by the knowledge that the nemesis of the races, the Shivans, has returned. The stage is now set for yet another intergalactic showdown. Good pilots are again needed by the GTVA and you just happen to be single and available…
Installation and Setup
Before I touch on the installation, below are the specifications of the rig which I installed the game to :
Game installation is a breeze. However, install space required is huge! A full-fledged install hogs a massive 1.2GB(!) and a scaled down version takes a hefty 800MB. A reduction in installation options is possible, but gameplay will notably suffer as a result. In fact, with maximum detail levels on my Celeron 300A (o/c 527), hiccups during briefings and combat are frequent without a full-fledged install!
Video, audio and control options are easy to set using an intuitive tab-based menu. 32-bit colour is available to those with the appropriate video cards. Direct3D and Glide options are supported. Users of Voodoo2 cards will be disappointed by the lack of an 800 X 600 Glide resolution option. Glide resolutions of only 640 X 480 and 1024 X 768 are supported.
The Tab-Based Menu for Setting Options
Navigating the Game
You start FreeSpace 2 by first creating a pilot persona. You will then be brought to the Flight Deck, an interactive interface which gives you the opportunity to manage your pilot. For example, you can obtain information on enemy craft encountered and brush up on the history of the FreeSpace universe in the Tech Room. Alternatively, you can continue your existing campaign in the Ready Room. In-game options such as audio and visual detail can be easily set at any time via the ubiquitous options button. Players of the original FreeSpace will find this interface familiar.
The Flight Deck with its Various Options
A History Lesson in the Tech Room
The Options Interface
Briefings and Status Updates
Briefings are conducted with the help of a 2 dimensional grid which details the objective and possible elements encountered in the mission you are about to undertake. This improves upon the original FreeSpace briefing grid with the use of more detailed ship models. The story line is partly conveyed through a periodic status update by the commander of the ship. Voice-overs are given for every one of these updates and are usually accompanied by rendered illustrations.
A Status Update By The Ship's Captain
A Mission Briefing Before Lift Off
Ship and Weapon Selection
Before you suit up for a mission, options are given on the type of fighter/bomber to be flown and the ordinance carried. Some spacecraft, such as the Zeus and Ursa bombers, have been carried over from the original FreeSpace. However, most of the fighters you fly are new to the game. Weapons are also new and improved. Ship and weapon selections are basically done by dragging and dropping the desired hardware. Again, this is similar to the original FreeSpace. However, I would have liked an option to load a custom configuration. This would remove the hassle of manually customizing the loadout of my fighter/bomber every time I flew.
Ship Selection Options
Weapon Loadout Screen
In the Cockpit
The cockpit is a generic display for all ships and has all the vital information required right in the Heads Up Display (HUD). Though some may complain about the lack of variety in cockpit design, I am willing to forgo a fancy interior for an intuitive HUD. Yup, you guessed it. The design is brought over from the original FreeSpace.
The HUD Display. Your Survival Depends On It
To sum up, overall game navigation is very similar to the tried and proven interface of the original FreeSpace, a fine example of the engineering axiom, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".
The Audio Department
First person perspective games are never complete without the ear factor to immerse yourself in. The buzzing of a pulse cannon behind you in Unreal Tournament is all it takes for an instant 180 degree turn and a quick return of the favour.
So how do the sound effects in FreeSpace 2 fare? With the myriad of fighters and capital ships slugging it out around you, the audio factor is not used as an indication of hostile craft behind you but more as an indication of fear. On a sortie next to an enemy capital ship, the growing high pitched shrill of its fighter beams charging is all that it takes to make you hit the afterburners and get the hell out of there before you get sliced. The audio missile lock indicator of an enemy missile is all you need before you turn wildly to the side, hit your burners and release a whole string of countermeasures. Flak cannons firing at you have the distinctive crackling of fire-crackers when their rounds explode around you. The screams of your dying wingmen mean you have fewer fighters to cover your ass and take out that immense Shivan cruiser.
Eat My Missiles!
Your virtual eyes are blind to anything beyond your field of vision and all you have to fall back on are your trusty speakers for more information. Nothing jolts you up more than heart-pounding siren call of the anti-fighter beams. That is, until they have a plug-in to let you smell fear… The orchestra of explosions, gun fire and screams make it a truly immersive experience.
In-game music is first rate and doesn't distract you from gameplay. In fact, it complements the environment you're in very well. The use of Spectrasonics' "Symphony of Voices" creates an eerie and apocalyptic feel during briefing and flight. This is especially so when the mission you're on is a grope in the dark and the unexpected happens. I'm glad to know that no effort was spared in the audio department.
A Science Vessel Makes Its Jump
The Visuals Department
Combat visuals are top-notch and do not disappoint. Players of the original FreeSpace will realise that the graphics are basically the same with a few minor improvements. One notable improvement is the rippling of shockwaves from bomb impacts and capital ship explosions. The original just had a growing blue sphere as a shockwave. Beam weapons being fired from capital ships and flak cannon bursts are evident additions. Explosions are beautifully rendered.
There She Blows!
Capital Ship Combat
Striking nebulae environments are an addition to the game. They are not just beautiful cloud-like backdrops of cold space. You can actually fly in a nebula and do combat there. Flying in one is like a semi-blind walk in a thick fog with little visual information on whatever's going on around you. This is where the audio factor that I mentioned earlier kicks in. There was once, after destroying a Shivan fighter I had been stalking, I found myself disoriented and lost with no other target in sight. All of a sudden, an anti-fighter beam cuts across my field of view, narrowingly missing me. To my disbelief, I realised that I was just 400 metres away from one of the biggest Shivan cruisers I had ever seen! "Holy Mother of Moses!", I thought. "Now the sh** has really hit the fan!"
Doing Battle In A Nebula
Holy Mother Of Moses!
Size Does Matter...
For those of you who have never played the original FreeSpace, be prepared to be enthralled by the sheer size of the capital ships. For those of you who have, if you thought those in the original were huge, wait till you get a look at the Shivan Sathanas and the Terran Colossus. The Colossus is 6 times the size of the Lucifer and the Sathanas is of a comparable size! Wait till you see them do battle with each other! Holy cow! I don't have that many eyes!
The Shivan Sathanas... 5000 metres away
Travelling Alongside The Terran Colossus
Holy Bernoulli! You Mean They Can Fly?
Ships design models are unique to each race, with the exception of those created through cooperation between the Terrans and Vasudans. Terran ships have a sleek and "flyable" look which can possibly allow the Bernoulli Effect. Vasudan ships have a rather reptilian look and appear ready to shed their skins anytime. Shivan ships appear to be a cross between the ships of the Shadow race in Babylon 5 and an insect. The distinct appearance of each race's spacecraft makes the FreeSpace universe all the more credible. Be ready for a visual fest, especially in the single player campaign.
Capital Ship Comparison. From Left : Terran Hecate, Vasudan Hatshepsut, Shivan Ravana
Fighter Comparison. From Left : Terran Medusa, Vasudan Nepththys, Shivan Astaroth
Single Player Skirmish
The single player campaign starts off with 3 training missions to familiarise you with flight controls and hotkeys. Advanced training missions will be available later in the game to teach better management of your fighter/bomber. These missions are very similar to those in the original FreeSpace. FreeSpace veterans will find these missions redundant. For those who are new, however, they are of immense help.
Another Battle In The Nebula
As mentioned earlier, you play the role of a space jockey who has a vital role in the fight against the NTF and the Shivans. The storyline is conveyed through a regular status update by the ship's captain and in-flight chatter. As usual, complete each mission well and commendations will be yours. Not that you would really care though. It's the thrill that counts! As you progress into the game, more ships and weapons will be available to you. You even get to fly Vasudan and Shivan fighters.
Clash of the Titans
One of the main attractions of FreeSpace 2 is the overwhelming sight of epic battles being consummated. Can you picture 3 capital ships tearing at one another with tens of fighters squaring off in the background? The resultant light displays, fireworks and audio fest are spectacular! Streams of light traversing the void of space, shockwaves from detonated bombs, exploding fighters and aspect-seeking missiles streaking in front of you are impressive sights to behold.
The Colossus Battles The Sathanas
The confusion characteristic of a titanic battle really gives one the thrill of battle in the cockpit. Gone were the days when a measly fighter jock like you was the bane of capital ships. I still remember the times when I could take out a few destroyers using just a Hornet in Wing Commander. In FreeSpace 2, you never want to get anywhere near those warships, les you get blasted to oblivion. Leave the capital ships to do their own battle and watch the fireworks from a safe distance. Respect their power and fear their presence.
The Plot Thickens
FreeSpace 2 follows a linear plot and allows little detraction. Special assignment opportunities are given from time to time but ultimately, you will still have to complete the same missions in the main plot. However, the staple missions are themselves already quite varied and I believe you will have little to complain here.
A Rip From A Cut Scene
Desperate but original ways are offered on how to take on a superior foe instead of the standard bomber strike tactic. Overall, the story line is quite engaging and the ending doesn't disappoint. The atmosphere in the game is rather moody and fatalistic but there is a determined touch to it. The good guys win the battle but lose the war. This makes the plot all the more credible. As a result, the ending leaves the player with a pang of regret that the game is actually over.
Another Cut Scene Rip
Volition provides a free Internet game-tracking and statistic-keeping service called Parallax Online. This service enables players from the world over to meet and play FreeSpace 2 games. This is akin to the Battle.net service provided by Blizzard. There are several different multiplayer modes in FreeSpace 2 : Cooperative, Team vs. team and Dogfight. These various game modes should be self-explanatory. Multiplayer campaigns are also available.
SquadWar is a clan battle service provided by Volition. Woohoo! Gang slamming madness!
Blatant rip from the manual : "SquadWar is another free service offered by Volition for FreeSpace 2 pilots. SquadWar enables multiplayer squadrons to challenge other squadrons for control of territory in a persistent FreeSpace 2 galaxy."
Multiplayer Game Debrief. A decent 11 kills
The Lag is Bad
Lag is a problem here in sunny Singapore as there are no local servers hosting the game. Some stuttering is evident even with my ADSL connection and a 33.6/56k connection is way out of its league. Ping time on my ADSL connection has an average of 215ms. This is a far cry from local Q3T and UT server pings of 17ms. Frame skipping is most evident while on a turning dogfight.
So How's the Gang?
Multiplayer FreeSpace 2 gaming (even with a little stuttering) is an enjoyable and engaging experience. However, only a trickling of people log into the server. Finding a variety of games to engage in or to even join existing ones is a difficulty.
Not Many People Today... As Usual
A point of mention is that it can be rather annoying waiting for other players to sync before the next stage in a multiplayer game. For example in an 8-player game, 7 of the players can be just sitting down there waiting for the eighth player to finish completing his mission briefings and weapons loadout. This is not for the impatient.
Waiting For Others To Be Ready. Dum Dee Dum...
Cooperative games are very unlike the ones in Q3T and UT. Satisfaction is obtained not from personal glory, but from the objective completed as a team. The need for team work is vital and cannot be overemphasised. There was once when I teamed up with 5 others to take on a Vasudan blockage consisting of 2 capital ships and several wings of fighters. We got shredded to bits the first two times we attempted. Yes, we absolutely felt like losers! No… it wasn't because we were crap! We were great as a team but the difficulty level was set at the "insane" level! We didn't realise that until the third attempt. We then proceeded on to downgrade the difficulty. Yeah… we really kicked ass in our third attempt!
There has never been a space sim quite like FreeSpace 2. The impressive graphics and adrenaline-rushing dogfights will keep you glued to the game for days. I found myself irresistibly progressing through the missions even though I had promised myself earlier to end the game for the day.
For fans of space sims who have never tried the original FreeSpace, you MUST give FreeSpace 2 a try. The original impressed me and I believe the uninitiated should be amazed by this second offering. Those who have experienced FreeSpace will be happy to know that there's more greatness from where it came from.
Had to do some nitpicking here because there can never be a product without a flaw or two. The AI for wingmen can do with some improvement. There have been a number of times where they blindly collide with my ship and other friendlies during non-combat situations.
The cut scenes need further improvement. They look flat and lifeless due to unpolished lighting and the lack of bump maps during rendering. In fact, the cut scenes are comparable to those we see in the games of 1994. Rather disappointing here.
Multiplayer lag is a problem, especially with 56k modems and below. An obvious indication of this is the disdain of some players in Parallax Online when these users join their game.
FreeSpace 2 is a fantastic game which offers the best in combat space sim experience you can ever get your hands on now. Its excellent audio and visual departments do very well to endear the game to the masses. Though far from perfect, Volition's free multiplayer service on Parallax Online offers a new dimension to gameplay. With such an impressive features line up, there is little to complain about. It is no idle boast that FreeSpace 2 is unarguably, one of the best games before the coming millennium.