Written by: Stoo

Date posted: August 12, 2002

Chasing a Vasudan fighter.

For several years, the realm of action-based space-sims (as opposed to the space-traders like Elite) was largely ruled by the X-wing and Wing Commander series. Then in 98 Volition brought us Freespace, to give an alternative to anyone who was finally getting a little bored of either hearing the Star Wars theme for the 568th time, or sitting through dodgy FMV sequences. As an interesting little bit of gaming trivia, this was apparently originally intended as some kind of sequel to the Descent series, although that idea must have been dropped as there aren’t really any obvious connections other than the basic idea of piloting a starfighter.

The story is as follows: in the twenty-somethingth century, man has been at war with a race called the Vasudans for, erm, quite a while, and these are the guys you’re trading fire with for the first few missions of the game. However, one day a fleet of black ships turns up and within a short space of time hands a thorough pummelling to both yourselves and the Vasudans. The Shivans, as they’re designated, are utterly alien and completely uninterested in communication, preferring rampant destruction instead. Their superior technology allows them to inflict massive casualties on your forces. Realising this new threat is Quite Serious Indeed, the Human and Vasudan thus decide to put aside their petty war and take on the common foe together, the alternative being complete annihilation. So there you have it. Not very original, in fact it’s more than a little reminiscent of Babylon 5, but at least you’ll never see C3-PO or any Kilrathi mincing around.

Closing on an immense Shivan cruiser. Capital ships can be quite daunting to face up close.

So anyway, let’s hop behind the cockpit of the space-fighter of your choice and go for a spin. Learning the how to fly takes next to no time, as Freespace uses for a simple model for spaceflight rather than the Newtonian physics of I-War. This is quite common for space-combat games and in fact this one feels (to me at least) quite a lot like TIE fighter, to the point where at times I could almost believe I’m playing the elder classic with improved graphics and a new set of ships. This isn’t necessarily any kind of bad thing, though; for excellent handling and smooth combat action TIE was king of the hill in its time. Volition did well to match and even improve on this. Through the obligatory system of tutorials you can quickly pick up the basics of piloting, and soon feel qualified to perform amazing feats of daring as you hurtle through enemy formations. Banking and diving to try and stay on your target’s tail, or dodging defensive fire from from capital ships as you go on torpedo run, is is what makes this game great. Most space-shooters offer such action, but in Freespace it’s all just somehow that little bit more slick.

Each mission usually has primary and secondary objectives and while you must pass the primary to progress, the secondaries are optional. So if a mission goes pretty badly you might only just scrape through the primary, get a bit of a bollocking, and then have the options of trying again for greater success or giving up and moving on. Given that Freespace is an entirely linear game, the option to get away with half-failing a few missions and carry on is quite welcome. Otherwise, you get the incredibly frustrating “you will do this over and over until you get it right!” structure of some games. Anyway, there is further significance to the secondary objectives: whether or not you pass these will sometimes have an impact on the next mission. For example, if you fail to keep a heavy cruiser from taking too much damage in mission A, you may find it can’t offer you much help when the going gets tough in mission B.

Take that you fiend! Well, actually, it was just a crate.

Anyway, despite the linearity, at least things are never dull in outer space. What you will see several times is things going horribly wrong at the start of a mission due to a surprise Shivan attack, and your objectives getting hastily changed to “get out alive” or “protect your friends until they can get themselves out alive”. Through much of the game there’s a feeling of desperation as the Shivans gain more and more ground (or, erm space), while your forces fall back, losing vital capital ships along the way. Thankfully though you are slowly supplied with improved weapons and spacecraft so you can fight back harder. Your initial fighter is a bit middle-of-the road and unimpressive, but later on you get the chance to fly a lightning-fast interceptor, a slow-but-steady gunship and a range of lumbering bombers too. They differ notably in handling; the interceptor turns on the proverbial dime, while the heavy bomber is much more sluggish. All the ships do however benefit from having afterburners, which allow a brief burst of extra speed to get you out of trouble before needing a break to recharge.

A mention should also be made for your wingmen. You can give ’em the usual range of orders (protect x, blow up y etc), and also some useful tasks such as disabling an enemy capital ship by taking out it’s turrets and engines. This could thus make further bombing runs a bit easier. Indeed the game does reward teamwork as bombers are the only thing that can really hurt a capital ship in a short space of time, but they do need protecting from enemy fighters. Fortunately even without your regular input, your wingmen are a fairly competent bunch (if maybe not quite operating at genius AI levels), and can generally be relied on to go for the primary targets, cover each others backs, cover YOUR back and so on. So no complaints there.

Primary objective completed. We can either go and put our feet up or hang around to complete the secondary task.

Now, pretty graphics are by no means essential for this kind of game, seeing as by default the single thing you’ll see most of is empty black void, but they certainly can’t hurt either. In truth, the textures on the fighters do seem a little blurred and lacking in detail. However, the huge capital ships are suitably impressive, especially the ominous-looking Shivan cruisers. It’s quit an experience running the length of one, trying to strafe its gun turrets or engines. There’s also some nice effects such as the trail of flames behind a damaged fighter, or dying capital ships splitting into fragments as explosions rage across their hulls. On a vaguely similar note, your Heads Up Display, apart from looking quite attractive, provides you with all the information you need for a mission without ever becoming obtrusive.

So then, what we have at the end of the day is a prime example of space-based action. It’s true that Freespace didn’t offer much to the genre in the way of new features, but to this day it remains one of the most entertaining games of its type. In my book the X-wing series was certainly matched and possibly beaten by this one, and in terms of pure gameplay Wing Commander was never quite in the same league. So Freespace comes heartily recommended to anyone who fancies themselves as being a bit of a space-fighter jockey. If it’s the best in dogfighting, raiding and bombing runs that you’re after then is the one to look for.