I half worry that my 1999 self would be disappointed. We're living in the last of the great sci-fi-sounding years, and he'd have been hoping I'd be playing some kind of ludicrously intricate immersive-sim derivative. But if he asked, I'd be forced to confess that I'm playing Starcraft and Freespace. He'd have been disappointed. But fuck him. He always was a snot. I'm back with two of the best games of the late 90s. And what interests me is that in two games that were relatively contemporary with one another can walk such radically opposing paths and still end up in the same place...
Starcraft was released at the end of March in 1998. It received rapturous reviews and was immediately embraced by the public. By half way through the next year, they'd shifted 3 million – and a million in Korea alone. Its enormous and continuing success has lead to it being patched ever since, becoming ever more balanced. It's the E-Sports RTS of choice. Since then, Blizzard have gone on to become arguably the most successful developer in the world, ruling the world. Or, at least, the World of Warcraft.
Freespace 2 was released at the end of September in 1999. It received rapturous reviews and was immediately ignored by the public. The sales figures in the US were reported at less than 30K on release. Its last patch was before the end of the year and creators Volition went on to spend the next five years making middling, at best, games, before their recent creative Renaissance with Saints Row and Red Faction: Guerrilla.
These games couldn't have more divergent paths. Yet today, I sit down and play two acceptably modern looking games which are fundamentally the same as those I was playing back at the close of the 20th century.
With Freespace 2, it's came from the actual engine being released as open source. Since then, the Freespace 2 Source Code Project has been updating the game, both graphically and adding functionality. While to play the original game requires the original game, there's total conversions which can stand alone, such as The Babylon Project. From upgraded polygon models to Pixel Shader 3.0 effects to detailed animation, it's been stretched in every way. You can simply buy Freespace 2 from Good Old games, run the Source Code Project installer and play simply the finest space-combat game the world has ever seen.
With Starcraft 2, its come from the resources of an enormously profitable company. With Starcraft 2, however, they're just as curatorial as the Freespace 2 folks. At least from what's been shown in the Beta, this isn't about making a new game. This is about making an old game acceptably playable to modern tastes, without fundamentally changing anything. In practice, enormous success has paralysed the chance for radical development in Starcraft 2 as much as utter failure paralysed Freespace. The latter has no money to do anything else. The former makes too much money to think of doing anything else.
In our Word War Three articles, some people have rightly commented that this sounds just like Starcraft. Why aren't you concentrating on the differences? Because the differences are minor compared to what remains the same. 12 years ago, our most precocious of readers wouldn't have even be alive when it came out. What we want to do is give a portrait of what it's like to play... and the Beta shows the game as Starcraft 2, but modern.
Which is good, because Starcraft is totally unplayable to people who've played any even vaguely recent RTS. It wasn't actually one of my games at the time, only having played a handful games. My real encounter was a couple of years back, when I was writing a comic set in the Starcraft universe for Tokyopop and was doing research. Lots of it was interesting - the everyone's-a-hero structure, the proto-Firefly space-cowboy-setting. It was also totally unplayable. The graphics were a minor thing, but interface issues choked any interest I had in playing. When I group select some marines and click up the stairs, I expect the game to be able to find their way up the stairs. Hell, if I group select a group, I expect to be able to group select whatever I've selected instead of the twelve Starcraft limited you to. No wonder micro was so important. It was impossible to do anything else but micro to play it. Unless you had a pressing reason to overcome this – either nostalgia, desire to play the world's most competitive RTS or whatever – it was fundamentally dead. A decade has rendered it a relic.
Starcraft is a brilliant game. Starcraft 2 is about making sure it remains a brilliant game, attempting those secondary issues don't stop people being able to get to the absolutely compulsive core. And so the most important changes in Starcraft 2 aren't unit abilities. They're the basic user-interface, the player-matchmaking and all that. What's important about it is making it a game people could actually play.
There's more irony that the task for the Freespace Open Source project guys is arguably easier - and with obviously infinitely less resources, it has to be. They don't actually need to update the actual mechanics of the game. Freespace 2 remains at the top of the genre after all these years, because its genre – the realistic space-combat “simulation” - died with its release, with Starlancer a dead-cat's-bouce a few months later. No-one's done it better, prefering to chase after Elite's vapour trails. No-one's made improvements to interfaces which we miss when we play. While everyone talks about the greatness of Starcraft's campaign, it's far easier to sink into the serious-sci-fi universe that Volition crafted. The moment when a Shivan Dreadnought emerges from the nebulae mists remain – thanks to the hard graphical work of the Open Source chaps – as stirring as ever. And the energy beams... well, I'm going to save this for a Freespace 2 post down the line. It's a hell of a game.
In short, there's no reason not to play Freespace 2 now. It's as good as ever.
And, in short, if you can get in, there's no reason not to play the Starcraft 2 beta now. It's as good as ever.
And that two games could end up in oddly similar positions through such radically different routes was enough to make me stop, think, and write this. And realise that... well, the poles show exactly why I'm interested in the PC. And one of the many reasons why this site exists.