+11-12 Years: Starcraft 2 Versus Freespace 2

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.

Nerf the bad guy, buff my guys, Blizzard. You heard!

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.

I'm going to fuck you up with guns.

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.

151 Comments

  1. halfthought says:

    Thats the reason why SC2 is so radically different from SC1. The changes in movement completely change the dynamic of the multiplayer. Its also why I rage about people who rage its the same thing, because on a multiplayer level, it is a complete sequel. Going from SC1 to SC2 is like going from Counter Strike to Modern Warfare 1 (and hopefully, hopefully not 2), from a strategic and gameplay dynamic standpoint.

    And as much as I love SC1, and play it today, their are people who basically think SC2 should be SC1 with a 1024×1280 resolution version of SC1. 4:3 and all. These people are crazy. These forums are filled with them.

    Gosugamer.net
    TeamLiquid.net

    But then again, if your getting payed in sums of 60-70k for playing a video game a year living abroad in Korea, I suppose their may be biases :p.

  2. Carra says:

    I replayed the Starcraft campaign a year ago and I have to stay, it still ruled. The graphics were still nice actually, being created near the height of 2D graphics. And noone is better at telling a story in an RTS than Blizzard. Sure the maximum 12 units is annoying as hell but you quickly get over it.

    And once you do get over it you’ll see the most balanced and unique RTS that has been created. Just to give an example, I just finished Red Alert 3. And there’s obvious duplicate units at each sides. All sides get engineers. And the dog is a carbon copy of the bear. You won’t find such nonsense in SC!

    Overall still well worth playing.

    As for Freespace 2. Never got to play it but I got a copy bought from a gog.com deal. I’ll have to try out the opensource project :)

    • sinister agent says:

      I agree that going back to Starcraft and playing it is still fun, but I also find it easy to imagine that if I were to play it now for the first time, I would get pretty annoyed with it, and be less willing to forgive its clunky controls because I wouldn’t already know how great it became later on, and hadn’t yet come to be so fond of its silly, brilliant characters.

  3. Kerotan says:

    I’m hurt by the slander, as a proud member of TeamLiquid, that all we want is a clone of SC1.
    These people miss the point entirely, I don’t still play Starcraft because I like the idea of being only able select 12 units, or the appeal of its graphical fidelity, I only still play because every time I lose, it feels like I still have so much to learn.

    So now in a similar manner to the guy above me, I’m going to tar brush a large group of people.
    “All the rest of the internet wants is an RTS that is pretty, easy and uninspired, which leads to to cookie cutter victories competitively”

    To many people are in love with the transient, the core value which should exist at the bottom of any RTS game that the developer intends to be played in multi player is, simple to learn, hard to master.

    • Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

      I hope you’re not trying to compare Starcraft to Go.

    • Josh says:

      Why not compare it to go? There is no reason that a game made with beads has to be better and more strategically complex than one created from softwear. But the advantage go has is subtlety; tactics don’t follow simple rps schemes (not you, the game) but are more conditional and harder to work out, at least for me. Starcraft doesn’t have that because of intentional simplicity and differentiated form of the interactions, but then chess works the same way! If micro-ing can be made as subtle or more subtle than chess, and the interface smoothed so the two of you can micro away in a clever way in multiple battlefields at once, with those offensives influencing each other indirectly, while interspersing all that with forward thinking production/tech decisions, then starcraft could conceivably be more complex to master than chess!

  4. Waltorious says:

    I agree that space sims not designed for joysticks just don’t feel right, but I worry that the need for a joystick is mostly what keeps developers from making space sims these days, because they think consumers won’t buy sticks just to play their game. I’m afraid that if Freespace 3 is ever made, it will be dumbed-down control-wise for this reason, and will subsequently disappoint. Sigh.

    As far as advice for people looking for an inexpensive but quality stick, I’d suggest looking at Saitek. They make some REALLY nice (and expensive) sticks but also some more budget ones that work perfectly well. I bought a Cyborg Evo a few years ago for the express purpose of playing Freespace 2 for pretty cheap ($30 – $40 I think) and I love it… it’s totally customizable, from the grip size to the angles of the buttons, can be set for right- or left-handed, and you can even map buttons to keyboard keys if the controls aren’t reconfigurable in-game. Everything I want without expensive extras like force-feedback.

    On the other end, Saitek also make two-hand systems with enough programmable buttons that you don’t need a keyboard AT ALL. You need to pay a bunch for that, but the hardcore sim players often go for such things.

  5. sebmojo says:

    To answer some of the questions about controls:

    You =can=play FS2 with a mouse – I finished it that way. You might have to fiddle around with the sensitivity a bit though.

    It doesn’t have the Freelancer style mouse control – you move your mouse and your ship moves. So dogfights can be wearing on your mouse pad.

    God I love Freespace. Those wonderful, almost self-parodic monologues by Bosch.. the delirious, sublime music… . And the honking great lasers, mustn’t forget them.

    “As Humanity emerged from it’s neolithic infancy, they believed their voyage across the sea of stars woke the dragon that slept beneath the waves, that the Shivans were birthed from the flux of subspace, and their destruction was the revenge of an angry cosmos”

    • Blackberries says:

      Definitely agree with the music love. I still get moments where the soaring battle music leaps into my head. Like right now.

      Da-dadada-daa, da-dadada-daa, da-dadada-daa dum dum do-do-do-dodo-do…

  6. Phinor says:

    Freespace 2 might be the first epic game I ever played (I started gaming late 80s). I haven’t played it in years because I’m waiting for a decent joystick at a fair price plus maybe another game or two to use the joystick with. Any suggestions for joystick or another game worth playing with joystick? I dislike arcade flight games very much, but I don’t really like hardcore simulations either. Which is probably why Freespace 2 worked so very well in the first place, it’s definitely between arcade and simulation.

  7. chr says:

    Ah Freespace 2! I come here not to praise it but to bury it. If it had never been made how many more space sims would there be? How many interesting games died because Freespace 2 crashed and burned?

    The game was buggy on release, in so far that you couldn’t even get into the game. The plot was a rehash of the first one and didn’t offer anything new. The game was boring. It’s an insult that it is held up as the ‘greatest space sim’.

  8. Zombat says:

    Ah the Shivan Dreadnought…

    When i first played that level I was in just the right position so that my ship was a hair’s length away from skimming across the Dread’s hull, definatly one of my most memorable “Ohshitohshit!!” moments in gaming.

    Coincidently another one of those moments was a few missions later
    “DIVE DIVE DIVE!! HIT YOUR BURNERS PILOT!!”

  9. Fergus says:

    The more Freespace 2 love in this world the better, nothing’s quite given me the tingles like it did.

  10. JuJuCam says:

    I recently bought FS2 due to rumblings here and elsewhere that it was an underrated gem but I couldn’t play past the first mission because it lacked the one thing I basically require of any piloting sim – a cockpit view with an actual cockpit. I just can’t believe I’m flying inside a ship if I can’t see the damn ship. It’s like an FPS that doesn’t have a gun in view.

    I know there’s probably a mod for it, but I’ll be damned if I can be bothered digging through the forums and wikis and whatever else to find it.

  11. Boldoran says:

    Freespace was the first 3D game I got to play with my secondhand Vodoo2 graphics card. I really liked the atmosphere. I also remember vividly the last mission in FS2 because I desperatly tried to activate my jumpdrive only to realize that it would’t work and that I was too far away from the wormhole to make it out of the system. So I resolved to kill as many of the Shivans as possible and enjoy the lightshow of the exploding sun.

    Also I am probably going to be stoned for this but I have to admit I played it with a mouse. Had no problems with that and in fact would be angry if any potential heir to the spacesim throne required a joystick to play.

  12. Skg says:

    For me, Freespace 2 is just one of those magical games. Since release, I’ve maybe only played it 2 or 3 times, but every time I was floored by just how amazing a game it was. The storytelling was brilliant (especially compare it to modern games like…well, the Supreme Commander 2 demo comes to mind, ye gods), the graphics were, and still are (even without the SCP) jaw droopingly beautiful – it’s testament to just what a dedicated and resourceful team can do, even on limited resources. It’s a fine example of the ability to make a beautiful, stunning game without all the mordern do-dads and ho-has.

    Come to think of it, I really should play it more; it’s the game I’ve played through more times than any bar one – the superlative HOMM3 – another beautiful game, a playable game, a masterful game even 11 years on.

  13. Seth says:

    Huh? The game was bug-free.

  14. luckystriker says:

    Freespace 2 and Starcraft. My 2 favorite games of all time. I urge all of you to revisit FS2 with the open-source project graphic updates. It’s awesome.

  15. EBass says:

    Freespace 2 is without doubt one of the best games of all time. If you put a gun to my head I’d probably say its my favorite game of all time. Its just………… flawless, in every way. One of the games that makes you glad to your heart to be a true died in the wool PC gamer, i.e one of the games we don’t really get nowerdays.

    • Blackberries says:

      Agreed. A gem, and probably my favourite game of all time too.

  16. Svenska says:

    Can you play The Babylon Project on a Mac? I was looking around and it didn’t look like it, but I wanted to make sure.

    I’m preparing to be sad.

    • The E says:

      Sure you can, but it takes a bit of manual digging. The TBP team, for whatever reason, did not provide a package of their data bundled in a Mac-friendly format, so you’re going to have to extract the files from the Windows installer (preferably from the DVD version), add the Mac-compatible SCP executables, the Zathras mod to fix some issues the TBP team didn’t fix, and enjoy the game. For further questions and installation guides, visit link to hard-light.net

  17. bill says:

    Nice comparison.

    I tried playing starcraft for the first time last year, after getting it cheap from some 2nd hand store. I agree that it was totally unplayable.
    I never played it back in the day, and i’ve never been a big RTS player, but i’ve played a few… starting with warcraft 2 when i was young.

    My young self probably could have played it, my current self got fed up after about the 4th mission and gave up. I wanted to see where the story went, but the game was fiddly, repetitive and hard work.

    My problem with Freespace 2 is different… I don’t have a PC joystick. Nowhere in tokyo seems to sell PC joysticks. Very few people these days have them.
    I bought it on GOG and tried playing it with a gamepad… but the feeling just isn’t the same… it makes it feel lightweight and like Jedi Starfighter or something.
    I wish my joystick wasn’t in the UK…

  18. fuggles says:

    Allegedly from the patch notes you can play FS2 Open in co-op. Not yet tried it though. Is there any chance an RPS member can chase down the writer and find out where the story was going? I always had a theory and I’d love to know how far off I was.

    • Blackberries says:

      It’s not the same thing, but I’m fairly certain that you can obtain the FreeSpace design documents somewhere on the internets – they’re filled with writing and concept art about the story, scripts for cutscenes never included ,etc. Possibly only for the first game – it’s been a while since I saw them.

      To be fair the story of FreeSpace was never especially original. It was all in the telling (boy, was it told fantastically).

    • aldo_14 says:

      The Volition Freespace (1) website has a reference bible intended for authors (I guess fanfic more than serious ones), but it’s essentially an expansion of the first games story. The developers claimed not to have a story mapped out when they were asked, but they (understandably) buggered off and stopped talking to the Freespace community after the source code was released.

    • Blackberries says:

      Ah yes, it’s the reference bible I was thinking of, not design docs.

  19. Kouvero says:

    This reminded me of the acclaimed best space combat simulator with Newtonian physics, I-War 2: Edge of Chaos.

  20. Nesetalis says:

    oh boy oh boy freespace 2.. That game was one of the big inspirations for many ideas ive had over the years…
    There was nothing so satisfying as watching the colossus and shivan dreadnaught duke it out.. huge beams scorching space…
    my favorite moment was when i misunderstood a mission and thought I was supposed to take out the dreadnaught (not flee) and i kept wailing on this invincibile dreadnaught.. killing each and every turret.. even took out each beam weapon.. :P that was a blast.

    i played with a joystick.. but in this day and age any game i make would have full joystick configuration and full mouse configuration.. Freelancer did the mouse best I think.. freespace did the joystick best.

    having a cockpit is less necessary to me than some people, but I was always under the impression that you were doing everything from within a hud environment, not looking out some window… windows in spaceships = dumb… especially space ships meant for combat.

  21. sinister agent says:

    I only even heard of Freespace by reading about it on gog. I bought it last year, and it was indeed tremendous fun, and a genre that I’ve sorely missed playing – the last game I can even think of that was actually about proper space combat dogfighting was Wing Commander Prophecy. Wing Commander was a bloody good series on the whole, but there’s been practically nothing else that I know about.

    I-War was promising, but I never got to play it for long.

    The undercover missions in particular were a terrific idea, and I’ve always loved games that don’t give you an immediate ‘game over’ if you screw up a mission, but instead, take the plot somewhere else, even if it’s only on a slight detour. Even the original Wing Commander did that, back in 1622, and it arguably meant that screwing up sometimes actually enhanced the game.

    The only criticism I have of Freespace 2 is that you never have a name, are are always simply “alpha one” or whatever it was. I understand the trade-off between the player feeling like it’s really them in the cockpit and having to play as an unlikeable cretin, but it’s a shame that couldn’t be a bit less dissatisfying.

    Definitely one of the best games on GOG.

  22. futureshock says:

    You can play FreeSpace 1 in FSOpen2 ! You can play Wing Commander, Battlestar Galactica and B5. And you can do it on a MAC. a NT-Box or on Linux. You can play via keyboard (only), gamepad, joystick or trackpoint.
    In addition: Flying coop with 7 or 11 friends on the same LAn or via Internet is IMO the best part.

  23. mpk says:

    Bought Freespace 2 after reading this article, started downloading the Freespace open thingy too… and nine hours later it’s still downloading. Dude, wtf?

  24. Jakkar says:

    <3

  25. Adam Whitehead says:

    FREESPACE 2 was not buggy on release at all. It was pretty demanding hardware-wise, so your PC was probably not up to the job (mine barely was). The plot was substantially different.

    The serious SF sim has basically had its day. FS2 didn’t do well, X-WING ALLIANCE didn’t do well and STARLANCER didn’t do well, despite all three being good games. The genre was basically over and people didn’t want to spend £50 on a decent joystick for maybe five games that demanded it. A shame, but at least it went out with a bang.

  26. Laneford says:

    Damn you RPS. I now want to play FS2 despite having no time to do so.

    Has anyone played this with a (blasphemy alert) 360 Pad? Would it be up to the job? Being able to play it without buying a joystick would be preferable.

  27. GameOverMan says:

    Freespace 2 is epic, I’ve never stopped playing it, in one form or another, original game, SCP, new campaigns or standalone mods.

    The game can be controlled with a mouse without having to drag it all the time, I use PPJoy to emulate a virtual joystick with the PPJoy Mouse tool, you can map buttons and adjust the sensitivity for the X, Y and Z axes.

  28. FS2Fan says:

    This is why i use a combination of keyboard and mouse for dogfights. The mouse is simply used to give that fine touch accuracy to kill a fast moving shivan or laser down the bombs from the nahemas.

    I’ll never stop playing FS2, maybe until someone can come up with a great game like that.

  29. john says:

    Wow, the open freespace 2 installer is easily one of the worst installers I’ve used. Aside from breaking tons of UI conventions, it didn’t even install correctly because download servers were down. I tried again a few days later and they’re STILL down. And maybe I’m just stupid, but I had to use the (confusing) guide on their wiki just to know how to use the installer.

    Yeah, I’m probably a tremendous idiot. But is it worth going through all that trouble? I played an unmodded freespace 1 a while ago and didn’t think it looked particularly ugly.

  30. Gerg says:

    I bought freespace 2 off gog.com a couple months ago. Downloaded the open source project, and fired it up.

    I haven’t gobbled up a game that fast in a long time. There’s really nothing else like it.

    I’m still waiting for a space game of any kind to give the awesome sense of destruction when a capital goes critical and sends a shockwave out, destroying things around it.

    Also, DIVE DIVE DIVE! HIT YOUR BURNERS PILOT!

    Best mission ever, I did not make it the first time…

  31. Det. Bullock says:

    I didn’t have such problemes with the installer (are you using Turey’s one?), perhaps you tried it when they were doing maintenance on the server.
    I had problems the first time too, the second time I registered in the Hard-light forum and asked about the problems I was encountering.
    Anyway try it, it loooks faboulous.

  32. kree says:

    There is nothing better and more epic in the space sim genre than FreeSpace. With FS2_Open, it easily busts even modern game in terms of eyecandy, yet doesnt require latest GF card. And the user made mods and campaigns are the endless resource of fun. For me, best game EVAR!

    P.S. I play it with a mouse, and it works great. Just increase sensitivity, the default is a bit too low. There is nothing better than a mouse for precise aim during dogfights and shooting down anti-capitalship bombs.

  33. Martin says:

    It is important to note that Freespace 2 was remarkable for the storyline and plot, as well as the graphics/sound/interface. After playing both FS1 and FS2, IMO this was the most notable difference–instead of having numerous missions which were, for the most part, straightforward, FS2 involves a player through in-game dialogue as well as important events, etc… Also, FS2:Open is incredibly remarkable, especially for an open-source project.

  34. kratchovil says:

    I seem to be a little late, but if anyone reads this, I’ve got to recommend the “Just Another Day” Freespace mods (there are three of them). They transform the game into the greatest comedy I’ve ever seen as far as games are concerned, and the missions are fun as hell. That’s probably because JAD just provides to me what I really want: Tight mega-battles, humour and a good storyline.

  35. Ack says:

    Played FS2 with a Logitech Trackman, which was essentially the speed of a joystick with the accuracy of a mouse. Nothing else came close.

    Now I have Trackman + G13. Can’t wait to play it once again! :>

  36. Free Bingo Games says:

    Awesome game liked it very much.

  37. romansiii says:

    I have to say, this is the best PC game ever and it’s a dam shame that Freespace 3 was never made. That moment of joy as you destroyed the Ravana was gold.

  38. SuicideKing says:

    I just read this. Kieron, i love you. :*