1. Freespace 2 (1999)
Was it Freespace 2 that almost killed the space combat genre? Some like to think it was the game’s commercial failure that did the damage, that in selling just 30,000 copies in six months the lifeless wreck Interplay floated in space was left as a warning to others; that there was no interest in space combat games any more and that if anyone persisted in making one, their sales would suffer the same fate.
If it ever was a wreck, we now know that Freespace 2 wasn’t left unoccupied for very long, and that the message in the static was soon changed to offer a place of refuge, a rallying point for gamers uninterested in a New World Order of terrorist takedowns.
It’s inaccurate to laud Descent as the Doom of space shooters. Freespace 2 however does bear comparisons with a celebrated FPS, namely Half-Life 2. It’s not simply that Freespace 2 is a highly accomplished sequel to what was arguably the finest game in its genre, but that it has over the years become the source of so much creativity. There may never be an equivalent built with FS2_Open that will go on to enjoy the same status as Dear Esther, Garry’s Mod or Portal, but for genre fans Diaspora, The Babylon Project, Blue Planet and Wing Commander Saga have been some of the brightest releases in what has, until the last couple of years, been a veritable dark age.
The thing is, as with Half-Life, standard issue Freespace 2 remains largely unchallenged. Considering it was barely a year in development and many of Volition’s ideas for ground attacks and super weapons went unrealised, it offers a number of improvements on the original game, notably a 3D engine able to handle space battle on an unprecedented scale, both in terms of the number of vessels on screen and their size. Prior to Freespace 2 capital ships were largely treated as static backgrounds, but now they were part of the foreground, one that fizzed and crackled with explosive energy like never before. Although the online SquadWar portion of the game never really took off, the multiplayer code was solid and smooth – little wonder that it, along with the 3D engine, has provided the foundation for so many development efforts since.
Of course Freespace wasn’t perfect. Nothing ever is. Wingmen were nameless and expendable and there isn’t the connection with AI buddies that one experienced in other space shooters, but what the Freespace games did better than any other was put the player in the midst of a series of epic battles, fighting against the odds versus a relentless and unknowable foe. The spectacular weapons, the frenetic and desperate movement that remains a perfect marriage of UI and controller and graphics that were so in advance of everything 17 years ago that, even unmodded today, the game can maintain the fantasy. Even in this new space age, one of procedurally-generated universes and forceless feedback joysticks, Freespace 2 stands as a titan of the genre. The Galactica among Battlestars. The game that has lead the genre home.
Notes: There’s been talk of a Freespace 3 for some years. Derek Smart once threatened to acquire the license, before news that Stomby Bot (Heavy Gear reboot chaps) might have picked it up instead. Today the license is back with Interplay, although there’s no evidence that that old publisher is using it to do more than tally up old games sales.
Where can I buy it: There are lingering issues with getting the game to run in Steam so get the GOG version. Be sure to augment your purchase with the freely available FS_Open immediately after acquisition.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Arriving a bit too late to provide meaningful backup, Starlancer is the Iceman to Freespace’s Maverick. A highly competent fighter on its own, but a bit too conceited and thus not nearly as likable. Wing Commander: Prophecy is probably worth a spin in lieu of Starlancer’s digital unavailability.