Freespace 2 was released in 1999, over a decade ago. It's an interesting case because, for one, it's never been surpassed. Since then, we've had the odd Freelancer, or X3, but they've not touched on the same high notes, and the things they've done well aren't the things Freespace 2 even attempted. It's peerless, which means it's in a bit of a vacuum when it comes to aging. Or would be, if things had remained the same. But I'll get to that.
On release, it was a critical darling, as well it should be, but it went down in flames, flopping commercially and sounding a death knoll for the genre as a whole. Volition went on to make Red Faction and Saint's Row, and left their space-faring days behind them. And that would be that, except, in a flair of generosity, they made the source code to Freespace 2 available to all in 2002, essentially handing over the reins of space simulation to the fans.
Play Freespace 2 today and you'd be forgiven for laughing incredulously when told that it's over a decade old. Half a decade old, even. Two or three years, perhaps, but the game has been under such heavy cosmetic surgery, under such skill and passion, that this isn't a 10-year-old game anymore. This is the best space sim ever released given the due care and attention it so rightly deserved, to make it an experience that looks as good as it plays. The Freespace 2 Source Code Project is genuinely incredible.
Beam cannons cut into capital ships, paused for a moment by the hull before they come charging out the other side in an explosive, flaming lance that lights up the void. Missile trails arc delicately before they home in on your aspect lock. Small fires litter ships like blemishes, ruining that perfect, pristine exterior with the pockmarks of battle. And, when they're on their last legs, huge cruisers and juggernauts shudder with crackles of electricity, seeming to be the only thing keeping them together.
Don't get me wrong; when Freespace 2 was released, it was beautiful. But as with everything, beauty is a subjective, comparable thing, and the unrelenting onslaught of graphical power left it behind. The modding scene has been playing catchup ever since, introducing things like normal mapping, and spectral lighting. All the tricks that modern games use, retrofitted into a 10-year-old engine.
Near the end of the 24th Century, the Galactic Terran-Vasudan Alliance (GTVA) is putting the last few stragglers of the Neo-Terran Front rebellion to rest. For the first few missions of the game, you're fighting ships not too dissimilar from your own, dogfighting with bombers and fighters or targeting the specific subsystems of capital ships to leave them open to attack from your own space-faring behemoths.
The brilliance comes in how the game treats objectives. They're not win conditions, and they're basically treated as best-case scenarios. You're going to get screwed over out there, in the nothingness of space, and quite often it's not going to be your fault. Given a convoy of five ships, you'll be lucky to make it to your destination with even half intact. Suffering no losses is going to get you a medal, not just the ability to go on to the next level. It's about acceptable losses. So instead of getting frustrated each time you fail to protect a capital ship because it means you have to start again, the blow of that loss is suddenly felt, purely because you can continue. You let that ship down, and it's not coming back.
Then, the entire second act is centred around a mysterious Nebula that's on the other side of an enigmatic artificial jump gate.
There are a few reasons the nebula is clever. For one, it finally gives you a sense of speed that's usually lacking. Stars aren't the best velocity landmarks, but when you're in layers of fog that make it difficult to see your wingmen, suddenly you get a sense of exactly how fast these ships are going, as clouds of gas fly past your windscreen. Not to mention, you finally realise quite how colossal some of the ships you're tangling with are.
Capital ships are big. You're constantly told about the thousands on board are dying in a mixture of fire and vacuum when you fail to protect one of your friendlies, but even when you're up close and personal with them, they're only mildly impressive. Once you're in the nebula, though, everything changes. You can only see the tip of the long, phallic spaceship, and it's then that you realise this thing is a mile long. Then, 10 minutes later, a Shivan Dreadnought rocks up, and everything, even the biggest corvette, becomes infinitesimal.
It's terrifying, that moment. It restructures everything you thought about the game, everything you thought about the war that you were fighting, and makes you just curl up in a scared little wreck in the back of your cockpit. When this thing jumped in, my screen was suddenly filled up with a huge angry shaft of black and red. It was big, but it wasn't terrifying. It was just big, until I realised that this wasn't the hull of a ship. It was just one of four beam cannons. It was just a gun.
It's doing this so that when you return to normal space, when you have to kill this huge bastard, you understand quite how huge it is. Quite how mammoth your task is. It's amping things up in a way that it couldn't otherwise. It's providing you with a size map so you can abandon hope and just wish you could get the hell out of here.
And it makes such a big deal about that one kill, piling on the relief as you escape the explosion of its death rattle, even giving you a little breather afterwards, that when it slaps you in the face with the huge wet fish that is nine more dreadnaughts, you're about ready to quit. Back away from the computer, uninstall the game, and punch the face of anyone who ever mentions a Sathanas Class Dreadnaught again.
But you don't, because the game has built you up as it's been summarily stripping you down. It's given you balls almost as big as the ones swinging between its Corvette sized legs. It's turned you into a fighter pilot of the GTVA.
You've refined your loadouts. You've gravitated to a certain class of bomber, a specific type of interceptor. You've learned the nuance of each different missile and bomb, you know how long to hold off through the flak, until you let that baby go and take out the biggest, baddest beam cannon you ever did see. You're a leaf on the wind, watch you soar.
Everything builds to that final moment, when the GTVA is burning every bridge it can find, just wanting to stop the aggressors, not beat them.
If you ever needed proof of the courage and conviction of Volition in making this game, you need look no further than the ending. It doesn't need an epilogue, it doesn't even give you an epitaph. It just dumps you out at the menu and lets you mull it over. The ending is an exclamation point in the middle of a sentence, final and complete. Anything more would detract from the power of that forceful punctuation.
That's Freespace 2, but that's not the end of the story.
The events of the first game, Descent: Freespace, culminate with the destruction of the Sol jumpnode. So the GTVA, and the millions and billions of humans that are part of it, are cut off from Earth. There's a sequel there, but Volition isn't the developer to make it. In fact, it's already been made.
Blue Planet is a mod that takes up that mantel. It tells the story of the return to Earth, and extrapolates from the hinted Hindu overtones of naming a destructive, implacable race 'Shivans'. It might seem odd for a space sim to get into questions of godhood and religion (although less so after Battlestar Galactica), but this is space opera, and it's nothing if not known for tackling macro-ideas.
Through some freak of subspace travel, the fleet of ships tasked with making first contact with Earth are diverted into an alternate universe, where the first Great War didn't go so great for Earth, instead leaving it a charred, volcanic mess. Humanity all but wiped out, the campaign follows the exploits of Commander Bei, exploring ideas of transcendence and reincarnation while at the same time letting you shoot lots and lots of spaceships, with ever more powerful and satisfying weaponry.
It's just as much of an homage to Freespace 2 as it is its own narrative, with nebulas making a welcome return, while some of the greatest set-pieces receive nods and re-imaginings. It's not until about halfway through, with the introduction of the Vishnans, a 'maintainer' race, that Blue Planet starts to come into its own, presenting a far larger set of themes and ideas than Freespace 2 exhibited.
There's less of the military commentary, but at the same time it provides a much grander story, with the displaced GTVA fleet aiding humanity's survivors while trying to find a way home. Naturally, they do find their way back to their reality, but it's hardly to the welcome they're were expecting to give the Sol System...
That's Age of Aquarius, the first part of The Blue Planet mod. The second part, War In Heaven, details the conflict between the GTVA and the Sol forces, putting you in the shoes of a rookie pilot on the Earth side, faced with killing pilots who are similarly in the dark as to why they're even fighting the battle. Neither side is right, and the constant, unrelenting reinforcement of that fact in the mission briefings and radio chatter makes things... uncomfortable, to say the least.
It's the other side of the coin, focusing on the ambiguity and blind nature with which orders are followed that was so successfully touched on in the Freespace 2 campaign, where Age of Aquarius so excellently embellished the awe and power of the game's more dramatic moments. By separating them they're allowed to be much more deeply investigated, framed in different conflicts so as not to bleed into one another.
This is supposed to be a retrospective, looking back at a game that was brilliant through a nostalgia-tinted gaze, but Freespace 2 isn't an old game. It was old, over a decade ago, kicked out the door and forgotten weeks later like most game releases, but that's not the same game you can play today. It still costs the same as a 10-year-old game, but development never stopped.
Sure, it changed hands, moved from a dedicated team to anyone who wanted a look in, but the things that have been done are testimony to the fact that passion for a universe and a game can get you a hell of a long way. Freespace 2 isn't as good as it's ever been - it's better. Much, much better.