One small step for space combat sims, or a giant leap for PC gaming? Find out for yourself with our exclusive Freespace 2 review!
Along For The Ride
Freespace 2 is the sequel to Conflict Freespace, a space combat sim set 32 years after the Great War fought against the Shivans in the original game.
Still out of contact with Earth, the Terran-Vasudan alliance is dealing with a civil war thanks to the Neo-Terran Front, a rebel fascist group lead by genocidal psychopath Admiral Bosch.
The plot is full of twists and turns, including treachery and spies, archaeological digs, apparent collusion between Terran leaders and Bosch, and the arrival of the Shivans...
It keeps you guessing - just when I thought the game was drawing to a close everything went pear-shaped, and the alliance was back on the defensive again.
Unfortunately this is also one of the game's biggest problems. Often you will be winning a mission, only to have a massive alien warship suddenly jump into the middle of the battle and wipe out half your fleet as you scramble to escape the carnage.
Because of this the game feels like one of those old-time "interactive movies" at times, as you really have little or no control over the course of the war.
There is a branching mission structure, but the branches are stunted and widely spaced. If you fail a mission, you are usually forced to keep replaying it until you get it right.
At least if you die five times trying to complete a single mission the game will let you skip it and get on with the war. I never resorted to this, but it was very tempting at times...
By the end of the game I was only interested in making it home in one piece - I didn't really care about the war, and as my wingmen always had names like "Alpha 2" and "Beta 1" it was hard to form any kind of attachment to them.
Developing characters is one thing that the Wing Commander games do really well, but in Freespace 2 there's just an endless supply of nameless cannon fodder. It's all very impersonal, and you really don't give a damn when one of them dies.
Which is lucky, because none of your wingmen will make it home. Maybe I am just a really bad squadron leader, but I was almost always the only friendly fighter left flying at the end of a mission.
They're not much use while they are alive either - you often see your wingmen smashing into each other (and you), or trying to embed themselves in the side of a capital ship.
They don't seem to know how to make the most of their equipment either, in one case firing missiles and lasers at a massive warship instead of using the bombs they were given for that specific mission.
It's not all an exercise in futility though. The plot is a little constraining at times, but it keeps the game moving along and gives you a wider picture of what's going on.
The game starts with a nice gentle learning curve, and there is even a series of optional training missions mixed in with the combat sorties. These teach rookie pilots everything they need to know, all without having to look at the manual once.
There are also some optional missions for military intelligence (now there's an oxymoron) giving you the chance to fly for the rebel NTF, and later on to search for a stranded rebel craft lost in a storm deep inside a massive nebula.
This nebula is the setting for several of the game's more interesting missions, and looks absolutely beautiful. Thick colourful swirls of gas obscure your view, leaving you flying through a blinding psychadelic fog.
It also effects your sensors, meaning that ships loom out of the smog without warning. It makes for real seat-of-your-pants flying, and these are some of the best missions of the game.
Even the normal areas of space look great though, with plenty of background planets, stars, moons and gas clouds. Explosions and shock waves are gloriously over the top, and the spacecraft are amongst the best I've seen.
The capital ships are impressive for their sheer scale if nothing else - the Colossus is 6 kilometers long, and you can get lost flying around the Shivan juggernauts. You can't fail to be impressed by the sight of a pair of massive warships cutting each other into little pieces with devestating beam weapons.
Sadly the capital ships are a little wasted, as the flight controls and physics have barely evolved since the original Wing Commander, released about ten years ago. Given that Freespace is an offshoot of the awesome Descent series, this is a little disappointing.
The only real innovation in the controls department is a "match speed" function, which is totally useless in practice. What they really needed was a "match velocity" function, matching your target's speed and direction.
Without velocity matching, momentum, FPS-style strafing, or even reverse thrusters, manoeuvring over the surface of a moving warship is virtually impossible. The only way to attack one is to fly straight at it, guns blazing. Which isn't a terribly good idea.
So much negativity... You must think I hate this game? But I don't.
The story is intriguing, the graphics are beautiful, the training missions are a welcome addition, the controls are solid and responsive if a little unimaginative, and the nebula battles make for a nice change of pace as well as looking drop dead gorgeous.
But playing the game makes you realise just how little effect any one pilot has on a war, and how futile and dehumanising the whole thing is. I'm sure it wasn't meant to, but there you go...
The world's first pacifist space combat sim? Release Date - available now
The only real technical problems I had with the game were all caused by the CDs...
Half way through the game it told me to switch from CD2 to CD3. I switched the disks, only to get a Blue Screen Of Death complaining that it couldn't find the CD.
I waited for the drive to finish whirring and pressed continue. Same again. I put CD2 back in. No joy. In the end, after about a dozen BSODs I managed to shut down the game and return to Windows. Oops.
Luckily the game autosaves after every mission, so when I restarted the game with CD3 in the drive it booted up fine and continued where it had left off.
There was also some pretty bad stuttering during mission briefings as the game tried to grab background music, voice overs, and graphics from the CD. My Creative Labs 36x CD-Rom drive couldn't handle all of that at once, and started making painful whining and crackling sounds...
So, my tip of the day is do a full install! It might swallow up 1Gb of your hard drive, but it will save you all kinds of hassle.
Download The Demo
If you want to try before you buy, check out the Freespace 2 demo which weighs in at a mildly hefty 60Mb.