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DESCENT:FREESPACE  by ... Maurice Fitzgerald  
 

When I first heard of this title I paid it little mind. I am not a fan of the Descent series of games in the least, finding them a rather painful experience much akin to a visit to the Dentist.

Yes, Iíve tried the games for as long as I could stomach them and I respect those who can hold their lunch down when playing them. I on the other hand donít favor finding my McDonalds fries on the keyboard, and popping Advil to keep my head from hurting due to the constant motion sickness movement of the game.

At E3 though I took a quick gander at this title just out of curiosity and found myself curious to know more. Hoping for a much better space sim than Interplays' last venture into this genre with Star Fleet Academy, I got myself a copy of this one.  

 

A couple of weeks ago I grabbed a copy of Freespace and found myself both surprised and a bit let down at what I found. After playing the game in both single and multi-player (which at the moment is less than sterling) I came away with a good impression, but not a deep and lasting one. As long as Lucasarts and Origin continue to dominate this genre it will take a storyline as immersive as these can produce, teamed with either similar interactivity or some open ended options, for Freespace to truly compete.

There is, however, one addition to Freespace that will give the game some longevity and that is FRED the mission editor. If Volition can get the bugs fixed with their bug ridden multiplayer, Internet players might well have a decent sim here.  
 
The limited backstory has the people of Earth heading into the vast reaches of space to form colonies and a new government, the Galactic Terran Alliance. As usual we find another race hell-bent on our destruction, the Vasudans. After 14 years of open war and no peaceful settlement in sight along comes a common enemy, the Shivans, who are determined to exterminate both races. So in an uneasy alliance we find ourselves flying and fighting alongside one another to preserve life as we know it.  


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Starting in the Wing Commander style flight deck you can click on various areas and access all the information youíll need. From here you can configure your options, check out ship specs, and start your campaigns very easily. Your briefings are very straightforward and concise but very dry. There is no interaction or that white knuckle feeling of urgency, something Origin and Lucasarts excel at bringing to the gamer. While they cover all the aspects of your upcoming mission, you can just as easily find your mission data on your in-flight HUD. So I found myself sometimes blowing right past the briefing and going straight into the missions.  

With a less than sweet taste in my mouth from the rather dry briefing set up I headed into my ship configuration screen and found a very nice drag and drop interface. The interface allows you to choose your ships and loadout rather easily, so getting prepped for a mission is a no brainer. It wasnít until I actually got into the flight that I really got interested, the graphics are VERY sweet. Once again feeling that happy buzz that accompanies nice eye candy, I headed through my first of 3 training missions. Training missions have been very nicely woven into your mission tree and are actually a nice way to handle those people like me who just wanna jump right in.  
 
Once inside your virtual cockpit you'll find the standard HUD that adorns almost all space sims, that sci-fi looking WWII fighter style HUD that straddles the border between high tech and low tech. Complete with the standard guns, missiles and shields indicators you also find some nicer, newer features.

From your HUD you can review your mission briefing and what objectives you have accomplished so far, almost like a pilots kneepad. You can also follow all the ships in your task force easily, especially those mission important ones you may need to protect. Your HUD can be customized to your preference as can just about everything in this game, which is very important to those hard core flight simmers who have a fully decked out HOTAS. (Unlike me and my rather simple keyboard and CH FS Pro :) )  
 
Once you get in flight this one really does take off, no pun intended. It seems almost as if Volition had spent most of their time working on gameplay look and feel and added the mission briefings in as an afterthought. The in-flight portion of this game gives WC a hard run for its money with varied lighting effects, lens flares and explosions that look right out of a Bruce Willis flick. The looks on this baby are impressive.

Bringing in one of the elements I enjoyed from the Lucasarts Star Wars titles, you can target specific spots on an enemy vessel, sensors, shields, guns, engines etc. These all play an important role when facing off against those big cap ships later on, and can also help you disable a ship rather easily. Another nice aspect of this targeting control is that you can also instruct your wingmen to attack those same specific targets, thatís the way itís supposed to be!  Add to this some very convincing and tough AI and you have a lot of great combat on your hands. 
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One of the big PR points of Freespace was the look and size of their cap ships. Claiming to be the biggest in any space sim on the market I was eager to see if the claim was true.


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Let me tell you this, I would HATE to have to face off against these bad boys in real-life, theyíre monstrosities the likes of which we have yet to see in a space sim. The detail level is nothing short of excellent as you traverse down the flank of one of these babies and observe guns and missile tracking you, rotating radar and just an overall feeling of reality. 
 
Seeing that you are in space you should be treated to the beauties of the universe and Freespace does just that. From beautifully rendered asteroids to softly glowing nebulae, this one scores high in the looks department. The ships themselves are things of beauty as well, with faint engine glow and missile trails (although I still love Prophecyís the best) plowing right into the side of an enemy ship, youíll feel you are there. The hollywood style explosions add the finishing touches with nice rippling shockwaves, something that I feel is a must to be a believable explosion.  

While the graphics are some of the best out there my overall feel of the game is overshadowed by the lack of backstory and no interactivity in the game. I feel no urgency, no immersion that makes me feel like Iím part of something bigger than myself. I just feel like Iím playing a space flight sim and go from mission to mission, leaving me with an arcade game feel.

The missions themselves, while sometimes challenging, are nothing more than the standard space flight sim  search and destroy and escort missions. A more involving storyline would have served this game better a and that is what the genre demands. 

Now to the biggest problem with Freespace: multiplayer. Volition has their own server from which you can play and itís rather easy to access, theyíve even included a way to patch your game through their site. While this is a nice feature, itís an omen of the state of multiplayer in this game. It just seems to me the game was pushed out the door before full multiplay testing was complete, a big no-no in todays game market.

With internet play at an all-time high and steadily increasing, thereís no excuse to put out a multiplayer that is in an ongoing Beta stage. Volition has the chance here to really be considered a player in the genre if it can give some reliable internet play, something Origin has opted to leave out of their WC series much to the chagrine of the fans of the WC series, myself included. 
  

 

I played at 28.8 and at 56k and saw no real dramatic change in gameplay, with lag a major issue. Iíve played co-op missions with other players and have found myself in absurd twist and burn fights with AI opponents that lasted in excess of 10 minutes! Now I know knife fights can last long if you have some great piloting but 10 minutes?! The worst part about it is I was seeing hits, but they were not registering. I asked my co-op partner how many kills he had and I was told 41, while I had only 6 this is after over 40 minutes of play! The obvious reason for this was lag as he was playing over a cable modem and I was at 56k. There are further patches coming out that are supposed to decrease lag but I have yet to test the latest patch. To be honest part of me is so frustrated by my initial tests I feel somewhat hesitant to spend more time being a tester.  
 
If Volition can fix the multiplay issue the game will do rather well as the mission editor included adds quite a bit of value to this game, and is about the most requested feature in all of todays games.  

For some really great action this one delivers. Overall it's a VERY fun game, it looks nice and play is very smooth. But with no depth to the story or feeling of urgency you may feel like you are playing a very sweet looking arcade title, that falls just short of being a really engrossing sim.  With a lack of storyline this one will rely heavily on mutliplayer for longevity, and if the multiplayer aspects cannot be fixed this one may well find itself selling itself short.

COMBATSIM RATING:  

Core Rating : 50  
Gameplay : 85  
Graphics : 90  
Sound : 80  
Intelligence/AI : 85 
User Interface/Mission Planner : 90  
Fun Factor : 85  
Learning Curve (in hours) : 1 hour  
Overall Rating : 81  

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Last Updated July 17th, 1998 
 

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