The space flight sim genre has for many years been a polarized affair, with Origin's Wing Commander series on one side and Lucasarts' Star Wars franchise on the other. The real ground-breaker, however, was Chris Roberts' original Wing Commander and its protagonist, Christopher Blair, not to mention a fine supporting cast of wingmen NPCs.
The personalities of Blair and his fellow pilots grew as the first title expanded into a full series of excellent games, each one almost a hallmark, a true event to fans of the genre, with characters like Spirit, Angel, Paladin, and Maniac becoming almost as familiar, as comfortable to gamers as Saturday afternoon, onscreen serial heroes.
Each new installment therefore came to feel like a welcome reunion with old friends, and as some characters became survivors and others statistics you realized that the storytelling talent behind the series had accomplished what many in this industry attempt yet few achieve: emotional involvement from players.
Devoted fans of the Wing Commander milieu will probably never forget Spirit's sad choice, Maniac's antics, or Angel's tragedy, nor will we forget that Christopher Blair, old Blue Hair's, final fate has yet to be played out before our eyes. And, with Chris Roberts' departure from Origin years ago and the company's new market strategy toward persistent, online gaming, it may be quite some time before the next chapter in the Wing Commander saga is written.
Into the Breach
So into this void steps Volition and their Freespace games. How does the series fare against the aged classics? Quite well, I must admit. Though I never played the first title, Descent: Freespace-The Great War, the past week has seen me glued in front of my home system, my left hand tightly gripping the trusty old MS Sidewinder 3D Pro and feet firmly planted on my CH pedals, as I fought my way through Freespace 2's excellent campaign.
And while I haven't forgotten about Blair and company, as this review's opening paragraphs bear obvious witness, I freely, gladly, acknowledge that the sci-fi, space combat sim genre is no longer a market dominated by only two franchises. There's a new kid in town (or should I say port?), and he's carrying a big stick (beam cannon?).
Having never played the first Freespace title, I was somewhat thankful that its sequel's introduction serves as a nice, cursory overview of its background and then segues into the present, some 30 years after the Great War. The GTVA (Galactic Terran-Vasudan Alliance) drove off the mysterious, malevolent Shivan attack that initiated the Great War and has since spent the last three decades rebuilding, expanding, and strengthening their combined borders.
Freespace 2 picks up the story's thread at this point, starting the first few missions with a growing rebellion of humans led by Admiral Bosch, a veteran of the Great War. This civil conflict threatens to spread throughout the GTVA if not quickly suppressed, and while battling the rebels an ancient jump gate is discovered in a nearby system, a doorway through which the Shivans predictably launch yet another attack against the alliance.
The GTVA now faces a two-front war. This is the opening act on the stage upon which Freespace 2 is played out, and those who wish to learn more must themselves climb into a cockpit and battle their own way through the campaign-no spoilers here!
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The GTI Ganymede is the Alliance’s newest repair and resupply facility. Ganymede installations are currently deployed behind the front lines in the Vega, Vasuda, and Capella systems. Each Ganymede can service up to five warships simultaneously. Repairs of any type or degree can be made here, on any ship in the GTVA fleet. Ganymedes also provide retrofitting services, enabling Allied Command to extend the lifetime of aging ships by upgrading weaponry, systems, and engines.
Freespace 2 advances the space combat genre in quite a few ways. While I still miss the emotional involvement generated by a strong protagonist and a fleshed-out pantheon of supporting characters, the gameplay elements in Volition's latest title are light years beyond the competition. For starters, the campaign's mission requirements are far more varied and interesting.
While often consisting of an attack/defend nature, the missions frequently change in mid-course as new or unexpected developments arise, giving the linear campaign a more dynamic, more realistic feel. Rarely are wars as clear-cut as the static missions created by most game developers. Moreover, each mission is accompanied by a briefing that clearly defines its beginning objectives; these detailed briefings also act as the narrator furthering the game's story.
Another way in which this game differs is the level of responsibility placed upon a single pilot. In Wing Commander, you were often required to save the entire Confederation single-handedly; in Freespace, you have your standard squadrons of co-pilots but you also have a fleet of capitol ships that take a far more active role in determining the final outcome of large engagements.
In fact, these massive capitol ships are a feature highly touted by Volition's marketing department, and rightfully so. No other space combat sim has given me the feeling of being caught up in an epic conflict like Return of the Jedi's Battle of Endor. . .flak barrages threaten to shake your fighter apart and beam weapons fill your cockpit's view as they bring mass destruction to bear on their targets. I've noticed that you complete quite a few missions as the last of your squadron still flying, but at least you're no longer fighting entire fleets by yourself.
Go to Part II