Simulator games are often viewed as too nerdy, too technical even by avid gamers. Steep learning curve, confusing control maps, lots of technical terms. FreeSpace made all this worth is with it’s amazing story and the way it was presented.
I think I will make this into a series. Old games I would love to see remade on current-gen systems. In the last episode (since all of a sudden this is a series) I was talking about Max Payne 2, one of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played.
Today however we change the scenery to outer space.
Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War is a space fighting simulator set in the 24th century. The game was developed by Volition (Saint’s Row, Red Faction) and published by the almighty Interplay. (Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Carmageddon, and the list goes on and on.)
The game was released in 1998.
Not your average sim
I will start with a bold statement. FreeSpace is easily the best space fighting simulator ever made. And I played some. But nostalgia aside, nothing compares to the storytelling of this gem.
The base of the story is that humans (Terrans) and the Vasudans, an alien race are at war. However in 2335, in the fourteenth year of this conflict reports arise of a new, mysterious and highly violent race.
In the intro of the game (please watch it below, because it’s amazing) we see a lone pilot escaping from a massacre, where the new race obliterated both the Terran and Vasudan forces. His speech is erratic, he begs for assistance from a confused dispatcher of the Riviera space station. She does not believe him as his story makes no sense, but within minutes they all meet their doom.
This new race, the Shivans are technologically far more advanced and are taking no hostages. They attack any unit on sight, their only goal is to destroy.
Realizing the scale of the threat, the Terrans and Vasudans declare ceasefire, and they turn against the Shivans together.
Until now, this is nothing groundbreaking, however FreeSpace rolls the narrative of the story wonderfully. It makes you feel how dangerous, how advanced Shivans are without you ever leaving the cockpit of your vessel.
The campaign goes through a very detailed and captivating story. In the first missions you fight Vasudans, like business usual. You are in war with them, you are sent on missions against them. Then rumours emerge of this new race.
Eventually on one of your missions you encounter the Shivan for the first time.
Meeting them for the first time is terrifying. Your targeting system is unable to lock on their ships, and even when you land a hit, the ship is protected by a forcefield. A technology that is unknown for both Terrans and Vasudans at that time.
You don’t get to finish the fight, you are ordered to retreat. The enemy is simply too strong.
Over the course of the next couple of missions, we are presented with a very immersive science-fiction story. Command needs to find a way to fight these invaders, and you are in the frontline of the missions that make this possible.
In order to be able to lock target on their ships, you need to capture some Shivan cargo vessels, to salvage their technology. In the meantime, the now allied Terran and Vasudan scientists are working on the forcefield of their own.
Later on in the game you need to capture one of the Shivan fighters. You do this so you can infiltrate one of their battalions, scanning their ships unnoticed. It is a nerve-wrecking stealth mission played from the cockpit of an alien vessel.
What I really like in this kind of storytelling is, that it creates a sense of threat and danger. Your enemy is not just a big ship. Your enemy is a different type of technology and way of thinking.
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.H.P. Lovecraft
Your race is powerless, but through cunning missions you acquire a fighting chance against them. You track and disable ships, steal technology, infiltrate enemy outposts to learn of this new enemy.
One of the most chilling parts of the game is learning how Shivans even look like, as you have zero information on their anatomy.
And science-fiction is rooted in this idea. Discovering, learning of new things, facing unknown dangers.
Big bad spaceship
I said above that you are not just simply facing a big spaceship. Well about that, you actually do.
The name SD Lucifer sent shivers down my spine at the age of 12. SD Lucifer (SD stands for Shivan Destroyer class) is the flagship destroyer of the Shivan forces. It is colossal, heavily weaponized, and invulnerable to any of your weapons. Its shield is simply too strong.
It can pulverize entire space stations, Terran Destroyers, and even bomb planets.
Basically it is the main antagonist of the game. A force of nature so to speak that dominates any battlefield. If it shows up, you warp out as fast as you can, as you stand no chance.
Or at least until the very end.
Towards the end of the game, scientists make a discovery of a long extinct race, the Ancients. They were annihilated by the Shivans several thousands of years ago.
However they turn out to be your saviours from beyond the grave. Before fading into extinction, they made a discovery. Shivan battleships are unable to operate their shields in wormholes.
Your task is clear. You need to follow the SD Lucifer into a wormhole while it is on its route to Sol, the terrain homeland. While there, you have a limited time to destroy its reactors, stopping it just in time before it wipes out Earth.
Again, science across ages is the only thing that can stop imminent annihilation.
Beautiful ship design
One of the strong points of FreeSpace is its aesthetics. The ship designs are marvellous, actually they motivated me as a teenager to dabble in 3D modelling.
Each race has different classes of ships. The fighters are slimmer, easily manoeuvrable spacecrafts, while bombers are bulkier, slower, but they are able to carry heavy loadout. Then of course there are cruisers, destroyers, space stations. The scale of some of these vessels is gargantuan.
Terran ships are practical in their appearance and they are usually named after Gods and figures of Norse and Greek mythology.
Vasudan ships are more aerial, artistic in their appearance. They are christened after Egyptian gods. They are a bit similar to Protoss designs from StarCraft.
Finally, Shivan ships look more intimidating. They are pitch black with red circuitry and lights running along their surface. Their design in asymmetrical, and they got their names after mythological beasts or Biblical demons. Lucifer, Sathanas, Lilith. You get the idea. They are evil.
Loadouts and squads
Another great aspect of the game is customizing your loadout.
Each spacecraft has a different number of hardpoints and they can be equipped with different types of weaponry.
A light fighter will use missiles, lasers, weapons with lower energy consumption. A bomber will focus on rockets, but when you go against cruisers, or destroyers, you can equip actual thermo-nuclear bombs. And you got to be careful with the blast radius, as you can easily nuke yourself.
Moreover as you advance in the story, newer and better weapons will be unlocked as the research and development department invents new weapons of mass destruction.
In most missions you are commanding a squadron which you can customize as you wish. You can choose what spaceships should accompany you, you can edit their loadout and you can even designate a reinforcement squadron.
Features like this really make me feel that FreeSpace was well ahead of its time. Keep in mind, that this game was released in ’98.
You can adjust everything to your own playstyle, increasing replayability.
And if this was not enough, you can actually command your squad during missions. And you will use this option many times. Attack my target, protect me, attack a certain subsystem (comms, drive, weapons, reactor, etc.) of an enemy ship. You will have missions where you need to capture a vessel. So you need to destroy its engines without causing too much damage to the hull.
It is quite a lot of micromanagement, but it is seamless, and greatly improves on the immersion.
Controls and functions
I’ll admit, that I hated mapping the keys of FreeSpace. It has a myriad of controls. You can match the speed of the target, cycle through subsystems, and allocate energy between your subsystems.
You have controls for your communications with your squad and reinforcements, you can use the afterburner to give you a speed boost, etc.
It does not sound difficult when reading it, but in practice it takes some time to get used to it.
But after all, you are piloting a war machine. As a pilot you need reflexes, focus and multitasking. This is what keeps the game exciting and makes you feel fulfilled.
It deserves a remake
Again, while writing I became super nostalgic and I want a remake of this badly. Sadly, it is unlikely it will happen. There are no negotiations whatsoever about rebooting this amazing series. Because it is actually a series, FreeSpace 2 is the followup of the events of the first game.
Unfortunately the graphics are pretty dated by now, so I would really love to relive this experience on current-gen systems.
Like I said its story is amazing, but where it really shines is the presentation of the story. You can feel what is at stake, there is a tangible sense of threat.
But most importantly your actions and missions make sense. They move the story forward. It is not simply a battle after another. You are there to protect refugees, steal technology, infiltrate posts, learn about the enigmatic Shivans. You have to find a way to defeat them.
No space sim had the same effect on me ever since I first played this game. It is a one of a kind masterpiece, a true science-fiction story through the eyes of a space pilot.
Have you heard of FreeSpace before? I feel like it is an utterly underrated and forgotten game. What other old game you’d like to be remade?
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