By 1998, the space combat genre was being beaten back into the ropes. Their sales were often overshadowed by titles such as id’s Quake II, Westwood Studios’ Command & Conquer series, Activision’s dabbling with Mechwarrior, and a duo of titles from developers at Parallax – Descent and Descent II – which will become a lot more important later.
Still, it was clear that demographics were changing and the popularity of certain genres became much more appealing to large publishers eager to get a gilded piece of the growing pie as developers looked for ways to stay in business so that they could continue to do what they loved. When Parallax Software split into two companies, one of those became known as Volition and with the backing of veterans that had worked on Descent, dared to take players back into space with a little something called Freespace.
Now, both Descent games were lauded for taking the 3D revolution by the horns by burying players deep inside deadly caverns and mineshafts in a hectic, claustrophobic shoot ’em up in ships versus hordes of robotic foes. I thought they were a little on the tough side when it came to the controls, but I managed to scrap a few bots while having fun doing it. Now some of that same talent was turned towards the stars with a game that didn’t so much revolutionize the space combat genre but cobbled together a lot of what made players virtual heroes in Lucasarts’ Star Wars and Origin’s Wing Commander series.
Freespace: The Great War in 1998 was a game with a slow boil story that was a little dry when it came to presentation. Compared to its predecessors, it was like signing up for a lecture at your local college. After the chilling opening using CG actors, a chunk the story would be simply delivered through text briefings in between each mission though dynamic events and a few clever cut scenes added some padding to the setting. And I couldn’t get enough of the setting which felt as if it had a harder sci-fi grounding to it.
Prophecy hit players full in the face with alien strangeness with as much subtlety as a Blair’s Temblor Bomb blowing up Kilrah ending the war in Wing Commander III. In Freespace, things start out with a bit more subtlety easing players into the fiction that Volition has created for their piece of the galaxy and it worked.
It’s the early 24th century and humanity has found a way to take advantage of subspace nodes that allow ships to jump light years in a single stride. With this discovery, the Galactic Terran Alliance is soon formed and humanity spreads throughout the stars. Things take a turn for the worse when they run into the Vasudan Empire who, though they look very different from us, aren’t quite as alien when it comes to technology. The war has been raging for fourteen years when you jump into the fight and you soon realize that none of the ships on either side have shields. Only a few layers of armor keep you from sucking vacuum.
In the first few missions, Volition established the kind of “low-tech” approach to warfare that both sides are engaged in which was a refreshing change of pace when I started. There are no neutron guns or fancy torpedoes and phased shields. Both sides were slugging it out with what seemed to be conventional lasers and missiles. And then I got to see the capital ships.
Wing Commander Prophecy had pretty big ships, but the ones in Freespace were just as titanic – and were even larger – and the game loved to use them in what felt like classic showdowns between heavy hitters. The old emotions were still there from my experience with the newer Wing Commanders and were just as welcome when it came to making runs against these huge vessels bristling with turrets and defenses.
So there I was, doing my part for the GTA when reports start coming in on mysterious vessels showing up in space and leaving nothing alive in their wake. It was only a matter of time before a mission introduced me to these newcomers, and unlike the aliens in Prophecy, the ones that Volition cooked up were a lot more impressive from the start by how carefully staged their creeping presence was introduced into the gameplay. And how both sides tried to keep up with the threat. It’s still a lot more impressive than the whole Reaper mess that devolved in Mass Effect.
Several missions pass before you confront what the GTA have dubbed the “Shivans” after Shiva, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. They also live up to their name. For one thing, your weapons can’t lock onto them because they’re just too different from us. Secondly, they also have shields that make them immune to your energy weapons. They’re just that advanced. And they don’t talk to anyone in this game. Ever. They simply arrive, try and destroy everything in their path, and then leave. They’re that hardcore and aren’t concerned with explaining who or what they are.
Hints are eventually dropped by the game referencing a race called the “Ancients” who, thousands of years earlier, had run into the Shivans – and had apparently all died off as a result. Much of the background and story is left intentionally vague to set up different jumping points for future installments, I guessed, but there’s enough there to make Freespace’s darker future clutch at my virtual hull. As a regular soldier, it also made a lot of sense as I wouldn’t be told everything and only be left with the kind of vague information that made the rounds as gossip or speculation.
The Shivans have also come with their own heavy hitters which looked like a cross between the craggy look of the Doomsday weapon from Star Trek and something belched from Hell’s furnace with the red, glowing highlights bubbling beneath the black metal as if they were fueled with roiling, molten rock. Their fighters also put up a pretty good fight.
Freespace’s mechanical improvements also made getting around the game a breeze. Everything can be remapped splitting duties between the keyboard and the ‘stick in even more ways whether it was scrolling through targets aiming at you or allies, managing your onboard energy reserves, and keeping an eye on the radar system showing where your foes were. Targeting even broke things down into individual ship components allowing you to selectively track specific sub systems which was key when it came to de-fanging an enemy cap ship. It was clean, easy to read, and everything was literally at your fingertips. The understated colors were also a nice contrast to the somewhat flashy look of Prophecy’s, owing something to the more low-key and harder focus on the military side of things in Freespace.
Other missions involved fighting to defend tech prototypes for shielding after studying the Shivans’ tech in another mission that you also took part in earlier. A few others also revolve a traitor in the GTA and a radical faction of Vasudans called the “Hammer of Light” that aren’t too happy about the cease fire between the GTA and the Vasudan Empire even though it’s to help both sides pool together resources to fight the nigh invincible Shivans who seem to also have an intimate grasp of subspace node travel allowing them to move their fleet resources around with apparently little trouble.
The climax of the game involved a massive Shivan destroyer tagged “Lucifer” that had shown up. Multiple missions focused on both defending against its fighters and support cruisers before finally discovering its weakness from the translation of an Ancient archive. The final missions involved following the Lucifer and then intercepting it in subspace as it jumped and then taking it out before it could reach Earth. And the Lucifer was HUGE with the fight in subspace as one of the big highlight battles in the space combat genre in my book.
Some Mass Effect 3 players may get a grin out of what happens next – the destruction of the Lucifer also destroys the subspace highway between the Sol System and the GTA forces on the other side. The Sol System has been saved, but it has also been isolated from the subspace network. And that’s where the game leaves off of for the sequel.
The subtitle of “The Great War” was apt and not for the struggle between the Vasudans and the Terrans of the GTA as it had started out with. The real “war” was fast approaching from the dark reaches of space as something a lot worse than either side had pummeled each other down with. Though the story is straightforward stuff, I thought Volition did a fantastic job in building up a coherent universe for their game and surrounding it with enough subtlety that, though it could be dry at times, delivered well into the climax an enemy that deserved to be feared.
The gameplay mechanics were also polished to a fine sheen with plenty of control options. You also weren’t THE hero. Though you were assigned wings of (surprisingly skilled) pilots that you could order around, you weren’t Blair or a key Imperial pilot with a secret club membership. You were a grunt in space who did his best along with everyone else, though much like a lucky rabbit’s foot, the missions you took part in had their success largely determined by how well you did. There was also a little branching, but not much to make too much of a fuss over it. Medals and awards were also given away, and the game sported difficulty levels that allowed anyone to jump into the cockpit and feel like a seasoned veteran. All routine stuff at this point, but no less welcome.
The game was also notable for including FRED, or the Freespace Editor, allowing you to modify missions and make your own. There was even online play, though despite advertising itself as an easy way to jump into battle with other pilots across a phone line, getting there proved to be as problematic. At least the editor was fun, and relatively easy, to use and was one of the few efforts being made by a big developer to put such tools into the hands of their fans.
An expansion called Silent Threat came out later which expanded on the young alliance between the GTA and the Vasudans as it was still under threat by those that didn’t trust either side. Though the Shivans were defeated, the worst foes were still inside your own ranks.
As big as the ships were, the five page spread below announced Volition’s ambitious space combat sim in the same way. A message from studio head, Mike Kulas, was on the last page as he talked up why you should get excited over the game. To be honest, I haven’t even seen this ad until I did some digging around on finding one for Freespace. I just saw the box show up on shelves one day, though to myself “Ah, yes! Another space sim!” and took it from there.
It probably has the largest magazine ad I’ve seen so far since starting this little project and the ship doesn’t line up completely with all of the segments above. But the info is straight up true in the game except for maybe the multiplayer part which had a rocky road to travel, yet if this was all you had to go on for the game, it easily sold the case for why you should sign on with Volition for a new tour of duty in an unknown, and exciting, campaign.