From the pages of the past! Ads of yesteryear! – FreeSpace 2

This was the first page, and when you turned it…

…you were given a face full of giganticus juggernauts duking it out with little guys like yourself trying to dance in between their beam weapons. So awesome.

X-Wing Alliance wasn’t the last surprise of 1999. Volition would also roll out a sequel of their own by the end of the year in September and as with Alliance, I had no inkling that it would also be their final hurrah to the space sim genre as many PC players knew it. It would also become an iconic classic that would go on to be one of those “go to” titles that best represented the golden age of the genre, a game that polished everything about its formula while embarking on a grand adventure in deepest space. The game was FreeSpace 2.

FreeSpace 2 is an incredible game. Although the intro movie doesn’t have the kind of flashy production values that Origin and Lucasarts had bolted to the beginning of their own space operas, or that the box included anything extra like a booklet to get you into the atmosphere. Even the manual, which was fairly pagey, didn’t talk up the story at all…only the mechanics. This left everything up to the gameplay that followed along with the narrative presentation which didn’t often miss the drumbeat of impending dread created by the return of the enigmatic Shivans.

Thirty-two years have passed since the epic battle in the last game sealed the jump node to Earth, saving it from the Shivan invasion and destroying their fleet in the process. No one has seen them since then, but the human colonies of the GTA and the fleets there have been trapped on the wrong side of the galaxy in all that time.  Without a jump node, it could take decades for a ship to even get back home.

So the humans and the alien Vasudan empire, who they had allied with to defend against the Shivan threat by forming the GTVA (Galactic Terran-Vasudan Alliance), continued to build on their partnership sharing resources and know-how to prepare for the next possible invasion as well as rebuild their lives after the devastation of the Shivan onslaught. For the humans, in particular, the benefits of the alliance had also brought peace allowing their colonies to focus on survival as the “lost generation” was born and would grow up never knowing what Earth had looked like with their own eyes.

But as the back of the box asks, the Shivans are wondering what happened to their scouting party. Wait, scouting party???

The Shivans aren’t really called “Shivans”. No one knows what the hell they are. Terran intelligence just called them that to put a name on what their race was and used names like “Lucifer” and “Belial” to tag their capital ships with because they were so terrifyingly devastating. In the first Freespace, the player was caught up in a story of David and Goliath where both the Vasudans and the Terrans had to actually learn and reverse engineer some of the Shivans’ technology just to be able to hit them. After that, the Shivans brought out a ship that was codenamed the Lucifer that nothing could destroy unless it was traveling in sub-space which is where it was taken out. Both races barely survived the invasion. And that was only the starting round as they find out.

But thirty two years is a long time and the GTVA hasn’t been sitting idle. New technologies, weapons, fighter craft, and a badass super battleship bigger than anything in either the Vasudan and Terran fleet have been built to prepare for the Shivans. At least that was the idea.

Volition polished up everything from the last game. Gameplay elements remain largely the same so if you’re used to FreeSpace’s controls, you’ll jump right into the cockpit here without a second though. Training missions can also get you up to speed though they can be skipped if you just want to get right into the fight. Later in the game, you can pick what ships and loadouts you want to take with you into battle, or go with the mission suggestions instead. And just like in the last game, everything can be remapped. FRED, the FreeSpace Editor tool, is also included again for would-be designers to build their own missions along with online multiplayer.

But what about the new stuff? For one thing, the capital ships now have a new weapon to play with – beam weapons. These are the kind of “anime” beam lasers that wreck the face off of other capital ships (though they’re sort of forgiving if they hit your ship which can be a little odd). When two huge ships confront each other in battle flinging energized spears of humming death, it’s like watching something out of a WW2 naval battle.

Fighters have also gotten a few new toys of their own including swarmer missiles that anime fans might squee in joy at seeing, but aren’t just all show and are actually pretty useful. You can even call in a re-arming ship to fill your missile reserves back up in battle as long as no one is shooting at you. And the missions themselves? Nearly all of them were solid chromium and featured voice chatter over coms including cuts and briefings narrated by stars Robert Loggia as Admiral Petrarch and Ronny Cox as Admiral Aken Bosch, leader of the Neo Terran Front.

The twisting story behind the game is laid out neatly by the missions that build up to the inevitable confrontation with the Shivans that tentatively poke at the frontiers of GTVA space before delivering a hammerblow of their own.  The Neo Terran Front, opposed to the GTVA and who promote a “humans first” policy, are also causing no end of grief to the alliance leading to a number of missions in trying to stop them and their leader.

But are they really a terrorist organization that is determined to sow civil war? Volition shakes things up by allowing the player to listen in on Admiral Bosch’s philosophical musings on the Shivans which he may have discovered how to speak to. Ronny Cox’s faceless performance has also made Admiral Bosch one of those characters of unexpected depth in a game where the player is largely playing a nameless grunt participating as one pilot out of many trying their best to stem the tide of extinction. You don’t expect the kind of intellectual wandering that his character does in a game like this, but I also couldn’t help but feel pulled along the mystery in trying to find out just what he was all about.

When the Shivans finally start showing up in force, I could feel the pressure being pushed against the GTVA by their arrival as grim briefings describe heavy losses on all fronts and as battles between titanic ships flinging beams at each other become more commonplace. Squads of fighters go out to die almost as often as capital ships do and covering the retreat and passage of refugees from one jump node to the next with the eerie soundtrack following right behind you only added to the anticipation of something going horribly wrong. Would it be the Neo Terrans next? Or the Shivans? I hoped it was the Neo Terrans more often than not in moments like that.

And then there were the nebulae. As the story went on, more mysteries uncovered about the Ancients were slowly uncovered. One of these was the Knossos Gate, a colossal device large enough for huge capital ships to fly on through and jump to wherever they led. Of course, you’re sent to scout out what’s on the other side first and it’s a soup of gas and sensor scrambling static. Now I know how Kirk and Khan felt fighting in the Mutara Nebula.

Then we had to dogfight in that soup in missions involving trying to follow a breadcrumb of beacons to rescue a ship in trouble, find an enemy that may or may not be there, and rely on sensors that can generate as many ghosts as the Ghostbusters. Confusing, tough, and nerve wracking in trying to keep up with your own teammates and listen to mission control try and guide you through that, the nebulae in FreeSpace 2 dared to take players even further out on the edge of what a space sim could deliver and I loved it.

The battles became even more heated as the ending closed in and Volition delivered a crushing, bittersweet series of twists that the Shivans delivered in their near, limitless reserves. The Colossus, the greatest achievement for both the Terrans and the Vasudans, was outmatched by something far larger that had been codenamed the Sathanas. It was a ship so huge that it required a few dedicated missions to whittle down its defenses before you could even hope to destroy it. And then the Shivans brought in even more.

The climax saw the GTVA in a final, last ditch attempt to halt the Shivan advance by destroying the Gamma Draconis jump node which would seal off that part of the galaxy and keep the Shivans from advancing into inhabited space. It was then that from a far distance, the player could see a squadron of Sathanas surrounding a star, and in the furball that you’re in, you get the call to jump for home…because somehow, the Shivans and their ships have caused the star to go nova and the shockwave will be hitting your part of the system in less than a handful of minutes.

I died before I could make it to the jump node the first time because I had flown too far out in chasing down and fighting Shivans. I got an ending, and it was one where I was a heroic pilot that didn’t quite make it out but will be remembered. The next time around was a lot better now that I knew that a STAR WAS EXPLODING, and the ending for that was just as enigmatic. What were the Shivans attempting to do? Why did they attack us in the first place? But at least we stopped their advance and with the discoveries made from the Knossos Gate, the possibility exists for the GTVA to make their own jump gate capable of crossing the vast distance to Earth.

And that’s where things would forever stay. Freespace 2 never had a sequel and Volition was picked up by THQ later on due to Interplay’s own financial problems. It also suffered from extremely low sales, somewhere in the neighborhood of 83K units. That also includes numbers from the “Game of the Year” edition. That’s only a little over half as many that FreeSpace sold for.

There were several reasons for why this happened, one of which was a lack of marketing on Interplay’s part that has been cited as a reason for its laggard performance. Not a lot of people even knew it was out. Another could be that the space sim genre was simply running out of steam. Even X-Wing Alliance posted numbers that were a third off from X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, but I’ll get to that later.

However, FreeSpace 2 would leave a lasting impression that wouldn’t be forgotten more than a decade or so later. Its EULA also had this to say:

You may make copies of the Software for your personal noncommercial home entertainment use and to give to friends and acquaintances on a no cost noncommercial basis. This limited right to copy the Software expressly excludes any copying or distribution of the Software on a commercial basis, including, without limitation, bundling the product with any other product or service and any give away of the Software in connection with another product or service.

Of course, it doesn’t say that today especially now that it’s out on Good Old Games, but you can bet that this helped to keep the game alive in the hands over a new generation of pilots that might otherwise have never gotten a hold of it. The openness of the game, thanks to FRED, had also injected it with new life in the hands of a very talented modding community over at Hard Light Productions. Hard Light has plenty of links to a huge collection of mods that do almost everything ranging from bringing in Star Trek ships to full conversions such as Wing Commander: The Darkest Dawn. But if you just want to stick with the original game there’s also the FreeSpace Open project which integrates a number of enhancements including even better visuals. I reloaded FreeSpace 2 just to see how good it looked. I also had to experience the campaign all over again.

The ad posted above was made up of three pages. The first page stands alone as the intro and when you flip the page, you’ll see the two page spread filled with energy weapons smashing giant ships into expensive scrap. The number of big ships and fighters being thrown at each other in the sequel make the first game look like a warm up and the ad isn’t exaggerating too much in telling players what is waiting for them.

FreeSpace 2 had a harder edge to it than either Star Wars or Wing Commander did thanks to the grimdark of its future. Listening to the flailing desperation worked into its missions as your commander called out the latest ship to be destroyed by the enemy, finding the unexpected surprises lurking within the corpse of a dead star, and dealing with the overwhelming , Cthulhu-esque mystery and terror of the Shivans themselves layered with the eerie soundtrack made the game’s universe stand out like few others have. Throughout the game, the Shivans never lost their mystery and that only enhanced their reputation as an unstoppable galactic knee-jerk reaction, a violent response of nature than something that wanted to talk and explain itself to you.

It was Volition’s parting shot to the old school space sim genre, and perhaps one of the genre’s greatest examples. In some ways, it was also one of the last “big name” titles to emerge at the tail end of the golden age of space combat sims and a milestone marking the end of an era, though I wouldn’t know that until years afterwards. With its story unfinished and fans left wondering what was going to happen next, FreeSpace 2 had also become a reflection of the genre. Yet as its community of modders have shown, and just as its enduring legacy continues to be remembered fondly by old and new fans alike, the game, and the genre, remain far from forgotten.

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