Saturday, April 25, 2009

Free your...um, Space



God Bless Good Old Games. GOG.com sells gone-but-not-forgotten PC favorites for the price of a happy meal, DRM-free and downloaded straight to your hard drive. If I sound like a pitch man, maybe I am. Last year, they sold me Descent 3, a cornerstone of my adolescence; a few weeks ago, they sold me Freespace 2.

If you’ve heard of the Freespace series, I’ll give you twenty bucks. Really. Unless you count Chris Roberts’ swansong Freelancer, Freespace 2 was the last of the space-sims, a genre whose pedigrees include the X-Wing/TIE Fighter series and the Wing Commander games. These games all boiled down to the same irreducible sauce: Tearing ass across the black vacuum, blowing the shit out of enemy fighters and watching massive capital ships duke it out. In all of these aspects, Freespace 2 is the genre’s zenith.

And despite a decade between its release and today, it holds up stunningly well.


In Freespace 2, you play a pilot in the United…you know what? Forget it. You play a pilot, and you advance through the ranks, rising through squadrons and fighters until you’re pretty much Our Only Hope. The story is remarkable for its engrossing writing and voice-acting, not its singular novelty. You’ve heard it all before, and paraphrasing would only do it a disservice.

Play mechanics are where Freespace 2 truly shines. Space-sims, despite taking place in space, have never truly grasped the physics of the void – in the Star Wars games, X-Wings flew much line airplanes without gravity. In the Independence War games, the grasp was a bit too stern – a touch of throttle would send you careening across the galaxy, spinning on all axis. Freespace 2 imagines the fluidity of space combat to be slippery, but accessible. Hit the afterburners, and your ship shudders reassuringly. Pull a hard left, and you drift a tad. It’s not the dizzying ballet of mayhem see in Battlestar Galactica engagements (still waiting on that one, Industry. C’mon), but it’s accessible.

By accessible, I mean you won’t get killed trying to not spin into the sun – there’s still plenty of nuance and depth to the gameplay. Your four quadrants of shields can be adjusted according to where you take the most damage, and energy subsystems – weapons, engines and shields – can be tweaked depending on your need to kill, run, or survive. A ship with energy-draining guns, for example, might put extra juice into their weapons; an interceptor might boost the engines; a bomber diving headlong into flak will want to beef up its shields. If this sounds like a lot of keystrokes, it is – it takes some getting used to, but it’s worth it.

It was a longstanding complaint against space-sims that the capital ships were never big enough – not even TIE Fighter could trump the sense of mass conveyed by the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope, where a Star Destroyer takes, like, ten minutes to thunder overhead. Freespace 2 captures that enormity. The larger capital ships stretch for kilometers, and to see two dreadnoughts duking it out with fusillades of beam weapons and torpedoes is breathtaking even by today’s standards.

Yeah, Freespace 2 is well worth your 5.99 – but if it’s so great, why couldn’t it keep the genre alive? By 1999, people had already stopped caring. The first previews for Warcraft 3 were out., and games like Starlancer and X-Wing Alliance weren’t seeing the blockbuster sales the genre was accustomed to. Maybe gamers got tired of managing shield distribution the same way they got tired of trimming flaps and managing altitude in hardcore flight sims. As a medium, games are trending towards a big fat EASY button (thanks, Wii!), and the more micromanagement a genre requires, the less likely it is to find an audience among soccer moms and five-year-olds.

GOG.com goes through the trouble of optimizing its games for a spread of Operating Systems. Surprisingly, it works. While Descent 3 needed a little jiggling to make the right sounds, Freespace 2 ran flawlessly. Not once did the game freeze, blue-screen or dump me to the desktop. That’s more than I can say for some contemporary releases.

Freespace 2 is more than a nostalgia trip – in fact, I’m convinced the genre still has some life in it. But that’s just me. Visit Good Old Games, and if you have 5.99 rattling around in your pocket, think about it.