Descent Freespace: The Great War

Light on originality but high on fun, Freespace does not disappoint.

Freespace was made by the same guys who’ve developed the original Descent series, but that’s about the only thing tying Interplay’s tunnel shooter with this high-tech space combat sim. Take heart, however. Freespace isn’t the most original space sim ever created. It takes bits of ideas from here and there (notably X-Wing and Wing Commander), but merges them so skillfully that you can’t help but enjoy the final product.

Descent No More


Leading a wing of Apollo fighters.

Freespace casts you in the role of a lowly fighter pilot trying to survive through an interstellar war between Terrans and an equally determined race known as Vasudans. Not much backstory is given on the conflict, except that it’s been raging on for fourteen years with no end in sight. It’s business as usual until a third race of aggressive aliens burst into the scene, one that is capable of wiping out both Terrans and Vasudans with ease. The Shivans, as they later become known, become the game’s main adversary. Briefing videos, animated cutscenes and clever scripting give the storyline great focus.

Freespace is a linear story-driven game, in that all of its 34 missions play out in much the same way courtesy of their scripting. Even so, missions here are not in the least bit boring. Briefing videos explain your objectives before each mission and give a general idea of what’s going on. You’ll be tasked with anything from simple search and destroy assignments to escort missions, bombing runs and a host of other predicaments that are hard to label.

One mission, for instance, has you clear a path for a capital ship through an asteroid field, while in another you’re flying clandestine as an enemy fighter through hostile territory. Missions are varied, entertaining and can change in a moment’s notice, leaving you and your squad to make split second decisions as to how to react. Good conduct and clever decisions will accomplish hidden objective and win you medals.

Gameplay is enjoyably hectic most of the time. You and your wingmen will be fighting waves of enemy ships in close proximity to each other, often with limited resources and sparse information. Battlefields become even more explosive when giant destroyers and cruisers are added, but we’ll cover that later. The game, however, does justice in ensuring that both rookies and pros will enjoy themselves equally. The first three missions are basically tutorial levels (which can be skipped) that fill you in on basic flight controls and combat maneuvers while more advanced features become available and explained later on. At its minimum, the action can be controlled with only a handful of keys and a mouse. Ambitious pilots, on the other hand, can learn to use the entire keyboard to accomplish anything from energy management to advanced targeting. A joystick is supported as well, but using a mouse enables for more precise shots as far as I could tell.

Intergalactic Tenderizer

Initially, you don’t have much of an arsenal to choose from, but newer ships and weaponry gradually become available as the war goes into high gear. By the end of the campaign, you’ll have at your disposal a total of seven ships and countless lasers and missiles to equip them with. Your ships can essentially be broken down into fighters, bombers and heavy assault crafts, which combine the first two. You’ll be allowed to outfit yourself and your squadmates before starting each mission and this creates lots tactical opportunities. Fighters are agile and have a low profile, but are useless against heavy cruisers and destroyers. Bombers can launch some heavy ordinance but are slow and defenseless, and their bombs can be destroyed mid-flight. Most missions require a mix of these crafts and it’s usually your job to coordinate everyone. Even though the AI won’t get hopelessly lost if you don’t order them around, doing so does offer an advantage in combat.

1_1Other than the ships you’ll actually fly, there are over fifty more vehicles to keep track of. Knowing what you have in your sights is made easier thanks to the onboard encyclopedia, which you can access off-duty and which lists every single craft and weapon in great detail. Even without brushing through the encyclopedia, you’ll likely recognize a capital ship when you see one. These not-so-gentle giants are extremely difficult to bring down without a wing of bombers and a few escorts. But while they do speak in volume, they’re not as threatening as they could have been.

Although not revolutionary in any sense, Freespace is so well pieced together that it ranks as one of my favorite space combat games. If you’ve only lightly brushed against the genre or have never even played this sort of thing then Freespace is definitely a good start.

System Requirements: Pentium 133 Mhz, 32 MB RAM, Windows 95/98

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