Original Release: 1998, Platform: PC, Developer: Volition, Publisher: Interplay Entertainment, Image Source: GOG
I love space battles. Whether you’re talking Star Wars, Star Trek, Bablyon 5, Battlestar Galactica, or whatever, there’s something about watching spaceships blowing each other up that gets me giddy like nothing else. This personal predilection has, on more than a few occasions, led me to spend my time playing games where the chief focus was making things go boom in space. One of my greater gaming regrets, in turn, is that I never got around to playing Freespace.
For years, I’ve heard about it and its sequel being pinnacles of the space sim genre. I’ve even read some who would say that the dearth of space sims in recent years could be a result of the Freespace outright breaking the genre’s mold. After playing the series’ original entry, I’m almost inclined to agree. While there were elements of the game I found lackluster, Freespace is still an undeniably entertaining game filled with massive and challenging battles that grab you early on and never really lets go.
When the game begins, humanity is locked in a long-running conflict with an alien race known as the Vasudan. The fighting between the two races is disrupted, however, when a third race, dubbed the Shivans, appears on the scene and begins demolishing both sides. Faced with a mutual and vastly superior enemy, the two races call a truce and join forces to repel the powerful invaders.
Sadly, if the game has one major weakness, it’s that it never really sells how dire the Shivan threat is. Too much of the story is told instead of shown and it doesn’t make any substantial attempt to craft interesting and endearing characters that might actually give you a reason to care about the heroes’ plight. This isn’t Wing Commander where the death of a wingman means losing an actual, fleshed out character. You’ll lose squadron mates by the score and do it without batting an eye. Matters are made worse by the gameplay which also doesn’t do enough to make the feel Shivans truly imposing. To the game’s credit, there are some tense early missions where your weapons can’t even hurt the Shivans. However, it doesn’t take long before your fighter acquires upgrades that put you nearly on par with your opponents. It creates this unfortunate dissonance in which the story is ranting and raving about how badly the war is going only to send you into missions where you and your wingmen can handle entire Shivan squadrons with relative ease.
Thankfully, the gameplay almost completely makes up for it. Combat is both fast-paced and nuanced, delivering plenty edge-of-your-seat fighter duels while also balancing them out with objectives that require more teamwork and thought. Some of the missions are simple. You and your wingmen will jump into a section of space, wipe out an enemy convoy and call it a day. Others, meanwhile, will require a bit more finesse. You’ll find yourself facing forces and objectives where brute force won’t suffice and you’ll have to lead and command your (impressively capable) teammates to help take on what you can’t handle by yourself.
In one level, for instance, you’re tasked with capturing a Shivan cruiser before it can escape into hyperspace. My first inclination was to launch straight toward its escort fighters and wipe them out before hitting the cruiser. I soon learned, however, that I couldn’t do that and still have enough time to disable the cruiser before it escaped. I wound up having my forces split in two, sending the larger part of my squadron to dispatch the fighters while I and the rest of Alpha wing used the heavy weapons of our bombers to stop the cruiser. Freepace (and the expansion included in the GOG edition) has these sorts of missions in abundance.
The game also has a truly impressive sense of scale. In a lot of space sims, it’s not uncommon for units to be disproportionately sized. Even in the later Wing Commander games, it often felt like an enemy destroyer wasn’t much bigger than your single-man fighter. Freespace, meanwhile, has ships that are categorically huge. Both the friendly and enemy fleets have carriers and destroyers that make your fighters look minuscule in comparison. There were moments in the gameplay where I felt genuinely awed by the size of a passing vessel.
All of this praise aside, there are a few places where Freespace‘s gameplay stumbles a bit. Most primarily, I developed a strong dislike for its tutorials. To the game’s credit, they are skippable. That said, the game’s controls can be quite complicated and, in those cases where a guided course is actually necessary, their painfully slow pace can kill the fun and leave you feeling tired, bored and drained of enthusiasm by the time the next missions comes around.
There were also some moments where I felt like the missions themselves were a bit drawn out. Don’t get me wrong, I would have gotten bored if everything in the game was a five minute shooting gallery. That said, there were more than a few occasions where I’d find myself putting 20-30 minutes into a mission only to die and have to start over again. On a similar note, enemy fighters can also, at times, be annoyingly slippery. I don’t mind having to work to destroy my targets, but when you’re stuck chasing the same fighter for minutes, never making progress because its shields keep recharging, it can get hair-pullingly frustrating.
These gripes aside though, Freespace is still fantastically fun from beginning to end. It might not deliver on every front, but the areas where it does bring the goods are so solid that you’ll happily forget its flaws in favor of its greater whole. If you’re a fan of space flight sims and haven’t played this yet, then there’s no reason to not jet over to GOG and grab yourself a copy. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to head over to my calendar and carve out some time to play Freespace 2.
Next week I’m going to have a bit of fun and explore gaming’s biggest and best space battles. The week after that, I’ll be heading into the realm of horror to review Nosferatu: Wrath of Malachi.