It is considered axiomatic among gamers that a game that's good when it's new is always good - if it doesn't have staying power, it just wasn't that amazing in the first place. There's a few games that, years after their release, we're still playing - games like Tetris, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, the original Quake, or for that matter Asteroids. Each genre has at least one game that fits this description. In the space flight simulator category there are really three games which stand out significantly: Tie Fighter, which was really the first truly-3D spaceflight sim with believable capital ships; Wing Commander, various versions of which (especially Privateer) are still being played avidly; and Descent: Freespace along with Freespace 2, two titles from Volition that years later are still the benchmark for such games. The list would also not be complete without Elite, which is arguably the game that really defined the genre to begin with.
Space Flight Simulators as a Genre
The space flight simulator1 genre, aside from a very few titles predominantly those mentioned in the previous paragraph, and their sequels is one that has been largely neglected by the industry. There have been few truly credible entries here. Probably the best-known is the Wing Commander series, an epic saga spanning several games. I believe that the original is so old that it actually came in an EGA version, and it was so popular that it actually spawned a major(ly bad) motion picture. On the other end of this spectrum is Tie Fighter, the game which (as far as anyone knows) best captures the feel of being a space fighter pilot - it does an amazing job of making space feel gigantic.
The game Elite is an even older game, which IIRC was first released for ye olde BBC Micro. It truly makes space feel huge, but as even the latest versions (for example, Oolite) retain much of the baggage of the original, the game feels unnaturally constrained. Also, like all other games I've mentioned here, the "physics" model is based on anything but, and provides an airplane-like flight model in which momentum is conserved through turns.
Gamers may recall the original "Descent", which was not only one of the very first fully three-dimensional games ever released, but which also set new standards for network play. It provided more of a console game-like take on a spaceflight sim, although it was (originally) a PC game. Players traveled through mining tunnels destroying various corrupt mining robots and blowing up reactors. This was followed by a pair of sequels, which were more or less successful and which eventually made the jump to console gaming which only made sense given that they are really better suited to a gamepad than a keyboard. Several years passed after the release of Descent 3, with a substantial lull that left gamers wondering what was coming next. The answer was a substantial departure for the series, known as Descent: Freespace.
Freespace was the first game in a very long time to attempt to do capital ships, and it succeeded brilliantly. You really had the feeling of flying next to something gigantic. Ask any game developer; it's difficult to really get the illusion of speed and size even in a driving game, where there are tons of visual cues available. But the writing and pacing of the game were such that you really got a feel for the vastness of everything around you - including some of the ships. Freespace was amazingly successful and sold a ton of copies, received great critical acclaim and generally established itself as the game to beat.
Not so long (although it felt like an eternity) after freespace, Freespace 2 came out and really raised the bar. The capital ships got as big as they need to be, over two kilometers long in fact. Computers had become powerful enough to represent such vehicles and do them justice. The game also added "beam weapons", which with the popularity (at least among geeks) of the science fiction show Babylon 5 had really entered the collective nerd consciousness. B5 is obviously not the first example of a show using beam weapons; this honor probably goes to Star Trek. But in B5 they moved from their status as "weapon" to the elevated position of "literary device" - people are firing on each other with various pea shooters and missiles, when the big guys hop into the system and open up with the beam cannons, bringing an order of magnitude more firepower into the fight. Freespace 2 made extensive use of this device - you would think that it would become tedious before the end of the game, but the actual result is that every time a capship hops in you get that sinking feeling in your chest and start inventorying your missiles for some turret-targeting bombing runs.
Volition, creators of Freespace and Freespace 2, had once announced their intent to produce a third entry in the series, but it has never gone anywhere and the presumption today is that it will never happen. Rabid fans gather on forums and still rehash the question of whether there will or will not ever be a Freespace 3.
While the original Freespace did quite well, Freespace 2 tanked in the market in spite of widespread critical acclaim, probably due to a lack of advertising on the part of the game's publisher, Interplay. As we all know, old games never die, their IP just goes into the vault, so it is possible that one day someone will pick up the franchise and attempt to add another entry to the canon.
However, rather than letting the whole thing go up in smoke, Volition did two things for the gaming community to salve the wounds left behind by the lack of another sequel.
The first gift from Volition is extensive modding capabilities. Freespace and Freespace 2 both ship with their own versions of FRED, the FReespace mission EDitor. Any game file can be overridden, so weapons, ships, systems, planets, jump gates, and so on can be added or removed, or their behavior changed. Whole new campaigns have been developed this way, several with over 20 missions and a coherent storyline. The quality of the campaigns varies widely, but even some of the downloads under 1MB will provide substantial entertainment! This modding capacity was well-received and contributed strongly to the initial popularity of both games (even though Freespace 2 was a flop from a business standpoint.)
Freespace 2 Open
The greatest gift Volition gave the community, and the one that we can thank Interplay for in a twisted kind of way, is the source code to Freespace 2 and FRED2. They were in fact one of the first companies to release all code and graphic assets for a game to the community. (There are numerous other examples today; for example, check out "The Ur-Quan Masters", an Open Source port of the 3DO version of the cult classic Star Control 2 to SDL.) The result? A project known as the "Freespace 2 Source Code Project" (Freespace 2 SCP, or even FS2SCP) which produces an updated, improved version of Freespace 2 which not only updates the visuals of the game, but which also provides new functionality and even fixes bugs. It also runs on Linux, while the original ran only on Windows.
Even the Game Content is Free
It's actually not amazingly unusual for a game engine to be Open-Sourced, although it's not by any means the norm. It is more common in First-Person Shooter (FPS) games, largely due to the influence of iD games, who really started the whole FPS phenomenon with Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake - one company created the first FPS (CW), the first FPS which seemed fully 3d (Doom), and the first FPS which actually was fully 3D (Quake - although 3DRealms' Duke Nukem 3D may have had 3D map geometry first.) iD has a long history of giving away modding tools, and they effectively started that tradition; but they also released source to Doom and Doom2 fairly early in the game, and then the code to Quake while it was still selling.
But the content even for the original Quake is still commercial. If you want to play the full version of Quake, you are expected to buy a CD. You can get 'em used for a buck or two and if the CD isn't readable, download the files off the internet, so this is not a major stumbling block. But this is not the case for a number of games, and even in the sci-fi flight sim arena there is some competition (Microsoft's Allegiance has been released with assets and source code.) Regardless, it is possible to legally download the full game content for Freespace 2, and play it with the Free Software Freespace 2 Open game engine. This right was granted in the following text from the game's license (presented during installation):
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.
Interestingly, another licensing agreement is written to the disk after the install. But this one cannot simply be superseded, and so it applies to the original game content. The game's patch, however, is covered by its own license.
Not just free - but better than the original
Beyond the ability to use the original game files (for free!) you may recall that the game supports modification. One mod made available is the set of Media VPs (VP files are mod files packages) which enhance the appearance of the game with higher-resolution textures, models with higher polygon counts, and other effects. They also fix bugs in the original game by correcting errors in the original VP files (the game content is in VP files as well.) And the actual game engine also fixes bugs which were in the final commercial version of the game for windows, so it's in your best interest to play the game with the Open engine whether you're running on Windows (where you can run the commercial game engine) or on Linux (where you can't.)
Not just for Freespace 2 - kind of
Volition didn't bother to release the code for the original game - why bother, anyway, when FS2 is so much more capable? But this did leave us without an upgrade path for the original Freespace, and with no way to play the original game missions on Linux. The fan community responded by reproducing all of the original Freespace content in the FS2_Open engine. The result is a mod which you can install to let you play through all the original missions, with all the original ships and weapons. It's funny to play the original (in which there are no beam weapons, and you start out without shields) after getting used to flying around like some kind of titan in the new game, but the original had a great storyline and is still fun.
Nothing is Perfect
In spite of its greatness, there are some issues with the game. The largest failing is the lack of a simple official installer which would lay down the game, the MediaVPs, and a few campaigns - perhaps some of the smaller ones. This would go a long way to helping to spread the game. This is somewhat infeasible due to various restrictions and requirements, not the least of which is the licensing issues, and at least in terms of including data files may be insurmountable. The closest thing to a full installer is ShivanSpS' "FS Pack"2, which includes the (Windows) game engine, all the data files, the current Media VPs, and the Freespace 1 Conversion (plus a couple of mission packs for same.) I used this as the basis for my Linux install.
Probably the next-largest lack is the horrible AI. Yeah, I said it. As in the original game, your wingmen are all but useless. They need you to wipe their asses for them every second. As the game progresses you get more control over your wingmen and the game places larger and larger demands on you as if they would help you. And there are other problems with the wingmen which are not AI-related. For example, there's no way to target a wing, so if you want your wingmen to take out a bomber wing while you're busy with other targets, you pretty much have to:
- Target each bomber you want destroyed, and hit Alt-E (by default anyway) to add them to your escort list so you can find them later
- Instruct the appropriate wing to attack your target (which takes four keypresses)
- As each bomber is destroyed, target the next one from your escort list (with multiple keypresses if there is a friendly at the top of the list) and with another four keypresses, instruct the appropriate wing to destroy it.
This is just ridiculous, and it is the legacy of the communications and targeting systems from the original game. It is ridiculous to expect you to intelligently control as many as four fighter wings with a target-level (not strategic) interface. Of all the major enhancements I'd like to see to the game, the thing I want most is a command to "destroy target's wing". But I would settle for an AI that would cause fighters to target bombs first, bombers second, and fighters last, and not cause defending ships to fly away after an insignificant target and leave their charge undefended. The best thing you can say about AI and game balance is that the enemies are stupid too.
There are also some various technical failings which detract from the game as a whole, some being more serious than others. One issue I do consider significant is the lack of cutscene support on Linux. There are any number of systems for playing video on Linux with the X Window System and none of them are being used here. Another is the lack of Direct3D support on Windows; it is there but it is not considered stable and it is definitely not as complete as the OpenGL renderer, which means that things may look like garbage while using it (and it is less stable as well.) This is unfortunately important as many Windows video drivers do not have worthy OpenGL support. An example of another Linux problem is the lack of joystick calibration, which is commonly handled in games. The linux joystick driver calibration program 'jscal' leaves a lot to be desired (like an interface) and it would be nice to see this in the game. None of these issues render the game unplayable or unenjoyable but they do detract from the general experience.
Freespace 2 is possibly the best game you'll never have to pay for (unless, like me, you already did.) It's only continuing to improve. The game engine is also the basis for two game projects, one themed after Battlestar Galactica and one based on Wing Commander (in which they are, so far as I know, attempting to duplicate more or less the entire saga.) Both games have playable demos available. Thanks to Volition's generosity, we get four games for the price of none. And thanks to the efforts of the talented individuals working on the FS2SCP, the Media VPs, and the many excellent mods and conversions (too many to list here even if this were that kind of article) the games are only getting better over time. If you like space flight simulators (albeit with almost airplane-style physics) then you should adore this game. (If you're a stickler for realistic physics you might try out the Babylon 5: I've Found Her demo, which is sadly all you're likely to ever see of that game.)
- Descent: Freespace
- Freespace 2
- The Freespace 2 Source Code Project
- FSPort - Freespace 1 for the FS2SCP
- Freespace 2 on HOTU - Enough game to get started if you can't find it elsewhere
- Freespace Wiki
- Hard Light Productions - By far the best FS2SCP forum is here, plus all announcements and links to downloads (like MediaVPs)
- Freespace 2 Open Campaign Modules