Freespace 2 is one of the finest space combat flight "simulators" that has ever been made, and Freespace 2 Open, a product of The Freespace 2 Source Code Project (SCP) is a truly excellent free, Open Source version which you can play on Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X. But what happens when you have played it? There's multiplayer support, so there is theoretically infinite replay value, but there may come a time when you can't or don't want to play versus other humans, and have already exhausted the campaign. What to do?
Both the retail Freespace 2 and the free Freespace 2 Open (from here, "FS2Open") are intended to be modified by the user. They were designed such that it is easy to replace game files, and this is especially true of FS2Open in that it provides a simple command-line option to load additional game data. This makes it simple to maintain various different modules and switch between them.
Without getting into any detail here (I talk more about modules on my page on Freespace 2 Open) it is possible to replace files to change the storyline of the game. While this is an extremely simplistic view of what modules do, for the average end user (who is probably best off installing from a prepackaged set of game files) this is close enough to the truth as makes no difference.
In video game lingo, a "campaign" is a series of missions or levels which constitute a continuous storyline. Generally speaking, a given "game" as the consumer thinks of it consists of two parts. The first is the various game files or assets, like 3D models of characters or vehicles, textures that make the models look more or less real, sound files, music, maps, pieces of dialogue (conversations) and movies which help tell the story. The second is the "game engine," a piece of software which puts all the game assets (it's also commonly called "content") together and presents the user with a game. The content is the game, but the engine is where all the magic happens.
Some games are designed such that the storyline of the game is actually programmed into the game engine. In order to make a sequel that behaves like the original but with a new story, the actual program must be changed. All games once worked this way, but today these games are in the minority. The most complicated games have very little of the content actually defined in the engine, with basically everything loaded from a file outside of it. By changing the files you can turn the engine into an entirely different game. This tendency in modern games was basically spearheaded by iD games' "Quake", the first fully-polygonal1 first person shooter, for which there are "total conversion" modifications available to turn it into a driving/shooting game (where you never leave the vehicle, and the game is played from the top down) or a real-time strategy game ala Starcraft.
This was made (relatively) easy by the use of an internal scripting language called QuakeC. Instead of hardcoding behavior into the game, it was all scripted. Packed into the same archive as the quakec files was the collection of all the other assets needed to display the game, including background images, menu definitions, player models, weapon effects (all written in quakec, mind you) and so on. Freespace and Freespace 2 (and by extension, Freespace 2 Open) are designed in precisely the same way, and this is what has led to the relative abundance of mods for this game as opposed to anything else in the same genre.2
Again, without getting into detail here, there is a set of modules called the "Media VPs" which dramatically enhance the appearance of the game. They also fix some bugs, enhance the music, and do some other nice things. In general, at least parts of the Media VPs will enhance other modules as well, for example the effects (and advanced effects) modules will significantly brighten up any mod.
Campaigns for Freespace 2 Open
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of campaign modules for FS2Open, but simply some musings of my own on various campaigns I have completed. I do intend to put them in some kind of order of relevance, in terms of how significant I think they are. This is purely my own opinion, and you may feel free to rant and rave about it (I will probably ignore it, but it might make you feel better.)
This is intended to be criticism, not just a rant; I am more than willing to contribute specific input to anyone who is interested, and playtest any changes. Some people will likely complain that creating mods is difficult and until I've done it I should shut my pie-hole - but let's face it, the money is a pittance for anything with replay value, so it's not the defining factor - quality is. You wouldn't accept flaws like the ones I complain about in a commercial game, so why would you accept them in something free? And why wouldn't you want to know about them, and possibly address them?
Enough apologia. On with the show...
Freespace on Freespace 2: The Freespace 1 Port
Before Freespace 2, there naturally was a Freespace (actually, Descent: Freespace) which preceded it. While that game's source code was not released (it became the basis for Freespace 2 in any case, which is in turn what became FS2Open) you can play the game in FS2Open via the "Freespace on Freespace 2" module. This is a fairly epic module (a really full install, including Silent Threat and all the movies, is around 640 MB) which leaves very little from Freespace 2 in the game. It's been a long time since I've played the original Freespace (and I've long since lost my CDs) but it does feel much like playing the original, as far as I can remember. It does however look much nicer, not least because I am playing on a machine many times as powerful – but also because I am using the effects Media VP.
It doesn't really matter if you play this before or after the main Freespace 2 Campaign. I would of course play it first if you haven't already played 2; in some ways it's kind of a let-down after all of that. There's none of those snazzy beam weapons flashing around, and you don't even have shields until you get a few missions into the game! It does however nicely set the stage for playing any of the later modules. Regardless, it's well worth playing. I don't want to give anything important away, but the last mission in this campaign was so horribly hard to see anything in on the original that even if you vividly remember beating this game that if you have the Media VPs, it's almost worth it to play again just to experience the endgame as a thing of beauty instead of a horrendous pixel soup.
Version 3.0.4 of this conversion uses the actual data tables from the original game, which have been tweaked as necessary and brought into FS2Open. As such, this is basically the most accurate portrayal of the original game that is possible. There are, of course, numerous graphical improvements, some of which are optional. There are however also a number of failings. For example, it can be difficult to know when you should leave the field of battle. In some missions you are told to do so, and some you are not - and this does not perfectly correlate to having or not having a commanding officer in the field.
There are actually several campaign modules for the FS 1 port, including a port of an official add-on known as Silent Threat.
In this campaign you are enlisted by Galactic Terran Intelligence to help keep the peace between the Terrans and Vasudans as a special operative. Having never played the original I can't say how it compares to the official addon, but as a campaign it leaves quite a bit to be desired. Some missions (especially "Exodus") occur entirely implausibly. I completed the prior mission with hardly a scratch on my wingmen (and none on me) and with full ammunition, and without explanation I am launched into the next mission with 3% hull and no missiles. I'm working through the thing anyway, but it's become a joyless exercise.
The Destiny of Peace
This campaign takes place seven months after the destruction of the Lucifer. Now, I don't just want to trash people's work, but this campaign started off rubbing me the wrong way. You are literally on patrol to enforce a 30 M/sec speed limit - no joke - and you accomplish the enforcement by scanning people. Not shooting them - just scanning them. Then a cruiser goes rogue and you have to scan it, then it jumps out. Then you get attacked, and if you live, you jump out and the mission is over. After the mission is over, I am informed that I should have tried to scan the cruiser (which I scanned.) Let's just talk about the ways in which this is wrong - the last item there is obvious, and I know I scanned the cruiser because I was informed that they failed to disable it. But the whole premise is just nonsensical. I'm sorry, but it simply is. Just using cameras it's possible to track the position and vector of objects. You might use ships (an advanced military interceptor?) to patrol but you simply do not need them to go scan anything.
I understand the concept of suspension of disbelief, but I'm already suspending all I can dealing with the physics model :P A couple missions later I lost half my wing and was commended afterwards for bringing them all home safely... Aside from the various flaws and the ignominious beginning, however, this module is fairly decent (if short) and contains some excellent mission play.
Rain on Ribos 4
This rather excellent campaign for the FS1 port places you in a fighter at Tombaugh station, while the Galatea makes its attack to capture the SC Taranis in the Ikeya system. You rather rapidly get involved in this, and the defense of Terran space besides. While there are some minor flaws here and there, in general this module displays a fine fit and finish, and if you like killing Shivans, this is the campaign for you; I've lost track of the number of fighters and bombers destroyed, and there's been about ten or twelve cruisers so far. The Shivan cruisers are almost easy in Freespace 1, since there's no beam weapons (although the fighter weapons are much more powerful in the sequel.)
Enough of the FS1Port mods, let's talk about Freespace 2.
This campaign for Freespace 2 takes place in 2355, 20 years after the destruction of the Lucifer. You play a mercenary who rapidly gets into some deep shit. Unfortunately, I cannot finish this campaign, because the ninth mission (whatever comes after Turn for the Worse) always causes FS2Open 3.6.9 Final to crash (with a segmentation fault.) This indicates a bug in either/both game and module, although it could be only the module if it contains malformed data that the game is not intended to be able to handle.
One module I did finish (while writing this article) was Sync, which sets up up as a mercenary flying escort for the GTC Tether, a Deimos-class corvette. A wing of hostile GTF Hercules show up, and you end up jumping out of a node that can't sustain the passage of a larger ship - which is never seen again. Only your wing (Alpha, naturally) escapes. The story picks up two years later in Ribos, as you and your two Alpha wing buddies are preparing to provide escort for a pair of freighters. You jump to Antares, and engage several more waves of Hercs, wondering all the while who these Terrans are that are attacking you.
One of the freighters detects a small electrical disturbance during the jump to Beta Cygni, a dark foreshadowing of the events to come...
In general Sync is a fairly excellent campaign. It has basically two failings; the beginning of the campaign launches you into action without any explanation of who you are, where you are, or what you are doing; and the last mission and the game end are weak. These are unfortunate failings, because the middle of the game is excellent, with by far some of the best writing I've seen in a campaign yet. Unfortunately, the last mission is rigged to stop you from interfering; rather than setting things up such that you cannot interfere, certain ships are simply set non-destroyable. I don't want to give anything away so I have to be somewhat vague, but I interfered with the ship in question and prevented it from reaching its waypoint, then destroyed the hostile fighters that were supposed to prevent that, and then ran the ship down to 1% damage before having to sit back and watch in disgust. After it does what it's supposed to do you're jumped into another system and treated to a view of a mission that's basically a cinematic before you're dumped out.
I don't know if there's a pack of movies for Sync that would make things make sense, but they wouldn't help on Linux or OSX in any case, and so even if there are, relying on them is a poor decision. I believe the introduction was provided on the homepage for the mod, but it's not included even in the readme file! Really, there should be an explanatory command briefing before and after the game - in each case after any cutscene that might exist. This is especially unfortunate simply because this is otherwise one of the finest campaigns I've played.
Derelict, unfortunately, is another one with silly problems and no readme. It gives a little more explanation before tossing you in, but the missions are similarly "unfinished". Some missions failed to trigger when I interfered with them. If your storyline is so rigid that events must occur in a precise fashion, then it stands to reason that you should make sure that they must happen that way! Unlike some of the others, I do have the voice files for this one, and they seem to be relatively competent.
My biggest problem with this module are the long, tedious missions with huge amounts of tedium followed by brief, intense action. This module makes them especially annoying by making you fly around during the dialogue, with places to go and things to do such that you can't just accelerate time and skip them. I ended up missing mission goals I knew I could accomplish on some missions that I replayed because I was too slow to reduce time compression and I didn't want to have to do the boring mission again. I'm about halfway through this campaign and intend to finish it (we'll see if I do) only out of curiosity3 — the mission play has introduced nothing new so far (aside from having me press some keys to set some nav buoys - whee!)
TLM2: The Unexpe
Or at least, that's what the campaign title says in-game. Maybe this is a prerelease? I was only downloading "released"-status mods, however. This thing has more typos than a page of engrish directions for product assembry. The scary part is, it's apparently a sequel. You join the 87th space cowboys and you watch some transports gets vaporized by some cruisers. Bad things ensue. Why is it that every fs2 mod is the story of either a shivan attack or a total breakdown in military intelligence (or both?)
This is a buggy mission as well. I started out the game in a ship with an impossible loadout. A moment later, in the mission "Deceptions of Many Kinds" I warped out after the order to depart was given (it showed up in the objectives and everything) and I was informed that I left before I had been ordered to do so and that I was grounded until I could be court-martialed. The filename is LM_Release2.rar, perhaps it's just old? There's no readme file (as per usual with fs2 modders) so I'll leave more information as an exercise to the reader for now. It's also quite short, containing just a few disjointed missions. Knowing what I know now, I'd give this one a miss.
The Journey to Epsilon Pegasi
For the most part, this mod is an excellent example of what to do. In general, I had very little frustration outside of my own lack of ability :) They even provide you the endgame as a separate campaign so that you can jump directly to it if you would like, although in my opinion the endgame had less of a feel of urgency and danger than many of the missions that came before. Aside from the boring end battle, probably the biggest failing is the plethora of spelling errors. If anyone out there would like help proofreading the dialog (and other text) in their mod, by all means, just ask me. It would take me a fairly brief period of time and it would make your work look less like it came out of a kindergarten. Regardless, by any other metric, this is a mod well worth playing, and I recommend it highly.
In the Halls of Valhalla
This module is so excellent, so really excellent, until I get to the mission "Glory of the Imperious Galactic" (I hope I got that right) at which point I get a core dump. I'm not sure if it happens at the same time every time or not, but it happens every time. Until that you get to play with a lot of fun ships and go through some somewhat unusual missions, which is pretty much what I'm looking for — even when they're ultimately frustrating, as in this case.
Another module unfinished as released, in Neo-Terra you're a member of the NTF. It's a sort of alternate history. But so far none of the missions I've failed were designed to accomodate such a failure; after the last one such I was instructed to return to base but I was unable to jump out. There were at least two other missions with similar problems (such as when the vessel you are instructed to escort is destroyed and the mission never ends) and in general this campaign is unfinished.
- 1. Marathon (Bungie) and Duke Nukem 3D (Epic) both utilize two-dimensional bad guys and effects (like explosions.)
- 2. Freespace 2 was never a popular game, and had few players; compare this to Quake, for example. There are probably dramatically more conversions for Freespace 2 per capita however.
- 3. Allegedly, one review of an American military officer's performance stated "His men would follow him anywhere, but only out of curiosity."