Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War
|Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War|
Box cover art for Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War
Hyperion Entertainment (Amiga version)
Haage & Partner (Amiga version)
|Release date(s)||Microsoft Windows
|Genre(s)||Space combat simulator|
Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War, also known as Conflict: FreeSpace – The Great War in Europe, is a 1998 space combat simulation IBM PC compatible computer game developed by Volition, Inc., when it was split off from Parallax Software, and published by Interplay Entertainment. In 2001, it was ported to the Amiga platform as FreeSpace: The Great War by Hyperion Entertainment. The game places players in the role of a human pilot, who operates in several classes of starfighter and combats against opposing forces, either human or alien, in various space-faring environments, such as in orbit above a planet or within an asteroid belt. The story of the game's single player campaign focuses on a war in the 24th century between two factions, one human and the other alien, that is interrupted in its fourteenth year by the arrival of an enigmatic and militant alien race, whose genocidal advance forces the two sides into a ceasefire in order to work together to halt the threat.
Descent: FreeSpace was well received as a single-player space simulation that integrated all the desired features of its genre, from competent AI wingmen, to the presence of large capital ships thast not only dwarf the fighters piloted by the player, but also explode spectacularly when destroyed. However, the game's multiplayer mode was criticised, as it was plagued by lag and inaccurate tracking of statistics. An expansion for the game, which was less well received, was also released in 1998 under the title of Silent Threat, and focuses on events after the main game's campaign with the player working for an intelligence branch of the Terrans' armed forces that later attempt to overthrow the Terran government. A sequel to Descent: FreeSpace entitled FreeSpace 2, was released in 1999 to critical acclaim.
The game features two distinctive modes of play - a single player campaign and multiplayer matches. In both modes, players are put into a first-person perspective from within the cockpit of a starfighter and have full control over their craft, but the only visible part is the interface - the head-up display (HUD) - which can be customised with different colours and by what information is displayed. Outside of these modes, the main menu of the game is designed around the interior of a ship's quarterdeck, with various elements (mostly doors) leading to different options, such as starting a new game, configuring the game, reviewing the crafts featured in the game and various story elements, and replaying completed single player missions.
In both modes, players rely on the HUD to provide information on the state of their own starfighter, including management of some of the essential systems for their craft and weapons being used, along with information on the ships around them both allies and hostiles, from condition, to speed and distance, a warning system if enemies have launched a missile at them, and an in-game radar that tracks all craft (green for allies, red for enemies, and blue for craft entering or leaving the area). The game features a targeting system in conjunction with the HUD that is designed to be flexible; apart from manual control of the system and aiming assistance with moving targets, the system is designed with different cycling options, including switching between those in front of the player, those tracked in an "Escort" list, and all hostiles present in the game, as well as being able to automatically track the closest hostile target and matching the speed of anything being targeted. Information on a ship being targeted is relayed in the bottom left of the HUD, including its name, ship class, hull integrity, whether the ship is disabled and/or disarmed, and speed and distance from the player's craft. The HUD further displays information on the condition of the player's own ship at the top of the HUD when damage occurs, including damage to subsystems, while the status of important ships (whether they are to be destroyed or escorted) and of any wingmen with the player is highlighted on the right side of the HUD; wingmen are represented by their wing's designation, and a coloured dot that changes to a darker colour to represent critical damage.
Players have access to a communication system that can be used to contact other starfighters, which has more impact in the game's single-player mode. Through the system, the player can order either a single starfighter, a wing, or all craft (depending on how many are still active), with tasks such as taking down a player's target, covering the player, or engaging all hostiles, amongst other commands. The system can also be used to call in for reinforcements (if available), and requesting deployment of a support ship to repair a player's subsystems as well as re-arm their secondary weapons; the support ship can be given limited orders when deployed. Furthermore, a player can manage some subsystem's being changing the energy input it receives, thus affecting how efficient it is in battle; changing the input for engines, for example, changes the max speed of the craft and the time needed to fully recharge the ship's afterburners. The controls for the game in both modes are designed so that players have ease with controlling their starfighter and its systems, and be able to do so with either a joystick , or a keyboard (on its own or with a mouse). Because of the flexibility in controls, some have categorised Descent: FreeSpace as a flight simulator, since it has more controls and commands than a typical arcade game, yet its flight model is simple, akin to that of the game TIE Fighter, and incorporates some elements of Newtonian physics such as precise collision physics.
The starfighters available for use in both modes fall under several roles - space superiority, assault, recon, interceptor and bomber. Each type of craft available for use and faced in battle, varies in speed, shielding, manoeuvrability, along with the number of weapon banks available for primary and secondary weapons, with the carrying capacity for secondary weapons also differing. Primary weapons cover guns that varying in damage and firing rate, some specifically designed to do damage to either shields, hull, or subsystems, and which drain the energy banks of a starfighter when continuously used. Secondary weapons cover missiles and bombs, with projectiles being of either "dumb-fire", heat-seeking, or aspect-seeking variety. During battles, players can opt to change the primary weapons they are firing (depending on whether the ship has more than one gun mount), as well as switch between firing single or double rounds of the secondary weapons they are carrying. Furthermore, players can, apart from evading missiles locked onto them by skillful manoeuvring, use countermeasures to lose an incoming missile. In single-player, players can not only encounter other starfighters, but also capital ships - from cruiser to destroyers - civilian craft - medical ships, science vessels, transports, freighters and escape pods - stationery turrets, cargo containers, and large space-station installations.
In the single-player mode, the game's main campaign sees the player take on the part of a Terran pilot, in which they engage in a series of missions that become increasingly challenging and sophisticated overtime the more the progress into the campaign; the difficulty level of the campaign can be changed at any time, in between missions. To ease players into the various controls of the game, training missions are included in the campaign, mixed in between regular missions, that gradually introduce the player to advanced commands and techniques. Completing a mission and subsequently unlocking the next one, requires meeting a number of objective defined for it, although not all need to be completed to end the mission successfully; some are scripted to be failed as part of the campaign's story. If a player dies on a mission, or fail to complete vital objectives (i.e. protecting an important ship), players can restart a mission and try it again. In missions, players receive directives tied to their missions, such as destroying a target, protecting an asset, or another task (i.e. inspecting something), which turn blue for completion, red for being failed; multiple targets of a directive (such as destroying an enemy wing) include a number in brackets that decreases as targets are destroyed or depart.
For each mission, a player is given a briefing in regards to it, which details relevant information on what the mission is about, what to expect, and what objectives are expected to be completed, although not all actual situations and objectives are detailed. In between some missions, players are also given a command briefing, stating the current situation of the campaign, as well as information on any new ships and weapons being released for use. Before flying out on a mission, players can modify the ship and weapons load-outs for their own starfighter and those of their own wingmen and other wings for the mission; for some missions, the load-out is either fixed for the mission, or is whatever the player set up in the previous one, while what ships and weapons are available depend on the progress on the mission, with stronger weapons and ships becoming available only in later missions. The level of control over load-outs prior to committing to a mission adds an element of strategy to the campaign. The results of a mission can often affect how later missions play out; for example, an enemy capital ship allowed to flee in a particular mission may return in a later mission. Completing a mission and leaving when given authorisation, leads to a debriefing screen which outlays what was achieved by the player and any aspects that could have been done better; players can get a hint, defined as "recommendations", to see what they could have done better, and can restart a mission to play the mission out differently. Player's can earn medals after some missions, either for completing a specific mission, or achieving certain hidden criteria/bonus objectives, receive promotions depending on the kills and types of alongside the difficulty being played at, and badges for overall total of kills made by them. Furthermore, players can replay any single player mission they complete through the in-game mission simulator.
In the multiplayer mode, players compete in multiplayer matches online or over a local area network (LAN), in which they can band together to complete cooperative missions, or split up into teams to battle against one another. At the time the game was released, online gameplay was free over the services offered by Parallax Online, which also kept track of players' statistics and rankings, while Voice chat is available, although reviewers advised it to be used only on broadband or LAN.
Players have the option of making their own missions through use of the free editor bundled with the game - FreeSpace Editor (FRED for short). The editor allows players to have the same capabilities as Volition's development team in making their own missions, with the ability to import personal audio and 3D animation files.
The setting of the game takes place in the 24th century when humanity has discovered interstellar travel through the use of interstellar subspace jump nodes that function in the same manner as wormholes, allowing it to spread out across the stars and colonise new worlds. Prior to the game beginning, humanity (referred to as Terrans) formed the Galactic Terran Alliance (GTA) as the central power of all of their systems' governments and military, and became engaged in a war over systems and resources against the Vasudans of the Parliamentary Vasudan Empire (PVE). By the time the story begins, this war has entered its fourteenth year, as a third species, dubbed Shivans, makes an unprovoked attack on the Terran system of Ribo 128. The player, acting as a new Terran pilot in the GTA, is initially involved in the conflict with the PVE before the fights focus on the new species' arrival and subsequent assaults.
Vasudans are represented as carbon-based biped, who are taller than humans, and have a durable biological system and a skeletal-looking physical appearance, while Shivans appear insect-like in appearance, with multiple legs and eyes and the capability of walking on walls and ceilings. A fourth race, dubbed "The Ancients", is not shown in the game but referenced during the single-player story as having lived thousands of years ago and having once held an empire in the systems controlled by the Vasudans and Terrans, before they were driven to extinction by the Shivans. In the game, each race's ships bear distinctive appearances, and are named after notable aspects of Earth's history, religious text, and mythologies:- Terran craft have a plain but practical design that is easy to mass produce, with military ships named after figures in Greek, Norse and religious mythology, and science craft named after noted figures of science; Vasudan craft are artistic with sleek lines and curves, and are named after ancient Egyptian myths and locations; Shivan ships are pointy and asymmetrical in insidious black and red colours, and are named after fictional, reptilian species, demons and figures in various religious text.
In 2335, on the fourteenth year of the Terran–Vasudan war, a lone GTA pilot scrambles to escape from ships belonging to an unknown race of aliens, which had emerged during a skirmish between the GTA and PVE, hoping warn of the impending danger, but upon reaching a GTA space station designated Riviera in the Ross 128 system to spread his warning, the unknown race's ships arrive and promptly destroy all GTA assets in the region. GTA command, unable to find evidence that a new race has arrived, covers up the incident as best as possible as being nothing more than an unsubstantiated rumour. Meanwhile, GTA forces co-ordinate a stronger attack on contested systems, including the Antares system, after its latest operation fails to dislodges PVN forces (Parliamentary Vasudan Navy), out of systems being contested for. During engagements with the PVN in Antares, in order to push them out, a GTA pilot named Lt. Alexander McCarthy goes rogue, and steals prototypes of the GTA's latest weapon, the "Avenger" cannon, in the hopes of selling them to the Vasudans, but is thwarted before the exchange takes place by GTA forces, who manage to both capture him and recover the prototypes. However, as the PVN slowly loses its position in the system, the unknown race arrives in Antares and strikes against both GTA and PVN craft, devastating both sides while nearly destroying the Avenger prototypes as they were being transferred out of the system. The result of the incident leads the GTA and PVE to seek a ceasefire in the aftermath of the attacks.
Dubbing the new species as "Shivans", both forces find themselves dealing with two serious issues with the species' ships - the means to target their ships, and the ability to penetrate their shields. Seeking to rectify this and utilise the shielding system of the Shivans, the GTA launch an ambitious operation that, despite some difficulties, successfully acquires the technology and provides enough data to modify both sides' targeting sensors. Soon afterwards, the ceasefire between the GTA and PVE comes into effect, but a Vasudan death cult, the Hammer of Light (HoL), who worships the Shivans, refuses to accept the peace between the two factions and begins launching attacks against them. Combating against HoL forces, the combined GTA-PVE forces conduct several operations, both to test out their new shield systems and strike back against Shivan targets, eventually culminating in an ambitious and successful capture of a Shivan cruiser - the SC Taranis. However the celebrations on its capture are short-lived when a Shiven super-destroyer, dubbed the Lucifier,tracks down the ship , destroying it and many other allied ships. To the shock of the alliance, the Lucifer is found to possess a powerful shield system that makes it immune to all conventional weaponry, thus allowing the Shivans to spearhead its invasion towards the homeworlds of the Vasudans and Terran.
Realising that the Vasudan's homeworld will be hit first, the alliance does everything it can to stop the assault, despite efforts to counter this by HoL forces. Eventually, the GTA organises a plan to scan the Shivan ships planning to sweep in from one of two encroaching fronts, through the use of a captured Shivan fighter dubbed a Dragon. Much to the horror of the alliance, who had known that a Shivan destroyer named the SD Eva, was to lead a small force through Deneb, the arrival of the Lucifer within the group dismisses their belief it was to be part of the main force. Despite the efforts of the GTA-PVE forces and the destruction of the Eva, the GTD Galatea is destroyed in the conflict, while the super-destroyer obliterates all opposition and bombards the Vasudan's home-planet, killing 4 billion Vasudans. As the alliance focuses on rescuing refugees and keeping the Shivans from advancing on the Terrans' homeworld in the Sol system, a small Vasudan refugee fleet that managed to escape sends out a transmission revealing that they were forced to land on an uncharted planet in the Altair system where they had discover the remnants of an extinct alien civilization dubbed "the Ancients", a species that was found to have been wiped out by the Shivans long ago (much of their backstory is told through cutscenes at various points in the campaign).
Seeking to find out more, the alliance fights against further Shivan forces, and soon discovers data left by the Ancients, revealing that the species had learned how to penetrate the shields of the Lucifer: its shields do not work in subspace. The Ancients unfortunately could not capitalize on this and were wiped out. As begins the Lucifer heads for Earth through the jump node between the Sol and Delta Serpentis systems, the Alliance, armed with this knowledge and the discovery of Ancient technology designed to track ships in subspace, launch a desperate assault to stop the super-destroyer before it reaches Earth. A small task-force of fighter and bomber squadrons follow after the Lucifer in subspace and manage to destroy the super-destroyer while its shields are offline by targeting its reactors. The destruction of the Lucifer causes the jump node to collapse, along with the other nodes to the Sol system, cutting it off from the rest of the Terran colonies. Despite this, the GTA and PVE celebrate victory and the end of the "Great War".
Expansion Campaign: Silent Threat
The setting of the expansion takes place some time after the end of the "Great War", with both the GTA and PVE working together to rebuild their systems, while dealing with remnants of the Shivan Armada. In the story, the player takes on the role of a pilot of the GTA (whether they are the same pilot from the main campaign, is unclear), who works within one of the fleets of the Terrans' intelligence service, dubbed Galactic Terran Intelligence (GTI), which consists of three branches - Research & Development (R&D), Intelligence, and Special Operations, the latter of which the pilot is assigned to.
Following the end of the "Great War", both the GTA and the PVE attempt to focus on the rebuilding of their systems and dealing with the remnants of the Shivan forces, although the alliance between them is in a fragile state. In order to ensure the alliance does not collapse, GTA command assigns the GTI to the task of preserving it, while assisting in protecting valuable research projects and dealing with the remaining Shivan forces. During engagements, a science vessel that had been recorded as being officially destroyed during the war with the Shivans, the GTSC Einstein, turns up during an operation to protect Vasudan craft. Although the crew escape before the vessel is destroyed, suspicions surrounding the science vessel's appearance are aroused, when recovery of the ship's escapes pods is compounded by confusion in communications and two of the GTI's ships, the GTD Krios and the GTD Repulse, arriving and claiming to be there to recover the pods, the latter later proving they were assigned the responsibility.
As the GTA and PVE launch further attacks on the Shivans, it is quickly discovered that what is left is unorganised, leading the alliance to co-ordinate a full invasion of their main strongholds, as other systems they occupied slowly return under Terran and Vasudan control. But as the last remaining threat from the Shivans is crushed, officers in the highest echelons of the GTI effect an attempt to cover-up plans for a coup against the GTA by going after the Krios, the only ship aware of the plot and thus a threat to their plans. However, the pilots sent out by the Krios during the final fight with the Shivans, return early, arriving in time to discover the treason and alert GTA command. Realising that much of the GTI has gone rogue and fighting against the alliance, the remnants of the GTI loyal to the GTA cause is merged with its battle-groups and begins conducting operations to bring down the ringleaders, including the capture of the Repulse.
Shortly after destroying the GTI's headquarters, the alliance discovers that the attack on the PVD Hope, a Vasudan destroyer that had been maintaining a blockade against the GTI and which was crippled as a result, was conducted by a super-destroyer created by the GTI's R&D branch, designated the GTD Hades. Investigations into its origins reveals that the GTI had known about the Shivans much earlier than the GTA and PVE during the "Great War", and that the Einstein was officially declared as destroyed in order to observe the species without interference. The Hades was planned for the war against the Vasudans until the ceasefire was put into effect by the GTA and the PVE, thus the GTI assisted in the war, only to eliminate the Shivan threat while utilising the race's technology that it had uncovered, so as to further enhance the super-destroyer until they could launch their rebellion with it, in order to overthrow the GTA government and dissolve the treaty with the Vasudans. The Krios destruction was because the head of Special Operations had unearthed the plot after managing to get details from some of the crew of the Einstein. Seeking to destroy it, the GTA and PVE launch a massive assault on the Hades, and manage against the odds to destroy the vessel, ending the rebellion, and further cementing the alliance between the two species, as the two resume their work to rebuilding their systems.
FreeSpace was Volition's first project after the split from Parallax Software, which also spawned Outrage Entertainment. It is not part of the canon of the Descent computer game series, and contained none of its ideas and only small portions of its code. It was only prefixed with Descent to avoid trademark issues with Mijenix Corporation's "FreeSpace", a disk compression utility. Volition also used the term "FreeSpace" in the game to initially describe what became later known as subspace. The game was conceived by Adam Pletcher, with all the features of space simulator games his team had found to be fun. The games TIE Fighter and Wing Commander were their primary inspirations, and those influences made their way into the game's flight model, along with the influence of historical WWII dogfights. Themes from the fiction of Star Wars, Space: Above and Beyond, and Ender's Game form a part in shaping the background and story of the FreeSpace world. The chaotic battles between masses of ships commonly found in science-fiction anime became one of the features of FreeSpace.
Begun with a crew of five, the project grew to a staff of 17. The game's code was built from scratch. Most of the software modules were interlinked with each other, increasing the job's complexity and difficulty. The code incorporated small portions of Descent's code for specific functions. Kulas, who had worked on several versions of Flight Simulator and Descent, brought his experience into the game's artificial intelligence (AI). The game's difficulty levels are based on advancing the enemy AI, rather than simply increasing damage and "hit points" of enemies. Some realism was incorporated into the game's physics, such that an impact on one part of a starfighter's body will send it spinning appropriately, unlike sphere-based collision detection, in which an impact would simply 'push' the starfighter in a particular direction. Due to time and budget constraints, many of the initially planned cutscenes and stories were cut from the final product. Examples of such cuts include a campaign path where the Terran-Vasudan alliance goes on a retreat, and scenes of racial tension within the alliance. Despite the promise of a deathmatch mode for multiplayer, it was cut from the final product. The expansion Silent Threat also suffered the same fate of cuts due to budgetary and time concerns.
Apogee Software announced on December 12, 1997 that they would be exclusively publishing FreeSpace for the first three months before handing the publishing rights back to Interplay Entertainment. This was part of their agreement with Interplay for the latter's purchase of the rights to Descent, and Apogee decided to release FreeSpace as shareware, with themselves as the merchant of the registered version. Interplay, however, bought the full rights to FreeSpace from Apogee in late April, 1998, keeping the ownership of the game solely to themselves.
Volition aimed for a quality release, and promised to deliver a product without major bugs. Minor bugs would be fixed in a prompt manner. The shipped game, however, had deficiencies admitted by the team, such as problems with the multiplayer code, and a few design issues. The game underwent four patches, which resolved most of the bugs, and improved the multiplayer performance. Complaints about an online mission giving unfair scores led to Volition removing the mission from scoring play. Another patch allowed EAX capability to be enabled for Creative Sound Blaster sound cards. Interplay played its part in drumming up the community's interest by holding contests, and expanding material for the FreeSpace universe. Meanwhile, Volition created official star maps, and released Vasudan voice clips and story development notes. Interplay hired science-fiction writers such as Fred Saberhagen, Simon Hawke, and Jeff Grubb to write weekly FreeSpace stories for two months. Preparing for Silent Threat's release, Interplay held a contest from July 28 to August 25, 1998, in which the submitted fan-designed missions could win their authors prizes such as free copies of Silent Threat, FreeSpace apparel, and gaming hardware. Entries were judged by a panel from PC Gamer, and qualified entries constituted half of the missions in Silent Threat.
On December 14, 1999, Hyperion Entertainment announced their acquisition of the license to port FreeSpace to the Amiga system. The publisher was changed to Haage & Partner Computer on October 18, 2001. Despite the game's official release being announced for December 2001, the approval to do so could only be gotten on January 7, 2002. The game was shipped without a printed manual, but had additional German and French language support. Hyperion had stated they would port over Silent Threat if the FreeSpace port sold well. To date, Silent Threat has yet to be ported over to the Amiga platform.
Descent: FreeSpace received generally good reviews following its launch, with PC Gamer UK placing it 20th in its 1999 Top 100 Awards. However reviewers were split on several aspects of the game. While many praised the graphics of the game, some approving of how well rendered an in-game asteroid stood out before the background of a softly glowing nebulae, galaxies and stars, others felt the 3D effects were not "spectacular" to those of the software rendered version, commenting that rendered nebulae were unconvincing and that the models of in-game ships lacked detail and had blurry textures. Despite the differences between them, all reviewers unanimously agreed that the explosions effects in the game, including the many small details of the capital ships upon breaking up, were the most impressive they had seen (at the time).
Other splits included comparisons between the game and that of Wing Commander: Prophecy and X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter; while some felt the game combined elements of both with better qualities and a strong story, others felt it had simply taken inspiration from space simulation classics, offered very little in original ideas, lacked depth in the story, with some suggesting the player could have had a greater role in the outcome of the game's story,  and that they were simply playing a "very sweet looking arcade title" with considerable detachment from some of the game's elements. Despite the splits in opinion, many felt the game's AI was well designed, from the wingmen being competent and performing orders without issues, to the enemy vessels acting in concert with each other during missions, yet one reviewer was dismayed that the game's screen size was fixed and could not be changed.
However, much criticism was made of the game's multiplayer mode. Despite a reviewer giving a glowing praise to it over cable modems, the majority, who played it over dial-up access, roundly condemned it. Many chiefly complained about lag in the game; some found themselves facing a similar situation in which the ship's gun fired only seconds after they depressed the trigger and that their ship randomly jumped over the multiplayer battlegrounds, while one reviewer called the mode "bug ridden" after finding many of their shots did not register hits or kills on enemy ships after over 40 minutes of play. One reviewer on GameSpot questioned the game's claims it could support 16 players online when they found it couldn't support just two over a 56k modem.
The game's expansion Silent Threat, received generally less favourable reviews. While its stand-alone missions were complemented well for being conceived as part of a contest by the game's developers - Volition put in a call to the FreeSpace community to stop creating "Battle of Endor"-type missions through FRED, and instead create missions based on Volition's Jason Hoffoss' Zen philosophy of accomplishing more with less - the expansion was judged as decent but uninspiring, with many noting that the campaign missions lacked variety than those of standard escort or destroy missions, and offering no new equipment which were unable to compete against the older equipment, with some feeling that the story was worse than the main game due to its "cold and inhuman" briefings and non-player characters.
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