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Freespace 2

I'll always remember the first time I played the original Wing Commander as my own little gaming Renaissance. After cutting my teeth on early adventure games by Infocom and Sierra, I had gone through a period in which I kind of lost interest in PC games. When I booted up Wing Commander, however, I was hooked once again. Never had a game captured so well the essence of cinematic space dogfighting that I'd loved in Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica (what can I say? I'm a child of the 80's), and I couldn't help falling in love with the genre despite its obvious inconsistencies in terms of realism. I hungrily snapped up every Wing Commander sequel as soon as it hit store shelves, and was about as die-hard a fanatic for that series as is possible. I was convinced that no one else would ever create a space combat simulation that would surpass Origin's efforts.

That belief was put stridently to the test last year when Volition released Descent: Freespace. Here was a graphically rich, action-packed outer space romp that equaled -- and perhaps even surpassed -- the latest Wing Commander offering in terms of visceral thrill and joystick-wrenching combat. It lagged behind in some areas (most noticeably in the shell of a story that was, in truth, a bit drab), and had a few problems, but Freespace had enough going for it in the gameplay department to grab my attention and that of the gaming industry. Now, Volition and Interplay are preparing to follow up Freespace's success with the inevitable sequel, Freespace 2. They've dropped the Descent moniker (which really didn't make that much sense in the first place), but retained the original's engine, albeit with a slew of new features and changes. Most importantly, Freespace 2 looks to be a much more well-rounded game, offering the in-your-face action of its predecessor while increasing the depth and giving the whole kit-and-kaboodle a greater sense of purpose. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a playable alpha, and I have to say that, if it's able to live up to the potential I witnessed, Freespace 2 may just have what it takes to stand out in an increasingly crowded category.

First things first. Those who were let down by Freespace's lack of a compelling narrative can expect things to be much meatier this time around. To make sure that this was the case and allow the design team to focus more fully on gameplay, the team at Volition brought on a writer whose only job was to create a storyline substantial enough to draw the player in and make them care about what they're doing. And it goes a little something like this: It is 32 years after the Great War depicted in Freespace. The tenuous alliance between the formerly warring Terran and Vasudan races, formed to battle the seemingly insurmountable threat of the invading Shivans, still holds. The Terran fleets, however, have been cut off from their homeworld by the destruction of the jump node leading to our solar system (which, you may recall, took place in the last game's final battle), leaving them unable to contact Earth. As Freespace 2 begins, a rebellious faction within the Terran military has been causing no end of trouble, violating treaties and acting all unfriendly toward the Vasudans. As this disturbance threatens to shake the very foundation of the Terran-Vasudan alliance, our old friends, the Shivans, appear once again on the scene, rearmed and poised for conquest. Doesn't sound that complicated, right? But expect to see all sorts of twist and turns, including intra-fleet double-crosses and mysterious underhanded dealings.

Freespace 2, like its predecessor, will make use of between-mission cutscenes to help move its story along. This time around, however, Volition is upping the ante by including scripted events and plot progression within the missions themselves. The preliminary intelligence you're given prior to launching may be completely different from what you actually find out there in the blackness of space. Objectives and orders may be completely altered mid-mission, a fact that constantly keeps you on your toes and is aimed at eliminating the kind of "fly here, shoot enemies, fly home" monotony to which titles of this type often fall prey. Even in the early missions, you can never be quite sure whether it will be possible to complete the primary objectives outlined for you during your mission briefing, or whether you're actually intended to do so. It may seem a bit confusing at first, but I found it a nice touch that really makes you feel like you are the pilot (with all his or her informational limitations) rather than someone sitting at a computer, playing a game. There are more than 30 missions in Freespace 2's single-player campaign, some of which can be divided into multiple parts and/or contain multiple primary and secondary objectives.

 

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