FREESPACE 2
PC Gamer|June 2021
Jumping back into the cockpit with the classic space sim.
Rick Lane

Released in 1999, Freespace 2 is generally regarded as one of the best space sims ever made. But it’s worth bearing in mind that, for a long time, Freespace 2 didn’t have much competition. In the 2000s, space sims almost disappeared completely, with only a handful of notable titles like Freelancer, X3, and EVE Online appearing through that decade. Freespace 2 was the last of the great ’90s space sims, and there appeared to be little new coming out that could challenge it.

Since 2010, however, the situation has changed. Space sims have seen a welcome resurgence, with major projects like Elite Dangerous, No Man’s Sky, and Star Wars: Squadrons careening out of hyperspace alongside a swarm of indie titles like Evochron Mercenary, Everspace, and House of the Dying Sun. Can a 20-year-old space combat simulator really hack it against these newer, glossier, more powerful vessels?

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Not only is Freespace 2 still fantastic, it remains astonishingly fresh.

Playing Freespace 2 does initially come with a side of narrative whiplash, especially if you haven’t played the first game – the somewhat awkwardly titled Descent: Freespace. Set 32 years after The Great War depicted by Descent, Freespace 2 drops you smack into the middle of a brewing conflict between a humanalien coalition named the Galactic Terran-Vasudan Alliance, a rebel human splinter-faction called the Neo-Terran Front, and another, much more dangerous alien faction known as the Shivans – the primary antagonists of the first game.

WTF?

There are more acronyms flying around a Freespace 2 cutscene than in an episode of Line of Duty, though in an age where games tend to guide you by the nose through every plot-point, it’s quite thrilling to be unceremoniously dropped into a briefing littered with military technobabble and names of ships and officers you have no frame of reference for. It makes you feel like a rookie pilot, which at the game’s outset, is exactly what you are.

Frankly though, the why of the fight doesn’t matter much at first. You’ll be too preoccupied grappling with how to fight, while cooing at the tremendous spectacle Freespace 2’s combat offers. Thanks to a combination of a highly active modding community and smart creative decisions of the time, Freespace 2 has been exceptionally well preserved. The game only looks noticeably old during its few quiet moments, when you’ve got time to dwell upon the angular spaceships and the painted-on skyboxes.

The moment combat commences, however, Freespace 2 literally explodes with colour. The pockmarked black of space is suddenly illuminated with motley bands of laser-fire, golden missile trackers, and the searing green and blue bars of mighty beam weapons from larger ships like frigates and destroyers. Speaking of explosions, Freespace 2 does those brilliantly too. Damaged ships will trail sparks like clusters of baby stars, before erupting in a bright and soupy fireball. The best moments in Freespace 2 happen when the largest ships go boom, sending out a massive blue halo as they burst into smithereens.

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