Descent: Freespace! Classic or Best Simulator Ever?

freespaceNot exactly a wide range of choices is it? But that pretty much tells you what I think about this game doesn’t it? Freespace came along at a time when I was pretty much losing interest in flight simulators. Civilization II was growing stale, Unreal had yet to come out, and the Star Wars franchise was still busy producing Rebellion.

What’s more, Descent: Freespace and its sequel were two of the most awesomely conceived, inspired and original flight simulators I ever played. It presented some truly classic and hard science fiction, combined with just enough commercial appeal, and some genuinely fun fight and flight sequences to keep me entertained for months!

And it’s sequel was equally awesome, adding to the mix with more missions, more story, more ships, and more storyline. Like most gamers, my only disappointment came in the form of their not being a third and final chapter. Because of this, fans have taken it upon themselves of maintaining and enhancing the game engine until a third game does come out. But more on that later…

First up, Descent: Freespace, the game that started it all!

Descent: Freespace – The Great War:
Freespace1boxThe game takes place in the distant future, where humanity has spread into the cosmos thanks to the discovery of subspace travel and formed the Galactic Terran Alliance (GTA). As the game opens, we learn that the GTA is at war with an alien species known as the Vasudans. The war is in its fourteenth year and you, a green pilot, have just joined the Galactic Terran Defense Forces (GTDF) and been assigned to the GTD (Galactic Terran Destroyer) Galatea.

The game also begins with an intro movie which prologues the story. In it, a Terran installation is destroyed by an unidentified alien force that jump into the Ross 128 system and obliterates everything in sight. Before your first mission, the subject of this “phantom attack” is addressed and dismissed, with Command claiming that the Vasudans were responsible.

freespace_deckWhat follows is a series of missions against the Vasudan armada. However, this ends when a new type of ship arrives and begins attacking you and the Vasudans indiscriminately. After a series of such attacks, Command names this new threat the “Shivans” (after Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction) and arranges a ceasefire with the Vasudan government. Henceforth, all efforts are dedicated to finding out what this new species is and where they come from.

The next few missions involve extensive intelligence gathering, as it is clear that the Shivans are immensely superior in terms of weaponry and technology. Not only are their ships shielded and virtually impervious to your weapons, their systems make them incredibly difficult to track. But after a series of recon and capture missions, Terran and Vasudan scientists begin to incorporate their technology into our own.

Shivans_-_ColorMatters are also complicated somewhat when a new death cult emerges known as the Hammer of Light. Made up of Vasudans who believe that the Shivans are a race of holy destroyers foretold in prophecy, this group begins assisting the Shivans by attacking anyone who resists them. Henceforth, they too must be fended off while you and your Vasudan allies continue in your efforts to study the enemy. The next step in undertaking is the capture of the Shivan Destroyer Taranis.

After you and your squad disable it, the ship is towed back to Terran space, where a landing team goes in and gets first hand look at the Shivan species. They appear to be a race of large, quadruped creatures with a claw-like appendage that have weaponry embedded in their faces. However, no one can be sure if this is the actual species, some form of robotic avatar, or cybernetic war machines. In any case, the landing crew is killed very quickly.

Sd_lucifer-oldShortly thereafter, a new ship appears, dubbed the Lucifer, which destroys the Taranis and the Terran station nearby. The ship begins to make appearances all along the front, destroying ships with its two giant beam emitters, and eventually destroys the Galatea. In time, the Lucifer makes its way to the Vasudan homeworld, lays waste to it, and appears to be headed for Earth next. All attempts to stop it fail, as the ship appears protected by impenetrable shields.

Throughout the game, monologues are told which begin to provide some deep back story to the game. After several cut scenes, it becomes clear that the narrator is a member of an extinct species known as the Ancients, which were wiped out by the Shivans millenia ago. This informs the player that the Shivans are very ancient themselves, foreshadows the destruction they will bring, and also hints at what the Shivans weakness is.

Subspace_TunnelThe Vasudans stumble upon all this information when a group of refugees land on a world once inhabited by the Ancients. Within a vast alien archive, they discover the records which are shown in the cut scenes and discover that the Shivan’s shields do not work in subspace. After being reassigned to the GTD Bastion, a plan is mounted to track the Shivan vessel as it makes the jump for Earth and disable its jump engines while it is in transit.

A pitch battle takes place after you and your squad race to intercept the ship as it jumps, which is almost thwarted by the last-minute arrival of a Hammer of Light destroyer. You and yours barely make it into the node, pursue the Lucifer into subspace, and engage it and its fighter squads until you can take out its jump engines. The jump node then collapses and the Shivan vessel is destroyed.

The game then ends with a monologue by the main character, who explains that Earth is now cut off from the rest of space and safe for the time being. He also says that the Shivans, in being destroyers were actually preservers, in that they destroyed the Ancients who would otherwise have been too poweful to beat once humanity and the Vasudans encountered them. It is also said that the Shivans will be returning, though not within the narrators lifetime, a bit of knowledge which he describes as “bliss”.

Summary:
In case it wasn’t already obvious, I loved this game. In fact, I even consider it to be one of my biggest inspirations when it comes to writing science fiction. The gameplay was fun, realistic, and structured in such a way as to make it all engrossing and suspenseful. Add to that a sense of genuine realism, and you can see why this franchise became so popular. It was the kind of science fiction game that was made by hard sci-fi fans for hard sci-fi fans.

FS_HUDStarting with the gameplay, the fighters and spacecraft are very much realistic, not looking at all like airplanes or ships. None of this aerodynamic crap or old-world paradigm stuff; all vessels looked like they were designed for space only. And the weapons and combat sequences are nothing short of cool! Not only do you shoot things up, you are required to take out ship’s subsystems using EMP’s, scan things using your close-range sensors, and even resupply and repair yourself with support ships. And the display is a very realistic looking HUD that is very well laid out and practical.

You also have a cool command interface with your ships, being able to order them in and out of the fight, to attack various targets, and/or cover you when you’re under fire. Ah, and those explosions… when you light up an enemy capitol ship, it not only blows up. It goes nova! Check it out below. Though it might seem a bit tried by modern standards, it was certainly groundbreaking for its time!

DF_Explosion

The aliens were also created with some genuine attention to detail, and avoided all the Star Trek-like mistakes which are so common to science fiction. For one, the aliens don’t speak English or have crazy names that are just strings of consonants. The language they speak is gibberish as far as we are concerned and requires a translation matrix. And with the exception of the name Vasudan, the aliens are given designations or equivalencies in English which approximate their meaning in alien languages.

For example, since the Vasudans live on a predominantly desert planet, they are all given names from ancient Egyptian culture. The Vasudans approve of this, as they are a culture that respects longevity, spiritualism, and ancient wisdom. The Shivans, consistently, are all named in accordance with mythological references to destroyers and hostile forces – i.e. Shivans, Lucifer, Sathanas, Cain, etc. They do not speak to us, since we have no basis for cultural exchange, or use their real names.

FS_Concept_ArtAnd another realistic feature: even by game’s end, virtually nothing is known about the Shivans aside from that which is gleamed from their captured technology. And though hints are dropped as to their nature and history, no clear answers are even given. For example, its clear the Shivans have advanced subspace technologies and seem solely concerned with controlling nodes and destroying other sentients. At the same time, subspace is where they are most vulnerable. From this, we are led to believe that perhaps they are from another dimension, and are left wanting more…

B5_destroyerOh yes, and another aspect of this game which I attracted me to it was the similarities it had with Babylon 5, my favorite show at the time and one of the best sci-fi series ever! One of the aspects of the back story to B5 was the war which takes place between humanity and the race known as the Mimbari. The war went very badly for humanity, due to the fact that the Mimbari were more advanced and Earth’s ships couldn’t lock on to them due to some kind of stealth technology.

All of these elements seemed to inform the concept of the Shivans. Not only are their weapons more powerful than yours – at least initially – their ships also possess shields are impossible to track until you gather the intel on how they work. So for the first few missions you see them, they appear as squiggling dots on your radar, are virtually immune to your gunfire, and cannot be tracked by missiles. Much like in the B5, you are told early on that a victory, any victory, is needed against the enemy to bolster morale.

Ultimately, people other than myself were left demanding more and got it almost right away. Not only was there an expansion that followed on the heels of this game, it was also followed by a much-anticipated and muchly awesome sequel (more on that later). On top of that, the game also featured a series of campaign missions that were user-designed and contributed, making Freespace one of the most fan-friendly simulators of all time.

FS_Portal

That tradition has continued well into the franchise quasi-retirement, thanks to the creation of the Freespace 2 Source Code Project – a group of programmers currently maintaining and enhancing the game engine since 2002. This engine has been used for games based on Babylon 5 and the relaunched Battlestar Galactica franchise. So in addition to keeping this fan-favorite game alive, the F2SCP also helps other cult favorites come to life in space simulator form.

Stay tuned for more on the Descent: Freespace front, continuing with the aforementioned sequel!

Cool Ships (volume X)

Aerospace Fighter:
Here’s one I found while sifting through info for another post (see Giant Robots). Like the mechas from that list, this too comes from the Battletech universe. And the name pretty much says it all. This futuristic fighter, which is found in the air forces of every Clan, is capable of flight in both air and space.

Typically, these fighters serve in a supporting role for the assault mechs in the Battlemech universe. Once the mechs are deployed in their drop pods, these fighters follow, flying from space directly into atmosphere and engaging enemy forces in the field of battle.

Using much the same technology as assault mechs, aerospace fighters are powered by fusion engines and are constructed from lighter ferro-fibrous materials. They also come equipped with cannons, lasers, missiles and guided munitions. Control is carried out through either touchpads, hands-on controls, and in some cases, machinery which can read the pilots thoughts.

Akira-class:
I’ve been waiting to include this one. Years back when I saw it on DS9, I thought of just how cool it looked. After looking into it some more, the cool factor has been magnified considerably. Known as the Akira-class, this starship was meant for war and designed accordingly.

Akira-class ships first made their appearance in First Contact, where several were used to engage the Borg Cube that was trying to assimilate Earth. This was no coincidence, as these ships were apparently part of Star Fleet’s larger effort to create warships that could deal with the Borg threat. It would also go on to play an important role in the Dominion War.

Much like the Defiant, it was built for speed and firepower. But unlike other ships, it has virtually no secondary hull, placing the majority of its functions up front in the saucer array. It also has multiple phaser banks and torpedo launchers, as well as a powerful shield array. But its greatest asset comes in its shape. Resembling a catamaran with a thin profile, the Akira presents a very difficult target. Combined with its speed, it is able to descend on enemies and deliver an ass-whooping without much fear of retaliation.

Covenant Assault Carrier:
Hello Halo! I was just thinking of how I’ve spent a good deal of page time on ships that belong to the UNSC Navy, but none that belong to the Covenant. That seem fair to you? And since they’ve got some really cool customers, I think it only fair that I throw some in here.

To start, here is the Covenant AC-class, the biggest ship in the Covenant armada and the Halo universe itself (aside from High Charity, of course). These ships serve as the flagships for Covenant assault fleets and boast a wide array of weapons and support craft.

Their massive hulls can not only accommodate multiple wings of Seraph’s, Phantoms, Ghosts, Wraiths, and one or two Scarab walkers. As events in the later series will attest, they can also hold two UNSC Frigates (the Forward Unto Dawn and Aegis Fate). Though designed primarily for planetary combat, their defenses also make them highly effective in ship-to-ship firefights. These include multiple point-defense pulse laser batteries, plasma torpedo launchers and at least two energy beam projectors.

At least two such carriers led the Covenant Fleet of Sacred Consecration to Earth where they engaged the UNSC fleet and Earth’s home defenses in Halo 2. After the Master Chief destroyed one with a commandeered Covenant bomb, the other led an assault on New Mombasa, and then jumped into slipsteam space once its forces were overrun. Interestingly enough, this was the only incidence of such a Carrier being destroyed by UNSC forces. They are just that powerful!

District 9 Mothership:
This ship comes to us from the critically acclaimed if somewhat unoriginal District 9 movie. Yes, despite what some people said about this movie being unique and awesome, it was in fact a collage of ideas Peter Jackson got from other people and franchises. But that didn’t make it uncool.

The same goes for this ship. While the concept of the alien Mothership isn’t exactly new, this vehicle managed to do the concept some justice with its artistry, profile and purpose. For starters, this ship was clearly a “generation ship”, meaning that it was designed to hold an entire population of people and provide for them over the course of many generations as it made its way through space.

When the ship appeared above Johannesburg in 1982, it appeared to be carrying thousands of alien beings who had been designed or engineered for work (echoes of Alien Nation there). Though the ship possessed some very advanced technology, including weapons and medical facilities, it appeared as though none of the workers knew how to operate them. As a result, the aliens had to be resettled and much of their technology began to fall into human hands.

The ship also appeared to have a command module in addition to its vast main hull. As long as this module remains detached from the main vessel, it will hold its last position and remain inert. This was rather crucial to the plot of the movie, since one of the aliens was keeping the module hidden until he could affect repairs. This necessitated that the passengers remain in a camp on Earth until he was finished and they could return back home.

GVD Hatshepsut:
I know what you’re thinking. “This guy must be obsessed with Freespace!” You’ve got some attitude buster! Besides, if you’d played this game much, you’d realize I have only begun to do it justice. Thus far, I’ve included Terran and Shivan ships in these lists, but there’s a wealth of Vasudan ones as well that deserve mention.

To keep it short, the Vasudans were a race of desert-dwelling people who loved history and venerated ancient things. As a result, the Terran forces associated them with the ancient Egyptians and designated their ships accordingly. Likewise, their heaviest ship, the Hatshepsut-class, was named in honor of the most powerful queen in Egypt’s history.

As a cruiser-carrier, the Hastshepsut carried a wide array of weapons. This included multiple laser turrets, point-defense turrets, fusion mortars, anti-ship beams and heavy beam emitters. In its massive carrier bay, which has points of entry on either side of the ship, carries over 30 wings of fighters, bombers and support craft. Other improvements over older models include a heavily reinforced hull and more powerful reactors, which give it the ability to maintain beam fire for longer periods of time.

Independence Day Mothership:
I seem to be in a Mothership kind of mood today. And I seem to recall someone suggesting I include this one some time ago, can’t remember who did, sorry. Just raise your hand and I’ll be sure to give you the credit ;).

Though I’ve pretty much mocked and bashed this movie every chance I could get, I have to admit that Independence Day remains a guilty pleasure for me. And when I saw it, I did think the mothership was pretty cool. And there were things beyond its aesthetics which I now see as praiseworthy.

Much like the District 9 and Alien Nation motherships, this vessel was also a generation ship. As stated in the course of the movie, it housed the better part of the alien race’s people and all of its landing forces. These were all kept within its massive internal bays, which appeared more like an internal city than anything else. These forces were apparently being held in reserve until their attack ships were finished leveling humanity’s cities and destroying it’s defenses.

And as was illustrated at the beginning, it also houses all the attack ships on its exterior. Though not much in the way of technical details are offered in the movie, the ship was very clearly massive and most likely incapable of anything more than sublight speeds.

Liberty Class Cruiser:
Wow, I almost got through an entire list without mentioning Star Wars. But I don’t imagine I’ll be making a list anytime soon with a single mention from that universe. And today, it’s the MC80 Liberty-class Mon Calamari Cruiser.

Like all Mon Calamari cruisers, each design was unique, making classification somewhat difficult in the early days of the Rebellion. Though the Liberty-class was technically of the same make as Home One (also classified MC80), the Liberty was smaller, narrower and had a pair of wing-like appendages attached to its hull.

In addition, it also packs a lighter weapons array and compliment of fighters and bombers. Measuring 1200 meters in length, the ship boasts a total of 48 turbolasers and 20 ion cannons while three squadrons of fighters provide this ship with protection. All this, combined with its smaller size, make the Liberty best suited for support as part of larger assault missions.

Several of these ships took part in the assault on the second Death Star during the Battle of Endor. It was also Liberty-class that was the first to fall when the Death Star began firing its massive laser. However, these ships proved instrumental in attaining victory, their sleek profiles and coordinated weapons making them effective in close quarters against larger Star Destroyers.

Retribution-class Battleship:
At last, Warhammer 40k makes it into the Cool Ship series. And I’ll think you’ll all agree, this particular ship is pretty cool! Built to resemble an old-world Dreadnought, the Retribution-class is a massive ship of the line in the Imperial Navy, the human faction in the expanded universe (otherwise known as the Space Marines).

Featuring the distinctive armored prow of the Imperial Navy, this ship is able to speed headlong into an enemy fleet and deploy fire from both sides. It is also as fast as the main cruisers of the Imperial fleet, which comes in handy during large-scale fleet engagements where it’s support can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

The main armament of the Retribution class are its rows upon rows of laser batteries lining the sides. For close-quarters fighting, it also carries several torpedo launchers that are capable of delivering devestating, armor-peircing blows. To top it off, the ship is equipped with a series of Lance beam turrets along the dorsal of the ship. They are normally used for finishing off an enemy ship that the main weapons have crippled, or providing return fire when the battleship is closing in on its foes.

Warlock-class Destroyer:
And what would the list be without at least one B5 mention? As a final example, I have decided to include the prototype Warlock-class Destroyer that was making its debut just as the original show was ending. It also made several subsequent appearances in the TV movie Call to Arms and the spinoff series Crusade.

Rushed into production during the last days of the Earth Alliance Civil War, the Warlock featured some of the most advanced technology available. This included advanced weaponry, engines, and most importantly, artificial gravity. This, more than anything else, gave it the advantage over the older Omega-class destroyers which relied on rotating sections.

The Warlock’s engines are a hybrid design featuring the standard ionic thrust modules and a gravitic drive, which like the artificial gravity is borrowed from the Minbari. In terms of weapons, this ship carries two particle beam cannons, multiple heavy cannons and point defense turrets, and 28 large and medium missile arrays. In addition, the original concept also involved a Shadow machine which was buried in the ship’s core. These were promptly removed once Clarke was overthrown, for obvious reasons.

Much like its Omega-class predecessor, it also has a launch bay located at the bow of the ship between its sensor arrays and its cannons. And given it’s larger size, it is able to carry additional squadrons of Starfuries, Thunderbolts and support craft. And of course, its jump capable!

Wow, ten installments of cool ships, totalling close to eighty different vessels. I think some kind of celebration is in order to mark this milestone. Too bad I’m sick as a dog, I’d tilt a glass. Maybe those who read these posts can do that for me. Fill a glass with whatever imbibing liquid you like best and toast your favorite franchises for bringing us these inventive, imaginative designs. Some day, they might just be the basis for something real…

Top 10 Most Nostalgic SF Games

Hey all. The other day, a revolutionary idea came to me. What with all the other sci-fi stuff I cover, why haven’t I made any mention of sci-fi videogames? Not sure, really, seems kinda obvious now that I think about it. God knows I love talking about the stuff that inspired me, and I’m not ashamed to admit it that sometimes, those things have been games.

Whether they were first-person shooters, space combat simulators, or strategy games, there are some games which have stuck with me over the years. It might have been their cool game-play, inspired backstories, or classic sci-fi elements. Who knows? Point is, I liked them then and, with some exceptions, I like them now.

Anyway, here are the top then that stand out in my mind, in ascending order:

10. Halo 2
Granted, this game has not been with me too long, as I came to it a bit late in its existence. But I still count it among my top sci-fi nostalgic classics. And in that, I am hardly alone! For gamers, Halo 2 was one of the most anticipated sequels of the last decade. Combing kick-ass gameplay, a cool storyline, and some badass weapons and vehicles, Halo 2 remains a game that I can play over and over.

My favorite missions are the earliest ones when the Covenant are assaulting. Room to room and street to street combat with automatic weapons is much fun! And commandeering a Warthog and joyriding through the transit tunnels of New Mombasa? Pure action gaming art! And while I never really got into the multiplayer thing too much, I have to admit that it’s both extensive and endlessly entertaining.

In addition, I found the storyline highly respectable. In addition to having a classic sci-fi and space opera feel, it contained some genuinely respectable themes and plot devices. The whole backstory about the Forerunners was interesting; but then again, anything involving an ancient and extinct species who’s technology still litters the Galaxy is cool! And the way the Covenant theocracy was following what they believe to be the path to salvation, when in fact they were walking headlong into their graves – tell me that’s not significant!

9. Doom
Granted, it didn’t have the most inspired storyline, but do you think a 16 year old boy gives a damn about stuff like plot and character development? No, he cares about shooting guns and blowing shit up! And that’s precisely what this game was good for when I was a surly teen looking for some fun and adventure on my PC.

And in a lot of ways, this game was a pioneering piece of software. It’s first campaign was made available through shareware, it was one of the first first-person shooters of all time, and it established a new standard when it came to gore and violence.

Thousands of others would follow, each following Doom’s example of a varied arsenal, raw firepower and bloodletting! It was also spawn a slew of sequels, comics, and RPG, and even a horrible, horrible movie. It also provided me with the means to mispend my youth. Good job Doom!

8. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Speaking of time poorly spent, I can’t tell you how many hours I dedicated to playing this game when I first got it. As I recall, I was in my early 20’s at the time and living in a tiny bachelors apartment in Ottawa. One day this game came in the mail courtesy of one of my best friends (thanks Chi!). I spent the next three days playing it all the way through, pausing only to eat, sleep, and maintain some semblance of a life.

Yes, it was just that addictive. And all because it combined quest-based gameplay with lightsaber duels, a detailed universe, and a genuine Star Wars-esque storyline. Granted, its replay value is a little shaky given that most of the fun comes from completing quests and uncovering the whole mystery plot, but I still found ways to waste time with it!

Another appealing feature about this game was the fact that it took place during the Sith Wars, something that gets mentioned in the expanded universe but never really covered in any detail. So while you’re playing, you get the added benefit of having some important background info filled in for you. If you’re a Star Wars geek, which I admittedly am, this is kind of a big deal…

7. Starcraft
Granted, it took Blizzard FOREVER to make the sequel, but they been busy, what with Diablo, Warcraft, and all their various sequels. And in the meantime, they did give us that fantastic expansion pack to tide us over.

In any case, Starcraft has to be one of the most infinitely replayable games in the history of real-time strategy games. It’s creative, got a good storyline, and some genuinely awesome characters. The Terran Marines are delightful hicks, the Protoss religious zealots, and the Zerg horrifying beasts. What’s not to like? And let’s not forget the multiplayer, which kept gamers entertained for years after the original release date.

And as I said, the expansion pack was really great. As if the original storyline and units weren’t enough, they managed to make some truly worthy add ons with Brood War. I especially loved the Medics and the Dark Templar, the former making Marine shoot em ups more effective, and Dark Templars who’s dark look and hyperblades were just so cool. But the storyline was still what I liked best. Terran exiles, invading aliens, complicated alliances, double-crosses and intrigue. Can’t wait to see how what happens in SC II. Just need me a faster computer before I try to play the damn thing is all!

6. Command and Conquer
Speaking of real-time strategy games, the next up is the classic Command and Conquer! Though I didn’t take to the sequels so much, I thoroughly enjoyed this baby for like a whole summer between grades 11 and 12. And much like Starcraft, the multiplayer was the icing on the proverbial cake, taking all the guerrilla fighting and strategizing to new heights.

And the storyline, once again, is something which I certainly appreciated, being an alternate history and all. To break it down, the story takes place in a world where Hitler never came to power in Germany and Stalin became the big menace of the century in his absence. Once he was defeated, a global coalition known as GDI (Global Defense Initiative) was formed.

And in a way, the game predicted the “war on terror” a bit early, predicting that this coalition would have to fight against a multinational terrorist organization (Brotherhood of Nod) for global supremacy. This war was triggered by the arrival of an alien substance, known as Tiberium, to Earth, an organic-mineral compound that is also radioactive. Pretty cool, real science fictiony when you get right down to it. And the varied units were also neat, each side having their own distinct soldiers, vehicles and special abilities. These made things like rushing virtually impossible, as all units had their own strengths and weaknesses, and could not therefore make offensives unless they had support.

5. X-Wing
Another classic game and one of the most popular flight simulators of all time. Maybe it was because it combined space dogfights with the Star Wars universe. Maybe it was because every kid who grew up with the franchise wanted to fly X-wings and take down the Death Star. Who knows? Point is, it worked, and I for one got a real kick out of it.

Taking place before and during the events of the original movie, X-wing follows the exploits of a Rebel pilot who fights for the Alliance in a series of campaigns. These include raids, escort missions, seizure operations, reconnaissance, and ultimately, large scale assaults. While most missions involve piloting the venerable X-wing, you also get to fly A-wings, Y-wings, and even B-wings (in the expansion pack).

Over time, these campaigns culminate in an attack on the Death Star from the end of the first movie. In the expansion pack, the story continues with the evacuation of Yavin and the search to find a new base of operations, eventually leading to the establishment of a base on Hoth. These events, which took place between movies one and two, are fertile ground and get a good showing here. The same is true with all the early events of the franchise, stuff we hear about in the original movie and expanded source material, but never got to see.

One of the coolest things about this game was the details. When assaulting enemy ships, you could disable them as well as destroy them. This could include disabling subsystems with ion guns or missiles, or targeting things like engines and weapons and destroying them. When assaulting capital ships, you were also able to take out weapons and missile turrets, not to mention shield arrays. This made for a more realistic gameplay, something which other space combat games would emulate in years to come.

4. Wing Commander II
Coming in fourth on this list is the second installment in the Wing Commander series. Another space-combat simulator, this game emerged at about the same time as X-wing and was, at least in my neighborhood, its chief competitor for all the mispent hours we would play games!

In truth, I’m kind of hard pressed to pick one game in the series, since I loved the first three games. But when it comes right down to it, I think I spent the most amount of hours on this one, so WC II for the win! Picking up where the first one left off, this game in the series is set aboard the TCS Concordia and follows the exploits of the series’ protagonist Capt. Christopher Blair.

This is something that set the WC series apart from other space-combat simulators, which is the story-driven and personal nature of the game’s story. Even though the protagonist wasn’t given an official name until the third game (gamers got to use whatever name they wanted), everything centered around the life of this one person, their experiences being yours and helping to shape the course of the game.

In short, after being humiliated and demoted due to the destruction of your former ship, the Tiger’s Claw, you are relegated to a backwater assignment aboard a space station. You remain there, until the TCS Concordia shows up in-system looking for help. After defending her, you are transferred aboard her and become part of its campaign to fight the Kilrathi for control of the Enigma sector (if this is starting to sound familiar, then chances are you read my blurb on the Tiger’s Claw in the Cool Ships series).

In any case, by game’s end, you clear your name, defeat the Kilrathi, and gain control of the sector. Much fun! And because it was personally focused, you find yourself getting emotionally involved and being that much more concerned with winning each mission in your campaign. And of course, as with the first game in the series, this one also had spinoffs which added to the fun as well.

3. Wing Commander Privateer
Though this game bears the WC name, it was more of a spinoff than part of the series. And that’s one of the things I loved about it. Though connected to the main storyline, it was a standalone space combat simulator with a story of its own, and which delved into the world of pirates, smugglers and privateers.

Arriving in my game pile between WC II and just after Doom, I spent the better part of a year playing this game because it was just so replayable! What made it fun was the fact that with this installment in the WC universe, you were a private contractor, you pulled missions for hire, and you used your money to upgrade your ship and buy new ones altogether.

You also got to choose your focus in the game. You could become a merchant, a mercenary, both, and add to that with a little pirating and illegal trading. And of course, there was a larger story set to the backdrop of the Confederation-Kilrathi war and your own drive to get rich. Basically, it involved an ancient ship that was roaming around the quadrant, killing ships on both sides. If you chose to partake of this campaign, you followed clues, pulled jobs, and pieced together the mystery of the ship until it was destroyed.

But above all, the most cool aspect of the game was the richly detailed universe. There were literally dozens of systems and planets for you to venture to, as well as space stations and pirate hideouts. Every place had its own feel and aim, and the jobs you could pull on any given one were suited to match. Years later, I would remind myself of this game when it came time to develop my own sci-fi universe (again, the one I used to write Legacies).

2. Descent: Freespace
One such game was the smash hit and personal favorite of mine, Descent: Freespace. Released in 1999, this game remains one of the best fighter simulators I have ever seen. And I’m hardly alone in thinking that, seeing as how several games (including the online BSG game) have used its engine as a platform. Much like Half Life 2, this game has had many imitators and borrowers due to the sheer wickedness of its design.

But again, one of the things that I loved about this game was its backstory. Set in the 23rd century, the GTA (Galactic Terran Alliance) is at war with an alien race known as the Vasudans. This war has been ongoing and spans several star systems, with losses numbering in the millions. However, all this changes when a new race, known as the Shivans, appears suddenly and begins attacking both sides indiscriminately. After several attacks, the GTA and the Vasudans agree to put aside their differences and focus on this common threat, as the Shivans are clearly not playing favorites.

Also, the Shivans possess vastly superior technology. Their ships are shielded – something neither side has – and are very difficult to track on sensors. Their capital ships are also very tough and hard to disable, and their largest vessel, the Lucifer (expect to see it in the next Cool Ships installment) seems invulnerable to conventional attack. As a result, much of the game is spent conducting intel gathering and raids to procure pieces of the aliens technology. And things really escalate when the Lucifer discovers the location of Vasuda Prime and Earth.

What I loved about this game was how much it reminded me of Babylon 5 and the whole Earth-Minbari war, how Earth Force found itself so outmatched and struggled to try and find a way to beat Minbari technology. I often wondered if the game designers had been inspired by it, given the common elements. On top of that is the fact that you never really get to learn why the Shivans are attacking, or even what they look like. The mystery of who and what they are remains well into the sequel.

But even without all that, the gameplay itself was nothing short of awesome. The missions were realistic, the ships were realistic, and the space combat was realistic (and detailed). I’m not ashamed to admit that this game actually formed part of the basis for my own sci-fi creation, the novel Legacies and the kind of universe it was set in. Being gritty and realistic, I thought I’d found my perfect muse, and did my best to adopt, if not outright copy, a lot of its feel.

Ah yes, and according to an article I read recently, it appears that there might be a third installment at some point in the future. Efforts have kind of stalled, but apparently the developers who worked on the first two games said that they “would kill for a chance to develop Freespace 3.” Given how the sequel ended on a cliffhanger and just how kick-ass this series is, I count myself among them! Tell me who’s gotta go, I’ll take care of ’em!

1. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
Finally, coming in at first place, is Sid Meier’s sci-fi spinoff, Alpha Centauri! Much like the Civilization series which bore his name (and which I adored!), this game was a turn-based strategy engine that focuses on civilization building and conquest, with the player choosing a faction and then ensuring that they become the dominant force in the game.

However, what set this game apart from the Civilization ones was its uniquely speculative and futuristic undertone. Based in part on the Civ games, this story is basically an extension of the original series, where games would end when a player either conquered the world or won the space race by sending a colony ship to Alpha Centauri.

But far from just picking up where these games left off, this game revolves around the idea that Earth was abandoned by the people on the colony ship because of its rampant overpopulation, war, famine, chaos and environmental destruction. This puts the stakes much higher, as the mission is not just to colonize but ensure the survival of the human race.

The story begins with the colonist splitting into five factions before they make “Planetfall”. These include the Morganites (a bunch of monopolistic capitalists), the Gaians (environmentalists), the Hive (totalitarians), the Believers (religious zealots), the Spartans (survivalists), the University (rationalists), and the Peacekeepers (humanitarians). Together, they represent the entirety of the human race, all its particular drives and obsessions. Their struggle clearly mirrors of that of humanity in the present day world.

On top of all that, there’s a planet-wide organisms which is made up of pink fungi and “mind worms”. This organism, as a whole, grows and evolves towards super-sentience every few million years as the planet’ sun reach perihelion. Naturally, this has coincided with the arrival of the colonists, and therefore poses a threat to their survival. So in addition to dealing with the threat of the other factions, there is added threat coming from the planet itself.

In the end, there are any number of ways to win the game. You can conquer the other factions, in which case it is reasoned that you will be able to face the growing threat from “planet” unimpeded. There is a an economic victory, in which a single faction corners the “energy market” (energy being the basis of currency on this world). Then you have diplomatic victory where you basically ally yourself with every faction left in the game, followed by the “transcendental” victory where you become the first faction to achieve union with the planetary organism.

This last option is the biggest and best, being the one that deals with the biggest problem of what to do about the planet and in such a way that ensures humanity’s virtual immortality. By merging humanities consciousness with the planetary organism, you not only achieve a degree of immortality, you also help ensure that the organism won’t regress this time around. And it gives you the highest final score, which is why I always preferred it.

And then there’s all the cool units you get to make. As with the other Civ games, new technologies give you the ability to craft new units. This grows more complex and varied the more technologies you unlock, giving you the means to equip units with new weapons, armor, and special abilities. But the best thing about this game, aside from all the classic sci-fi elements, is the inspired nature of it all. Some serious thought went into the technologies you research, as well as the philosophical models you can adopt.

I’m telling ya, its like some serious sci-fi geeks got together, read all the classics, swallowed the works of Sartre, Plato, Nietzsche, and then waded through the theories of Einstein and Hawkins. This game was a favorite of mine during the early 2000’s, and recently, I managed to get an a copy of it through Amazon.com and have been wasting time on it once more. I’m a happy manchild!

Okay, now I’m feeling kinda weird, geeky, and like I got some serious wasted time to make up for…  But hey, I’m not sorry! Like most people my age, I grew on the dubious combination of television, movies, and video games, with a few genuine experiences thrown in for good measure. If we can’t appreciate the stuff we wasted our youth on, then what good is it? Until next time 😉