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 XI)

Armageddon:
armageddonBack once more to the Eve universe, thank you Mr. Zidar for suggesting it in the first place! Here we have the Armageddon Battleship, the main heavy warship of the Amarr Empire. Packing a lot of firepower into its long, heavy frame, command of one of these is considered the greatest honor an Amarrian Captain can acheive within the Empire.

In terms of armaments, the Armageddon is studded with heavy turret batteries. Its forward section is also heavily reinforced, giving it the ability to ram into enemy ships while pulverizing them with weapon’s fire. It is also heavily shielded in addition to its armor, making it virtually impregnable to all but the most heavily armed cruisers.

Battle Galaxy Carrier:
battlegalaxy-carrierMuch like the SDF-1 from the Macross universe, the Galaxy Carrier is massive transforming ship that comes in two modes. In carrier mode, it is a massive ship that is capable of space flight and sea faring. In its battle mode, it takes the form of a massive mecha which is capable of kicking some very serious ass!

Build in the early-mid 21st century by the New United Nations government, its primary purpose was to act as a colonization vessel for the Macross fleet. And unlike previous colonization vessels, it boasted many new technologies – such as cybernetics and implants – which were meant to continually evolve as the ship traveled through space. On top of all that, it possesses cutting edge stealth technologies that make it capable of slipping past Zentraedi forces and blockades.

battlegalaxy-attackIn terms of armaments, the Battle Galaxy lives up to its name! In addition to an advanced Gunship Type Macross Cannon, which converts into its main firearm when in battle mode, it also has 12 heavy beam cannons (also available in battle mode), multiple phalanx beam cannons and missile launchers, and a compliment short range micro-missile batteries for point-defense.

Firstborn Monolith:
monolithIt would be an understatement to call this one a classic. Taken from the Arthur C. Clarke novel and the movie of the same name, the Monolith was the mysterious aliens means of transport in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Known as the Firstborn, this race was basically the first species to achieve sentience in the galaxy, making them many millions of years old. After eons of evolution and space exploration, these beings had basically evolved to the point where they were no longer flesh and blood.

So really, these monoliths were not so much ships as chariots to carry their uploaded consciousness to the stars. Composed of unknown material and impenetrable to everything from scanners to nuclear detonators, they were a mystery to humanity of the 21st century. It also didn’t help that the only man get within spitting distance of an operational one disappeared, his last words being “My God, it’s full of stars!”

GTF Ulysses:
gtf_UlyssesThis ship, taken once again from the Freespace gaming universe, was one of the fastest and most maneuverable ships in the known universe. A collaborative effort between Terran and Vasudan scientists, it possessed the best design features and technologies they could muster. The Ulysses was designed for service in the Great War, but because of its assets, it saw service with GTVA forces long after the Lucifer was destroyed and the last of the Shivans routed.

In terms of armaments, it was lightly armed compared to other fighters, with four gun mounts, but only two ordinance bays. In the end, its greatest assets were its speed and maneuverability which made it highly effective against faster Shivan ships. In a dog fight, few things could catch it, or get around fast enough to hit it!

Inhibitor Square:
black_cube_world-1024x768These are the mysterious, dark and malevolent machines from the Revelation Space universe. Also known as “The Wolves”, they are a semi-sentient race of machinery that is designed to locate sentient star-faring cultures and exterminate them. However, the Inhibitors didn’t do this using lasers or photon weapons.

Much like the Firstborn from Clarke’s Space Odyssey series, they relied on a series of natural processes. The only real difference was they did it for destruction purposes. For example, when they became alerted to the presence of humanity on Resurgam, they chose to disassemble the planet’s gas giant bit by bit in order to create a massive trumpet like device in space. This was basically a gravitational weapon which they began using to shake the system’s sun to pieces.

Megathron:
megathronAnother Eve warship, the Megathron is the battleship of choice for the Gallente faction. It accelerates quickly, has a high armor capacity, and is very versatile due to its seven turret slots and two launcher hardpoints. This last feature is rare in Gallente ships, which tend to focus on energy weapons.

Because of its many weapons slots, the Megathron can be adapted to long range fire, known as the “Sniperthron”. This vessel is capable of engaging enemies at a distance of 150 km, but leaves it vulnerable to close range attacks and strips of the ability to heal. Another common build is the “Blasterthron” where the weapons of choice or short-range blasters, making it one of the toughest battleships around.

NTF Iceni:
ntf_iceniOnce more onto the Freespace franchise, dear friends. Here we have the one-of-kind prototype vessel known as the Iceni, the brainchild of the Neo-Terran Federation’s commander, Admiral Aken Bosch. Designed to be a command ship and mobile research platform, the Iceni was also a highly capable attack vessel, boasting mutiple turrets, beam mounts and missile batteries.

As part of project ETAK, the Iceni was the only vessel capable of communicating with the Shivans. After being mistaken for a command facility in an asteroid belt, Bosch was forced to deploy this ship prematurely. After shedding it’s housing asteroid, it set course for Gamma Draconis, where it used an Ancient jump gate to flee into unknown space. After making contact with the Shivans, the ship was boarded and most of the crew killed. Once the survivors were rescued, the ship engaged its self-destruct sequence and was lost.

In addition to being faster and more maneuverable than most ships its size, the Iceni also packed as much firepower as a Deimos-class frigate. These included 3 large beam emitters, 7 heavy turrets, 9 defenses turrets, 2 flak batteries, and 4 defensive missile batters. As such, it was capable of standing toe-to-toe with any comparable ship in the Terran or Vasudan armadas, and outrunning anything larger.

Prometheus:
prometheus_shipJust to be clear, I haven’t seen the movie… yet! I wanted to, but I dragged into seeing another film last night which also rocked (see below)! Luckily, I have seen enough trailers and promotional videos to know a few things about the eponymously named vessel. So here she is, just one day (finger crossed) before I see her on the silver screen! As an exploration vessel, the USCSS Prometheus was a designed for deep-space expeditions to alien worlds.

As a full-service space taxi, it was designed for both atmospheric and space flight and could therefore forgo the need for landing pods and shuttles. This was all made possible thanks to its reinforced hull, four multi-vector thrusters that allowed for verticle take off and landing, and an observation deck that allowed the crew a panoramic view of space and whatever landscapes they were surveying. During takeoff and atmospheric entry, these are enclosed by a series of protective shields.

Prometheus_ship_rearOn top of all that, it was packed with amenities for its crew. These included a large bay for heavy equipment and expedition vehicles, a full-service mess hall, a medical bay, recreational facilities, a built-in basketball court, long-range communications systems, crew quarters, cryogenic chambers, and holographic display windows. And of course, the ship’s own laboratory which served as its main research center. No doubt about it, ships like this, courtesy of the Weyland Corporation, ensured that crews could travel in style and comfort before being horribly killed by extra-terrestrials!

Special Mention: The Avenger Helicarrier!
Yes, I managed to get out last night to the movie theater. But instead of catching Prometheus as I originally hoped, I was coaxed into seeing the Avengers instead. It-was-awesome! Tons of cool action, a respectable, multi-layered plot, and lots and lots of cool shit! Kudos to Joss Whedon, I think he just became my hero!

And one of the things I liked best about this movie was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own big-ass helicarrier! When they hinted that it was both a carrier and a sub, I was like “Whoaaaa! Like something out of Robotech!” But then, out came those massive turbofans and it took off! I just sat and stared for several, sustained minutes. My wife laughed at me. At that point, I said, “Okay, maybe you were right to want to see this.”

Anyhoo, much like something out of Robotech, this carrier was a massive machine that came in two modes. In its standard mode, it was your basic aircraft carrier similar in appearance to a Nimitz-class carrier. In its other mode, it is a freaking hovercraft, where four massive turbofans and two sets of jet engine clusters allow it to fly! It also has a comprehensive camouflage system where a series of reflector panels obscure it from sight, similar to adaptive camouflage.

And of course, as an aircraft carrier, it also has the usual amenities, which include several squadrons of F-22 and F-35 fighters and quinjets. And though armament didn’t come up in the movie, we can also assume that it has a full compliment of Phalanx point-defense cannons and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. But knowing S.H.I.E.L.D., I’m sure the list doesn’t end there. Most likely, they also got some cool stuff like an EMP, some rail guns, or laser devices in there too!