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  • Forgotten Gems #1: Freespace 2

    September 29th, 2017GamespotUncategorized

    Welcome to the first edition of an entirely new article series simply titled Forgotten Gems. As the name implies, this series will focus on genuinely great games that for one reason or another have been largely forgotten in the years after their release. In each instalment I will cover the story behind one game, why it failed to achieve the kind of commercial or critical success it deserved, and why it should be remembered today as a genuinely great game.

    Before we get started, a few rules are necessary. First, the game has to be at least 10 years old at the time of writing. Second, although there are no limits to how critically or commercially successful the game was upon release to be considered forgotten or overlooked today, naturally games that failed to achieve notable commercial success are more likely to be seen as such. Third, the term forgotten should naturally not be taken literally - these are simply games that the majority of people have not played or even heard of, but it's still certainly possible that you'll have come across some of the games in these articles.

    Finally, all of this is just my personal opinion. Every game I cover in these articles has been chosen because I feel like it deserves more exposure and attention. If you disagree with my assessment of a certain game, that is perfectly fine, but I'd still encourage you to share your thoughts on the game in the comments section. With that out of the way, let's get started.


    Freespace 2 – Volition's First Masterpiece


    Volition is today best known as the developer of the Red Faction and Saints Row franchises, and is often seen as one of the premier western video game developers, but back in the late 90s the company's greatest claim to fame was a duo of space-combat simulator games on PC. The first of these was Descent: Freespace – The Great War, which was released in 1998, and the second was its exceptional sequel which came out the following year. The latter is the game I'm covering in this article - Freespace 2.

    Freespace 2 takes place 32 years after the events of Descent: Freespace. The war against the mysterious alien race known as the Shivans decimated almost the entire human and Vasudan races, and forced the two to form a shaky alliance in order to have a chance of survival. After the final battle in the first game, where the Shivans' most powerful warship was destroyed, humanity's only path to Earth was also lost. Immediately after their loss the Shivans disappeared without an explanation.


    By the beginning of Freespace 2 the Terran-Vasudan alliance has remained intact. However, a splinter group within the human fleet calling itself the Neo-Terran Front despises the alliance and has incited a rebellion to end it. This has led to a continued war effort between the two forces, while the possible threat of a new Shivan invasion constantly looms over the horizon.

    After the success of the first Freespace, the sequel was quickly put into production with an extremely tight schedule mandated by Interplay, as they wanted to capitalize on the brand as quickly as possible. As a result Freespace 2 was fast-tracked to completion in less than a year, and was even finished ahead of the planned schedule.

    The good news was that upon release the game received glowing reviews from virtually every outlet. It also received numerous game of the year awards at the end of the year and was even listed amongst the greatest games of all time by some outlets. Unfortunately, this didn't translate to good sales; within its first six months of availability Freespace 2 sold just 26,000 copies.


    Why Was Freespace 2 Forgotten?


    By the time Volition had completed Freespace 2, its parent company Interplay was in great financial difficulties, and unlike with the first Freespace which had been marketed quite extensively before release, the sequel was released with barely any effort spent to build hype for it. Add to this the fact that, although Volition had great interest in creating expansions and add-ons for the game, Interplay simply told them to stop any development of further content for the title, and Freespace 2 was doomed to fail even before its release.

    Freespace 2 was also given much less focus than another Interplay published title that came out just a few months prior, namely Descent 3, which was in general given much greater attention by the publisher, both prior and after its launch. This drastically overshadowed Volition's title and forced it into a position where it was nearly impossible to succeed.


    Soon after, in 2000, Volition was bought by THQ, while the rights to the Freespace franchise remained with Interplay, effectively putting the franchise to rest for good as Interplay had very little interest in continuing working on it. Making things even more unfortunate was the fact that Freespace 2 ends on a cliffhanger - one which will likely forever go unresolved.

    Ultimately, Freespace 2 was sadly pushed out in record time by a publisher who had no intention of giving it a chance at retail. Volition created a game I still consider the best they've ever made, only to be forced to watch it crash and burn completely out of their control. Volition has since moved on to other projects, while Interplay has done nothing with the IP they still hold the rights to. The blame for this particular failure can be laid squarely on Interplay for their mishandling of every aspect of the game's release and the IP in general.


    What Makes Freespace 2 Still Worth Remembering?

    To this day I consider Freespace 2 among the finest examples of storytelling in video games. It succeeds in creating an atmosphere of near constant uncertainty, as the player is essentially just one small part of a vast conflict spanning dozens of star systems. The missions truly feel like a part of a massive conflict where anything can happen without warning, as the three factions constantly struggle to shift the balance of power in their favour. The scale of the war inspires awe, as you hear news from other battles taking place in other star systems and suddenly see giant warships jump in front of you from subspace without a moment's notice.

    The game succeeds by being constantly unpredictable, forcing players to adapt to sudden changes during missions. Freespace 2 is an example of a title where the only certainty is that nothing is certain. During any mission the original plan can suddenly go completely wrong when the game throws something new at the player without a warning. There are even branching storylines, depending on whether the player succeeds in certain tasks or not. A failure to protect a flagship can mean that later missions will have to be undertaken without its presence, for example.


    In addition, within the overarching story that focuses on the massive conflict, the game still manages to create some genuinely interesting characters to anchor the game's plot around, most notably the leader of the Neo-Terran Front, Admiral Aken Bosch, who over the course of the game becomes an almost mythical figure through his actions and the log entries you're shown. They create an image of a supremely talented and intelligent person who feels betrayed by the creation of the alliance between humanity and the Vasudans. He is the catalyst for most of the game's events, and drives the entire conflict forward through his actions.

    The gameplay is, still, almost 20 years later, near peerless within its genre. Just the normal gameplay with the player piloting a ship and fighting against enemy fleets feels extremely satisfying, but what elevates it even further is everything going on around the player during all of this. Freespace 2 features some of the most impressive space battles in video game history, as massive capital ships tear each other to pieces with beam cannons that split the battlefield in half. There were moments where I found myself just staring at two gigantic warships fighting, while dozens of fighters and bombers try to outmanoeuvre their opponents around them.


    Graphically, Freespace 2 has naturally aged a fair bit over the years, but thanks to the efforts of the game's loyal fans there are now numerous free and easily accessible mods which update the visuals considerably. The soundtrack, on the other hand, has more than held up and includes some beautifully haunting tracks that suit the mood and atmosphere of the game perfectly.

    The space combat simulator as a genre went largely extinct for many years at the turn of the millennium and Freespace 2 was for a long time one of its last true great masterpieces. It is one of the few games that, for me at least, never loses its impact no matter how many years pass. If you're even slightly interested in this type of game, give Freespace 2, and its predecessor as well, a chance. It is the best game in its genre even today as far as I'm concerned, and fortunately is very easily, and cheaply, available these days on both Steam and GoG (although I recommend the latter as the Steam version has some issues preventing the game from working sometimes).


    Freespace 2 is a true forgotten gem; a title that received excellent reviews upon release, but for reasons out of the dev team's control failed to attract a significant audience despite this critical praise. Freespace 2 should be remembered alongside other classics released around the turn of the millennium, but instead it has remained a humble favourite for the few people who were lucky enough to encounter it 18 years ago on store shelves.


    Are there any games you think should get more recognition? Leave a suggestion in the comments and it might get covered in one of these articles. Also, feel free to share feedback on the article series in general.

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