I am an avowed console gamer. I have been ever since I first started out with the SNES when I was 6 years old. Yet I have always had a major soft spot for great PC-based flight simulators. Indeed, if there is one thing that I dislike about console gaming, it is that consoles were partly responsible for killing off one of the most innovative, challenging, and interesting genres in all of gaming. I have fond memories of playing through classic games like STAR WARS: TIE Fighter and STAR WARS: X-Wing Alliance back in the day on my old Windows PC; the experience was always exhilarating, rewarding, and challenging. And I am sure that there are plenty of old-school gamers here at Reaxxion who mourn the demise of the Wing Commander series and of Starlancer.
All of those titles were truly great entries in the history of gaming, and provided many hours of great enjoyment for gamers all over the world. However, if there is one game that in my mind not only defines, but transcends the space sim genre, it is the Volition Inc. classic, Descent: Freespace – The Great War.
A Galaxy in Flames
Originally conceived as a kind-of-sort-of follow-up to the highly successful Descent series of vehicle combat simulation games, this game took everything that was great about its progenitors and its contemporaries, and became a legend in its own right.
In Freespace, humanity has spread throughout the stars, utilising your typical sci-fi MacGuffin for FTL travel—in this case, “subspace jump nodes”—under the aegis of the Galactic Terran Alliance. In the process of colonial expansion, a hostile alien race known as the Parliamentary Vasudan Empire is encountered; the resulting war between the Terrans and the Vasudans grinds on for 14 long and terrible years. You are a rookie pilot attached to the Galactic Terran Destroyer (actually a carrier—the unit designations are a little weird) Galatea, and after a few initial training missions, which you can skip if you so choose, you are thrust straight into a world of white-knuckle space-based combat.
You start out with the bog-standard GTF Apollo-class escort fighter, with simple laser weapons and fire-and-forget (FAF) missiles. Immediately you realise that your Vasudan opponents are faster, sleeker, and more manoeuverable, and in some cases, better armed. You have no energy shielding, and only your wits, reflexes, and skills stand between you and an ugly death in the cold depths of space.
Through the course of several epic, objective-driven missions, you become a master of your craft and of the art of dogfighting. The war begins to turn in favour of humanity. Along the way, you deal with traitors to humanity in peremptory and brutal fashion, as is right and just. Victory, it seems, is within your grasp.
And then everything changes.
The opening cutscences for this game hinted at a threat far more terrible than anything humanity has ever seen, approaching silently and hungrily from the frozen depths of the void. In the course of a single mission, you come face-to-face with a threat that no one is prepared for: the Shivans, descending like the wrath of the death-god himself upon both Terrans and Vasudans. Their fighters carry energy shields and weapons far more powerful than anything you’ve ever seen; their craft are ridiculously manoeuverable; and their skill and ferocity in dogfighting is beyond your worst nightmares.
And that’s before we get to their capital ships. The things are huge, armed to the teeth, and capable of wiping out entire fleets all by themselves.
Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, you come across a supercarrier that is named, appropriately, the Lucifer, capable of pounding entire planets flat and laughing about it the next day.
From that moment on, you’re on the back foot, desperately scrambling to stay alive in the face of overwhelming odds and a truly vast gap in technology. The rest of the game depicts the newly-formed Galactic Terran-Vasudan Alliance and its attempts to find some way to stop the Shivan juggernaut from wiping out both races completely. Billions die as the Lucifer simply cuts through the combined fleets of both races with all the contemptuous ease of a tiger tearing a tethered goat to pieces.
In this game, there is no prize for second place. It’s them, or you.
Rule Number One: Always Check Your Six
This game subscribes to the design philosophy of “doing more with less”—and boy, did it deliver. The storyline is straightforward; there are no branching, outcome-dependent missions like there were with Wing Commander. The mission premises are simple: blow up fighters, protect cargo and transports, escort ships, gather intel, that sort of thing. There are no “Battle of Endor”-type sequences, where you and maybe three other wingmen face off against approximately a gadzillion fighters that all somehow spontaneously explode the moment they turn left; instead, the game focuses on delivering exactly what a space-sim should deliver—gripping, white-knuckle, seat-of-your-pants Top-Gun-INNN-SPAAAAAAAACE combat.
In fact, there are so many great things about this game to remember that it is actually difficult to figure out where to start. So let’s begin with something simple yet fundamental: controls.
This game, like its contemporaries, STAR WARS: X-Wing vs TIE Fighter and STAR WARS: X-Wing Alliance, has highly customisable controls. Pretty much every action can be reassigned to a different hotkey, but you’d be just fine sticking with the defaults. You can play it using a keyboard and a mouse, but for best results, you really should use a joystick with programmable buttons (which would be pretty much any joystick on the market, these days). The beauty of this game is that, while it deals with challenging concepts—flying in space is literal rocket science—you don’t need a degree in physics to figure out the control scheme. It’s simple, intuitive, and direct, translating right away from your usual WASD keyboard layout into a joystick-based flight sim.
The unique aspect of flight sim games is, and has always been, the fact that they are about flight. If a flight sim cannot accurately deliver the mechanics of flying in a way that makes sense to the end user, it has failed. A fast, nimble, agile fighter should by definition feel very different from a big, slow, lumbering bomber. In this game, the differences are immediately felt through the interface; you can practically feel the slow turns and ponderous movements of a GTB Medusa or GTF Hercules when compared to a GTF Valkyrie or GTF Ulysses.
As with most space-sim games, the development team opted for non-Newtonian flight physics, which at first glance might seem a bit odd. This simply means is that, even though you’re flying through a frictionless vacuum, your spacecraft acts as though you’re flying through atmosphere, where your engines are constantly on and acceleration and deceleration are achieved simply by moving the throttle. However, the collision mechanics are completely Newtonian—this simply means that if you fly into something, you and it go boom.
It is a strange combination if you stop to think about it, but the beauty of games like this is that, if done right, you don’t think about it—you just play. This choice was made to make the game as intuitive as possible; if Volition had tried to go for realism instead, the control scheme, fighter design, and indeed the entire gameplay experience would have been radically different. Having played some of the truly great space sims from around that time, I’m not convinced that such changes would actually be an improvement.
Rule Number Two: Never Forget Rule Number One
The graphics and sound effects of this game might look dated nearly 20 years later, but at the time, they were amazing. Indeed, in some ways, they still are. The explosions are vivid and visceral. The sound effects are meaty and punchy, and if you play this game with a proper speaker system rigged up to your PC, you will enjoy the experience.
The enemy AI, particularly when you get to the missions involving the Shivans, is competent enough to make certain missions a real challenge. The mission setups are immensely good fun to play through. There are missions in which you’re flying solo against several waves of enemy fighters, and all you have are your wits, skill, and speed to save you. I remember with particular fondness that mission which requires you to capture a Shivan fighter so that Terran and Vasudan scientists can reverse-engineer its technology, which is really damned hard to do because the bastard is a nimble little sucker; in a subsequent mission, you then have to take that same captured fighter deep into enemy territory and do your absolute best to avoid detection while scanning an entire enemy fleet and gathering vital intelligence… only to have the twitchy electronics in your kludge of a fighter short out at the worst possible moments.
And then there is the literal meat-grinder of a mission known as “Tenderizer”, in which you have to stop a Shivan-aligned cruiser crewed by Vasudan extremists from basically suicide-ramming your home carrier. It is a brutally hard mission that you will likely fail, over and over again, until you figure out how to use your targeting controls to maximum advantage.
Speaking of which, this is a feature that has been used to serious effect in truly great space sims of the past, and not at all by the bad ones. In this game, the HUD and its targeting systems, when used correctly, allow you to select a target and then cycle through its subsystems, such as weapons, sensors, shields, and engines. If you load your craft with the correct weapons at the beginning of your mission, you will be able to selectively disable specific systems, thereby rendering your overall goal slightly easier.
Like all truly great space sim games, selecting the right craft with the right combination of weapons is critical to success. When playing STAR WARS: X-Wing Alliance, I would always choose an X-wing with proton torpedoes, whenever given the opportunity to modify my craft, because the X-wing was sufficient for all but the most difficult bombing runs and was perfectly suited to space-superiority and interceptor roles. In this game, by contrast, you can’t just select a GTF Valkyrie or GTF Ulysses, the two fastest and most manoeuverable fighters available to you in the GTVA arsenal. Some missions absolutely require the use of a heavy bomber like the GTB Medusa or the GTB Ursa; others require the use of a more balanced heavy fighter such as the GTF Hercules. Every choice requires trading speed for firepower, manoeuverability for shielding and armour. If you choose wisely, you’ll succeed; if you don’t, you’ll fail, often and hard.
An Evergreen Classic
This game is, in almost every way, the epitome of everything a space simulator game should be. It is absorbing, intuitive, immensely good fun to play, and delivers all of the excitement and tense enjoyment that a great game should deliver. It is a true classic of the genre, and having played it several times on both a standalone PC and a couple of laptops, I love it just as much today as I did back when I first started playing it nearly 15 years ago.
Here’s how I score this game:
Gameplay – When it comes to space sims, this might as well be called “Daddy”. It just doesn’t get any better than this. Even contemporary legends like Wing Commander: Prophecy, Starlancer, and STAR WARS: X-Wing Alliance could learn a thing or two from this game’s incredibly absorbing gameplay. Everything about it sucks you into a dark future where the very survival of humanity is on the line, and based on your actions and skills, either survives or is exterminated by the deadliest threat ever faced by the galaxy. 42 out of 45.
Controls – Totally intuitive, very easy to figure out, and yet highly customisable to your particular preferences and joystick layout. You can focus on just the core set of controls needed to keep you alive, or you can fiddle with the exact settings for everything from yaw and pitch sensitivity to weapons firing to targeting to manoeuvering, just the way you like it. Suited for both the novice gamer and the anorak alike. 25 out of 25.
Graphics – Excellent for the time, but quite dated now. Still highly impressive; a decent modern graphics card, combined with the highest possible resolution and graphic acceleration settings, will let you have a very good time without seriously straining your computer. You could easily run this on your average home laptop these days. 11 out of 15.
Sound – The music is atmospheric when it needs to be and strident when it has to be. The sounds alone are worth the price of admission, especially when stuff explodes. Crank the speakers up to 11 for those moments, they’re totally worth the ruptured eardrums. Of course, the soundtrack is a bit dated too—remember, this game is nearly 20 years old now—but it holds up remarkably well compared with most console games of the modern day. 8 out of 10.
Story – Simple, to the point, and yet totally gripping. About the only flaw I can find in it is that your wingmates mean nothing to you. They die around you by the dozen as you progress through the game, but you have no reason to care about them; they’re just living shields for your fighter as you repeatedly perform the impossible. Of course, given technological limitations back then, this is neither surprising nor problematic. The story is completely linear, though, so if you’re expecting a complex and outcome-dependent story, this ain’t the game for you. 4 out of 5.
Total Score – 90%, quite simply one of the greatest games of any genre, ever.
This game is available through Great Old Games, along with its possibly even better follow-up, Freespace 2, and the Silent Threat expansion pack, for like $15—that’s probably less than lunch at a Subway in Canada. And it’s DRM-free. You can install it, copy it, and play it as many times as you could possibly want. For the amount of enjoyment that this game and these add-ons will give you, it’s well worth skipping a crappy sandwich for lunch and forking over the cash for the games instead.
All right, come on, admit it: you always wanted to be a fighter pilot when you were a kid. This game lets you be the saviour of Mankind. And you get to fly the coolest planes your inner 8-year-old could possibly imagine. Oh, and it’s got EXPLOSIONS. Lots, and lots, and LOTS of VERY BIG EXPLOSIONS.
Unfortunately, there are no women with titanic tits in tight bikinis in this game. And you never get to hack anyone or anything apart at close range, or shoot anything in the face, or kick anything through a wall. So the up-close-and-personal aspect of manliness just isn’t there.
Still, this game manages a highly respectable 3 out of 5 pants-crappingly huge Shivan destroyers