Reading my friend Mendicant Bias’ retrospective on Descent: FreeSpace — The Great War inspired my own nostalgia for the golden age of space sims. Wing Commander, TIE Fighter, and all the rest provided an experience that is virtually absent from games today: the sheer thrill of jumping into a cockpit and exploring the cosmos while mowing down bad guys with laser guns.
Space simulators require a level of skill and attention to detail that is anathema to modern gamers. Hell, most space sims from the nineties couldn’t even be ported to consoles, as they feature dense, keyboard-centric controls that use almost every button on the computer. It’s because of this that the genre has largely been left in the dust, save for the X series, Star Citizen and other niche projects.
With that in mind, I want to talk about one of the most forgotten—and unique—space sims ever made: Independence War 2: Edge of Chaos (or Edge of Chaos: Independence War 2 if you live in Europe). Both Independence War 2 and its predecessor (called I-War in Europe: Jesus, this shit is confusing) distinguished themselves by being utterly realistic… as realistic as games about flying spaceships could get, anyway.
When I describe Independence War 2 as “the most realistic space simulator ever made,” it’s not for nothing. Both the Independence War games featured gameplay based on real-world, Newtonian physics, long before Half-Life 2 and the Havok engine made every shooter into a ragdoll explosion fest. This isn’t just a minor detail: Independence War 2’s physics makes it radically different from just about every other space sim ever made.
Virtually every space simulator (and indeed, every depiction of spaceships in science fiction) is based off of the space battles in the original Star Wars movies. The problem is that Star Wars had fuck all to do with reality, as George Lucas based the movies’ battles off of old World War II dogfight footage. Those iconic images of Luke Skywalker dodging TIE fighters and ramming proton torpedoes up the Death Star’s ass would be impossible to pull off in real life.
On Earth, airplanes are limited by gravity and atmospheric drag. Planes have to continuously burn fuel to keep from slowing down and falling out of the sky. Fighter pilots can pull off hairpin turns and other tight maneuvers by taking advantage of drag and other forces. While inertia dictates that objects that are in motion tend to stay in motion, the planet’s gravitational and atmospheric forces will conspire to keep any object on Earth from moving indefinitely.
Independence War 2 is based around one simple principle: in space, there is no force to counteract inertia. When objects start moving, they keep moving until they collide with something. You don’t need to burn fuel continuously to travel in space, but if you want to change direction or stop, you have to fire your thrusters in the opposite direction just to stop your ship from moving. Hairpin turns? Forget about it: it’ll take you at least five seconds to change direction, enough time for the enemy to blow you to pieces.
Put simply, Independence War 2 will kick your ass if you try to play it like any other space sim. Combat in this game is less about in-your-face dogfighting and more about tactical thinking. Instead of turning, you strafe like in a first-person shooter, and long-range weapons are way more valuable than in other simulators. It takes some time to get used to, but after a few deaths, you’ll be navigating the game’s combat like a pro.
Independence War 2 is also one of the only space sims that accurately depicts the sizes and distances of outer space. In contrast to games like Freelancer where everything is squashed together, planets and space stations in this game are billions of kilometers apart. The game provides an option for light-speed travel to speed things up, but it’s also possible to simply head to your target by just pointing at it and switching on your engines… so long as you don’t mind leaving the game on for weeks.
Space Pirates And White-Collar Crooks
Where Independence War 2 falters is the plot. It’s not bad, mind you, but it’s not very well-written either. The game is set in the far future, in a cluster of stars known as the Badlands, where evil corporations rule the peasantry with an iron fist. You play as Cal Johnston, a cherubic 12-year old who watches as his father is brutally murdered by the evil industrial heir Caleb Maas, then is subsequently tossed into prison himself (i.e. after the tutorial ends). A decade later, Cal busts out of jail with the aid of a merry gang of misfits and swears revenge on Maas.
While the story throws enough twists at you to keep things interesting, the game’s uneven presentation is really annoying. Independence War 2 features beautiful pre-rendered cutscenes that move the plot along but pairs them with some of the worst voice acting and writing I’ve ever seen. Additionally, the game doesn’t bother explaining who any of these characters are: you literally go from 12-year old Cal flying around Hoffer’s Wake to being introduced to Kelly’s Heroes in Space!
Independence War 2 is somewhat open-ended: in between missions, you can wander the Badlands Cluster as you please, exploring planets and raiding ships for cargo. The latter is vital for surviving the game: bringing back cargo to your base allows you to trade it in for better weapons and equipment. The game’s save system is enormously frustrating—you can only save back at your base, meaning if you get killed at any point, you’ll end up having to do whole segments over again—but you can overcome it with practice and skill.
Overall, fans of space sims need to check out Independence War 2. It’s literally unlike any other sim out there in both its realism and gameplay. Be warned: you need a joystick with a hat stick to get the most out of the game (the hat stick is used to navigate the interface). While flawed, its uniqueness makes it a lot more endearing than it otherwise would be.