Conflict: Freespace   Leave a comment

Downhill from here.

A long time ago, there were different types of games. Instead of being a gruff, American marine running down corridors, hiding behind boxes and shooting Nazis/brown people/aliens/zombies; or being a car with absolutely no regard for road safety; or being a Stereotype in grimdark fantasy lands, you could be other things.

In some of them you could even be a space-ship, as perverse as that now sounds.

Freespace is one of those ancient relics from a bygone era. Specifically it’s a space-fighter dogfight game, a sub-genre that is, without any argument, utterly dead. Freespace 2 was probably its death-rattle.

As sad as that is, you can see why.

In these games, and Freespace is a perfect example, you control a small fighter or bomber craft, swooping around the void of space, blasting other fighters and bombers and ganging up to bring down massive capital ships.

Except… Not really. Really, absolutely no attempt to model combat in space is made. Really, you’re playing an extra-slow arcade World War II aeroplane shooter, but with gravity turned off, the ground stripped away, and with the sky painted black. The fastest ships have a maximum speed (!) that couldn’t keep up with a Supermarine Spitfire, and most trundle along at a rate that would leave Jeremy Clarkson thoroughly nonplussed. There is no inertia or any other aspect of space flight. Few of the ‘laser’ weapons have the muzzle velocity or effective range of an AK-47, and the missiles don’t compare to an AIM-9.
But so what, right? It’s a game! They can do whatever they want, and you can see why those decisions were made: firstly, to keep the game simple to play, and secondly to make the battles look like Star Wars.

Unfortunately, this model has two major downfalls.
Firstly, it in no way evokes actually flying through space. Anybody with even the slightest interest in the subject matter, or a GCSE in Physics, knows that Space-Ships Do Not Work That Way, and neither do lasers. These limits are quite obviously only in place to keep the flight model simple whilst not making hitting your target trivial, and it’s impossible to pretend you’re flying around space when everything about the game (other than the graphics) is screaming that you’re not.
Secondly, it renders the flight-model really quite dull. Without gravity working against you or the ground waiting to swat you, you’ve nothing to avoid but enemy ships and the occasional asteroid thrown in for variety. As you can only fly in the direction you’re facing, your maneuvers are limited to simple turns and rolls (without gravity, a loop and a turn are exactly the same as there’s no trade-off of airspeed vs. altitude). There is also absolutely nothing to stop you from coming to a complete halt in space in order to blast away at a capital ship or a circling enemy fighter, and rather than being suicidal, it can actually be a sensible tactic; with speeds being so low, and effective ranges so short, you will often wind up in tight dogfights where collisions are more likely than being shot. If you’re not moving you can’t run into anyone, and your turning rate improves, letting you bring your guns to bear more easily.

So, you have a genre that doesn’t offer any depth or complexity to its flying, so there’s nothing to really master. Oh, they bolt on a few extras like ordering wingmates and directing power between weapons, engines and shields, but as the use of these things is pretty obvious the challenge is more in remembering which keys they’re bound to, as you don’t have to use them that often. There’s no pretense at realism, so it’s not really capable of fulfilling space-flight fantasies.
And worst of all, which game in the genre am I describing:
“In some missions you simply destroy enemy fighters. In some you have to guard transports, or shoot down enemy bombers attacking a capital ship. In others you have to blow up enemy capitals or stations, and occasionally you have to scan a container or ship.”
Guessed? Yep, that’s right.

And so it died, because there was nothing more for the genre to do without changing fundamentally. Successor games took its combat and flight model and bolted on economics, to make modern interpretations of Elite, most notably Freelancer and the X series. They were still entirely unlike flying a space-ship (Freelancer had a peculiar sense of scale – up to about 2km it was fine, but above that it seemed that somebody had confused metres and kilometres. Whizzing around planets with a diameter of 10km, with every object in a system on the same plane, it felt more like driving without a ground. X2 was flying around a bunch of empty cubes, not any sort of continuous space.) but they gave you other things to worry about instead. Unfortunately, Frontier: Elite II gave you trading and mining, an entire galaxy to explore, and realistic physics in 1993. All on a single 3 1/2″ floppy disk.

Other games, such as the I-War series, attempted to model space flight more realistically, and this threw up its own problems. Firstly, cramming three rotation axes and three thrust axes onto traditional PC mice, keyboards and joysticks in a usable manner is pretty awkward, especially if you want them analogue; even fancy joysticks have only four axes, and normal throttle controls don’t make sense as absolute controls for a space-ship, and are generally not easily accessible enough to be, or designed to be used as, relative controls. Happily, modern twin-stick joypads are quite an improvement here; with one stick for pitch and yaw, the second for lateral and vertical thrust, and the triggers for forward and reverse thrust, you’re only missing out on roll (which could be toggled with a stick-press, as you can get by without it much of the time; when there is no “up”, which direction is at the top of your screen doesn’t really matter) and still have shoulder buttons, face buttons and the D-pad for any other game functions.
Secondly, it turns out that flying around space is quite hard. Not only is navigating an infinite, featureless void quite tricky, but judging your velocity – which is entirely independant of your orientation – against it is also difficult. As is judging the relative velocities of any other objects. This is primarily an interface problem, and both I-War and X2 gave the user virtual overlays onto the gameworld to allow the player to orient themselves, although there’s plenty of room for improvement here.

Unfortunately, these ideas haven’t really caught on, and games where you get to be a space-ship are ever more niche. Despite the suitability of their control systems, to the best of my knowledge nobody’s even attempted to make a space-flight simulator for the current crop of consoles.

So what of Freespace itself? Despite the previous thousand words berating its entire genre, it holds up well. Despite being thirteen years old, the graphics are perfectly functional (nothingness is very easy to render, meaning the objects can be more detailed than you might expect), and few of the missions take too long, meaning the game races along at a fair old pace, happily distracting you from the fact that most missions are a case of blasting the same waves of fighters over and over again while trying to accomplish some other task, and meaning you’re almost constantly getting newer, better toys to play with.
If you ignore the elephant in the room (why don’t the baddies just wait and send in all their ships at once? They’d easily overwhelm us. Because a Pentium 133 would have died under the strain, of course) it’s an entertaining shooter – and the first game I’ve finished in a very long time. It’s rarely difficult enough to be frustrating (although occasionally a little easy to get all the bonus objectives by accident), and the plot is interesting enough to make you want to know what happens next, even if it’s rarely integrated too tightly into (or affected by) the missions themselves. Even the voice acting is better than a lot of newer games.

And it shows you exactly why they don’t make them like this any more.

So, if you want a change from being a pretend American marine, and fancy being a pretend space-ship, shooting other pretend space-ships, there are probably only two games I could recommend more highly than this one: its sequel, and the original TIE Fighter which you can’t buy any more.

Unfortunately, they don’t make them better than this any more either.

Which is a shame, because, deep down, who doesn’t want to be a space-ship?

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