Descent: FreeSpace — The Great War is a 1998 space combat simulation IBM PC compatible computer game developed by Volition, Inc. when it was split off from Parallax Software. Published by Interplay Entertainment, it is also known as Conflict: FreeSpace — The Great War in Europe. In 2001, it was ported to the Amiga platform as FreeSpace — The Great War by Hyperion Entertainment.
The story places the player in the role of a human pilot in the Galactic Terran Alliance, as it engages in war with the alien Parliamentary Vasudan Empire. This war is interrupted by the appearance of the enigmatic and militant Shivans, who begin slaughtering Terrans and Vasudans alike. Putting aside their differences, the Terrans and Vasudans form an alliance, and the player is assigned to missions to stop the Shivans' genocidal advance. The player pilots a starfighter, and alongside competent AI wingmen, completes these missions to determine the fate of two races. Important battles in the story feature capital ships, which dwarf the fighters piloted by the player, and explode spectacularly on destruction.
Descent: FreeSpace was well received as a single-player space simulation that integrated all the desired features of its genre, but its multiplayer mode was plagued by lag and inaccurate tracking of statistics. Its expansion, Silent Threat, which comprised additional missions, was also released in 1998. Its sequel, FreeSpace 2, was released a year later in 1999.
Descent: FreeSpace — The Great War (hereafter simply called FreeSpace) puts the player in a starfighter flying out on missions to investigate, protect, or destroy certain targets. Some have categorized it as a flight simulator, since it has more controls and commands than a typical arcade game. However, its flight model is simple, akin to that of the game TIE Fighter, though it incorporates some elements of Newtonian physics such as precise collision physics. In the single-player mode, the player flies through a series of missions in a campaign.
Before flying a mission, the player goes through a briefing, which details relevant information and objectives. Ships and weapons are selected following the briefing, adding an element of strategy to the missions. When flying, the game's perspective is a first-person view from within the cockpit, but the only visible interface is that of the head-up display (HUD). The player can customize the HUD by changing its color, or by toggling the information displays.
Missions must be successfully completed for the campaign to advance. However, not all objectives must be met for a mission to be considered successful. Results of a mission can affect later missions; for example, an enemy capital ship allowed to flee in a particular mission may return in a later mission. Completed missions can be replayed on the in-game mission simulator. Training missions are mixed in with the regular missions (and can be skipped), gradually introducing players to advanced commands and techniques as the missions become more sophisticated. The game has been said to be easily playable with the keyboard alone, or together with a mouse or joystick.
The game features multiplayer matches online or over a local area network (LAN). Players can either band together to complete cooperative missions, or split up into teams to battle against one another. Voice chat is available, although reviewers advised it to be used only on broadband or LAN. Online gameplay was free over the services offered by Parallax Online, which also kept track of players' statistics and rankings.
FreeSpace takes place in a fictional future where humans have discovered how to travel long distances by jumping into subspace, and have spread among the stars as the Galactic Terran Alliance (GTA). The player is thrust into the game during the fourteenth year of war between the GTA and the alien Parliamentary Vasudan Empire. The history behind this war is never explained, to keep opportunities open for unrestricted development of the story in sequels and expansions. The plotline was described by Volition as multi-pathed, and would branch slightly depending on the player's mission performance. This was intended to enhance the replayability value of the game.
The introduction movie serves as prologue, giving players an idea of the story right from the start. It establishes a Terran-Vasudan war, and gives a short glimpse of the fearsome alien Shivans. The player flies several combat missions against the Vasudans before encountering advance elements of the Shivans, who attack the two races indiscriminately. Unable to target or even damage the Shivans with their primary weapons, players must embark on several missions for the new Terran-Vasudan alliance to catch up with the Shivans' technological superiority, while fending off a Vasudan death cult, the Hammer of Light. The player becomes instrumental in capturing the Shivan cruiser SC Taranis. The promise of rewards for capturing the Taranis turns out to be a MacGuffin. Its capture only serves as an introduction for the game's main boss, the Shivan superdestroyer SD Lucifer. The Lucifer makes its entrance by destroying the captured Taranis and many other allied ships, putting an end to the encouraging mood which was being built up till then.
At certain points during the campaign, monologues by members of an extinct race, the Ancients, are told in pre-rendered cutscenes. With an undertone of sadness, they detail the Ancients' encounters with the Shivans millennium ago, suggesting the long history of the Shivans' actions, and their effects on developing sentient species. They also foreshadow the destruction of a homeworld and, more importantly, reveal the secret to destroying the Lucifer. The destruction of the Lucifer in the subspace between the Sol and Delta Serpentis jump nodes marks a twist in the ending; the subspace corridor is destroyed and Sol is cut off from the Terran survivors outside who must face the possibility of meeting the Shivans again. The expansion Silent Threat continues the story in a straight-forward manner. The player joins the Galactic Terran Intelligence (GTI) while the Terran-Vasudan alliance is in a fragile state, and is told to preserve the alliance by ruthlessly pacifying rebellious elements and fending off remnants of the Shivan forces. However, it all turns out to be a cover-up, as the GTI is plotting a coup, and has constructed a Terran-Shivan hybrid superdestroyer of their own, the GTD Hades, which the player must destroy.
FreeSpace was Volition's first project after the split from Parallax Software, which also spawned Outrage Entertainment. It is not part of the canon of the Descent computer game series, and contained none of its ideas and only small portions of its code. It was only prefixed with Descent to avoid trademark issues with Mijenix Corporation's "FreeSpace", a disk compression utility. Volition also used the term "FreeSpace" in the game to initially describe what became later known as subspace. The game was conceived by Adam Pletcher, with all the features of space simulator games his team had found to be fun. The games TIE Fighter and Wing Commander were their primary inspirations, and those influences made their way into the game's flight model, along with the influence of historical WWII dogfights. Themes from the fiction of Star Wars, Space: Above and Beyond, and Ender's Game form a part in shaping the background and story of the FreeSpace world. The chaotic battles between masses of ships commonly found in science-fiction anime became one of the features of FreeSpace.
Begun with a crew of five, the project grew to a staff of 17. The game's code was built from scratch. Most of the software modules were interlinked with each other, increasing the job's complexity and difficulty. The code incorporated small portions of Descent's code for specific functions. Kulas, who had worked on several versions of Flight Simulator and Descent, brought his experience into the game's artificial intelligence (AI). The game's difficulty levels are based on advancing the enemy AI, rather than simply increasing damage and "hit points" of enemies. Some realism was incorporated into the game's physics, such that an impact on one part of a starfighter's body will send it spinning appropriately, unlike sphere-based collision detection, in which an impact would simply 'push' the starfighter in a particular direction. Due to time and budget constraints, many of the initially planned cutscenes and stories were cut from the final product. Examples of such cuts include a campaign path where the Terran-Vasudan alliance goes on a retreat, and scenes of racial tension within the alliance. Despite the promise of a deathmatch mode for multiplayer, it was cut from the final product. The expansion Silent Threat also suffered the same fate of cuts due to budgetary and time concerns.
Apogee Software announced on December 12, 1997 that they would be exclusively publishing FreeSpace for the first three months before handing the publishing rights back to Interplay Entertainment. This was part of their agreement with Interplay for the latter's purchase of the rights to Descent, and Apogee decided to release FreeSpace as shareware, with themselves as the merchant of the registered version. Interplay, however, bought the full rights to FreeSpace from Apogee in late April, 1998, keeping the ownership of the game solely to themselves.
Volition aimed for a quality release, and promised to deliver a product without major bugs. Minor bugs would be fixed in a prompt manner. The shipped game, however, had deficiencies admitted by the team, such as problems with the multiplayer code, and a few design issues. The game underwent four patches, which resolved most of the bugs, and improved the multiplayer performance. Complaints about an online mission giving unfair scores led to Volition removing the mission from scoring play. Another patch allowed EAX capability to be enabled for Creative Sound Blaster sound cards. Interplay played its part in drumming up the community's interest by holding contests, and expanding material for the FreeSpace universe. Meanwhile, Volition created official star maps, and released Vasudan voice clips and story development notes. Interplay hired science-fiction writers such as Fred Saberhagen, Simon Hawke, and Jeff Grubb to write weekly FreeSpace stories for two months. Preparing for Silent Threats release, Interplay held a contest from July 28 to August 25, 1998, in which the submitted fan-designed missions could win their authors prizes such as free copies of Silent Threat, FreeSpace apparel, and gaming hardware. Entries were judged by a panel from PC Gamer, and qualified entries constituted half of the missions in Silent Threat.
On December 14, 1999, Hyperion Entertainment announced their acquisition of the license to port FreeSpace to the Amiga system. The publisher was changed to Haage & Partner Computer on October 18, 2001. Despite the game's official release being announced for December 2001, the approval to do so could only be gotten on January 7, 2002. The game was shipped without a printed manual, but had additional German and French language support. Hyperion had stated they would port over Silent Threat if the FreeSpace port sold well. To date, Silent Threat has yet to be ported over to the Amiga platform.
Most reviewers glossed over the game's story, but a few found it lacking the depth needed to captivate the player. Some suggested that the game would have been better if the player had a greater role in controlling the outcome of the story. Without this impetus, these reviewers found themselves simply playing a "very sweet looking arcade title", and felt detached from their wingmen and environment. This feeling was made worse in Silent Threat with its "cold and inhuman" briefings and non-player characters.
Several reviewers praised FreeSpaces graphics, claiming asteroids are realistically rendered against softly glowing nebulae, while galaxies and stars of varying colors lay in the background. Others felt differently, stating the 3D effects were less spectacular than those of the software rendered version, the nebulae were unconvincing, and the ships' textures were blurry and lacking detail. However, reviewers unanimously agreed the explosions in FreeSpace were the most spectacular they had ever seen, and were impressed with the many small details of capital ships breaking up. Sharky Extreme was dismayed by the game's inability to go beyond 640x480 screen size. The game's AI also received praise from reviewers, as the player's wingmen were competent on their own and could be trusted with orders, even to the extent of co-ordinating attacks on capital ships. Likewise, the player's enemies acted in concert with each other to achieve their squadron's objectives.
Despite one reviewer's glowing praise for the FreeSpaces online multiplayer over cable modems, the majority at that time were on dial-up access and roundly condemned the online multiplayer mode. The chief complaint was lag. GameSpot's Desslock was amazed the game dared to advertise as being able to support 16 players online when it could not even support two players on 56k modems. Combatsim.com's Fitzgerald called the multiplayer "bug ridden" after experiencing many of his shots not registering hits or kills on enemy ships after over 40 minutes of play; all of it due to lag. Other reviewers found their situations similar with their guns only firing seconds after depressing the trigger, and their ships randomly jumping over the playing area.
Silent Threat was judged to be a decent but uninspired add-on. The campaign missions were either standard escort or destroy missions, and offered no new equipment which were unable to compete against the older equipment. The stand-alone missions, however, were toasted for the way they were conceived. The contest-winning entries gave breadth to the game's variety of missions, and encouraged greater community participation. This was made possible with the free editor, FreeSpace Editor (FRED), which has been called the best of its kind. With the ability to import personal audio and 3D animation files, the editor allows users the same capability as Volition to create their own missions. The possibilities offered by the editor resulted in a call to the community to stop the flood of "Battle of Endor"-type missions, and to design missions following Volition's Jason Hoffoss' Zen philosophy of accomplishing more with less.