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Crossing Over: Freespace 2
June 25, 2012 | Justin Ancheta

Click to enlarge

Even on its lowest settings, the Freespace 2 Engine looks beautiful, while performing well on older hardware.
Game: Freespace 2
Release Date (Windows): October 1, 1999
Release Date (Mac OS): n/a
CrossOver Profile: Read Here
WineHQ AppDB entry: Read Here
IMG Review: n/a
Test Platform:
       MacBook (Mid-2007/Late-2006; GMA 950, 10.6.8, CX 11.03)
Price: $5.99

An Epitaph

The Gulf of St. Lawrence Aster is a plant that exists in a small, localized pocket of Eastern Canada. A nondescript plant, it occurs nowhere else in the world - it’s an astonishingly rare plant which occupies only very specific, usually very small habitats. A few years ago I decided to do a thesis on this plant, and given how rare and unique this species is, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that it would be only a matter of time before it would go extinct and vanish forever. I wasn’t just writing my thesis on a rare plant...I was writing its epitaph.

I thought about this little episode in my life because this week’s game represented a watershed moment for a noble and honorable genre of gaming that has now all but vanished, alongside other fossils from gaming’s past like the classic point-and-click adventure game: the space combat simulator. In some way, writing a retrospective about this game feels like writing an overdue epitaph for what was once one of the best fields of electronic gaming that the industry had to offer...and probably one of the best games ever made.

The Last of a Dying Breed

Freespace 2 and its predecessor were developed by Volition Entertainment, the team that was effectively one half of Parallax Software, the group behind Descent 1 and 2. Much like the relationship between Portal and Half-Life, the links between the two franchises was implicit at best; one of the more better known links was a planned mission in Freespace 1 (which was later dropped) where the protagonist was sent on a mission to search for the Material Defender (the protagonist from Descent), lost in space after the events in Descent 2. Additionally, for its North American release, Freespace 1 was actually sold under the name Descent: Freespace (though it was recognized as more of a marketing ploy). While the other half of Parallax, Outrage Entertainment, was busy working on Descent 3, Volition set about the task of making a space combat simulator game that would eventually become the genre’s high water mark, taking a place with other legends like X-Wing, and Wing Commander.

Upon their release, Freespace and Freespace 2 were quickly recognized as some of the finest space simulation and combat games of their day. The mission pacing, soundtrack, interface and graphics all were masterfully done, with an engaging plot covering an interstellar war dwarfed by a monstrous enemy, the Shivans, and the aftermath of the titantic war that followed. The game engine was so good that its graphics still look impressive even now, and the gameplay captured the excitement of an arcade-feel, check-six WWII-style dogfighter while incorporating the depth expected of a true combat simulator. Yet, for all of its greatness, Freespace 2 was still the last of a dying breed. It was the late 90’s and both the first person shooter and real time strategy genres were at the forefront of the computer gaming industry. For better or for worse, the year before, Half-Life ignited a revolution in the way people played and perceived first person shooter games, while Starcraft elevated the real time strategy game into a mass market phenomenon. And while the Quake, Half-Life and Starcraft clones flooded the market, interest in space combat simulation games quickly dried up. Chris Roberts, of Wing Commander fame, released Starlancer in 2000, and while it was a solid game in its own right, it was a financial failure. Half-Life went on to sell millions upon millions of copies. The final tally for Freespace 2? Only around 30,000. With the subsequent demise of Interplay, Freespace 2 was left adrift on the Internet for many years. Legal copies soon dried up with the end of its print run, and even pirated copies were hard to come by, the only reliable way to get the game being a pared-down, ripped version of the game hosted on unreliable and often bandwith-choked servers. It seemed then, almost like a joke when GOG made Freespace 2 available as one of the first games to be sold during its public beta launch, for $5.99.

And yet, here we are - the Freespace 2 player base is alive and well, with an active open source programming community that has extended the life and capability of the game considerably. This is on top of a vibrant modding scene which has produced stunning stand-alone games based in the Babylon 5 and 2004 Battlestar Galactica universes. In a remarkably ironic twist of fate, the latest achievement of the community was nothing less than a loving tribute to Wing Commander. With the continuing leaps and bounds made by the community in their development of the Freespace 2 source code, the game acts and looks better than ever.


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