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Computer Games Online Review: FreeSpace (2) - 01/23/98

 

Descent: FreeSpace - The Great War - Ascend into the Descent universe in a whole new way

The last time gamers got to play in the Descent universe, it was from the perspective of flying in a zero-gravity asteroid mine, battling evil robots along the way. One of the first action games with a true 3D engine, Descent also featured 360 degrees of motion that could disorient (and give migraines to) even the most ardent player trying to navigate in the twisty, maze-like, "is that the floor or the ceiling or the wall?" environment of the mine shafts. Needless to say, it was a success, thanks to its intense action, involving multiplayer gameplay, and innovative take on the first-person shooter genre.
Now, several years after Descent and Descent II, Interplay and developer Parallax (through its Volition arm) aim to break the action out of the mine shafts and into the voids of deep space, where agoraphobia, not claustrophobia, rule. Set in the same universe as Descent, albeit in a different era, Descent: FreeSpace–The Great War represents another of Interplay's forays the space combat genre generally dominated by LucasArts and Origin. Despite having a name that sounds like a hard disk utility, FreeSpace comes to the party with a wealth of features. Influenced by such classics as TIE Fighter, the FreeSpace team is trying to incorporate some of the best aspects of previous games into what they feel is the ultimate space action game. As Interplay's Jim Boone said of FreeSpace producer Adam Pletcher, "He's has always been a space sim fanatic, but it's always been his opinion that they haven't been done right."

 

Three's company
In what Interplay assures will be an "epic" plotline, FreeSpace will begin amidst the ongoing war between the Terrans and the Vasudans. The latest conflict has lasted for fifteen years when a new alien race, known as the Shivans, appears and starts killing both sides. The superior might of the Shivans forces the Terrans and Vasudans into an uneasy and fragile alliance. While not wanting to give much away, Boone says the plot will have a dark tone to it ("Basically, the war is going bad for the humans") and will be rife with deception and betrayal.

Interplay claims that developer Volition is focusing a lot of effort into the single player game, particularly in the mission design. While the team is still trying to flesh out the missions, Boone said one aspect they were concentrating on was ensuring that a certain amount of randomness remains. That way, the same mission could unfold in different ways. The branching mission structure, similar to that found in Wing Commander games, will be held together with the aid of fully rendered cutscenes. The storyline, which is separated into three acts, should take approximately thirty missions to play out.

To challenge gamers, Volition has developed an AI that Boone says will be one of the game's highlights. AI-controlled fighters will fight as a team rather than individual entities. Boone claims capital ships will target intelligently, focusing on key threats first before dealing with less severe challenges. Moreover, the harder skill levels in the game will rely on a more advanced AI to make the game more difficult. Enemy fighters will maneuver more quickly and act more aggressively at higher levels.

FreeSpace will feature an all-new engine that shares none of the code from Descent. (Descent III, the next iteration of the series, is currently being developed by Parallax's other arm, Outrage.) Like most modern space combat games, the engine will utilize extensive texture mapping to convey detail. Players will encounter more than 20 different fighters in the game, along with a wide array of capital ships, freighters, and space installations. The scale of some of the capital vessels can be enormous, with some ranging up to three kilometers in length.

When playing the version of the game supplied for this article, the first thing you notice is that the combat is reminiscent of dogfights from World War II. Long streams of laser fire, very similar to that of machine-gun tracers, lance out from fighters and fill the void. Combined with the fire from nearby capital ships, the darkness of space can seem alight in laser blasts. In addition to the obligatory "guns," players will be able tote a wide range of missiles and other ordnance into the fray.

Players will begin the game relegated to just flying missions. However, as they progress through the plot, they'll gain more and more responsibility. Eventually, they'll have control to the point of creating their own "strike packages" for each mission. This will include selecting the fighter types in each flight wing and determining their payloads and loadouts. For example, a player may be tasked with attacking an enemy cruiser. Then they would probably select a wing of four fighters to provide cover and a wing of heavier fighter/bombers laden with ship killing ordnance to deliver the killing blow. Or, if they were short of fighters, they might created a mixed flight wing, with two fighters and two fighter/bombers.

 

Taunts R' Us
With all the focus on the single-player game, Interplay doesn't intend to neglect the multiplayer community. The plans currently call for FreeSpace to support up to 16 people via the Internet or a LAN. Players will be able to fly cooperative campaigns or deathmatches. Each race will have approximately eight flyable fighters to choose from, and Interplay is including the ability to send personalized taunts to other players via .WAV files. When playing the multiplayer campaign, the AI will jump in should a player become disconnected in mid-mission. Meanwhile, players will be able to jump in and out of multiplayer games. Whether players will be able to fly the single player campaign in multiplayer mode was still being discussed by the FreeSpace team. To facilitate multiplayer matches, Volition plans on setting up a free dedicated server for the game. In addition to maintaining a ranking system, the Volition server will also store player statistics as well as kill scores and medals.

From a technical standpoint, FreeSpace will support Direct3D, Glide, MMX, and even AGP. ("Some of the texture sizes are so huge, it's great for AGP," said Boone.) In addition to increased frame rates, 3D acceleration will bring such eye-candy such as colored lighting. However, these features were unavailable in the build we played with. On a Pentium II system, the frame rate was very smooth and the graphics impressively crisp and sharp with intricate textures. For those without that kind of horsepower, Interplay says a 133MHz Pentium will be the minimum requirement with a 3D card, or a 166MHz machine without.

Options will allow players to customize everything from keystrokes to the RGB color values of their HUD. For those who wish to cook up their own missions, FreeSpace will include FRED (the FReeSpace mission EDitor), the same editor used by the game's designers. FRED will be an easy-to-use mission editor that will allow players to create both single and multiplayer missions. Interplay plans on supporting FRED by providing extensive documentation on paper and on the CD.

FreeSpace will also sport dynamic music that adapts to the situation and a flight recorder that will allow players to save their exploits. One feature that will probably make the final cut is the ability to design your ship's insignia for multiplayer games. ("It's always something we've wanted to do with Descent," Boone said.) Other features on the bubble include support for force feedback devices and the inclusion of asteroid fields in the game.

In a season that left X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and Wing Command: Prophecy fans wanting for either a good story or multiplayer capability, Interplay seems to have hedged its bets and tossed in every conceivable feature into FreeSpace. However, the question remains whether the Descent magic that worked so well on the inside will fair well in deep space. Interplay, and gamers, should find out the answer in April.

1997 Strategy Plus, Inc.

by Jason Ocampo

taken from Computer Games Online

 

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