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There are forty ships in Descent: Freespace, ranging from the standard GTF Apollo space superiority fighter to the gigantic GTD Orion class carrier ship. The Shivan spacecraft are just plain frightening, particularly early on in the war when you don’t have the means to fight them properly. Unfortunately, as the conflict progresses, you’ll also have to face off against a rogue faction of Vasudans known as the Hammer of Light (HOL), religious fanatics who are aiding the Shivan cause. The print adds for Descent: Freespace are really dead-on when they hype the size of the capital ships; these babies are big, and detailed enough that they look like real ships. The Terran ships in particular have a cool, gritty, military look to them, reminiscent of those in the now defunct TV series Space: Above and Beyond.
As good as the single-player game is, its narrative does suffer slightly due to its rather impersonal nature. At the beginning of the game, the player is thrust into the middle of this entire universe, which has been embroiled in a fourteen-year war. There’s a lot of history there, but you never really get a sense of it; it’s almost as if the game is a sequel, and the player is expected to already know the entire back story. Even more, the mission briefings are very self-contained, consisting of printed text and a digitized voice…but you never actually see your commanding officer, or any of your crewmates. After a while, you’ll begin to wonder who the hell it is you’re fighting for.
If you get tired of the single-player game (which is pretty unlikely), there’s always the extensive multiplayer mode. Including a multiplayer component was a really smart move by the designers, particularly because Wing Commander: Prophecy fans were denied that promised feature.
And, when it finally seems as if Descent: Freespace is a done deal, when both the multiplayer and solo-play aspects of the game have been completely exhausted, in walks…Fred. The Freespace Editor (Fred…get it?) is an all-powerful mission and campaign creator, easy to use and capable of producing scenarios that rival even the ones that come with the game. After about fifteen minutes reading the well-organized documentation (provided as a Word file), I was able to slap together a basic, but functional little mission. With more time and effort I could have gone completely nuts, creating a full-scale sortie with multiple objectives and wings of fightercraft.
Now, what you have is a really cool space sim, but I know what you’re thinking: a long-standing war with an alien race, a mysterious new enemy comes in and changes everything…haven’t we seen this all before? The answer is yes, we certainly have, and I’m not about to start making excuses for Descent: Freespace’s blatant lack of originality. In fact, I’ll lay it all on the line right now: Descent: Freespace has to be the most unoriginal space sim I’ve ever played, and comes pretty damn close to being the most unoriginal game I’ve ever played, period. It is a weird amalgamation of every major space sim you’ve ever played (on the PC or otherwise) — the graphics of Wing Commander: Prophecy, the energy distribution system of X-Wing, the branching mission structure of Wing Commander III, the ability to call in reinforcements as seen in TIE Fighter, the sub-system targeting of Starfleet Academy, and the multiplayer component of X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter.
Don’t think I’m indiscriminately slamming Descent: Freespace, because there’s something else you should know — the game’s greatest weakness is also its greatest strength. The designers of this game may have pieced together elements from the great space sims of the past, but they’re also the best elements. Imagine a game that takes all the best things from a certain genre, and melds them together into one extremely playable, thoroughly enjoyable package, and Descent: Freespace will be the first one that comes to mind.
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