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Graphics: Graphically, comparisons to Wing Commander: Prophecy can pretty much be expected; both games offer state-of-the-art visuals, and squeeze every last dazzling effect out of your 3D accelerator. The capital ships and bases look entirely believable — gigantic, peppered with pinholes of light, and complete with moving turrets and substructures. The smaller ships look just as good, and their designs, while not exactly original, are sleek and tough.
Yet Descent: Freespace offers something a bit lacking in Origin’s offering, and that is an abundance of cool details that help bring the game world to life. Order other allied ships to form on your wing, and you’ll actually see them thrust over to you, and align themselves perfectly in a tight, military formation. Explosions in Descent: Freespace are especially cool; the translucent flames are reminiscent of those in Unreal, and destroying a larger object (an asteroid is a perfect example) only succeeds in breaking it up into smaller pieces which may prove just as much of a collision threat. There’s also a really cool shielding effect for the different ships, a hazy white glow that appears when a weapon hits the energy barrier. Early on in the game, you’ll come to both loathe and love the shield effect; because your weapons haven’t yet been adapted to penetrate the Shivan shields, every white flash is an indication that you’re fighting an enemy of incredibly advanced technology, one you’re not ever ready to beat. But at the same time, the shield effect is a saving grace, because it’s the only way you can keep track of where a Shivan ship is, since you haven’t gained the ability to track it, either! Against the darkness of space, that tell-tale glow is a sure sign that someone has nailed one of the Shivan ships, and from there you can get a visual lock and commence pounding on it. In fact, that’s one area of Descent: Freespace that gets extra marks in my book. The designers haven’t given in completely to the computer technology they so adore, turning their game into a self-automated click fest. Even with all that advanced technology aboard your ship, you’ll still need to forgo the instrumentation every now and then and rely on good old fashioned keen eyesight. This adds a really raw, realistic touch to the game, and it’s something I for one really appreciate. For example, when enemy ships warp into the area, you’ll be able to pick them up on your scanners a couple of seconds afterwards. But, if you keep sharp and maintain a good sense of situational awareness, you’ll actually see the rippling white flash of their jump-in points, and be able to intercept the ships before they even have time to react.
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so wrapped up in the fear and excitement of a space sim that I’ve actually found myself checking my six…until now.
There is one last aspect of the game’s graphics that I must mention, and that is the overall speed of the gameplay. My Pentium 200MMX isn’t exactly the gaming powerhouse it once was, and by next year at this time it will probably be of little more use than a paperweight. Even today, I find myself struggling to run games with all the bells and whistles turned on (Unreal certainly comes to mind), and I dread the day when one of my beautiful space sims comes to a screeching halt. Thankfully, today is not that day. Descent: Freespace runs silky smooth on my machine, with all the graphical goodies enabled, even when I fly two inches from the hull of a monstrous capital ship. Even the asteroids, classically motionless in most sims and hardly an obstacle, are so numerous and move so rapidly you’d swear they’re the real thing.
My one, and only complaint with the game’s graphics concerns the color palette. After encountering the colorful Indie ships of I-War, the ships in Descent: Freespace pale in comparison. I just find it curious that with all the designers accomplished visually with the game, they would make all the ships so dark and bland.
Interface: One word — yes! The play interface in Descent: Freespace is a space simmers dream, and is one of the best I think I’ve ever encountered. Granted, this is largely due to the fact that once again, the game takes the best elements of pre-existing games and combines them together in one great package. But that’s okay, because it works. You’ve got an energy management system, used to distribute power amongst your ship’s engine, shields, and weapons; the HUD is completely configurable, and you can add or remove displays at will; joystick support is as complete as it gets, with everything from full throttle and rudder support to excellent force feedback effects (though at times they wouldn’t initialize); and just about any keyboard function can be reconfigured to your liking. One new addition, something unique to Descent: Freespace, is a cool HUD indicator that tells you where other, objective ships are headed. It’s great during escort missions, when you need to know at a glance just how far you’ve got to go before that capital ship or cargo container has to go before it jumps to safety.
Gameplay: Boy, this was a tough call. Descent: Freespace is fun, exciting, and pretty intense, but its lack of originality really does weigh heavily on the gameplay. Sure, there are all different types of missions, from simple scanning runs to all-out furballs with wave upon wave of Shivan fighters, but the player can’t help but feel the unmistakable tinges of déjà vu. Gameplay is, for all intents and purposes, a lot like that of the original X-Wing. You’ll start a mission, wait for enemy fighters to show up, blow them away, wait for the next wave, and so on and so forth. If your objective is the defense of a capital ship, you’ll have to fight off waves of enemy bombers, often targeting their missiles before they can impact the ship. And of course, only certain wings actually go after the capital ship, so you’ll have to make sure you concentrate fire on just those ships. A lot of times, you must play through a mission more than once just so you know where and when the enemy is going to attack, and can properly defend the objective. Finally, after the objectives have been achieved, you warp out and get ready for the next one. It’s all just so formulaic, so predictable.
Also effecting gameplay is another race of hideous aliens, more frightening than even the Shivans — the software bugs. As has become the standard, frustrating, industry practice, Interplay has released a patch to fix many of the multi- and single-player issues that plague the game, like the loss of any mouse control. Even with the patch, I experienced a couple of game-stopping crashes, which were particularly annoying because they both seemed to occur just as I was about to complete a mission.
The things that really make Descent: Freespace special, though, and indeed the reasons the game received a 4-star rating, are the extensive multiplayer play and the edition of the FRED mission editor. The designers really went all-out with the multiplayer component, providing head-to-head, team play, and cooperative modes of play, with — get this — real voice communications using your sound card and microphone. And with Fred, an innovative player can create any kinds of missions he or she may want. One thing’s for sure — Descent: Freespace is one really complete package, and contains enough to satisfy just about any space sim fan.
Sound FX: Again, the strength is in the subtlety. While overall the sound effects are pretty standard, on par with most other space sims, it’s the little things that mean a lot. The fierce rumbling as you kick in the afterburners, the frightening beep of the missile warning indicator, and the strange alien pulse of your weapons hitting an enemy’s shields all add greatly to the game’s atmosphere. The sound of your primary guns firing is almost a perfect match for Babylon 5′s Starfuries firing their main weapons, and it comes across as it should — a tribute, not a rip-off. I was also very happily surprised to learn that the game detected and used my soundcard’s Aureal A3D accelerated sound, something completely undocumented.
Musical Score: While nowhere near as pulse-pounding as the John Williams-scored soundtrack of X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter (how could it be?), the music in Descent: Freespace does a good job of maintaining the mood and pace of the game. Wispy and mysterious one moment, fast-paced and threatening the next, it complements the gameplay without becoming obtrusive or annoying, which is the way it should be.
Intelligence & Difficulty: To be honest, the enemy ships in Descent: Freespace aren’t all that intimidating, at least not because of the skill of their AI-controlled pilots. Get one in your crosshairs, and its a pretty simple matter to keep a bead on him until he’s space debris. I was really kind of disappointed by this; when you look at the phenomenal AI of the computer-controlled pilots in X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, there’s just no comparison. If anything, Descent: Freespace is difficult not because of the Vasudans’ skill, but their unwavering tenacity. Protection missions are incredibly difficult, as enemy ships will attack their targets with kamikaze-like determination. As was mentioned in the gameplay section, Descent: Freespace is difficult the way the original X-Wing was difficult; it’s no trouble destroying the ships once you get them in your sights, but many of the missions are designed so that they’re impossible to complete the first time through. Somebody needs to tell the game’s developers that that’s just not fun — it’s frustrating as hell. Here’s a prime example: One of the missions has your wing defending cargo containers as they travel the relatively short distance from a base to a nearby jump point. You battle through all the waves of enemy bombers, ignore a ruse meant to draw you away, and then get right to the jump point, only to have another wing jump in right on top of you and blow away the cargo (valuable shield devices) before you even have time to react. Ha ha ha. Joke’s on me. Let me play that mission again and wait for them to appear. Boy, that was a good one….
Overall: A Frankenstein’s monster of several different space sims, patched together with today’s computer and graphics technology, Descent: Freespace works because above everything else, it adhere’s to the cardinal rule of computer games — it’s fun. Interplay is definitely onto something here, and with a few refinements — like a more fleshed-out back story, better character interaction, and more original elements, Descent: Freespace could blossom into a series that rivals even Wing Commander. Until then, sit back, hold that force feedback joystick with a tight grip, and prepare your blood for a good boiling.
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