It's been nearly a decade since anyone released a decent PC space combat game. The masses of overlooked, under-appreciated space shooter fans and I are still pissed about it (though at least Chris Roberts has given us something to look forward to ). Some of us may own boxed retail copies of the '90s classics, but getting them up and running on modern Windows PC environments takes more effort than it's worth. We wanna toast alien fighters with plasma weapons and missiles, not barrel-roll into subdirectories to apply patches or edit config files.
Thankfully, we're all just a cheap GOG download away from enjoying one of the best space shooters of all time. FreeSpace 2 earned well-deserved raves following its 1999 release for its rich graphics, compelling storyline, and deep career mode. From its opening training missions to its later multi-ship furballs, the game delivered everything space combat fans could ask for. In fact, FS2's multi-stage missions, eyebrow-singing pyrotechnics, superb wingman support, mappable joystick controls, and engrossing zero-gravity combat took me on a lengthy deep-space ride that I never wanted to return from.
Downloading and installing FreeSpace 2 from GOG took less than 30 minutes. The part that really brought a smile to my face was visiting the options screen to max out every single graphics setting (gotta love those 1024x768 32-bit color classics—my Radeon HD 5870 barely knows there's a game running). Of course, the real fun came once I got into the meat of the campaign and started opening up on some Shivan fighters and armed-to-the-teeth capital ships.
Before I made that leap, however, I took advantage of one of PC gaming's most impressive modding communities and visited the home page for the FreeSpace 2 Source Code Project . Born from a desire to keep the FreeSpace game engine alive and healthy, Volition publicly released the FS2source code in 2002 after a THQ buyout stripped the Illinois-based developer of its license to continue the series. Some forward-thinking modders immediately jumped on this windfall and picked up where Volition left off, unifying all future third-party development under one community to ensure parity and quality for years to come.
After downloading and installing a single executable, FreeSpace 2 OpenInstaller , you not only get the simulation's latest gameplay enhancements, you get a space shooter that looks surprisingly comfortable on modern PCs. Once configured properly—you can adjust the game to support widescreen displays, anti-aliasing, and anisotropic filtering—you get a sharp-looking and clean-burning intergalactic romp that never dips below 60 fps. There's an enormous amount of stuff here, but you can simplify the procedure by reading The Idiot's Guide to FreeSpace 2 Open for tips on maximizing the mod's myriad enhancements.
The modest time spent studying that guide instantly justified itself once I delved into the campaign proper. Distorted and stretched 1024x768 screens with blocky-looking 3D models and streaky exhaust trails gave way to detailed, 16:9 space environments with high-poly spacecraft and spectacular special effects.
Having played the un-modded game many times over, the quality of the new visual enhancements offered by the mod completely floored me. The first time I blew away a Shivan fighter at close range, the resulting explosion actually made me turn and squint in a reflex reaction to protect myself from the cascading fireball.
It gets even better once you start investigating the different campaign mods that ship with the FS2 OpenInstaller. Inventive pre- and post-Great War scenarios featuring new ships, weapons, characters, and objectives will keep you going for weeks or months. Moreover, many of these add-ons rival the original release for gameplay depth and entertainment value (the gorgeous Blue Planetmod had me completely hooked from its scene-setting opening mission).
Motivated FreeSpace 2 fans can also download a number of total-conversion mods that'll transport you to visually spectacular worlds inspired by the TV shows Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica. The latter offering—entitled Beyond the Red Line—is an amazing standalone FS2 mod that throws you in the middle of a Human/Cylon conflict ripped straight from the SyFy channel's series.
None of this modding magic would be possible without a solid base to build from—the Source Code Project's re-imagined FS2 universe is about as substantial as they come. I've had the game on my hard drive for a few weeks now and, despite the allure of all those quality add-ons I mentioned, I'm still hooked on the stock, SCP-enhanced FreeSpace 2 campaign. I'm too engrossed with the burgeoning Shivan threat to branch out into those alternate campaigns and mods just yet. Their time, however, will come.