the incredible roach

Time and FreeSpace

I was in Bombay last weekend for Niki's birthday and found my brother playing FreeSpace2 at home. At first I was like, "Oh, that's old!" and wondered how he could put up with the 1999 era graphics today - just over a decade later. But on closer inspection I was surprised to find it didn't look all that bad. It looked pretty good in fact. Turns out, he was playing FreeSpace Open - the open source resurrection of that awesome game.

It's funny how things come full circle in one's life. Yeah, I know, you're probably wondering what I'm talking about. So let's jump back in time by (and this is the really freaky part) exactly 12 years.

19th March, 1998. Interplay and Volition released a game that cannot be described with words alone. It got an 8.9 on Gamespot, but was easily one of the best games that year. Descent: FreeSpace was a space combat simulator that really gave you that feeling of actually being there - out in the open. The graphics, and more importantly mission design, were far better than older games like the Wing Commander series. You never found yourself flying around aimlessly, to get to actual combat, unlike in Wing Commander or Star Wars X-Wing vs TIE Fighter. The combat was intense, complete with multiple wings of friendly and enemy fighters, huge capital ships, explosions on par with movie effects of the day, and a great background score.

I didn't have a computer till October 1998, and discovered the game only in early 1999. I clearly remember coming across the playable demo on a Chip Magazine CD. At first the title Descent: FreeSpace made me think it was another Descent game, which were strictly OK in my opinion, so I almost missed out discovering the game. Luckily a boring weekend prompted me to load up the game and try it out.

I was in love.

The playable demo had only 2 missions as far as I remember, in which you were put into combat straight away with the very "Ancient-Egyptian inspired" aliens - Vasudans. The Vasudans and Terrans (Humans) have apparently been at war for quite some time at the start of the story, but you aren't given much more background before you set out hunting them down. The demo revealed nothing of the larger plot that the game actually had. Taking on the Vasudan interceptors in fact was not so easy the first time you encounter them since they are highly maneuverable - but they pale in comparison to what you must go up against soon$hellip;

I must have played those two missions about 50 times - I kid you not. I managed to get hold of a joystick from somewhere, and the whole experience just became even more awesome. I just had to have the game. So I begged my dad, who was luckily going to visit the US around then, to buy me the game. It would be the first (and last) game I'd ever get my parents to buy me. It was an uphill task convincing my dad - the game came for $49.99 back then - and I was pretty sure he wouldn't actually get it.

But he did. And I played. And my friends saw it, instantly wanted it, got it, and were hooked too. I was completely sold with just the 2 demo missions. The actual game ensured I didn't sleep much.

Turned out, the whole Terran-Vasudan war was nothing compared to what they would face at the hands of a new alien race that crashes that party. The Shivans, appropriately named after the Hindu god Shiva, arrive on the scene and massacre all - Terran and Vasudan, and leave. Their ships are impossible to lock onto at first, have energy shields that are difficult to penetrate and are ridiculously maneuverable. I went through more than one joystick battling them in intense guns-only dogfights.

Later the Terrans and Vasudans realize they are getting their asses whooped, so they put aside their petty squabbling and ally to take on the common enemy. Their combined research figures out some Shivan technology, giving your fighters energy shields too, guns that can penetrate Shivan shields more effectively, and new missiles that can lock onto their menacing ships. All in all, the fight seems to be kind of leveling out when you run into some next level shit - a massive Shivan capital ship with impregnable shields - the Lucifer. From here on it's all downhill for the Vasudans. Their home-world gets pounded from orbit by the Lucifer, making it uninhabitable. Next on the Lucifer's itinerary is Earth. But we get lucky as the Vasudans discover some tech from a long lost alien civilization.

The Lucifer does its thing.

Apparently these "Ancients" also got exterminated by the Shivans, but as they were in the process of dying, they were decent enough to figure out a way to destroy the Lucifer, and leave a how-to guide for us. Apparently ol' Lucifer had been in the 'hood a couple of millennia back too, doing what it does best - wiping out civilization. Using the Ancients' findings the Terrans manage to hit the Lucifer just as it jumps into the Solar System. Earth is saved just in time, but the subspace jump node collapses because of the Lucifer exploding while it is still halfway out. End result - peace, but the Earth is now isolated from the rest of the galaxy.

Great game - full of twists in the story and immersive campaign that gradually unfolds to reveal more about the mysterious Shivans as you fight them.

Then came FreeSpace2 in end 1999. I probably got my hands on it sometime around mid 2000.

FreeSpace2 continued the story where it left off in FreeSpace - but now from the perspective of the Terran fleet cut off from Earth, left to face the horrors yet to come.

FreeSpace2 was a great sequel, taking the scale of battles to an entirely new level. The capital ships got a lot bigger, and more heavily armed - with anti-capital ship beam cannons and anti-fighter flak cannons. Beam cannons allowed for some spectacular capital ship vs capital ship combat scenes, where you need to tear yourself away from just watching to keep your fleet heavyweights safe from enemy bombers and such. FreeSpace2 outdid what FreeSpace had started and earned a 9.4 on Gamespot, making it one of the best games of all time.

Freespace2 had a really long campaign, so I probably didn't play it more than twice. One of those two times was with Rajiv's Microsoft ForceFeedback Pro joystick - definitely the better of the two experiences.

In FreeSpace2 the Galactic Terran-Vasudan Alliance (GTVA) Fleet encounters Terran defectors, a rogue Vasudan fringe, and a second Shivan invasion looking to finish what they started. The Shivans return with a ship that would dwarf the Lucifer - the Sathanas. Luckily in the 32 years since the last Shivan invasion, the GTVA built a massive capital ship called the Colossus to deal with exactly this sort of "size does matter" competition. Unfortunately the Colossus turns out to be a big hunk-o-junk when it comes to taking on the Sathanas. So you can imagine what happens when the GTVA, and you as a pilot in the thick of it, find that "the Sathanas" you did finally manage to take down was actually just "ONE of the Sathanas" juggernauts heading your way.

The game ends on a dark note, where the GTVA must sacrifice the Colossus and other ships to seal a jump node to stop the Shivan advance, similar to the way the Lucifer explosion made the jump node to Earth collapse. You also die - either from shame or from supernova. The only positive you are left with is more Ancients tech discovered that adds hope of re-opening collapsed jump nodes - maybe in FreeSpace3 we return to Earth, or the Shivans use similar devices to re-enter GTVA space and continue the invasion.

But then FreeSpace3 never happened. So in effect you were left with no positives. Interplay went broke by 2001 and that was that.

In that vacuum, several FreeSpace fans started building their own campaigns and mods for FreeSpace2. I happened to join one such community called Hard Light. The guys at Hard Light were making some campaigns but I was more interested in the art the game had spawned. People were making renders of FreeSpace2 battles using the models from the game in 3D Studio MAX. This was a little too advanced for me, so I stuck to using the inbuilt FreeSpace editor to view the ship models, orient them the way I wanted, and then incorporate them into a scene using image editing software.

One of my early renders that got me kind of famous on the Hard Light Forums.

I became quite good at it, though not as good as a guy who went by the nickname Sethek. He had some custom software that he used to make his renders with. They were brilliant - complete with lighting effects, realistic shadows and most importantly - perspective. The renders I made lacked perspective because the FreeSpace editor didn't display the models with any. As a result my renders often looked kind of "flat". Nevertheless, there was only one Sethek, and I was perhaps the next best at it. My renders caught the attention of some of the guys developing new campaigns for FreeSpace2, notably one called Inferno.

So I became the official render-guy for the Inferno campaign. Apart from making their logo and some promotional renders, I also helped out with in-game art such as weapon stats images. But as we flew through 2004, the team building Inferno kind of ran out of steam. Part of the reason was because Volition released the source code for the FreeSpace Engine around 2002, and work by the Hard Light community to enhance the engine and resurrect the game on it had gathered considerable momentum by 2004, changing the focus. I also got a little tied up with my Engineering around the same time and quit. Incidentally, around the same time, a lot of members on the Hard Light Forums also were quitting, including Sethek. I felt that perhaps it was time to forget the game, then already 5 years since it hit the shelves, though nothing else had come along that could replace it.

A screenshot from the Inferno Campaign and (inset) a logo I made for them back in the day.

And so I forgot about FreeSpace. Till 19th March 2010.

I come home to see my brother on the Hard Light run FreeSpace Wiki, looking at custom campaigns. Then I see him start up FreeSpace Open. And I see it looks awesome. Not only have the guys resurrected FreeSpace2 on the much improved engine, they've even ported the original FreeSpace to it - so you can play it now with all the benefits of high quality textures, more detailed models, better looking explosions and shock waves, and dynamic lighting effects.

I was part of that effort once. Now almost a decade later (and my brother is incidentally 10 years younger than me) I see my brother enjoying some of that stuff.

Full Circle.

Now all I need is a joystick, and I shall be lost to the world for a few weeks.

The copyright for each game cover art is most likely owned by either the game's publisher or developer. The low-resolution images of the cover art used here are only to help readers of this article recognize the games mentioned, in the belief that this qualifies as fair use. Screenshots of the Lucifer and from the Inferno Campaign are from the FreeSpace 2 Source Code Project site and have been contributed by fellow members of the Hard Light Forums.

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