Blue Planet: Age of Aquarius Review

There are those who say that the long lineage of space combat sims has no living heir, that the ideas once championed by the likes of “X Wing Vs Tie Fighter”, “Wing Commander” or even ” Star Trek: Bridge Commander ” have been lost to the ages.

When I encounter those people, I have to resist a persistent urge not to slap them.

To hear the genre’s still persistent heart beat one has to look no further then Volition, Inc.’s  critically acclaimed “Freespace II”.

“Wait Sam! Freespace II came out in 1998! But I think I know what has you confused!  A dead genre doesn’t mean there haven’t been any good games released for it, it means that there haven’t been any good games released that follow its standards within the past couple of years.”

*Slaps*

Now why did I slap you? Because even though it was released in 1998 “Freespace II” is still very much alive today.

“But how could a video game released in 1998 still be alive?” You most probably didn’t ask.

Well look up, way up to the top of the page and come back down here to the little mark below:

<-Over Here->

Notice those first three letters in the title “—>Mod<—informer”?

I do hope you can see where I’m going with this, and in case you can’t: what I’m trying to imply is that Freespace II is being kept alive by mods.

“Surely though you can’t mean being kept ‘Alive Alive’ by mods, the original C&C is more or less dead but still sees the release of a mod every once in a while”

That is true, but imagine for a brief second that the infamously delayed mod Black Mesa were to come out as a mod for the original  Half Life (rather than its sequel), would that not “breathe life” into it? keep it on the same page with current trends?

“What does that hypothetical have to do with Freespace II”

Well sheesh! Stop interrupting me, OK? All in due time…

“Ok”

So, a few years back, a good while after “Freespace II”‘s  commercial release, critical success, and genre crippling commercial failure it was decided (during a time when the rights to the Freespace franchise became distanced from its progenitor) by (at-least one of) the good folks over at Volition to fork over large segments of  “Freespace II”‘s source code to the community.

Freespace through the eyes of the source code project

And like a defibrillator to the heart, The “Freespace II Source Code Project” was born, and and now we can see this sorta thing on a regular basis:

The original Freespace through the eyes of the source code project, sure this may not look as much, but remember: This is a game originally from when Half-Life 1 came out

Although the mods based on external IPs have been the ones making rounds in the last few years (i.e.: Beyond the Red Line, Starfox: Shadows of Lylat), it is without a doubt the Freespace IP mods that stand out as some of the best this community has made, Lets take a look at one of the best, Blue Planet: Age of Aquarius:

Immersion

Set many years after the events of Freespace II, Age of Aquarius is the first chapter of the expected 3 part “Blue Planet” saga. The Mod sees you take on the role of the young Samuel Bei* and his assignment as fighter pilot on an expeditionary force – sent by the “Galactic Terran Vasudan Alliance” (the Freespace universe’s equivalent of a Federation / GDI / UN) – via an experimental portal to the planet earth [spoiler] lost during the climax of the original Freespace[/spoiler]. This marks one of Blue Planet: AoA’s most decisive divergences from Freespace I & II, where in Volition’s (the franchise’s creators) entries in the franchise had you take on the role of an anonymous “Alpha 1″, Bei is treated with a much more fulfilling (although a bit cliché) arc, and although one would think that the decision to subcontract the level choice from nameless unseen generals to the prewritten script of the player character wouldn’t matter much, it goes a long way towards making the story much more personal and relatable.

As you can see, this mod has its fair share of action as well

Additionally Blue Planet: Age of Aquarius (AoA going forward) makes the bold decision of not only allowing you to play the more interesting combat oriented missions associated with the plot, but almost every moment spend at the helm of Bei’s fighter. This is done with a grain of salt However; it is clear that the team has recognized the potential for “Epicness” not only in the combat, but also in the scenario. Any of the so called “dull” moments are refreshed by the appearance of large awe inspiring vessels juxtaposed against well rendered extra-terrestrial vistas.

Although a bit too subtle at times, the quality of the writing for AoA is well above average, almost nothing is ever under explained and characters act real and maintain suspense. However, a sense of linearity and predictability peaks its head from the start, while you won’t be able to guess 7 steps ahead, “what happens next” within the framework of the game is never feels like a real surprise.

Otherwise audio-wise it’s hard to ignore how everything meshes so well with the original Freespace experience(-wise?), all but a trained ear will be able to differentiate unassisted between those sound effects and tracks brewed from the original game and those added for the AoA experience (I’ll let you decide whether that’s necessarily a good or bad thing).

Design

Freespace II's cornerstone Nebula environment (however beautiful) is one of many set-piece moments borrowed from the original game

When we see sequels come out in the industry today we usually see marked changes to gameplay, be it tighter controls or getting rid of an annoying mechanic, there’s a reason many people will prefer a certain numbered game in a series to another. Given the emphasized change in story and pacing one would expect something like AoA to add something significant to the Freespace gameplay soup emanating from these changes but truth be told in some ways AoA feels like no more than a so called “Level Pack” for the game with a different perspective.

However the lack of gameplay changes is not always a bad thing, as I mentioned above many see Freespace II as the best entry in the genre. Messing with the title’s core gameplay would be very unwise, even if some added polish in the department of inter ship communication would have gone a long way to giving the player a sense of influence in the games plot (especially when so much of it revolves around your relationship with your wingmen).

From a technical standpoint, AoA goes far beyond what the original Freespace II could do, taking full advantage of the new features brought into the engine by the Source Code Project, the in game cut scenes add a sense of continuity between plot and gameplay, and the overall level of polish is nothing short of spectacular (even if the mod’s first couple of climactic battles are almost shamelessly lifted from Freespace I &II), although it never feels as though the player is introduced to something he hasn’t quite seen in a mod beforehand.

Presentation

Benefiting from years of hard work the graphics produced by the Freespace Open engine are on par with those found in some of the higher tier XBox Live arcade and indie productions, AoA takes full advantage of these technical advances and with the right settings and the right light looks right at home with commercial products.

A very clear aesthetic design is maintained throughout, each faction has its own continuity and design characteristics, and a clear integrity is kept with those designs of the original Freespace titles. Although it is sometimes difficult to “swallow” some of the broader changes from the original and the belief that some of the great powers of the Freespace universe would abandon entire classes of tried and tested designs in under 50 years, when in the real world ships are maintained and refitted for much longer periods than that (although this is a problem shared by many mods and science fiction stories alike).

Most menus have been re-skinned and re-done in a manner similar to the level of change between the original 2 Freespace titles; they’ve received a new level of polish and stand out somewhat better in today’s era of multiple display resolutions and player preferences. That is to say as long as you look only where you’re supposed to… among things such as multiplayer menus, and non-campaign tech room mission simulation the polish almost completely disappears (the most glaringly obvious are words almost unintelligible over white patches in the background). Although given that whoever plays of this mod doesn’t have much business in those sections of the game, this does not mean that their menus do not deserve polish. Try and think of it like a house, although some rooms might be empty, as long as you don’t lock the doors, you can’t expect guest not to complain about the peeling wallpaper.

Replay Value

Once you finish playing AoA you’ll find yourself wishing for the fully voiced version of the next installment to come out (for those brave enough to bear trying to filter story messages out of random text and banter while shooting at stuff in space can already try out it’s yet unvoiced sequel), however the mod doesn’t make much of a case for giving it a 2nd go. Those grand moments of so called dullness from your first play through will quickly lose their novelty and turn into tedium by the next, and large set-piece battles don’t ever come at a grand enough rate to upset this, you’ll just find yourself having much more fun moving along to another Freespace II modification rather than giving this one yet another shot.

Conclusion

8.7/10

AoA’s ambition and its massive polish manage to bring it to a sort of “uncanny valley” of modding, it becomes so close in quality to a commercial product, one subconsciously judges it as one, every nook and cranny gets the Sherlock Holmes treatment, and those few that are more “Nook ‘n’ Go” than “Nookington’s” become ever more apparent.

That being said, Blue Planet: Age of Aquarius is one of the greats mods ever produced for the Freespace engine and is a more than welcome entry point into the franchise for whoever finds the original II titles in the franchise antiquated. This is one of those few mods that I can whole heartedly recommend for any fan of the genre to play, and is possibly the closet many of us will see to a complete Freespace III experience.

You can check out Blue Planet: Age of Aquarius Review over at the Freespace communitie’s wiki over here

And in-case you haven’t had the chance to indulge in the epic that is Freespace II just look it up over at GoG, I won’t plug directly for obvious reasons…


:Some important  notes

  • The player character is in fact Samuel Bei. The game doesn’t make much of an effort to make this clear to you going in, and it can get misleading at times
  • Download over at the hard light productions forum over here

2 comments

  1. Matthew /

    Really impressive, you’ve done your homework.

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