Getting started

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Getting Started: FreeSpace in a Nutshell

Hello and welcome! You've arrived at "FreeSpace in a Nutshell", an article for people new to FreeSpace. This article will provide information about the FreeSpace game series, FreeSpace Open and Hard Light Productions. There are also instructions for getting the games and installing FreeSpace Open.

What is FreeSpace?

FreeSpace is a series of space combat simulation games developed by Volition, Inc. and published by Interplay Entertainment. The games take place in the 24th century. Mankind, referred to as Terrans, has developed means for space traveling, further fueled by the discovery of subspace which makes interstellar travel not only possible but also fast and easy. As a result the Terrans have expanded their territory, eventually encountering another bipedal, sentient species; the Vasudans. However, due to cultural differences and difficulties in communicating with each other, the Galactic Terran Alliance (GTA) and the Parliamentary Vasudan Empire (PVE) end up fighting a war that lasts for 14 years.

FreeSpace 1

Descent: FreeSpace — The Great War (also known as Conflict: FreeSpace — The Great War) is the first part of the series, released in 1998. The player is a pilot for the Galactic Terran Alliance. The GTA and the PVN have waged a war for 14 years and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. However, suddenly a third race appears. These aliens, designated Shivans, are technologically superior, do not respond to diplomacy, and stage attacks against both the Terrans and the Vasudans. As a result, the GTA and PVN forge a truce and join forces in order to stop these alien invaders.

FreeSpace 1 was well-received in its time by critics and players. Though it didn't offer much innovation in terms of gameplay and story, all aspects of the game worked well. The controls were easy to assume and the plot was quite compelling, as well as leaving a few questions in the air. Also crucial to the success of FS1 was the excellent mod support. Mod tools were released for the use of players and the game itself shipped with FreeSpace Editor (FRED) that allowed every player to design and create their own missions.

It is good to note that although in certain regions the full title of the game is Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War, FS1 has very little to do with the Descent game series. The prefixes "Descent" and "Conflict" were used in some titles because there was already an archive tool called FreeSpace on the market.

Silent Threat

Silent Threat is an expansion for FreeSpace 1, also released in 1998. It offered a few new ships and weapons and a campaign regarding a rogue faction within the intelligence branch of the GTA. Silent Threat was considered as a decent expansion pack. The main campaign suffered from bugs, weird plot development and generic mission designs, but was compensated by the selected user-made mission that were also included.

FreeSpace 2

FreeSpace 2 was released in 1999 and continued the story 32 years after the events of FS1. The Terrans and Vasudans have increased their cooperation that started during the events of FS1, eventually culminating in the formation of the Galactic Terran-Vasudan Alliance (GTVA). However, not everyone appreciates the situation. A rebel group known as the Neo-Terran Front wages a war against the GTVA, because they do not see a future for the Terran race with the Vasudans.

In terms of gameplay and contents, FreeSpace 2 unsurprisingly improved upon what FreeSpace 1 had offered. The gameplay as such remained the same, but new features were added. Among these were beam weapons for capital ships and missions taking place in nebula environments. Storywise FreeSpace 2 was somewhat different from FS1. Sometimes compared to The Empire Strikes Back, it didn't have a clear and happy ending, but instead left a number of questions floating in the air, puzzling and frustrating the fans.

Though critically appraised, FreeSpace 2 was not a commercial success, largely because of the poor advertisement. Many fans of FreeSpace 1 were actually surprised to hear that FreeSpace 2 had been published because the only real source for this information was through game reviews.

FreeSpace 3?

There is no FreeSpace 3. Volition was bought by THQ in 2000, with the licenses remaining with Interplay. Volition couldn't create a new game in the series and Interplay was not interested in publishing space simulation games because the genre was deemed dead. More information about FreeSpace 3 and related things can be read from Karajorma's FreeSpace FAQ.

Where to get the games?

Though the FreeSpace games are old, they are far from lost. Good Old Games (GOG) sells numerous old classic games, including FreeSpace, Silent Threat, and FreeSpace 2. People who do not yet own these games are recommended to buy them from Good Old Games, because GOG's games are cheap ($5.99 or $9.99), DRM-free and completely legal.

The FreeSpace Source Code Project

After Volition was bought by THQ, they no longer had any use for the game engine, since they couldn't develop new FreeSpace games. Volition released the source code of the FS2 game engine in 2002 so that FreeSpace fans could do what they wanted with it. A group of coders joined forces and formed the FreeSpace 2 Source Code Project (SCP) that began to, and still continues to, improve the game engine. The new open source game engine, known as FreeSpace Open (FSO), has several distingushing features that include:

  • Linux and Mac OS X support
  • OpenGL support
  • OpenAL positional audio support
  • Easy mod installation
  • OGG support
  • Hardware transform, clipping, and lighting

The FreeSpace Upgrade Project

While the SCP improve the code of the game engine to enable new and exciting features, the FreeSpace Upgrade Project (FSU) creates material that takes advantage of the improved game engine. The FSU improves the ships, effects and background elements of FreeSpace 2 continuously. Every now and then these improvements are released as a pack. Known as MediaVPs, these assorted improvements enhance the graphics of the game drastically. Though screenshots give some idea of what the MediaVPs can do, the best way is to experience them in-game.

Games based on the FSO engine

In addition to improving the original FS2, the FSO engine has also made it possible for people to create new space sim games. for a list of FSO-based games, see Total conversions. Note that all of these games are standalone, which means that they do not require the original FS2.

Hard Light Productions

Hard Light Productions (HLP) is the most active online FreeSpace community. HLP consists of hundreds of dedicated FreeSpace fans, with everyone contributing to the community in one or more ways. Members of HLP are

  • Coders, who continuously improve the FSO game engine to include new and exciting features, as well as fix bugs in the game engine
  • Modellers, who create new ship models and improve old ones
  • Texture artists, who make textures for new and old ships
  • Effect artists, who create effects such as weapons fire and afterburner trails
  • FREDders, who use the FreeSpace Editor to create new missions and campaigns for people to play
  • Support people, who help players with any problems regarding FreeSpace
  • Players, who keep FreeSpace alive by playing the game year after year.

HLP has forums for the SCP, where new versions of the FSO game engine are released. People can also request new features, as well as post their contributions in the FSO code. HLP also has a board for the FSU project. This board has release threads for the latest MediaVPs, as well as other graphical updates.

In addition to these two important sections, HLP has boards for the following aspects:

  • FreeSpace & FreeSpace Open Support - for any technical problems and questions related to FreeSpace
  • FREDding - discussion about the FreeSpace Editor
  • Modding - discussion about creating various modifications
  • Multiplayer - discussion about FS2 multiplayer, accompanied by schedules
  • Several mods and total conversions.

Registering to HLP is free and highly recommended. Though viewing the forums is possible as a guest, only registered members can post in the forums and ask any questions they might have. And HLP is notorious for responding to questions quickly, sometimes within minutes.

Installing FreeSpace Open

Installing FreeSpace Open is not rocket science as long as you follow the proper guidelines.

First, install FreeSpace 2. If you do not own FreeSpace 2 yet, buy it from Good Old Games. Installing FreeSpace 2 first is important, because FreeSpace Open is not a full game; it is merely an upgraded version of the FS2 game engine. Linux users may want to install FS2 with WINE. Mac users can use Bootcamp or WINE. It is also possible to first install FS2 onto a Windows machine and then copy the entire \freespace2\ folder to the Linux/Mac computer.

Next, install OpenAL. OpenAL is a 3D audio API and is required by FSO. After these two steps, there are several methods for installing FSO.

Turey's FreeSpace Open Installer

Turey's Installer is probably the most popular method for installing FSO. The idea of Turey's Installer is that it is a small program that downloads FSO-related files from the web. The user tells the Installer where his FreeSpace 2 installation is located, selects the components he wants to download and then starts up the Installer. It will then download the selected files from appropriate servers and place them to correct folders on the user's computer. Even though it has had its problems in the past, it is once again in working order and should provide working results. Instructions on how to use Turey's Installer can be found here.

ShivanSPS's SCP Update Pack

ShivanSPS's SCP Update Pack is another simple tool for installing FSO, though its functionality differs a lot from Turey's Installer. Instead of downloading various materials, the pack itself contains all the data, so once you've downloaded it, you can run it without an Internet connection. Point the update pack at your \freespace2\ folder and run it. Since the Pack can be downloaded in several smaller pieces, it suits the users who can use their Internet connection only at specific times.

hip63's FreeSpace Open SCP 3.6.10 Offline Installer

hip63's Offline Installer is similar to ShivanSPS's pack; you'll first download the entire thing and then install it over your FreeSpace 2 installation. However, hip63's Offline Installer includes additional options, like a campaign pack that includes 100 user-made campaigns and tools for creating backup DVDs of your FreeSpace games.

Manual installation (details)

If you want to do things yourself and possibly learn some things about the game in the process, you can install FSO manually. There are instructions for manual installation for Windows and Linux/OS X in the stickies in the Tech Support board, as well as a vast amount of troubleshooting help. The Windows instructions in particular contain links to the most reliable and up-to-date components, accompanied by short explanations on what does what. And don't think about manual installation as a 1337 h4x0r thing. There's more work involved, but it is all easy in the end, and you'll most likely gain more from manual installation. Also, by installing FSO manually you are free (to a degree) to choose just what you want to install in the first place. You won't have to download graphical enhancements and user-made campaigns unless you want to.

Post-installation instructions

After you've installed FSO, there are some things you need to do in order to enjoy FSO to its fullest (these steps are also mentioned in the manual installation instructions mentioned earlier):

  • Open the Launcher and click the "Browse" button at the top.
  • Select fs2_open_3_6_12_INF_r.exe (do not use a -d or -debug build) and click OK.
  • Open the Audio/Joystick tab and make sure that Generic Software is selected.
  • Open the Video tab and make sure that OpenGL and 32-bit colors are selected.
  • If you've installed the MediaVPs (the graphical updates):
    • Open the Features tab of the Launcher.
    • Select "Graphics" as the list type.
    • Tick at least "Enable specular", "Enable glowmaps", "Enable environment maps", and "Enable normal maps".
    • Select "Gameplay" as the list type.
    • Tick "Use models for ship selection" and "Use models for weapon selection".
  • Finally, save the changes by clicking "Apply" at the bottom of the Launcher.

It is easiest to always use the Launcher to start FSO, so you may want to create a shortcut of it to your desktop.

Related links

Here are a few useful FreeSpace-related links.

  • FreeSpace 2 at Good Old Games - The best place to buy FreeSpace 2 from.
  • The FreeSpace Troubleshooting FAQ - A FAQ that includes solutions to all the most common problems with FreeSpace, FreeSpace 2 and FreeSpace Open. If you have any problems with the games, start here.
  • - A site that hosts a ton of FreeSpace-related things, including campaigns, mods and total conversions.
  • Hard-Light - The largest FreeSpace community on the web, where most modders and coders are available to provide help.