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Independence War 2: Edge of Chaos

This game was developed by Particle Systems and published by Infogrames in 2000 for the PC. It is the sequel to the 1998 game Independence War (developed and produced by same). It is a deep-space combat sim, a particular type of game involving space-born fighter ships flying around and shooting at one another. Wing Commander, X-Wing, and Descent: Freespace (and these games' respective sequels) are all examples of similar games.

My experience with the first game is limited (though I do own it), so this writeup is written from the standpoint of coming into the series from this second game. The plot is fairly good, if you choose to read the background text, and a great deal of that concerns itself with a previous war fought some years before (all of which, fairly obviously, refers to the first game). Essentially, there was a revolution against an oppressive interstellar government some years before, which succeeded and eventually degenerated into the current state of affairs: rule by oppressive corporations. This particular plot device of creating a sequel is a fairly old one (especially in this type of game, see also Colony War), but is pulled off pretty well.

Without reading the background text, the plot is nothing too fancy. You are the son of a miner who owed money to the massive corporations that rule known space. He was killed for it, and you were thrown into prison. After fifteen years of imprisonment you escape with your group of buddies, and decide to follow in your grandmother's footsteps and become a space pirate (the grandmother, I gather, featured greatly in the first game). Much of the game involves stealing things from other people through the simple tactic of finding a transport ship, killing the escorts, and ordering the trasport to dump its cargo. Stuff to steal ranges from scrap metal to processed cheese to monkeys (well, okay, apes). Fun stuff.

What's more fun is that your freedom to go places and steal stuff is unlimited. You simply bring up your map of the local cluster of stars, choose a location, and engage your drives. Let me put this another way: the game is somewhat non-linear. There's a very linear structure of missions, which it's required you complete to progress in the game, but the stealing and plundering, etc, can all be done in the places and times you choose.

Down to brass tacks: this game features graphics that stand up well to today's, and which I expect were stunning at the time of its release (Freespace 2's graphics are one notch above these). However, it's not really the graphics that they were going for in this game. First, this game has an accurate (Newtonian) physics model. I am aware of no other deep-space combat sim with a Newtonian physics model, not one (with the slight and possible exception of certain 3D versions of the classic arcade game Asteroids, and the first Independence War, of course). Freespace (both it and its sequel, which are really the only other deep-space sim games I have played in depth) features a very unrealistic physics model, where the only direction the ship can travel is forwards, and ships are unable to drift. Either a ship is pushing itself forwards (up to the speed you set on the throttle) or it is stopped.

In the Independence War games, on the other hand, momentum will carry you in a different direction than the one you're facing, shutting off the engines will cause you to drift, and holding down the acceleration button will allow you to accelerate to pretty high speeds. Of course, the game offers a "flight assist" mode (which is on by default) which will cause your ship's boosters to automatically compensate for your puny human zero-g skills and attempt to make the ship fly like this is Freespace (e.g. it will try and keep you flying forwards to the best of its abilities).

Whether all this actually makes it a better game is open to speculation. This is actually a big enough change that they are practically two different types of games. Freespace plays much like a classic airplane fighter simulation (except for, you know, the lack of up or down), while this game is a constant battle with momentum, where you try to fly circles around opponents furiously trying to do the same to you.

As with most any game that trys to simulate the flying of air/space craft, having a quality joystick is highly recommended. Four buttons and a throttle should do it, and a hat switch is a bonus, though the arrow keys can fill in if you don't have one on your joystick. If you don't have a joystick at all, you can still play the game, but it will be a little harder. Here's another big difference between this and Freespace: most of the weapons in the game have an auto-aim feature, though some of the more powerful weapons don't have it. Depending on your control configuration this can be insanely helpful; aiming with a keyboard is much less precise than the joystick.

In the end, I personally like Freespace 2 better. The realistic physics model is fun, but Freespace is far more engaging. Too much time is spent in this game going from place to place and not in actual action: a time compression feature, which Freespace offers, would do this game wonders. Freespace's strict mission structure means that most of your time is spent actually in dogfights or taking on huge capital ships. This isn't a perfect game, but at today's prices (remember, it's a couple of years old now) it's worth the purchase price.

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