Analysis of a Moment: FreeSpace – Playing Judas

Most of what I’ve written about has been about first- or third-person shooters; a lot of it does apply to certain simulation games like MechWarrior or FreeSpace, however, and these games as well have their own lessons we can learn from. FreeSpace was one of those series’ that had a lot more good than bad, and it’s a beloved classic for almost everyone who’s played it. However, there was one mission in the first game in particular that isn’t always remembered fondly.

Playing Judas was the one and only stealth mission in all of the first FreeSpace. In a previous mission, you go through great lengths to capture a Shivan Dragon; a superiority fighter. In Playing Judas, you get to fly that Dragon (refitted for Terran use) flying a stealth recon mission against a Shivan-held jump node. The mission itself entails avoiding a few point-defense turrets and other Dragons patrolling the area as you scan transports and other ships coming through the area. If you get within a certain distance of the patrolling ships, they immediately know you aren’t a Shivan and they open fire on you.

After we scan a few transports, some bigger ships come in, making things a lot more tense if you’re discovered. They can’t tell if you’re friendly or not; it’s only the enemy fighters and turrets that can. To make things worse, also, for some reason your jump drive goes offline temporarily and you can’t jump out of the area if something goes wrong. Then the largest, most dangerous ship we’ve seen from the Shivans jumps in. We have to scan it, then it throws some fighters out, they spot you, there’s a small, frantic skirmish and then you can jump away, ending the mission.

It should be a pretty awesome mission because you’re flying in a Dragon. Dragons are proven before this to the player to be very maneuverable and incredibly powerful. The mission in which you capture it shows it to you in no uncertain terms; you have to disable its engines by hitting it in a certain spot with a particularly slow beam weapon. Missions in which you dogfight them are almost a nightmare, as well, because they’re so dangerous and so hard to hit. Prior to this, you don’t have a single fighter that’s anywhere close to that strength and maneuverability, so you’re practically jumping for joy at having access to this!

Shivan Dragon
The problem is that your Dragon is horribly gimped, and basically equivalent to the Apollo (the first fighter you fly; not the shuttle). You have poor maneuverability, paper-thin armor and cheap weapons, making for a very disappointing experience. Furthermore, you’re constantly threatened by REAL Dragons, almost mocking you. I can see why they did this, though; they gave you this really awesome fighter for STORY PURPOSES, and handicapped it to make this stealth mission still very tense and make it so you can easily fail if you aren’t careful. If you’re caught, you can be torn to pieces by the other Dragons. But they could have done this without playing on your expectations like this.

To accomplish the same goal while giving you a full-strength Dragon, they could have set one or two Lilith-class heavy cruisers (something you couldn’t even try to kill in a superiority fighter) as a constant threat. Up to this point, Liliths are very scary unless you’re a decent bomber and have support, so there’s still a very real threat even if you have that very capable fighter.

Shivan Lilith
Story-wise, it would have made sense as well because that jump node was held by the Shivans in a contested system (if I recall correctly) and would be guarded. Having that constant axe over your head is important in a stealth mission, even with a full-power Dragon. There are other stealth missions in several FreeSpace mods (Shrouding the Light and the Procyon Insurgency, for example) that use overwhelming odds like this.

Of course, what good is having a full-strength Dragon if you can’t use it? At the end of the mission is that small scuffle and dogfight when they spot you, before you can jump out. That’s a perfect opportunity to give the player a short, intense fight with his souped-up fighter. With the Liliths around, it still stresses the player because he knows he can’t win in the long run, but just like in the original mission, he knows he just has to hold out until his jump drive gets back online.

The other major complaint about this mission is that it’s a stealth mission in the middle of a large, shoot-’em-up space fighter simulator. I didn’t think this was as big a deal because there were quite a few types of missions in the game already (escort, assault, disable, etc.), but I can entirely see the issue here. It’s a “Don’t shoot anything!” mission in the middle of a “Shoot stuff that’s red on your radar!” game. The only way you could improve this is to have another stealth mission earlier, so it isn’t as big of a shock. Story-wise, however, I have no idea how they could have worked that in properly, because there’s really no stealth-capable fighter until at least the expansion (and even then that’s not amazingly stealthy).

FreeSpace is one of my favourite games; nearly every aspect of the game is excellent. Unfortunately, the game that has no flaws whatsoever doesn’t exist (besides Lemmings, because honestly, it’s Lemmings), but we can learn from those flaws and make these games better as a result. This article is mostly academic, of course, unless someone uses the map designer to make a new version of that mission that implements these changes. We can speculate how this would work, but until we try to play through the mission, we aren’t totally sure how this would work. I’ve hopefully done a good enough job illustrating and explaining my ideas and why they might improve the mission, though.

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