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.

Analysis of a Moment: Halo – The End of Two Betrayals

Every once in a while, we run into moments in games that are just incredibly well-designed all around. We might not realize it exactly or why it’s well-designed, but we know these moments are really, really fun. Those of us interested in game-design can look at moments like these as examples; not to copy, but as inspiration. They have elements that make them so great, and we can pick apart these elements to see what makes these moments so fun.

The first I can think of is my all-time favourite part of Halo: Combat Evolved (the first one). At the end of the map Two Betrayals, in order to get to a platform high off the ground, we need to grab a Covenant Banshee (the flying vehicle, for those who have never played the game). We continue through this frozen canyon to find one and run into a battle between a decent-sized Flood force and the largest Covenant defensive position we’ve seen so far. We can clearly see a pair of Banshees at the back, but have to somehow get through this massive enemy force to get it. It’s incredibly tricky to pull off, and I’ll be talking about this as though playing on the highest difficulty setting, Legendary (mostly because I just recently beat this on Legendary myself and haven’t touched it on any other setting in years). To describe the Covenant position, you have a firing line of Jackals and Grunts with a single Shade turret up front, some Elite Majors behind them, and a Wraith mortar tank on each side flanking the main body of the force. At some point, some Elite Ossoona (Stealth Elites. Yes, that’s what they’re called) move out to harass you as you begin your attack. When you’ve either destroyed enough or gotten close enough (it seemed to vary, when I played), a pair of Hunters, some more Grunts and a pair of Elite Zealots run from the back to reinforce.

From the start of the encounter, we are given a great introduction as to what we’re up against. We have a wave of Flood attacking this position we have to assault, and it gets wiped out in about a minute under a rain of needler and plasma mortar fire. At several points in this map before this, we see waves of Flood wiping out Covenant defensive positions without much contest, so we immediately see the potential challenge of this. We can also clearly see fire from a fixed turret and two Wraith mortar tanks among other small(er) arms fire, so we have useful test-dummies to show what we’re actually up against. One of the big problems with giving the player a challenge like this is that he often has to run in and die at least once before he knows exactly what it is, but here they found a nice way around that issue.

Related to the Flood attacking the position, we are also given necessary tools for the attack, mostly dropped by Flood Combat Forms but there’s a weapons cache not too far away. We have a sniper rifle with four full clips, about twenty rockets for a rocket launcher, a Ghost light strike vehicle (yes, it’s possible to get it up that short ledge), and as many frag grenades, plasma grenades, assault rifle, pistol and shotgun rounds as we can carry. Before this, Flood Combat Forms carrying rocket launchers are the most annoying things in the game (it was a very luck-based instant-loss, before this. See why I don’t like glass-cannons?), but now we can appreciate them as a source of ammo. Without them, we wouldn’t have nearly enough rockets to destroy the Wraith tanks. It’s a good way of repurposing an extremely-annoying enemy into something useful.

My favourite part of this encounter is that the game doesn’t actually care what we do anyway. The game makes sure we can’t bring a Banshee from a previous area (which is good, because I don’t think anyone would want to skip this) but otherwise it leaves us free to attack this section however we want. We could try to make a stealthy beeline for one of the Banshees to get in and out without a fight (it has worked for me once, years ago, I swear to God). We could actually try wiping out the entire position before trying to get the Banshee. We could destroy the Wraiths first, or ignore them and kill the Elites. We could use the rocket launcher for that, or the sniper rifle or anything else we wanted, as long as it worked. This section is what Crysis really tried to be; it gives you an objective, a challenge and the tools to work and lets you loose to complete it how you want.

As I’ve said before, it’s very difficult to actually beat this section. Even having a great plan for what to do, it still took me four tries to complete. For example, while I was trying to snipe the Wraith tanks with rockets, the Ossoona surprised and killed me before I could get back to cover. It’s very honest and up-front about why it’s difficult; you always know exactly why you died, and how you might get past it the next time. The only possible exception to this is when the reinforcements appear, they simply weren’t there before and could easily take you by surprise, but it’s balanced by the fact that the Hunters and Zealots are very easily spotted anyway.

More than anything else, though, it’s satisfying! You went up against a massive enemy force and got out with what you needed! More than that, you completed it yourself! While I would hate to get on a soapbox and talk about the crippling issues with the games of kids today, a lot of games today don’t have this sense of accomplishment because of a lack of some of these factors. Either it gives you a very obvious way to beat the encounter, or it’s not challenging enough or something else. This section of the game lets you, the player deal with it yourself. Even better, you can easily tell what your objective is, without any hand-holding objective displays or non-player characters telling you what to do.

While I wouldn’t like if anything outright copied this part of the game, I really hope to see more sections like this used. Too often, these days, games give you a moment that is supposed to be really fun and epic, but they expect you to do this or that specific thing to get through it. In games like this that give you the freedom to do something yourself, it’s always far more satisfying from the player’s perspective to give them the tools to accomplish what they need to and let them do it themselves.