Welcome to the first in what I hope will be a long series of reviews! Today I'm going to cover one of the better-known campaigns out there- Blue Planet: Age of Aquarius.
First, a little about me and my reviews. I'm a decently experienced pilot, but I haven’t been on HLP for very long. Hence, these reviews are gonna be tailored for two groups of people. First, other new-ish people who, to quote General Battuta, are looking for their “...First (or Next!) Campaign.” Not that I'm making n00b reviews, I'm just not making 1337 reviews. Second, hopefully my reviews will be helpful to the campaign makers themselves, by way of feedback, encouragement, and a bit of constructive criticism. If you're a new recruit trying to decide if a campaign is for you, or a designer wondering how new recruits will react to your campaign, then these reviews are for you.
I'm going to organize these reviews into four categories. First, PLOT. Characters, story, scary or funny moments, et cetera. Second, GAMEPLAY. Balance, fun-factor. Quality of any new ships and weapons. Clarity of mission goals. Challenge. Third, AESTHETICS. This will barely apply to some simpler campaigns, but this includes cutscene quality, the artistic appearance of new ships/weapons, voice acting, music... the “look and sound” of the campaign. Finally, TECHNICAL STUFF. Was it easy to set up? Did I run into bugs? That sort of thing. This last section will naturally be incomplete, because I'm no beta tester. I didn't try to break any missions (“really, I wasn't TRYING to break it! It just happened!”). So the only bugs I'll catch are ones that will come up in a casual playthrough- but those are probably the most dangerous type.
Anyway, without further ado, my thoughts and opinions on.............................
BLUE PLANET: AGE OF AQUARIUS
To start things off, here's a little about the campaign. For those who don't know, BP:AoA is set 18 years after FS2 (2385, I think). There have been no further Shivan incursions YET, but economic difficulties and speciesism have led to trouble between the Terrans and Vasudans. The Terrans have put massive resources into creating a knossos-like portal back to Sol. After 18 years of work, the portal is finally finished. And guess who's on the first ship through?
You are Samuel Bei. You're an experienced GTVA pilot, having fought in the Second Shivan incursion at Cappella. Recently, a strange impulse drove you to transfer to the 222nd Nightwolves, an elite squadron based on the GTD Orestes. The Orestes is the flagship of the 14th Battlegroup, a team of ten newly-designed ships with veteran crews, sent to establish contact with Earth.
I call the impulse strange, because the battlegroup is under the command of none other than... your Dad, Admiral Bei. And he's NOT happy to see you. At all. Period.
(all of the above info is from the opening cutscene and the first command briefing, so no real spoilers there)
But all is not as it seems. Ok, some people would consider this a major spoiler, while others would consider it basic, back-of-the-box information. This is an
And, while passing trough the Delta Serpentis-Sol jump node, the 14th Battlegroup was transferred to a
parallel universe... where Alpha 1 failed to destroy the Lucifer on the last mission of FreeSpace 1. Guess what happened to Earth, the GTA, and the PVE?
With no way to get back, you and the battlegroup are trapped in a galaxy that seems more empty than it really is...
Cue the drumroll. Blue Planet: Age of Aquarius.
Credit for the plot goes to the original writer, Darius.
First of all, the PROS of the Plot!
CHARACTERS: Key to BP:AoA's fun factor are the characters. To start with, Samuel Bei is not your Tabula Rasa Alpha 1. Bei talks during gameplay and records his thoughts in the briefings. Now, named, speaking, emotional player characters are a lot harder to do than Blank-Slate avatars. But in this case, I think Darius found a good balance between emotion and immersion. Bei is definitely his own person, but he has an uncanny knack for doing what the player would want to do (most of the time). Bei is observant, intelligent, and a bit genre-savvy, he's also a loyal warrior with a strong moral code, and lastly he exhibits shock at bizarre occurrences but recovers quickly. All these qualities make for a good player character.
To go with a talking player character, we also have named wingmen! There are still generic wingmen making up Beta through Omega wings (with the exception of Zeta). Alpha wing, however, breaks the mold with two plot-critical (and thankfully plot-armored) wingmen. Alpha 2, Philip Corey, is calm, optimistic, professional, and dependable; the ideal backup man. Alpha 3, Mina Taylor, is creative, excitable, outgoing, and committed to keeping everyone together; during your bizarre adventures she's often the first one to figure out what's going on. Thanks to a Wing Commander who lets friends stay on the same wing, Alpha develops into a well-written, three-person comrades-at-arms story sure to bring a smile. (If “Razgriz Squadron” means anything to you, you'll get Deja Vu).
Some other characters include your squadron leader, Esmar Al'Faddil, who (possibly because you spend so much time in his squadron) becomes much more personal than the multiple squadron leaders of the retail campaign, to the point of lending you his favorite Erinyes fighter (who could turn that down!). And don't forget your estranged Dad, Admiral Bei, whose icy exterior hides a man who really does care about his crew.
Anyway, big thumbs up for characters!
MYSTERY and ATMOSPHERE: I can't say as much here without risking major spoilers, but if H. P. Lovecraft wrote “cosmic horror stories”, HLP has now written a “cosmic mystery story”. (disclaimer: I have never read anything written by Lovecraft
). The best part is that there are multiple mysteries within mysteries, and the mission that solves one mystery is often the same mission that starts another (“Finding Sanctuary” is a good example). I won't give away to much, but just to whet your appetite you'll have... psychic voices, ghost ships, soldiers going insane, ancient memories taking shape, nightmares coming true, and more.
NOT OSTENTATIOUS...: Blue planet avoids the tendency in post-canon fan fiction to want to “Have the epic battle of everything once and for all”. It's not a “kill this bigger ship” campaign, and it avoids poorly-made Battle of Endor missions (although it has its nice big battles). Basically, it's well-done, but for part of a series that apparently intends to conclude the FreeSpace story, I found it surprisingly humble. It doesn't try desperately to prove that it's cooler and has better ships than Inferno or Derelict. It doesn't cram every corner with claims to be “THE be-all and end-all campaign.” It just tells its own story honestly. You don't see that in very often in what technically is considered fan fiction.
BUT EPIC: But AoA's story is certainly Epic. It's no out-of-the-way sidestory or secret adventure. You're right in center of a campaign that could decide humanity's fate. Massive ships are there, in true FreeSpace style. Epic acts of Heroism? Check. Loyal comrades cheering? Check. Everything and everyone counting on you (no pressure!)? Check. Blue Planet is, without a doubt, a Hero story. On top of that, you'll find that Blue Planet significantly broadens and deepens the FreeSpace lore, zooming out to show you more of the nature of this universe. Your actions in previous FreeSpace games have been part of something far larger than you imagined...
Now, sorry guys, but I need to cover the CONS of the plot.
THAT INFAMOUS COMMAND BRIEFING: On the mission “Demons of the Past”, there's a “Command Briefing” of a (Buddhist?) speech about re-incarnation, positive and negative karma, elder souls, the history of religion, and so on. I imagine some people might have reacted to it differently, but it really rubbed me the wrong way.
I admit I almost stopped playing at that point. I'm pretty sure the CB will trigger different reactions in different people, but I got pretty angry about the handling of the “Piscean Age”. Thankfully, I decided to continue, although I had uncomfortable concerns about “where they were going with this”. Much to my relief, the story didn't go anywhere with it at all. If it irritates you too much, you can actually skip that whole CB without loosing any of the story. It's just... THERE. The only thing I can think is that it was supposed to be like the scene from “I, Robot”, where...
...Powell and Donovan have weird visions while “temporarily dead” in hyperspace.
Anyway, if it irritates or offends you, hit “continue” as soon as you hear “In the Piscean Age...” I still don't get it, but I wouldn't want anyone to miss this whole adventure because of one Command Brief that isn't even plot-critical.
GRANDIOSE DIALOGUE: I'll be honest, some of the dialog seems a little on the overdramatic side. BUT, while this might have been an issue in the original version, it's barely a con at all in the voice-acted “directors cut” that we have now. Why? See “Aesthetics”.
Credit for the Gameplay goes to Darius, along with everyone involved in re-balancing the Director's Cut version (I think General Battuta, The E, and Axem, amoung others).
CONS of the Gameplay (Can I do Cons first for this one? Please? They're small!)
LENGTH: Looking at the mission list, you might assume that BP:AoA is about the same length as FreeSpace 1. While it's true there are 26 missions, about half of them are either cutscene-only missions or what I call “playable cutscenes”- missions with gameplay, but no enemies. For example, at one point you're assigned to an escort mission, but the ship you escort never comes under attack, so you can just sit back and enjoy a friendly chat with your wingmen. Actually, some of the playable cutscenes are pretty intense, even without enemies!
In actuality, there are about 12 true combat missions (about the same as Silent Threat). Now, the length issue isn't so much of a problem, it's just not what I expected (or what a lot of people will expect). It's not so much a retail-length campaign as it is a dozen excellent missions, with a lot of cutscenes to help tell a retail-length story. A high story-to-gameplay ratio, if you will, but both the story and gameplay are excellent, so I can't complain much.
THE MARATHON: Not to give too many spoilers, but at one point the campaign sends you through a 5-mission red-alert chain, with no support ships for the whole thing. To be fair, two of the missions are playable cutscenes, so you won't take damage or expend missiles, but on the other three you're gonna see a good bit of action (especially the first and last missions). By the end of the last mission I was down to 1% hull, with no secondaries left. No exaggeration. Honestly, it was kinda fun,
and the missions themselves weren't bad at all, but I can imagine the frustration of someone stuck on the 5th mission of the chain in a badly damaged ship.
The plot could have been ruined if I had lost a subsystem (comms, for example).
Ok, back to the PROS!
NEW STUFF: BP introduces some useful additions to the GTVA pilot's arsenal. The team did a good job of making them useful, but not overpowered. A few examples:
GTF Aurora: An interceptor, related to the Valkrie and Perseus. A bit more durable than the Perseus, and still very fast, though a bit less maneuverable. Same missile load as the Perseus (excellent for a “light” fighter), and has six well-placed primaries (4+2). A very good balance of firepower, durability, and performance; maybe not as great a dogfighter as the Perseus, but as a fast ship with six primaries, it's an awesome bomber-killer. The stronger shields and powerful primaries make it a good choice for “the marathon”.
GTF Kulas: Finally, a worthy replacement for the Ulysses. Extremely agile; maybe not a speed demon like the Aurora, but turns on a dime. A single quad primary mount gives it a good punch. Can't take that much pounding, however, and has the same limited missile supply at the Ulysses (40). Oddly, it can carry the Maxim, like the Serapis, allowing for a sort of fast anti-cruiser or anti-turret strategy; but with only on primary bank this isn't always a good idea. Overall, great dogfighter.
GTW Balor: A new primary weapon, compatible with almost every ship. Instead of firing all barrels at once, it fires its barrels in a cyclic pattern, one at a time. More barrels equals a faster fire rate. This means that instead of salvos, you get a steady stream of fire; there's less snapshot punch that way, but the steady stream is great for bomb interception, hitting small, fast fighters (like Dragons), and strafing hard-to-hit turrets. Damage is slightly higher than the Prometheus S. Range and Velocity are not as high as the Prom S, but noticeably higher than the Kayser. Energy drain is Mekhu-like. Also does a surprising amount of subsystem damage. Overall, it's not as destructive as the UD-8 Kayser, it's not as accurate as the Prometheus S, and it's not as power-efficient as the Subach HL-7, but it's got a good balance, and if you like the high fire rate of the HL-7 family, the Balor is perfect. I loved it.
There's more new tech, some of it glee-inducing, but unfortunately it's more involved plot-wise. If you don't mind a teaser, there's an assault fighter with ten gunmounts, a bomber with bigger bays than the Boanerges, and a self-healing space superiority fighter.
MISSION DESIGN: Ok, this is where the fun begins. As I said before, Age of Aquarius is less of a retail-length campaign and more like a dozen or so awesome missions with a lot of cutscenes in between to give it an equally awesome storyline. There are a couple of pretty-good missions in there for plot reasons, but most of those dozen missions are absolute gems, as I said before. Without spoiling too much of the plot, I'll give you my opinions on a few.
Enter the Dragon: A devilishly hard redux of The Field of Battle (FS1 mission 2). A good first fight, to give you back your fear of Shivans
(seriously, SPOILER TWELVE DRAGONS?!?!?!?)
. It showed me how effective the Balor could be; also probably the best mission to try the Kulas on.
@the BP team: oh, and being the hardcore maximalist that I am, I saved Nerhu
Journey of a Thousand Miles: (aka the Marathon) I'll be honest, there WAS something fun about a red-alert chain that long. Taken on their own each mission was an OK furball; added together it was all quite a challenge. A series of good dogfights (the first one big enough to be scary) with a nice big Kaboom and some story appetizers at the end.
Forced Entry: This one took me about ten tries. It's seriously one of the toughest and most heart-pounding escort missions out there. Six friendly ships, ALL of which need to make it to the jump node.
Enough ships on both sides that it almost counts as a Battle of Endor, except not all of them show up at the same time. And a nearly perfect balance of enemies versus allies, so that you WILL win the mission, IF you do everything PERFECTLY. (no pressure!) The best part is, there are a number of different strategies that work. In my hunt for a walkthrough on the forums, I found people who recommended the Aurora, the Perseus... some even suggested the Myrmidon, since it's quirks could be advantageous. QuantumDelta did it in a Zeus (not a strategy I'd recommend, but he pulled it off!
) Being a heavy fighter specialist, I did it in a Herc II.
Oh, and my several attempts were a lot less frustrating than you would expect, thank to a combination of constant heart-racing and a perfect bit of music (see Aesthetics).
There are other missions that shine like diamonds, but it's hard to describe them without ruining them. Part of the fun of BP:AoA is, thanks to the setting, you'll get a bunch of Deja Vu missions.
Bearbaiting, Good Luck, High Noon, Argonautica,
and other popular missions have remastered versions as the 14th battlegroup attempts to reuse (and improve) successful strategies seen in the past two games.
Overall, BP contains at least one top-notch example of every mission category: Dogfight, Bombing, Assault, Warship Duel, Escort, Gauntlet, you name it, it's there!
MOAR NEW STUFF: In addition to fighter tech, the GTVA also has cool new Capships. And the 14th battlegroup is made of them. The Flagship is the Orestes, a GTD Raynor-class destroyer (Great anti-capital brawler with a massive forward beam and several smaller ones). “Orestes Team” also includes the Miranda, a GTCv Chimera (heavy forward firepower in the Ravana-Rakshasa style, and a nigh-impenetrable fighter screen), the Boreas, a GTCv Bellerophon (related to the Chimera, even MORE forward firepower, plus more armor, at the expense of speed and fighter defenses), the Persephone, a GTC Hyperion (basically a moderately upgraded Aeolus), and the Fortune, a GTL Anemoi class logistics ship (a destroyer-sized transport, not armed for real combat but with enough supplies to run the battlegroup for months).
The other half of the battlegroup is “Temeraire Team”: The Temeraire, a GTD Titan (carrier-like, thick fighter screen, good forward guns though weak on the flanks), the Labouchere, another GTCv Chimera, the Bretonia and Duke, two more GTC Hyperions, and another GTL Anemoi, the Solace.
Not just the ships themselves, but even their weapons, have been upgraded. The old green beams have been replaced by slightly more powerful, much longer ranged Blue Beams. Standard fighter defenses have been augmented by Pulse Turrets: rapid fire, high-velocity lasers, or in other words, “blob turrets” that actually work.
Credit here goes to the myriads of people (not all of them on the official team) who contributed shipmodels and backgrounds, to Belisarius for the Soundtrack, and especially to all the Voice Actors.
PROS of the Aesthetics
MUSIC: In addition to good use of existing FS music, BP:AoA includes several great pieces composed by Darius and Belisarius. I'll let a few of them speak for themselves.SHEEVINS, U R SKROOD!KAN U PHEAL TEH IXPLOOD?CHARARARARARARARGE!
I also enjoyed Aim (great battle Theme), Drum Into Heaven
, and whatever the briefing music in Universal Truth was (same piece used in the credits, really gets you pumped).
COLORS: I couldn't help but notice that... everything is Blue
. The Planet (sorta). The title. The ships of the 14th battlegroup. The Blue Beams. The pulse cannons. Coincidence? I think not. Quite appropriate though. I'm no psycologist, but the color blue seems to fit the “mood” of the story very well, while making the 14th stand out from the other ships they encounter.
BACKGROUNDS: Nicely done. I especially like the one from First Contact through Sacrifices, which looks to me a lot like the inside of the Eagle Nebula. Nice close-ups of planets too.
VOICE ACTING: MEGA thumbs up here!
BP:AoA is voice-acted, and excellently acted to boot. In fact, at points the Voice Acting saves the plot. There were a few briefings and dialogues from Bei that, when read visually, seemed to be pushing suspension of disbelief a bit too far. But by the time Sam had finished reading them... I bought it entirely. Bei's VA doesn't overact, or Out-Herod Herod, or desperately try to make YOU believe what he's saying. He just talks as though he believes it himself, and that does the trick.
Corey and Taylor are well-acted as well. In particular, they don't have just plot-based lines, they have full wingman personas, with “great shot”, “help”, and “watch your six” lines, which is in improvement on the campaign I'm on right now, Derelict. Even routine combat lines are a bit more creative than normal, befitting their character status. Corey: “Well done, sir! You shame me!” Taylor: “A little help? Me and the Shivan need to start seeing other people.”
Even the generic wingmen had their personas re-acted to fit AoA better. Thumbs up for completeness! (the only bit of dialog that wasn't acted was, well, a Wilhelm scream
Also, (only for the eyes of those who have beaten the campaign)
Shiva and Vishnu were superbly done. Vishnu just sounded... powerful, especially on First Contact II. Shiva had the obvious ETAK sounds, which raised interesting questions, not to mention just sounding scary. “We Do” shook me, even though I saw it coming... Shiva just sounded... HUNGRY.
Also of note are Admiral Bei (deep, fatherly voice, but clearly angry when needed), Al'faddil (accent matched the name perfectly, “We're bang in the middle of a Warzone!”) and Orestes control with his
shocking Jekyll- Hyde change at the end
DETAIL: Outside of the campaign itself, Blue Planet includes a new Mainhall, new backgrounds for briefings, and a massively updated tech room. Old tech descriptions are rewritten to fit BP's time period, new ones are added, the Weapons section new includes entries for all TURRETS (wow
), and the new ships are described in detail. On top of that, the Intelligence section includes meaty entries that explain Blue Planet's background lore.
CONS of the Aesthetics
Only one real complaint:
TOO MANY SUNS: In the aforementioned “Eagle Nebula” area, there are suns in almost every direction. Looks cool, yes, but makes it too easy to get blinded.
Not a whole lot to say here, but...
NO BROKEN MISSONS: At least not when I played.
INSTA-FAIL: I noticed a tendency in the mission design to jump instantly to a fail debrief if the mission was failed, rather than make up failure dialog and make the player jump out. I can see a couple good reasons for this- to start with, often if you fail a mission there would be nowhere to jump out to. (In fact, a lot of the time your warp drive is disabled until it's time to leave). Also, it avoids some awkward dialog that would result from certain mission failures. (like traitor-failing; not that I ever tried that
)A creative solution to a plot-related difficulty.
SPELLING: My teacher would be proud.
SETUP: The BP team have provided an easy-to-use installer.
CONS: or more accurately CON:
HARDWARE INTENSIVE: BP pushes FSO close to it's limits. In fact, it runs on its own dedicated Blue Planet build of FSO. Unfortunately, my computer isn't top-of-the line, so BP builds weren't able to run properly. Thankfully, the BP team did me and other people with old machines a big favor by making the “BP Compatibility Package”, which solves the problem by making BP run on nightly builds (at the cost of a more complicated setup). Also, two missions in I discovered that my computer couldn't run the BP_ADVANCED.VP. If your graphics card is like mine, the background on mission 2 goes haywire. Follow the instructions to get rid of that VP and everything should be fine. In short, there are some hardware issues, but the BP team worked hard to find workarounds for people like me with jury-rigged second-hand computers.
Blue Planet: Age of Aquarius earns a huge thumbs up. An excellent plot that continues and deepens the FreeSpace Saga combines perfectly with several fantastic missions that leave your heart racing. Mods are used creatively to give logical expansions of existing arsenals. The story is character-driven and emotional, but it keeps that FreeSpace feel: defending humanity against a seemingly unstoppable foe. The adventure requires skill and reflexes.
The content might not be for everyone- some might prefer the classic blast-em-up setting to the mystery and emotion. But if you're a FreeSpace fan who also likes Star Wars
, Doctor Who
, Ace Combat
, or Halo
, Blue Planet: Age of Aquarius might just be your cup of tea.
Blue Planet isn't perfect, as you may have seen. But seriously, if my biggest complaint is a single Command Briefing, and one that has little plot importance at that, you can tell it's pretty high up there!
And don't forget, this is just the first part of a Trilogy! And we already have 60% of the sequel- Blue Planet: War in Heaven (which I haven't started yet). I have high hopes for the rest of this story!
Short, but excellent.
Staggering attention to detail.
TECHNICAL STUFF: 85%
No major bugs, but hardware-intensive.
(A little context: 85% is “retail quality”. That means that the main FS1 and FS2 campaigns, with MediaVPs, would get 85s in everything but Technical Stuff, where they get 100s. In Plot, Gameplay, Aesthetics, and Overall, anything above 85% means an improvement on retail.)
Hope this helped! I believe that reviews need to be reviewed, so I'd love to see some player's comments on whether or not this was helpful, any developer replies to my comments, or general questions.
Coming Soon: Look out, FSPort! I'm currently working on a double review of Silent Threat: Reborn and Operation Templar. I have five more missions of Derelict left, and then I'll review that. Next, it's a flip of the coin between Vassago's Dirge, Warzone, and Blue Planet: War in Heaven.