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Battuta's Guide to Finding Your First (Or Next!) Campaign

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General Battuta:
this is a work in progress and it should be pretty obvious where the work is needed. please contribute!

preamble and disclaimer
If you're on Hard Light Productions, odds are that you've missed a lot of really important, really groundbreaking mods - projects that really pushed the limits of the FSO engine and brought something new to the table. And you've missed a lot of fun, heartfelt campaigns, too, gems that polished classic gameplay to a shine, or simply offered more of what brought all of us here.

You haven't played everything. Maybe you haven't played anything at all. This post is intended to get you started - or, if you're a longtime veteran, to help you find what might interest you.

This thread doesn't contain every mod ever made, but it does contain most of what I think are the important ones. If there's a mod you want added, or one you want fleshed out, please, just post and let me know.

There will be no negativity in this thread. This is a place to highlight people's hard work.

Campaign Playlists
These are quick-and-dirty suggestions tailored to meet the needs of a particular kind of player.

Who are you?

I've never played FreeSpace at all. I want to get into this amazing game.

* Play FreeSpace 2 with the MediaVPs: FreeSpace 2 is the classic that the entire community is built around, and the reference point for all other mods. You can play it first, because it's flashier and has beam cannons! Or you can reverse the order of this list and:
* Play FreeSpace Port and Silent Threat Reborn: if you want to start at the beginning of the story, you can kick off here. FreeSpace Port is an upgraded version of the FreeSpace 1 campaign. You don't need to play it to appreciate FreeSpace 2, but you might want to.  Silent Threat Reborn is a high-quality fan remake of the Silent Threat expansion for FreeSpace 1. There's no reason to play the original Silent Threat when you could play this.
I've played FreeSpace. I want to continue the FreeSpace story with some fan-made mods set in the same universe.

There is no chronology or continuity between most fan mods, so you can dive in with whatever interests you. Here's a good starting selection:

* Between the Ashes: As the GTA struggles to rebuild after the catastrophic events of FreeSpace 1, you're deployed to Antares by GTI to investigate hints of a conspiracy. Fully voice-acted with incredible mission design and a compelling story, Between the Ashes takes place in a single star system, complete with a live-updated starmap and local news. Cutting-edge design work lets you spend time with the civilian side of FreeSpace life — but when the cards go down and you're drawn into battle with a cunning Hammer of Light admiral, you'll get some of the most spectacular and varied missions you've ever seen.
* Blue Planet: 18 years after the events of FreeSpace 2, the elite GTVA 14th Battlegroup is deployed to re-establish contact with Earth, only to be hurled into a nightmare. A good mod to start with - voice acted, polished, fast-paced, not too difficult, and not too long. It uses a different narrative style than FreeSpace 2, with a voiced player character and a number of persistent wingmen. Blue Planet has a well-received sequel, War in Heaven, which trades adventure and cosmic philosophy for grit and military realism.
* Derelict: shortly after the events of FreeSpace 2, you've been deployed to the remote mining colony of Tau Sigma. What should be a dull, backwater assignment is interrupted by corporate machinations and a Lovecraftian discovery. A true classic, Derelict is almost as old as FreeSpace 2. Though it has some creaky missions and annoying technical bugs, Derelict's impressive length (60 missions), full voice acting, and classic design make it a must-play. Derelict is loosely associated with a few other campaigns, including Warzone.
* Transcend: Can you hear me? Recruited by the mysterious Shadow Guardians, Sunder Marcel finds himself hunted by something at once alien and hauntingly familiar. Everyone has a limit. Initially slow-paced and a little repetitive, Transcend blossoms into one of the more frightening experiences you'll ever have in front of a PC. Forgive the repetitive run-to-the-node missions, and play this one for the story. Loosely connected to Sync, a campaign with many of the same strengths and weaknesses.
* Vassago's Dirge: You're alone. A bed - a hospital room. Fragments of memory: the derelict station. Your breath, loud against your helmet faceplate. Shivans moving against the hull. Mjolnir fire - green flame cut into the Capella sky. Orpheus. The Shivan destroyer. Vassago. There are men here now. GTI. They have questions. Dark, desaturated, eerie, set to a beautiful Rachmaninoff score, Vassago's Dirge is a work of art. Fast-paced, challenging, and alive with sharp visuals and clever new gameplay.
I'm interested in more mods set around FreeSpace 2. Tell me about projects with traditional, no-frills gameplay.

* The Procyon Insurgency - fly as a Vasudan pilot in counter-insurgency operations against the Procyon Confederal Autonomy and its charismatic leader. Untangle a decades-old web of intrigue and test your skills with a lengthy set of carefully tested, extraordinarily challenging missions. Notoriously hard, PI rewards patience, caution, and good sense - but you'll get to play with a tuned up version of the FreeSpace 2 weapon set and some finely crafted missions. This is the place to test your skills. May have some technical issues with modern FSO builds.
* Warzone/Twilight/Aftermath - a group of campaigns spanning the decades before and after FreeSpace 2. Set in the Cold Element continuity, which loosely links them to Derelict, they offer agreeable stories and engaging, no-frills action.
* Inferno - one of HLP's formative mods, Inferno offers a huge set of new ships for every faction and promptly blows them all to beam hell while you watch in glee. It hasn't aged well, but it's one of the most important mods in HLP history - assets released by the Inferno team enabled a vast number of other campaigns. It's due for an upgrade and expanded re-release soon, so I'd hold off
* Sol: A History: A prequel to Inferno, Blaise Russel's historical epic follows the political turmoil in Sol after its isolation from the colonies. Lengthy and challenging, S:AH is a major work by one of the community's most successful designers.
* The Aeos Affair - safeguard an Ancient dig site threatened by a Shivan presence during the events of FreeSpace 2. Another one of HLP's early-era classics, Aeos Affair offers a quick ten-mission gauntlet best answered with good wingman command and Trebuchet skills.
* Renegade Resurgence/Journey to Epsilon Pegasi/Into the Halls of Valhalla
* Flames of War
* The Lightning Marshal?
I'm interested in more mods set around FreeSpace 2. Give me adventure - new storytelling, new gameplay.

* Homesick - it's the Reconstruction era, and the fringes of human space are a wild frontier. Join a down-on-their-luck mercenary wing caught up in an escalating series of misfortunes that casts them into unknown territory. Home has never seemed so far away. Lonely and harrowing, Homesick founded the 'four fighters and a corvette' subgenre that would underpin Sync and Transcend. One of the prolific Blaise Russell's works.
* Windmills - You aren't a fighter pilot. You are Command. And you're going to have to make some very hard decisions. No FreeSpace mod has ever offered something quite as startling or boundary-pushing as Windmills. Taking inspiration from DEFCON, Portal, and the best traditions of video game mind****ery, Windmills is FreeSpace as a strategy game, as a psychological test, as the Battle Room from Ender's Game, as a deconstruction of the pilot's hatred of Command. Perhaps the least-appreciated, most important work of FreeSpace auteur Ransom Arceihn.
* Crossing the Styx - Ever wondered about the story of the NTC Trinity? You know, that cruiser that opened up the Knossos, unleashed the Shivans and ended up stranded in the nebula? In Crossing the Styx, you get to experience the full story first-hand.

* Uncharted Territory - A minicampaign with multiple endings. Venture deep into Shivan space on a mission to run tests on subspace phenomena. It's just you and your little fleet....what could go wrong?
* Sync - the Sync drive hurls you and your friends into unexplored space and past the edge of sanity. Loosely and eerily related to Transcend, Ransom Arceihn's debut is in it for the story, with gameplay taking amicable but sometimes stilted second fiddle. The slow psychological degradation of your wingmates and companions reflects Ransom's preoccupation with the deprivation and isolation of space travel, the horrors that echo in a space more vast than the human mind.
* Hellgate: Ikeya and Light of Antares: Released by 0rph3u5 in August 2007, these two smaller campaigns supplement the previously released FS1-era campaign “Rain on Ribos IV”. The mainstay of both campaigns lies in classic FreeSpace gameplay, but Light of Antares tries something novel - three-way battles in a single mission. While it's tricky to keep this dynamic balanced, it offers a unique dynamic that hasn't been seen much (if at all) elsewhere.
Damn that cliffhanger! I want to play something that feels like a conclusion to the FreeSpace story, even if it's not the one I imagined!

You can't! And, surprisingly, only a few mods have even attempted to move in this direction. They are:

* Blue Planet
* Inferno
I want to play something old school - a FreeSpace 1 era campaign. Where should I start?

* Shrouding the Light
* Shivans/Echo Gate
* Cardinal Spear - Released by Ace in 1998, Cardinal Spear is set during the Terran-Vasudan war as the GTA reels from a surprise attack on Earth and prepares for an offensive against the Vasudans. Taking place during the Vega Engagement, you are part of a taskforce intended to put an end to the war with a daring strike. This eight mission campaign included new weapons, 3d modeled planets, and a new installation, the PVI Karnak, at a time when FreeSpace modding was still in its infancy. Has perhaps the finest mod.ini description in the history of FreeSpace modding.
* Destiny of Peace
I need to relax! Give me something funny.

* Just Another Day Collector's Edition - disco inferno, baby.
* Just Another Day 2.21 - it's not just funny, compassionate, and slick, it's one of the most original campaigns ever released, serious or comedic. Swap between ships on the fly, shop at the local store, run races, and force-feed your enemies tacos in this punchy, bite-sized tour de force.
* Deus Ex Machina
* Ridiculous - Join the GTD Arbitrary and crew as they seek to save the universe from the evil IronBeer's Plothole...all while having a good laugh.  Nine missions of great combat and humor (along with voice acting). There's a rock band with a Sathanas tour bus.
Beyond FreeSpace
I'm ready to move beyond the FreeSpace setting. What's out there, and how will it expand my brain?

* Wings of Dawn - what is there to say? One man completed perhaps the most sprawlingly ambitious total-conversion mod since The Babylon Project, and the first FSO total conversion set in an original universe. Peppy, kinetic, and lighthearted, Wings of Dawn is a collision of anime tropes and Star Control. You might hate anime, you might hate fun - but odds are you'll still enjoy Wings of Dawn, which sports a clever armor/damage-type gameplay model, a dizzying array of new and creative weapons and ships, and missions that will leave your jaw on the floor with their sheer bravado. A lengthy, big-picture space opera.
* The Antagonist - no other mod takes a specific concept and executes it so perfectly as The Antagonist. You're the first human in decades to escape the chemical thrall of the Oligarchy, and you've stolen their best fighter in the process. Determined to bring down this totalitarian state, you run the gauntlet towards their home system, facing down the Oligarchs and their defenses in a ship that adapts and grows almost as fast as the threat. Like recent indie darling Bastion, The Antagonist is a focused, artsy piece of near-perfection, introducing new gameplay elements and then escalating and combining them into stunning boss fights. Criminally underplayed at release - don't miss it.
* Dimensional Eclipse - Get lost in this anime inspired modding experiment packed full of new gameplay features, high-velocity flight dynamics, and new takes on weapons and ships. Remarkable attention to detail, including custom menus. Suffers from some technical glitches - a patch is on the way
* Burning Heaven - Rogue elements of the Terran military devastate a colony world. Determined to reveal the truth, you form Phoenix Squadron and set out to solve this forgotten crime at any cost. Who is the terrorist and who is the freedom fighter? Find out in this thoughtfully written and voice acted campaign.
What about the mods based on Our Favorite Science Fiction Properties?

* The Babylon Project Maybe JMS hated it when he was asked to put an ace pilot on his cast and killed them off, but you think Starfuries are pretty cool. This is for you, Babylon 5 fans - and for anyone looking for an ambitious, successful space simulator. TBP plays differently from FS in a number of ways. Foremost is that it rewards marksmanship far more, because targets are smaller and the number of guns you'll be carrying fewer. There are no shields, so you'll get very sensitive to how far away you are from an opponent when you finish them off to avoid getting caught in the blast. And the missiles, such as they are, are minimalist nearly-straight-running weapons. There will be dogfighting. A lot of it. It was also one of the first efforts to feature beam weapons as main guns for fighters, with the Minbari Nial. TBP is notable for its excellence as a total conversion - the game not only looks and sounds different from retail FreeSpace 2, it plays differently, in a tangible and interesting way. Down the years a good number of TBP campaigns have come out, and a good number of single missions. Orpheus alone made campaigns from the point of view of members of the PsiCorps, as a Shadow fighter (which included one of the first uses of in-mission jumps), and as a raider/mercenary.
* Diaspora
* Wing Commander Saga

These lists aren't useful. Give me something different.

* See the next post!

General Battuta:
Campaigns By Era - A History of HLP Creativity
The Foundationals

Foundation-era campaigns include Derelict, Inferno R1, and the Aeos Affair. These campaigns built on the storytelling and design grammar used by Volition - information conveyed through command briefings and briefings, silent protagonists, beam-armed warships deployed both as plot devices and bomber targets, and waved enemies. Flight dynamics remained untouched, weapons were mostly variants on retail archetypes, and AI behavior was not a major focus. Inferno R1 opened the era of the Big Modpack Mod, offering a huge swathe of new weapons and ships as a central component of its design and kicking off a modpack armsrace to build awesome exclusive ships that would, ironically, lead only to a lot of dead projects, very nearly including Inferno itself. Derelict pointed the way in a different direction - campaigns focused on storytelling and creative use of existing assets, exploring corners of the FreeSpace universe untouched by the main campaign, offering a little more texture and character to a universe intentionally designed to be sterile and vast.

While it's easy to poke fun at campaigns from this era - even the mighty Derelict has rough edges - there's an enormous amount of value here. Where later campaigns often sandwich gameplay between layers of cutscene or fiction-driven storytelling, campaigns from this era usually put the player right into the action, and the plot rarely stomps on the player's agency. By and large, FREDders of this era worked in the Zen constraints of hardware and software, often for the better.

Adventures in Deimos Applications

While anticipation swelled, ebbed, and swelled again for the legendary, oft-delayed megaprojects - Blackwater Operations, Inferno R2 (later Inferno SCP), Machina Terra, and the like - Blaise Russell and Ransom Arceihn picked up Derelict's baton and ran with it. During this era HLP's projects began their bifurcation into two distinct camps: small-team, story-focused projects that used FreeSpace 2 ships and freely available fan-made ships, and big-team ambitious projects that featured large sets of new, exclusive assets. These two schools of project design differed in one other important respect - the former got released, the latter stagnated and (with a few sterling exceptions) ultimately died.

The Russell/Arceihn campaigns - Homesick, Sol: A History, Shrouding the Light, Sync, Transcend - were characterized not by bombastic beam frenzy and 'kill this new, bigger ship' missions, but by thoughtful deployment of existing assets (Sol: A History made brilliant use of the Inferno R1 modpack), subversion of and experimentation with the normal grammar of FreeSpace storytelling, and distinct narrative voice. Blaise Russell's campaigns are instantly recognizable for their pilots' weary cynicism; Ransom Arceihn's psychological interests hardly need description. These campaigns opened the door for further departures from the impersonal 'command brief, brief, leave destroyer, play mission, return to base' grammar of traditional FreeSpace narrative design.

This isn't to say that the orthodox style was abandoned - that would have been a tragedy. It was during this era that the first real bickering over narrative design began, and while some of this discussion produced interesting (and broadly applicable) examination of the conflict between narrative and player agency in games, a lot of it was fundamentally pointless. Jason Scott, the writer of FreeSpace 2, made it clear very early on that he felt the most important virtue of the FreeSpace campaign community was heterodoxy, doing things in many different ways. The more diverse the campaigns the community produced, the stronger it became - if it could just stop bickering about them.

While Russell and Arceihn defined this era, there were a number of other important milestones. TopAce, stalwart contributor, produced a series of solid campaigns and took custody of others, including Into the Halls of Valhalla. In 2007 CP6570 rolled out The Procyon Insurgency, a devilishly hard remix of FreeSpace 2's gameplay - a new story set several years later with all-new missions, but following the same general beats and offering a rebalanced weapon set and more challenging warships.

Along the way, Silent Threat Reborn trundled along as an anomaly - a long-running megaproject that wasn't doomed to failure, perhaps because of its clear outline (remake the shoddy Silent Threat expansion) and ability to use retail assets in its mission design. And Blackwater Operations shipped a crisp, striking demo with a voiced protagonist and a sterling set of missions, offering a glimpse at what could've been (and still might be) for a project full of mission design skill but hampered by asset trouble.

This era was also notable for what it didn't achieve: while new ships and new weapons were easy to make, the core of the FreeSpace gameplay, including AI behavior, remained largely untouched. Vast numbers of missions were shipped without anyone kenning to peculiarities of FRED and the game engine; no one spotted that FRED couldn't reliably assign ship AI classes. It would take a few very specific men to tackle these problems - but first, something curious happened.

Hybrid Vigor

In Fall 2008 Darius released Blue Planet, a dimension-hopping thrillride packed with daddy issues, Hindu-Buddhist syncretism, loyal wingmen, shiny ships and a rocking soundtrack. It was a project of passion, inspired by love of everything - Inferno, Derelict, Transcend - and accomplished not through careful hoarding of exclusive ships and assets but by the use of freely available resources drawn from all over the community.

Blue Planet wasn't a revolution so much as an inevitable evolution; the collision of the two disparate schools of design, the Derelict and Inferno paths of development. Like Transcend or Homesick, it was a one-man project, concerned with character development and storytelling more than parroting the grammar of FreeSpace 2. Like Inferno or the megaprojects, it offered a splashy spread of new ships and weapons and a story that picked up the hooks left dangling by FreeSpace 2. And it didn't section the player off into a backwater station, or an unknown jump node; players took on a command role in an elite battle group at the center of everything.

Blue Planet's content wasn't for everyone, but its design methodology was inarguably critical. It showed that projects using existing assets could deliver the scope, wonder, and scale that had, so far, been left primarily to the still-distant megaprojects. Any one designer, armed with sufficient passion and spare time, could bust out a work of explosive popularity. And it eventually touched off an important trend: modelers began releasing their finished assets for public use instead of signing them off to languish in the files of perpetually delayed projects. Blue Planet could never have happened without the generosity of the Inferno team, and many later mods would never have happened without the generosity of others. The more this generosity could be encouraged, the stronger the community was.

That Christmas, Silent Threat Reborn finally hit the finish line. In the spirit of heterodoxy, it was remarkable for how thoroughly it matched the style and quality of Volition's campaigns - a polished love letter to the tried and true techniques of the canon narrative. And it, too, had a methodological lesson: that even in a project stretched out over years, the only ingredient absolutely needed for success is someone - or a pair of someones - willing to sit down with FRED and put the time in. (By contrast, witness the silent collapse of TVWP, which brought together an enormous, talented team but couldn't inspire enough passion even in its developers to keep up momentum.)

This was a pivotal moment for the FreeSpace community. A major project had reached completion, and an out-of-nowhere project had demonstrated that a newcomer could make a gigantic contribution. One of these avenues exploded; the other didn't.

The Summer 2010 Trinity

Summer 2010 changed everything. It was not that it represented some fundamentally new approach, nor that it destroyed the old and ushered in the new. Nor did some new generation of coders and designers supplant the old.

Rather, a whole host of developers, collaborating through networks both digital and social, enabled an eruption of creativity that has not since slowed, a radical expansion of the powers available to the modder. Previous campaigns had shown enormous creativity, but confined to specific domains - mission design, for instance, or the development of new ships. Vast chunks of the gameplay model, from physics to the AI to the nature of the game's difficulty settings, remained inaccessible to modification. Nor did the game's cinematic and visual tools permit a great deal of nuanced storytelling.

Thanks to the Source Code Project and a small band of brave collaborators - Sushi, Fury, and Wanderer prominent but not sole among them - that changed. It was not enough to make changes possible in the engine. They had to be rendered accessible to modders, then built into coherent systems which could integrate into mod design goals, then developed into full-fledged products and released.

That happened. It happened startlingly fast. FreeSpace Open went from a capable and beautiful enhancement of a classic game to a genuine development platform.

The enormous changes that occurred here are beyond the scope of the article. Most prominent among them include Sushi and Fury's work on coding and tabling new and more human AI, a powerful set of new FRED instruments from Karajorma, Goober, and others, and the integration of LUA scripting. What they meant, though, was that individual modders now had the ability to redefine nearly every dimension of the gameplay space.

Vassago's Dirge kicked off this string of releases with an assault on the visual and narrative conventions of FreeSpace mods. Why, it asked, do we rely on text and messages to set mood? Why do we need exposition to tell the story? We have camera angles and movements, precise control over music and sound. We can use postprocessing to desaturate or color the frame. We have the eye and the ear as well as the tongue. Why should a mission be confined to the time between subspace jumps? Let's jump during the mission! Why should a story be told in lumps of exposition bridged by gameplay? Blend the two, make them whole. Render the story not told but understood. The answers will never come because they are right there, in the music, in the shot. The truth isn't hidden; it's too plain to see.

Vassago's Dirge radically redefined the limits of presentation in FreeSpace mods. It was an art film. Blue Planet: War in Heaven was a war story. Where Vassago's Dirge made strides in the extratextual and subtextual, War in Heaven hammered its story home through exposition and dialogue, fitting more flavor and narrative into every nook and cranny - the new fiction viewer, debriefings, the tech room, the missions themselves. But the real meat of the campaign came in redefining the idea of the enemy. Thanks to Fury AI, mission designers no longer needed waves of expendable enemies. The AI opponent could use tactics - advance, retreat, dogfight at numerical parity. Warships jumped away when damaged instead of fighting to the pointless death. The tactical and strategic rules of the war came into focus. The enemy felt human, calculating, intelligent - and hard to kill. Not merely because they were tougher or faster, but because the story suggested that maybe they, too, were the good guys. War in Heaven asked players to consider the fundamental act of killing in FreeSpace, the cost of losing wingmen, the tragedy of a destroyed warship. It desanitized FreeSpace war: no longer beams and cold fire, but dead friends and aspirated vomit, frantic strings of brevity code on channels hashed by radiation.

Wings of Dawn hit the modding scene out of nowhere. Let's get it out of the way: not everybody's into anime. Aesthetics aside, it was objectively a staggering achievement, maybe a formerly inconceivable one. A single-man team had built an essentially complete total conversion - not merely new ships but new gameplay, new flight dynamics, entire species with their own defined character and gameplay behaviors. The moment a helmetless protagonist smashed her head on the cockpit glass, leaving a (happily nonfatal) smear of blood, the textural ambition of the whole project leapt into focus. And unlike War in Heaven, it always put the player right at the center of the gameplay space, a capable agent with new tools and new missions to explore. Where Vassago's Dirge and War in Heaven used gameplay to advance narrative, Wings of Dawn used its narrative in the service of a sprawling, kinetic space opera adventure, a madcap escalation along dimensions that couldn't have been touched by modders a few years earlier.

Boundaries had been removed. The total deconstruction of FreeSpace gameplay was now accessible to the interested amateur, and that amateur would shine - the following years saw a string of brilliant, unconventional releases out of nowhere.

What might be most remarkable about these projects is that they did not compete. There were no exclusive assets, no hidden agendas. (Blue Planet donated most of its self-developed visual effects to the MediaVPs before release.) The developers worked together to solve bugs and share ideas. When War in Heaven presented a full mission devoted to Planescape Torment style conversation with another character, talking them into victory through a tree of emotion variables and response branches, it was inspired by Wings of Dawn. Collaboration was strength. Diversity and heterodoxy were virtues. A player who didn't like one campaign could find something to adore in another.

But the titans were not dead. The same technical progress that enabled this eruption of creativity also fueled two singularly devoted and capable team projects, beloved science fiction properties that would stand as perhaps the community's greatest achievements in the public eye.

FreeSpace Is Dead; Long Live FreeSpace (Chop Up And Rearrange The Corpse Though)

more to come lator


more to come lator

General Battuta:

General Battuta:

Very nice. Wing Commander Saga is conspicuously absent right now, though...


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