Just finished Shepherds! That was a good campaign with some awesome gameplay mechanics, interesting perspective on some FS2 events, an absolute
of a soundtrack, and some very good worldbuilding. Full review below:
Coming into this, I hadn't played Walls Closing and so had literally zero expectations coming into it, but man, that intro cutscene was a hell of a hook. What made it good, and what I think was a real strong point for Shepherds overall is its world-building. There are a lot of campaigns out there set amongst the events of the FS2 campaign that we all know so well, but Shepherds did one of the best jobs we've seen recently of making you really appreciate that there was a fleet around you, a war going on, and a whole universe happening around you. Between the cutscenes, the command briefings (I saw on the WC release thread that apparently military jargon/military culture wasn't as strong there - I was actually very impressed by the command of the jargon in Shepherds), the briefings that used icons liberally to actually depict a system-wide battle going on, and the general focus on life in the Vasudan Battlegroup, Shepherds did an excellent job of building its universe and had me appreciating the OG FS2 "nameless cog in a big machine" vibes in a way I haven't experienced in a while. Having wings and transports etc always floating around the Memphis and going about their own missions was a great touch too.
And while I found I took a few missions to really get into the story, I was really engrossed by the very end, and the final cutscene had me super keen for the next instalment. The last few missions especially I think were very good story-wise, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the journey out of the nebula, missing the rendezvous window, and having to full send it through a Shivan blockade to get home. I am extremely partial to "**** this Shivan thing is hopeless, we're basically running away at the enemy at full speed and we have to nail this next thing or we're all going to die out here" stories set in the Freespace universe, and I think this was one of the better done ones for sure.
The second highlight for me was the gameplay. Between Axem's turret script, liberal use of checkpoints (so ****ing glad this has now become standard in the community), and actually having wings to command, I really appreciated being tested as a veteran FS2 player, and seeing some old things done in a new way. The little things like in-mission subspace jumps that feature actual subspace mission background, and even having to make a few decisions here and there was really cool, and made the experience of playing it actually fun. And I don't think any review of Shepherds can skip mentioning the ****ing amazing soundtrack! ShadowOfLight's tracks were ****ing awesome, and made the process of being bounced around space by hordes of Shivans whilst trying to disarm a Ravana all the more enjoyable.
The third part about it that really hooked me in was the Vasudan perspective. I think this is probably the first campaign I've played (at least that I remember) from their perspective, but the attention to detail with Vasudan names, some cultural norms, and some of the other conversations the player sits in on go a long way to building immersion. I think it can be hard to do well, and honestly I expect most takes on it to be a bit cheesy, but I was pleasantly surprised, and quite invested in life on the Memphis by the end. Always being surrounded by a Vasudan fleet was pretty cool as well.
What has me sitting on a "good to very good" as opposed to a "very good to excellent" for Shepherds is fundamentally its polish, and its writing. Some aspects of Shepherds were extremely well polished in my opinion, such as the cutscenes and the briefing slides - but I found that typos were a general theme throughout, and the nebula mission that involves making a decision about where to go after discovering the wiped-out supply depot has a miscued dialogue event that means booting from one of the later checkpoints means sitting through a bunch of dialogue that's meant to play much earlier in the mission before being able to do anything. I can forgive a few typos (none of us are perfect, or are being paid to produce Freespace mods), and I know from experience that it can be hard to get some of the more finnicky dialogue strings to time correctly with multiple checkpoints, but I think unfortunately these things cropped up just a bit
too often for me to forget. The good news is that we have guys like Iain Baker in the community who seem to just live
to proofread (hopefully he finds this funny if he's reading it!) so getting that sorted in quick-time should be easy enough!
In terms of the writing, I really, really enjoyed the overall direction and major muscle movements of the narrative in Shepherds. As I said before, I think writing from the Vasudan perspective, and the whole meta-narrative about the SuperRavana chasing down the Memphis into a sick final battle was awesome, and some great things were done to build the world around the player so you don't just feel like #alpha1 as the centre of the universe the entire time. What sticks out to me as I type this after finishing the campaign is the wingman dialogue and some of the Vasudan dialogue - I was pretty across my three faithful wingmen by the end and really appreciated their distinct personalities, and Nehebu's (sic?) royal background, but I found some of their actual lines were slightly on the cheesy side, and I think maybe 5-15% of the Vasudan dialogue fell into this camp as well for me. Vasudan dialogue can be quite hard to do well, and the Vasudan-ness feel that one gets from hearing voices put through the GTVA Vasudan to Terran translator isn't there when you don't have voice-acting, and so I understand the pressures to ham it up a little so it reads Vasudan, but I think at times it got a bit jarringly cheesy. I think that the average player would potentially receive more naturally-reading dialogue that's a bit less Vasudan a bit better than dialogue that reads so
Vasudan but is kinda hard to read and comes off with a bit of ham and cheese.
The other aspect of the writing that didn't land right on target for me was the fiction viewer content. Diary entries can be a really powerful tool when it comes to character development, and I think we have a good few examples now in the community of how that works - but like all narrative writing, it can be hard to do well, and I think in the same vein as the in-mission wingman dialogue, I found these to be just a bit too hammed up and cliched for my liking. I think the other reason they didn't resonate so well for me is that often when games try and do this - especially first person shooters that are thematically similar to Freespace - it can feel a bit contrived because there's not much actual
development of those characters within the levels. All the mushy exposition occurs via text, but once we get in-game, we just see Soap from Call of Duty saying the same canned dialogue (GET SOME LEAD ON THAT GUN NEST) as before, and it's almost like you have two characters going on that share the same name. While that's very CoD specific and not a 1:1 application to Shepherds, I think the reason it didn't land for me is because it suffered from the same thing principally. If anything, I was actually quite receptive to Nehebu's diary entry because he probably actually has the most character development of all of the wingmen. It was cool from a narrative perspective to find out that his previous Wing had died essentially defending him because he was low-key royalty, and we'd just found that out in the previous mission. Old mate writing a letter to his Mum came off a little flat because it was like seeing a third dimension to a shape that we only saw in two 99% of the time, a la Soap in Call of Duty.
The point of that not being that it wasn't good, and not a good narrative device - because it was good, and it is a good narrative device in Shepherds - but that these things can be 500% more effective when they build upon character development that's already occurring in the missions, and just show us development that really can't physically happen in-game.
But overall, as I said, I really, really enjoyed the experience of playing Shepherds. I thoroughly enjoyed the gameplay, loved the world-building, really got into the story and cared about the Memphis and breaking through the Shivan blockade into Capella, and ****ing loved that soundtrack. There was just a few polish things and writing aspects I have some words about, but playing it was otherwise a great use of a week's free time.
Overall verdict: Good time, would play again.