I've finally gotten around to playing through all of the big campaigns I never had the time to play, and Transcend was one of 'em.
I'll admit it - by the time I'd finished the first few missions, I wasn't very impressed with Transcend.
"This is it?" I remember thinking to myself, a little incredulous after reading almost unanimous praise and seeing it on every list of "must have campaigns".
There were a few typos, Sunder struck me as a bit of a putz, and the characters, while entertaining, seemed too artificially driven by a plot that demanded my utter confusion.
When Daniel offered me the opportunity to get out of the Herc Mk. II I was excited at the prospect of getting an upgrade (especially after seeing my wingmates in a Perseus and Erinyes). I understand the reasoning behind keeping the player in the same fighter for the entire campaign for continuity's sake - there's basically not a single moment where Omicron has time to stop, take a break, and switch ships - but I wish we'd been given the option from a pool of fighters, possibly at End when you're taken to Sage. I'm not sure if it's possible for the game to let you choose and then carry it over, but it would've tied me in a little more immersion-wise. As it was, I wanted to punch Kappa 1 (ow!) when he declined the offer
So here I am, already disappointed, wondering just what kind of hack this Ransom Arceihn joker must be - and now on top of it, I'm stuck in this subpar ship with halfhearted munitions
And then came the mission where Shadow Guardian moonlights as customs officials. It was a brilliant concept in of itself, really; you get the impression that this is the sort of stuff that REAL GTVA pilots (read: folks clearly not as awesome as you) probably find themselves engaged in on a daily basis. So that was great, to begin with. Secondly, I actually stopped at one point just to stare in awe of the backgrounds; Lightspeed's nebulas never cease to amaze me and they were used to fantastic effect throughout the entirety of Transcend.
Then came the suspenseful waiting game, knowing one of these ships is going to be pulling some sort of scam over on us, and lo and behold: enter the Chondral, and in turn the beginning of the roller coaster ride.
The transition from ho-hum pirate story to overwhelming full-on nightmare horror was absolutely awesome. Within the span of a few missions, I was hooked; by the time entire ships started vanishing, I was completely convinced that all the "critics" were right: Transcend is a real gem to behold.
There were some truly masterful strokes, probably none more so than the Transcendant himself. Between the teleporting, the transmissions, the dark nebula, and eventually the images of entire convoys under the influence of his will, being drawn to a climax they did not yet fully understand...well, to be honest I was a little blown away. The real crowning achievement that pushed the eeriness to maximum heights were the messages from the Transcendant. They were so entertainingly creepy and you really captured the voice perfectly - no real surprise, considering your memorable voice work for Derelict. The messages, half-caught between warnings and pleas, elevated the whole campaign over into the realm of "masterpiece" for me.
The difficulty of the missions caught me by surprise, especially the first time Omicron jumped out at a node while I was still fighting the remnants of a pirate wing - only to see a new wing jump in before I was done eradicating them, all targeting me like they had some personal vendetta. My shields were shredded right away and I barely made it through the node. I got smarter next time, fighting only when I absolutely had to, hoofing it hard to the node as soon as possible. It was a whole new element to the
game for me; I'm accustomed to being the top dog(fighter), running towards
the threat instead of running like a little ***** the first chance I get. I enjoyed the feeling of facing unwinnable odds as it only strengthened the underlying elements of suspense and horror.
The fact that every mission starts you with full banks of hornets and harpoons falls well within the purview of "suspension of disbelief"; after all, you'd really be hard-pressed to keep the desperate, frenetic always-on-the-move pacing if you were always docking somewhere, and it would be even tougher to find a way to work in any kind of support ship without destroying the sense of lonely abandonment you get after the Silent Eye (and the GTVA whole) cut you loose.
I know a few people didn't care for the journals, but I found them to be very well written. The entry length was perfect - Sunder's subdued and succinct writing really illustrated what the logs were: just a quick summary of thoughts to let us know that despite the relative calm he displays in front of the others, he's just as terrified, confused, and lost as the player.
The campaign design didn't faze me too much. While there's no doubt that the missions were repetitive, surprisingly that was probably one of the things I identified with the most and found fairly effective (whether that was intentional or not) in the long run. First off, even in repetition the whole gist of it was pretty unique - not many campaigns have me actually traveling around GTVA space via nodes on my own.
In fact, the repetitive nature of the campaign served to immerse me further into the galaxy you established. It's really astonishing (and a little bit disturbing) how quickly I came to identify with Sunder. The monotony of traveling from the far reaches of GTVA space even without
any fanatical warships or sadistic pirates hounding your ass would start to get to anybody (and it did). He kept mentioning how tired he was; it echoed my own exasperation at never having any time to pause and catch my wits. It was constantly a rush from system to system, outgunned and outnumbered, with little chance of any sort of rescue or respite.
Though there was no solid exposition given in the lead-up to why Sinclair and Omicron returned to the nebula (as far as I know, they never really discussed the possibility of not
going back), it didn't bother me in the least. I wanted to go back to, perhaps for the same reasons: I was so ****ing tired of being attacked by anyone and everyone, never getting a break, being clueless as to what was going on and being jerked around by friend and foe alike (who didn't get pissed off at the Silent Eye's smarmy bull****?). By that point, I was ready to go back, to sing kumbaya in everlasting Transcendence, if only to find out where this was all going. So whether the repetition was purposeful or not, for me it became the whole point, and it ended up working. It's the first FS2 campaign I've played where I felt exhausted at the 2/3 mark, wondering when it would be over, and at the same time loving every minute of it.
Sunder grew on me. I really began to notice it when reading the journal entries, as they're like a window into his thought processes. Like him, I couldn't stop, not even once he (I) bowed to the relenting pressure of our own little transcendental journey and started doing reprehensible things, like the attack on the civilian Faustus. I wanted
to feel something - it was an unprovoked attack, it was immoral, and I was a bastard for not telling the Chondral to stuff it. But in the end it was more of a "meh" reaction - it wasn't so much that I didn't feel bad about it, I just didn't feel anything at all. I had become convinced that Sunder & I were on an amusement park ride - there would be no disembarking until we returned to the station and the adventure was over - and thus it wasn't a case of the ends justifying the means but that there were no means
at all. Everything was outside of our control. It was a surreal thing, and my own feelings were reflected in Sunder's log entries. It doesn't get much more badass than that, and it was those little things that really won me over.
THE GENERATION (
) - this thing should get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Ship...the thing had more screen presence than most Hollywood actors. Thing was horrible - I got stung by its beams once, and spent the rest of the campaign pissing myself every time it jumped in waaaaay too close to me.
That's another positive note in Transcend: the personification of starships. We had the Transcendant, of course, and the Generation. But the Chondral and Sinclair's Incontrovertible became stand-ins for the men that commanded them...they didn't travel via ships, they were
ships. The vessels became characters themselves.
Absurdly, I knew exactly what Sunder meant when he mentioned feeling like he'd lost something after the Generation died. By that point, the Generation had been with us so long that, despite the fact the damned Deimos was the FreeSpace version of the T-1000, when it got taken down in what was generally an ignoble end I felt a little bummed, and not just because it had been such an effective story element.
It was that same, strange sense of absolute power - and the loss thereof - that you got in FS1 when the Galatea bit the dust (not so much the Colossus, but only because that thing was an obvious hulking hubris-filled paper tiger from the time it was introduced, and you just knew it was going to be exiting stage right before long) or when the NTF Iceni is finally reduced to nothing more than a fallible ship dead in space. In FreeSpace, starships have immense emotional value, and a clever storyteller can really take advantage of that.
It's why seeing the same ships throughout the life of a campaign can be so effective. Derelict did a great job with that. It doesn't have to be just friendlies either - recurring enemies are very intriguing too. We saw that with the Eva and Lucifer in FS1, the Iceni and the Sathanes in FS2 - and of course the Generation & Co. in Transcend.
I think the real attachment to these ships, both for the player and in-universe - is due in part because of the unique atmosphere of FreeSpace. After all, space is so empty, so cold to begin with. Now consider the the intense pressure put on the shoulders of the player characters in FS campaigns, which would be phenomenally taxing on even the strongest psyche - Churchill's quote, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" comes to mind here - literally at the end of the day every single engagement or damn near rests on the skill of the GTVA's (or Sol, or whichever group you're fighting for) greatest combat pilot.
In some sad, strange way it's very believable those individual vessels can become something like a friend to a pilot. I mean, even in the course of more traditional campaigns when Command has your back, there's no denying the warm fuzzy feeling the arrival of a single Orion or Hatshepsut can give you after fifteen minutes of hardcore dogfighting has emptied your missile banks and ruined your hull. The situation's only exacerbated in Transcend, when it's literally four pilots versus the universe, cut off from their special operations handlers, framed as pirates, barred from returning home (if one even exists for them at this point).
The Generation (yeah, Persistence would've been right on target too) was just such an excellent device. I totally understood, on some level, the Generation's (and the rest of its relentless pursuing ilk) maddening frustration. I mean, take a step back and look at it from their view. By the end of FreeSpace 2 I'd racked up somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 kills - NTF, Vasudan, and Shivan alike - and after Derelict I almost reached 700
. While it's obvious in most of these campaigns that you're a genetic supermutant physically grafted via sensory conduits into your fighter, we saw enough evidence in the retail campaigns that cruisers in the canon sense can easily tear through fighters and bombers upon a whim. Pilots are a dime a dozen - meatsacks with a specific purpose, shaped charges to be delivered at stress points - and their life expectancy on the cosmic scale is just about nonexistent.
So imagine that these three jackasses somehow stumble through blockade after blockade, wing after wing, evading cruisers in treble that are packing antifighter beam weapons and giving their utmost to destroy them with all the absurdity of the Colossus stalking an Azrael transport. They refuse to die, even as literally everything around them is torn apart. Just think about how pissed off you'd be if some random trio of Shivan fighters - say, Leo 1, 2, and 3 - dogged you the FS2 entire campaign. Inexplicably, you're blowing up Seraphims and Lilaths single-handedly but you can't take down these little ****ers, no matter what you do. Just when you think you have them, shields depleted and their hulls hurting, they jump out. Over and over. Forever.
Personally, it wouldn't take long for me to go ape****...in fact, I'd be right there backseat driving the Generation, screaming in his ear that he's not trying hard enough to KILL THEM ALL.
The Generation steams through a ton of ships, leaving a massive trail of debris in its system-spanning wake, but these clueless hobos just cruise on only to pull more hijinks that result in the deaths of hundreds (often through no real fault of their own - space's own version of Steve Urkel from Family Matters
decrying innocently, "Did I do that?"). And in the midst of all of this, to make matters even worse, bizarre space-time fluctuations and temporal anomalies are om-nom-noming the Generation's backup left and right. Yeah, at that point, the Generation was the sane one - it was Omicron's detached calm that was whacko.
I definitely found their growing insanity understandable, given the situation. Plus the Generation's raving was awesome, so there was that, too.
Daniel's disappearance was a bit of a shock ("He'll come back, right? I always did when I teleported away. Yeah, he'll come back. Right?"
) - even more so when he returned for the finale, and I had to kill him myself. That led to bit of unintentional humor when, after I'd dealt with Saya, my wingmate hadn't managed to get him down past 50%. Worse, when I harpoon'd the Erinyes into dust, Omicron 2 claimed credit for it! So it was a relief when he too became a space zombie, and I was "forced" to annihilate him. Forced
. Literally, at hardpoint. Or something.
The finale was just the apex of everything I enjoyed up until that point. The music was just the right level of eerie, and that final duel against the Transcendant was by far the hardest dogfight I've ever seen in a campaign. I had some trouble bringing Rikas down, but that she-witch went down easy comparatively speaking. I ended up cutting my engines, luring him into a head-on confrontation, and then afterburning hard before he could arc and outmaneuver me. It still took a long time - in fact, had the node actually collapsed "in two minutes" as warned, I probably would've been dead ten minutes over by the time I finally destroyed the Transcendant.
The slow motion was good; that cutscene at the end was better. In between epileptic seizures, I was glued to the screen, trying to pick out recognizable moments and at the same time realizing just how far I'd come with Omicron, forty missions worth rendered in a few minutes.
As soon as I saw the first mission's briefing, I laughed out loud, realizing that the cutscene hadn't just been metaphorical - reality really did just rewind. It was great to see things play out "like they should"...immediately, things didn't feel wrong or off but right on track. Great ending, making the most mundane of events play out like a great revelation.
There were questions I had that unfortunately never got answered: we never learned what the Chondral was hauling despite it being the main driving force for the missions early on; we never learned the story behind End or the Sage (about a third through, I was sure the Sage was going to be the ones to convince the GTVA we were the good guys and maybe even take out the Generation, before I began to realize we were in deep **** without a shovel in sight)...but I feel these are the kinds of loose ends that can be tied up in subsequent campaigns, much in the same way that Cold Element (presumably) will tackle some of the unanswered questions from Derelict with Blackwater Operations.
As for the ambiguity of the ending...well, sometimes it's better off having something to think about. I feel like if you'd tried to go 180 degrees and explain everything, at best it would've been inadequate, at worst a jarring infodump of factoids and unnecessary trivia. In the end, a series of events came to a close, without any clear indication of their nature.
And really, isn't that how life works? There are things that happen all the time that drive me crazy - I hate the not knowing part - things that I'll probably never understand. Okay, maybe those things rarely involve spaceships or demigods, but the principle's the same: when do you ever get lucky enough to stumble upon a chunk of exposition, or a narrator with a Morgan Freeman voice tidying story elements up in a pretty custom-wrapped package (oh, it makes sense now. A wizard did it)
? You don't, and even if you did, it probably wouldn't feel as right as the explanation that you
came up with yourself.
I remember there was this winding tire-track road that I saw every morning and every afternoon during the bus ride in elementary school. I used to constantly wonder what was back there - it went around a bend and was lost to the woods. For years it captured my imagination, and I started coming up with my own increasingly fantastical ideas of what could be hidden beyond that bend. Eventually, a decade later I was driving home from school, passed that same tire-track, and remembered the fascination I had with it as a kid. I turned around and drove in to settle it once and for all. It turned out to lead to an overgrown dirt oval, used by the property owners to walk their horses on. Wow. What a letdown. Since then, I've tried to avoid turning down any dirt-tracks, figuratively or literally.
You avoided the urge to take the player around that bend, and I really appreciated it.
I didn't experience a single bug that I'm aware of. There were a few minor design-related issues I encountered, like cruisers I'd destroyed that were back in the next mission. But come on - Transcend features zombie starships, disembodied static-laced ghostie voices, space & time swallowing entities...this not only seemed possible - it was totally probable and only served as a bit of foreshadowing as to how bonkers things were about to get.
There's no doubt the campaign had a few problems, but really, when you get right down to it, the fact that you've managed to tell a horror story with shades of the strange in the vein of Stephen King or Dean Koontz in a action space simulator
is mind-blowingly amazing. You've got a knack for very subtle storytelling and it's all the more incredible for it.
You should be very proud of what you've accomplished here.
I pretty much immediately leapt into Sync and Windmills after finishing, bookmarked your Project-03 thread, and it's no understatement to say that I'll play anything you can come up with.
Gotta apologize for the most long-winded review ever, but there are some things that need to be said