So without further rambling I'd just like to ask what things should I know about this game or mods or what have you. I've tried going through the forums here but it's incredibly daunting to surf through years upon years of data.
Welcome aboard the Hardlight, pilot. In light of your recent induction into our operations, here are some brief tips from our veterans:
First, try the FreeSpace Open Installer. It can download and install a number of resources: FreeSpace Open, FreeSpace Port, Silent Threat Reborn, Derelict, Blue Planet, and so forth. Use the custom installation option to pick which items you want to download, in consideration of your Internet connection. It will update your Steam release of FreeSpace 2 to eliminate compatibility issues.
FreeSpace Open Installerhttp://www.hard-light.net/forums/index.php?topic=87537.0
Secondly, the 2014 VPs are the latest version of FreeSpace Open's upgraded graphics. A fair number of mods don't natively use it yet, but you should be able to use it for FreeSpace 2. Select the 2014 Media VP as a mod in the launcher. Selecting mods is the standard procedure for mods and the improved graphics packages.
Thirdly, you can use joystick, mouse, or keyboard for your interface. I believe that you can mix and match between the three. No idea about gamepads, unfortunately. The mouse is terrific for aiming, but doesn't lend itself to ship movement. The Joystick is ideal for movement, but lacks buttons and precise aiming. Keyboard is good for handling energy, shields, targeting, and other managerial activities.
Fourthly, there are three campaigns that are considered canon: FreeSpace, the expansion of which is Silent Threat, and FreeSpace 2. FreeSpace Port is FS1 with updated graphics, Silent Threat Reborn is an drastically improved version of the expansion. I recommend starting with FreeSpace 2, as the missions are more enjoyable than FreeSpace 1.