When the first Independence War game was released in 1998, it was lauded for its original design and innovative gameplay. Independence War's distinctive style justly garnered attention, despite competition from then-recently released games in each of the Wing Commander, X-Wing, and FreeSpace space-combat series. Yet while Independence War's novelty was refreshing, it wasn't infectious enough to prevent space sims from declining so significantly in popularity over the past couple of years that most major publishers have now abandoned the genre. So, like its predecessor, the new Independence War 2 faces a battle for attention--except this time it's a struggle to generate enthusiasm for its forsaken genre. Fortunately, Particle Systems has once again crafted an impressive game that deserves recognition.
Independence War 2 features impressive, high-resolution graphics...
Independence War 2 is naturally similar to its predecessor in many ways, but the developer also made some significant changes to the original's design. Instead of limiting gameplay to a linear series of scripted missions, Independence War lets you take the role of a pirate who can freely explore an expansive star system, looting merchants and destroying enemy factions. For years, space sim fans have been looking for another free-form game like Elite or Privateer, and the only game that's come close was X: Beyond the Frontier. Even that game's potential wasn't truly realized until it was supplemented by an expansion pack, which was never released in North America, and even then the game lacked an involving overall storyline. Independence War 2 provides both an elaborate, open-ended environment and a meaty plot to unfold.
The game is set long after the war for independence that formed the basis for the plot of the original game. The central government has lost much of its influence to large corporations that leveraged their discovery of new technology to gain power. Independent settlements are being overrun by the evil corporations, which are effectively turning most of the population into slave laborers. Your character's desire to confront the corporations is primarily motivated by revenge, not altruism, as one of the corporate leaders ruthlessly slaughtered his father. To avenge your father's death, you'll have to gain a reputation through pirating and align yourself with various factions that will request your aid. There are plenty of well-produced cinematics that advance the plot, including an introduction that rivals the original game's opening in length, if not quality. The AI construct of Jefferson Clay, a famous starship captain who also served as a mentor in the original game, makes a welcome return, and your small group of companions has a lot of character. You can both control how rapidly you advance the plot and the order in which you embark on a number of missions, but the plot is occasionally cartoonish when compared to the civil war backdrop of the original game. The main villain, in particular, is so unrelentingly malevolent in such an over-the-top manner that he's dull. Still, the story is constantly engaging, especially near the end of the game when all of your enemies are unveiled.
...and an intuitive, effective onscreen interface.
The original Independence War was renowned both for having more realistic physics than most space sims and for allowing you to pilot a larger craft than a fighter. Independence War 2 retains the realistic feel of its predecessor's physics system, although the effects of inertia have been made more manageable, and there aren't any annoying missions requiring you to overcome physics-based puzzles. In Independence War, you were given control of a medium-sized corvette, and you frequently had to switch perspectives between four different control stations. In the sequel, you still get to fly some sizeable ships, but you'll initially be limited to steering less intimidating craft than the original game's corvette. Ships also generally no longer have crews, as most ships are now flown by a single pilot. All of the flyable ships have a streamlined, consistent interface that lets you access the functions previously provided by the four different systems stations (command, navigation, engineering, and weapons) from a single perspective. While it's still useful to switch your view to an external perspective in certain situations, it's no longer mandatory to do so since the third-person perspective of the original game's weapons station has been abandoned. The streamlined controls are less effective at conveying the sense that you're in control of a sizeable vessel, but they are much easier to manage.
In fact, the interface is much more polished than it was in the original game. There are still some strange quirks, such as the fact that the default control bindings allocate three key joystick buttons to energy and missile weapons and yet you still can't fire them concurrently, but the new control system is generally both effective and unique. While combat in most space sims frequently devolves into turning battles with combatants frantically circling to focus guns on similarly thrashing opponents, battles in Independence War 2 play out differently. The controls borrow elements more commonly found in first-person shooters. Adept players will commonly use side strafing, since one of the best ways to maneuver to avoid missiles is to use side thrusters, and disable inertial-dampening thrusters so that they can attack in one direction while they are traveling on a different course. Battles can also occur at tremendous speeds, since you can constantly accelerate your velocity, although exceeding the limits imposed by nearby stations invites additional grief from nearby patrols. Fleeing to a less vulnerable position is also a constant tactical maneuver.
An encyclopedia feature informs you of all the dozens of ships in the game.
Independence War 2 is perhaps the only space sim that effectively conveys the immense distances involved in intra- and interstellar travel. The only manageable way to travel sizeable distances is through engaging an LDS (or, linear-displacement drive system), which lets you travel exponentially faster. At high LDS speeds, your craft will speed by beautifully rendered planets and suns. If you effectively use your LDS drive, you'll be almost unbeatable, since you can rapidly, completely repair even hull damage--but enemies frequently use missiles that will prevent you from engaging your LDS drive, and all installations will also generate their own anti-LDS fields. You can also travel even faster to certain destinations using jump gates called Lagrange points, provided that your ship is equipped with a capsule engine drive. Stealth is also often important in certain situations--there are a number of ways you can adjust your power settings or otherwise configure your ship to minimize the ability of other vessels to detect you.
While the heads-up display in the original game was relatively clunky, it's been significantly streamlined and improved in Independence War 2. Whenever your ship is moving, grid lines will appear on the screen to ensure that you can easily determine your ship's course. Your HUD also causes nearby ships to produce contrails, allowing you to instantly establish where the vessels are traveling. The grid lines and contrails displayed on the HUD work efficiently and don't obscure your view as much as they did in the original game. Other than the predominately useless radar orb, the HUD displays a great deal of information well and lets you focus on making tactical decisions.
You can dock at base to save your progress during missions.