"When the Freescape idea was conceived several programmers approached turned down the opportunity to be involved, saying it couldn't be done."
(Ian Andrew, Incentive Software)
In the time before dedicated 3D graphics cards, true 3D games were a rarity. Many people will fondly remember Wolfenstein 3D, the first truly popular game which (like its contemporary, Ultima Underworld) featured a texture-mapped, three-dimensional environment. Prior to this, back in the days of the Spectrum, Commodore 64 and even the 16-bit machines, a more common approach was to fake 3D, either through isometric projection or careful layering of pre-drawn graphics. There were some genuine 3D games, of course: Elite, with its simplistic vector graphics, and The Sentinel, whose filled vector polygons were a step up on Elite. Even so, upon its inital outing as part of the game Driller, the Freescape system was rightly considered to be an astounding achievement.
This was late 1987. Incentive Software had spent some time developing a way of rendering a three-dimensional environment and allowing a player to move through and interact with it. It was slow - each screen took a second or so to draw - but you could understand why: these graphics were amazing! Accurately shaded polygons with proper perspective, not just isometric approximations. Perfect! Well, as perfect as a Spectrum's graphics got - you wouldn't give it a second glance nowadays, but back then to see that kind of thing on your screen was a rare treat. True 3D graphics, which could be moved through and viewed from any angle, all rendered in this perfect perspective: it was stunning.
Due to the intense calculations and the consequent framerate of less than one per second, the Freescape engine was suited more to adventure games than shoot-em-ups, though this was perfectly familiar territory for a company who was responsible for the Graphic Adventure Creator. Driller, the first freescape game, its box proudly boasting 'Solid 3D!', was released for Speccy and PC, with a plot based around a mysterious moon. Chock-full of problems and puzzles, it became intensely popular, and led to a release of Dark Side on the same platforms.
By this time the commercial success of Freescape was becoming apparent and the system was ported to the Commodore 64, allowing Total Eclipse, replete with ancient Egyptian feel, to be released for three platforms in 1988. Although now aging somewhat, the Freescape engine produced a couple more games of a similar ilk: both Castle Master and Total Eclipse took the gameplay to a higher, more polished level and also saw a release for the Commodore Amiga. The final outing for Freescape, opened out to all and sundry as the 3D Construction Kit, allowed you to inflict your own levels upon unsuspecting friends and, ostensibly, produce another Freescape masterpiece in your own living room.