If you asked me how many of the Freelancer team were also part of the
Wing Commander, Privateer and Starlancer sagas, I honestly couldn’t tell you. I could, however, tell you that Freelancer’s approach and style is one of the best examples, par excellence, of the formula Chris Roberts left behind: flashy visuals, first-rate Hollywood talent fleshing out the story, and a compelling world seemingly created from scratch. As I mentioned in a preview article not too long ago, while this game is shepherded by a different publisher (Microsoft) and a different developer (Digital Anvil), it lays equal claim to the old Origin motto: we create worlds. This is, in essence, what Digital Anvil has done with Freelancer. They created a world.
Let’s begin by dispelling some myths: Freelancer is not an online only title, nor will it be similar to upcoming online RPGs. This isn’t a game where you run out and fight, then get back into a ship. It is part and parcel a single player experience, with scripted missions and a campaign, paced nicely in between with some random side missions and the need to make money. Freelancer puts you squarely in the shoes of a maverick named Trent, after he narrowly escapes a space station that falls victim to terrorism (insert the latest Bush-ism here). With his ship lost and very little money on hand, he accepts an olive tree – a free ship, and a requisite number of missions he has to do for his new employer. But Trent finds out quickly there’s no such thing as a free lunch and the campaign will take him through a whirlwind tour of the distant Sirius star system.
Most of your Freelancer time, including all of the action, will be taking place in deep space. Freelancer goes with a behind-the-ship look that will have purists cringing. There are only two ships in Freelancer: the heavy freighters and bombers, as well as the fighters.
All the ships travel at around the same speeds. With the exception of turning rates and agility, they don’t differ too much, putting
Freelancer squarely into the category of an action game rather than a simulation.
Continuing the work done in Starlancer, this title does away with joystick-based flight. Again, the simulation purists will scoff, but
Freelancer’s interface actually feels and works better than you might think. Flying involves the use of the WSAD keys in combination with the mouse. Mouse movement is used to mimic the direction of your guns so you can shoot almost 180 degrees in front of you, as well as up and down. Holding down the left mouse button while moving will let you change directions of the spacecraft. Because the guns are independent of your ship, and because of the default keyboard layout, circle-strafes and other first-person shooter techniques can be applied here.
This is by no means a realistic portrayal of physics in space but it gives another aspect to the combat itself. Instead of having to line up your guns with the target, you can fly by obliquely and still manage to hit the enemy. Many space simulations before felt like knightly jousts as you and the opponent line up firing away, hoping one of you gives up or blows up. This approach opens up the venue some more, similar to torso rotations on Mechwarrior robots. It also introduces some new concepts like the turret mode, which swings the camera around and lets you aim guns that are pointed away from the front of the ship simply using the mouse.
Combat is never a torturous prolonged affair. If you’re on equal terms, vis-à-vis weapons and equipment with the enemy, you’ll take down half a dozens ships in five minutes time. Freelancer promotes an arcade-like feel to combat. Destroyed enemy ships will drop pieces of their craft called loot. These “power-ups” can be beamed aboard your ship. Amongst this loot, shield batteries and nano bots help repair your shield and hull instantaneously. While these don’t necessarily make sense, it makes the game fun and more accessible than past titles that involved complicated shield levels and energy gauges.
However, the piece de resistance of Freelancer, if you can believe it, is not the flight model or the mouse-only interface. It’s actually the amount of detail put into the game. Aside from the scripted single player campaign, there are about a million tiny things that help create a living, breathing world in Freelancer. Name-dropping is one trick. Every person you come across has a name and many voices, even for generic pilots, were recorded for the game. Fly into a busy sector of
Freelancer and you’ll overhear dynamic radio chatter. Every ship that enters into the vicinity of a space installation will have its identification challenged and Freelancer mixes it up. A military patrol will report its patrol flight, its destination and its origin. When you dock at a busy location, you’ll be placed in a docking queue until other ships finish (I had the unfortunate incident of escaping a dozen pirate marauders near a jump gate and died trying because a lumbering cargo freighter slipped in front of the queue).
People also recognize you based on your reputation. Freelancer’s inhabitants are divided into a number of organizations. Take on jobs that clamp down on space piracy and you shouldn’t expect any courtesy when you enter the buccaneer’s den. The parlay between the factions will also influence you on what types of ships and equipment you’re outfitted with too. If you lead a criminal life, the only military bombers you’ll be seeing are the ones trying to vaporize you.
While some of the dynamic speeches sound like badly strung together voicemail robots (especially the greetings from the “nobody” bartenders, for example), they’re a monumental step forward to leaving the world of “scripted” encounters. When you undock from a space station or a planet, you get the sense that there are things, ships, missions and people going on in Freelancer besides you. That humbling effect is great, especially considering this game fits on a single disc.
With that said, Freelancer is filled with scripted material and great voice acting. The main plot centers on Trent’s escape. A mysterious criminal organization, The Order, is committing bold political and military strikes against the existing humans, including the station Trent found himself on, pitting the different political houses into war. When Trent comes across alien artifacts that somehow have a connection to The Order, he finds his allies dead and he himself ostracized from one political camp to another. Like Privateer and Wing Commander, lots of rendered sequences are used to bring the story to fruition, although you never get to make any dialogue choices.
The single player campaign, however, is pretty short but ultimately satisfying. It’ll take little under a week of constant playing to get through all the conspiracies and clear your name. Once the campaign finishes, you effectively go back to square one, except you’re more powerful and better endowed than when you first started.
Trent can gain levels/ranks in the single player campaign by completing certain campaign missions, gaining some amount of money or gathering experience simply from killing people and completing random missions. In the multiplayer component, advancement comes only from the latter, thus making multiplayer a bit like your typical MMORPG. You’ll level up to get access to better weapons, ships and equipment. Luckily, there’s plenty of that to go around and each faction has variants on weapons: some fire faster, some cause more damage, some have increased range.
Because the most expensive ships can carry better weapons and fancier technology, you’ll want to go up the experience/money ladder by making good trades, completing random missions or simply creating your own missions by pillaging and plundering. The game gets addictive because you’ll find yourself trying to visit all the systems to chase down the best commodity prices. You can also fly around the unexplored sectors to find secret jump gates and planets.
While there’s never a loss for random missions, they do get tiring after awhile. When you get an assassination mission, it’s about the same as a “kill all ships” mission. Even a capture mission is similar to both those. You kill everyone, except you have to tractor one of the escape pods back.
In multiplayer, you have the option of teaming up with your human cohorts or going against them. A dedicated server is required but it runs on low overhead, allowing you to run a server and play the game on the same computer. Lag is never really a problem either. You might see the disconnect sign a lot but there aren’t any instances of massive warping that would normally come with a fast paced game.
If Microsoft pushes this title harder than they pushed Allegiance, there will be a fan base for it. The brilliant interface guarantees this. Click on a target and you will select it. Targets are prioritized in your HUD such that you never scroll through rows of names or memorize ten keys to get to them. Click formation and you automatically line up with ships you have to escort or fellow human players.
Sometimes I imagine Microsoft sends people to ensure their games’ interfaces conform to the latest Windows standards. Like Asheron’s Call 2, every window in Freelancer’s HUD can be closed and there are so many tool tips and descriptions in the game that you won’t ever need to pick up the manual.
Aside from the functional visuals, the actual graphics are breathtaking and stellar. The capital ships may not be at the scale of something like Freespace 2, but the spatial backdrops are amazing. There are lots of different architectural and design motifs, especially between the different factions – inside when you’re docked as well as outside too. If you’re in Bretonia, for example, space itself is draped in a drab brown to reflect the 19th century industrial pollution milieu. Playing off Earthly nations was a smart idea as it gives the artists (and the writers) a wealth of existing material to work from.
The only thing I missed: the HUD shaking that came during shockwaves in Freespace 2. Otherwise, Freelancer runs swiftly, even on older machines, with higher end computers getting fancy lighting effects and eye candy. Dodging AI and human players at high speeds in a dense asteroid field is something that every space genre fan should see.
What we call cinematic has its roots in the Greek word for moving. But these days, games are composed of more than moving pictures. There’s the whole aural experience to consider too. Freelancer’s audio is as professional as the rest of the package. The dynamic soundtrack may lack the fire of Freespace 2 but Freelancer deals with a lot of varying moods since you’re not involved in one clutch battle after the next.
Sit in the concourse of a heavily populated city and you’ll hear 3D sound effects from ships zooming back and forth.
The one disappointing thing is the lack of accents. Everyone in Freelancer is somewhat American. When I traveled to Bretonia, I heard a single police officer with an English accent but that’s only because I think she was English rather than her character was English.
Like most artificial constructs, though, if you poke at the bubble’s boundaries too much, the illusion of a real, living world will burst.
Freelancer may not be perfect but it opens our eyes to something greater. I would have liked a more dynamic news section, perhaps something even linked online. Seeing the same kidnapping story repeating over and over to illustrate an increase in crime is one of those bubble-bursting events.
Freelancer could benefit from some pluggable modules too; scenarios that set certain factions at one another. A deeper economy, with resource gathering and dynamic prices, would also help. Perhaps the developers didn’t want to fall into the Battlecruiser 3000AD trap of including too much.
In truth, Freelancer may not be what its creators and what its fans originally conceptualized. It’s not a permanent persistent universe.
But in some aspects, it fares better than those out on the market today and it is, ceteris paribus, a marvelous achievement in its own right, notwithstanding the trials and tribulations the developers went through before putting the product on the market.
If you played Wing Commander, Privateer, Strike Commander or Starlancer, Freelancer will slip on like an old pair of shoes. The transition scenes of Trent moving from the space dock to a bar, and the movie-like introductory sequence, all pay homage to the titles mentioned above. Console developers may match PC games in directorial expertise and cinematic qualities, but they lack the open-endedness that a PC title, like Freelancer, is able to exude so naturally. If Starlancer lacked conviction, Digital Anvil firmly establishes Freelancer as the de facto title to beat in this genre.