Summary: Perennial Wing Commander and space sim fan Jakub spent a little too much time with Freelancer. Something about a Friday Night Redeye Special. Whatever that is, at least he finally got around to writing a preview and sharing his experience with the rest of the world.
Freelancer is one of the luckiest titles in modern game development. Not because it was originally developed by the Roberts brothers (of Wing Commander and Privateer fame), nor because it had a lead-up title in Starlancer, but because it avoided a stigma. Being far too ambitious for its time schedule, Freelancer was delayed numerous times and even was at the central issue which led to the departure of Chris Roberts, its designer and producer. Yet it never got the reputation of Daikatana, Duke Nukem Forever or any of a number of lesser titles that were famous only for being late.
In fact I had personally put Freelancer in the back of my mind, and was shocked to get a delivery from Microsoft with a Freelancer beta disc inside! It was certainly one of the more surreal experiences of my career to find myself installing Freelancer. On the one hand there was the long-buried remnant of my fanboyism and adoration of anything remotely related to Wing Commander (yes, I loved Armada.) On the other, there was the overwhelming reserved professional who expected a buggy, incomplete and butchered title. After all, Microsoft has done so little in recent memory to promote Freelancer that it was natural to assume they were pawning off the beta on us just to prepare everyone for disappointment.
Freelancer’s scope has been decisively narrowed since Microsoft took an active hand in development. This decision raised questions about the game’s continued viability. There were fears it would end up as a shadow of its former self, a huge idea but with holes in the gameplay.
Judging from our time with the beta, Digital Anvil actually pulled it off. This is a leaner, slimmer, trimmed Freelancer, not a concept full of holes. Before coming to that conclusion, we took the time to play completely through the singleplayer campaign and take the game out for a spin on freeform mode.
With the beta, we had to set up a multiplayer server for one player to play a solo freeform game. It remains to be seen if Digital Anvil will include a singleplayer mode that doesn’t include the campaign.
SIDEBAR: Wing Commander had a branching campaign that amazed me when I first played it. I remember going through my first time and seeing a bad ending to the game… I was blown away. I didn’t realize the campaign branched and was stunned that a game could have a bad ending after all my hard work. And the ‘losing’ side of the campaign WAS hard. Way harder than the good side, since you ended up using the crap-tastic Scimitar fighter most of the time.
Freelancer has a singleplayer campaign that is more tightly integrated than Privateer’s. The best comparison is, surprisingly, GTA3. The player has limited but significant freedom within the scope of the campaign, and unlocks new parts of the world as you do missions. Level advancement is generally based on the player’s net worth, but at times a campaign mission must be completed to advance.
In the freeform multiplayer game (which can be played singleplayer if you start your own password protected server), there is no campaign and the universe unfolds much like the Privateer one – ripe for the picking. There are a few key differences and some excellent design choices which make it more accessible than Privateer’s.
Events in Starlancer led up to how the world was shaped for Freelancer. Two sides, the Alliance (western powers) and Coalition (communist bloc) were at war for almost a century, until the Coalition got the upper hand. The Alliance members fled the Solar System on five great colony ships. The USA, Germany, Japan and Britain made it to their respective destinations, and set up the colonies. The Spanish ship got lost, but its survivors formed bandit groups like the outcasts and pirates.
The setting works well in both the campaign and freeform game, allowing players to readily identify locations on a map and what to expect from them. For example, the Libertian (Libertarian?) world of Pittsburgh is obviously an industrial place, while Los Angeles has a good tech industry. It also doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to realize that Los Angeles is in the California system.
For the purposes of the singleplayer campaign, the distribution of weapons in Freelancer is somewhat artificial. To keep the game challenging, the designers chose to limit ship power by regions of the campaign. Early locations, like Liberty and Bretonia, have underpowered ships compared to Kusari and especially Rheinland. Though this might not make sense in the logic of the world (since Rheinland’s super fighters would allow them to easily conquer the other three colonies), it has a strange elegance to it even in freeform play.
Let’s get this out of the way first: even if Freelancer supported joysticks, you wouldn’t want to use one. The way the control scheme works with mouse and keyboard is brilliant. A joystick player going up against the AI or a human opponent would be as crippled as… well… a joystick player in Quake.
Freelancer uses a very basic but effective cursor movement system. The cursor/targeting reticle is of course guided by the mouse. If it’s put way off on the right side of the screen, the ship will turn right very quickly. If it’s a little off-center, to the right and bottom, the ship will slowly rotate to the right and bottom. The guns shoot where the reticle is, so they are semi-independent of the ship’s location. This all makes for some extremely intense combat and targeting accuracy will be through the roof. Sim players, like those from IL-2, Combat Flight Sim 3 (review coming soon, I promise!) or even FreeSpace 2 would be at a disadvantage compared to FPS players. Particularly since ships can strafe left and right using the standard first-person shooter WASD setup!
Speaking of Freespace 2
For whatever reason, Digital Anvil decided not to give a nod towards the Freespace games and include massive capital ships with beam weapons. The scale and difficulty of ships is approximately on par with Wing Commander: Prophecy. This does allow the player to actually take a Rheinland battleship down if he has to.
Graphically, the game is quite impressive. For all the time it’s been in development, it has managed to stay up-to-date. While it won’t be on the same level as UT2K3, Unreal II or Doom III, it definitely compares well with many of last year’s titles. Some things the designers created extremely well, like transitions from open space to asteroid fields.
Back to gameplay
Freelancer’s player-run MMORPG roots show, and proudly at that. There is a ton of exploration to do either after the campaign or during the freeform game. Simple computer-generated missions give players rewards who enjoy combat, or they can discover trade routes.
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