Summary: Somewhere along half a decade of development, Freelancer has lost half its intended features, its vision in the form of lead designer Chris Roberts, and the developer was bought out by Microsoft. So we gave our review copy to Tom Chick - perhaps the most vicious critic ever to step foot on human lands. It's like loosing a hungry wolf among a flock of sheep... or is it?
A long long troubled development ago…
After a long and troubled development, Freelancer is finally here. Born from the departure of Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts from Origin, Freelancer was supposed to be the debut title for Roberts' new company, Digital Anvil. But now, seven years later, it's more of a survivor than a debut, emerging from a series of cutbacks, cancellations, departures, and corporate acquisitions. That it actually made it to the shelves is enough of a surprise. But the real surprise is that it turned out to be pretty darn good.
Once upon a time
In terms of the way this space combat sim/action game plays out, Freelancer owes more to David Braben's Elite than Chris Robert's Wing Commander. Elite, which predated Wing Commander by three years, was set in a free-form universe. You got to fly around, doing whatever you wanted, earning money for better ships and bigger guns, building up your reputation and generally playing tourist in a galaxy that had been laid open before you. The only real story was the one you created. “So I flew here and did this and then I flew there and did that," the story went.
But the Wing Commander series, which has served as the paradigm for a decade of space sims, was built from canned missions. “So you will fly here and do this and then you will fly there and do that,” said Wing Commander. Each mission was really just a sequence of waypoints, each with a pre-set battle with a pre-determined number of enemies and a mandate that it you didn't succeed, you'd have to reload and play it again. When you were done flying the sequence, the mission was over. In between missions, you got a cutscene to advance the plot and segue you into the next mission. It afforded a rigid structure geared towards telling a story rather than creating one; the action served as interactive interludes. It traded Elite's freedom for Roberts' narrative.
SIDEBAR: Chris Roberts’ last Origin project was Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom; ironically a better movie than this movie.
Where do you want to go today?
But while Freelancer clearly has roots in Roberts' story-driven space adventuring, its basis is an Elite style of freedom. You are essentially set loose to trade wherever you want and fight whomever you want, working within a system of factions to determine who will attack you on sight and who will sell you new guns and ships. As a single player game, Freelancer shunts you through a series of missions to tell a story before turning you lose in this galaxy. As a multiplayer game -- which, it should be noted, can be played single player -- Freelancer just turns you lose from the get-go.
The galaxy is constructed from a web of space stations and planets, all connected by "tradelanes" that speed up travel by propelling ships through a series of rings. This web is buzzing with more traffic than the airspace over Chicago O'Hare: fighter patrols and convoys go about their business, chatting freely about what they're doing, where they're going, and even what they're carrying. It's a talkative interstellar traffic jam, all dynamically generated and plugged into the faction system to determine who fights whom, regardless of how they feel about you. It breathes life into the traditional vacuum we've been given in other space sims.
In another move that distinguishes it from other space sims, Freelancer instills this bustling vacuum with a sense of place. Different areas are characterized by distinct "terrain", as it were. Using colored light, varied planets, stars, moored capital ships, space stations, clever ship designs, and even hackneyed phenomena like nebulae and asteroid fields, the game manages to give different places their own sense of location. There are distinct regions, distinguished by culture and geography. The distinctions aren't always merely cosmetic: a dogfight in an asteroid field feels exhilaratingly different from one in a nebula. There are landmarks clearly visible from across the system or even across the galaxy. Freelancer is perhaps the first space sim to support what’s known in flight sims as VFR: visual flight rules. Navigate the stars using the trusty Mark I Eyeball.
It's not in the least bit realistic, but it is something better: memorable. From the dingy tones of Bretonia to the bright colors of the Kusari Empire to the spooky space storms of the Badlands, Freelancer makes outer space vivid, varied, and distinct. The evocative music also deserves a special mention. Instead of being a typically bland action soundtrack, it varies nicely with a number of different themes for different locations. It's a classic example of music complementing the artwork rather than just accompanying it.
SIDEBAR: ’Mark I Eyeball’? Tom’s really enjoying these militarized terms. I think he’s been watching too much CNN lately.
Look, ma, no joystick!
Also unlike other space sims, Freelancer has an easy interface that gives is a uniquely accessible learning curve. The controversial interface eschews the joysticks that have traditionally been the control of choice for space sims in favor of a bold mouse-driven system. The mouse is used almost like a cursor in a first person shooter. You move it around the screen to point at your target, firing guns mounted on swivels, while your ship's nose follows the cursor like an obedient pet pulled on a leash. There's no radar or situational awareness to keep track of and no real “flight model” beyond the fact that some ships turn more tightly than others. In a dogfight, you just follow the arrow at the edge of the screen and then point your cursor at the lead targeting indicator in front of the ship you want to shoot. Hold down the fire button to chip away at the enemy’s hit points and enjoy the explosion when he’s dead. It's simple point and shoot combat; with only a minimum of effort, things go boom in a very satisfying way.
But there's also quite a bit of depth here. The keyboard can be used for weapon groups if you want to finesse things like missile fire, mines, and countermeasures. There are afterburners to give you a burst of speed. There are hotkeys for the equivalent of potions to heal your hull and restore your shields if you get in a bind. You can jink left and right with strafe keys. You can cut the engines to do drift maneuvers. Although most of this is unnecessary, it's there for players as they get more comfortable with the basics and want something more than pointing and shooting.
When you're not fighting, your mouse cursor is used to click on icons to open screens for navigation, information, scanning, and reference. There can be quite a bit of down time as you're traveling from point to point, but there's still something satisfying about smoothly gliding through space with a mouse click here and a key press there, as screens slide open and shut with the beeps and whirrs and chirps that give computers of the future their flavor. Think of Harrison Ford with his home computer in Blade Runner, giving it simple commands as it clicks away, doing fancy processing with a minimum of input. Freelancer offers this same sense of being synced into something futuristic as your ship jumps obligingly from planet to planet under your guidance.
At first glance, the technology that drives Freelancer might seem a little disappointing. For better and worse, this definitely isn't one of those games that pushes your hardware to the limit. Even with a lot of activity on the screen, it'll run smoothly on the minimum system requirements if you're willing to dial down the details. But even at a reduced level of detail, it still manages to maintain its aesthetic appeal. Perhaps because the game has been in development for so long, the emphasis in the graphics is on artwork rather than technology. In contrast to something like Unreal Tournament 2003, what makes Freelancer look good is the fine work the artists have done and not the engine they used to do it.
SIDEBAR: Fact: All Random Facts in Tom’s articles are by Jakub.
Never get out of the ship
In Activision's car combat game I-76, one of the oft-repeated rules was "never get out of the car". This was mainly because the game engine wasn't built for anything but driving around in your car. Too bad Digital Anvil didn't take this advice to heart, because Freelancer seriously stumbles when it comes in from outer space.
It's obvious that a lot of resources were spent on "getting out the ship". There's unique artwork for a lot of the planetside locations and space stations, which are presented as non-interactive 2D pictures, some of which can be viewed from different angles. There is an elaborate character animation system, complete with detailed facial expressions and lip syncing. There's a dynamic conversation system that required a lot of voice work and some pretty fancy branching structures for all the options it can handle. There are some complex cutscenes that tell the single player story in a cinematic fashion. And, truth be told, Freelancer doesn’t need any of it.
The planetside artwork is ultimately annoying busywork. At first, it adds a nice bit of flavor to see the rain on New London, the crags of Malta, or the snowy mountains on Denver. But when all you want to do is get a mission or sell a load of luxury goods, you have to click through a few too many screens, sometimes even frantically slapping the escape key to avoid sitting through another stilted conversation between two creepy marionette character models in a bar that's about as lively as a senior center rec room. No thanks. Freelancer would have been better served with the simple menu system Elite used when you docked with a space station. It would have also been more consistent with the feeling of piloting your ship by popping a few screens open and shut. Instead, you're taken out of the rest of the game and shunted through something that looks like it was created for one of Sierra's Space Quest titles.
Unfortunately, the single player game relies heavily on these devices to tell a story that gets increasingly clichéd as it goes along. One of the best things about the story is that it's fairly short and when it's over, it leaves you to your own devices to keep playing and exploring. It's almost like Freelancer is just getting warmed up by the time Mission Thirteen comes to its conclusion.
A-trading we will go
This is also where the multiplayer game comes to the rescue. Sort of. Here is where you get the best and worst of Freelancer in nutshell. On one hand, all the freedom the game affords is dropped in your lap. Go anywhere, earn money to buy any ship, fight anyone, trade anything. Group with other players and take missions for some low stakes Diablo-esque multiplayer action combat. Band into formations and make risky trade runs where you stand to lose all your hard-earned money. There's nothing else out there that offers Freelancer’s free-form multiplayer gaming in space.
But on the other hand, as a multiplayer game, there's no storyline to cover for some of Freelancer's shortcomings: the unchanging universe, the superficial faction system, the lack of options for ship upgrades, the meager weapon variety, the homogenous missions, the limited multiplayer interaction, the utterly static economy, and the poorly thought-out trading system. In some important ways, Freelancer feels sadly underdone. These are all substantial shortcoming that you might not notice in the rosy glow of those first few hours of 'hey, look how well it turned out!'. But the longer you play, the more likely you are to notice how much better Freelancer could have been. There are so many ways this very good game falls aggravatingly short of greatness.
SIDEBAR: Freelancer, as originally designed, would have taken years of extra development time. Like, years man. Did I say that already?
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