Reviewed: May 22, 2003
Released: March 4, 2003
There’s an unspoken rule in the gaming industry that the quality of a game is inversely proportional to the amount of time you have been waiting for it. The first proof of this theory reared its ugly head way back in the mid-90’s with Origin’s Strike Commander, a combat flight sim setup to mirror the success of the Wing Commander series. It was a huge failure.
Without a doubt, game studios dig their own grave when they announce a title years before it ever releases. Do any of us really care about Duke Nukem’ anymore, and if/when it finally does release, can it possibly live up to the expectations that we have created in our own minds based on more than five years of hype? And if five years of hype can’t set you up for a disappointment how about six years?
Yes – six years; that is how long we have been waiting for Freelancer to arrive and now it finally (and quietly) slips into stores without much fanfare or media hype. Freelancer is the brainchild of Chris Roberts and Digital Anvil. You may remember Chris as the genius behind the Wing Commander and Privateer games. When he split from Origin and formed his own company, Digital Anvil, Microsoft was quick to acquire his new studio and rightly so.
Their last big release, Starlancer, was truly one of the most inspired space combat sims since Wing Commander or Freespace. This is one of the reasons I, along with thousands of other gamers, have been eagerly awaiting Freelancer for quite some time. I can remember seeing early gameplay builds as far back as the 1999 E3 show, although today’s game looks nothing like the game from four years ago.
Freelancer has been out for a couple of months and after logging nearly 50 hours into this addicting title I am here to tell you that some games really are worth the wait. You may have read complaints from angry gamers who were “surprised” at the gameplay, but anyone who has been following the development of this title already knew that Freelancer was going to be the 2003 version of Privateer and not Wing Commander. I’ve heard complaints about the economic system, lack of a detailed cockpit, lack of joystick or gamepad control, but the simple truth is that Freelancer is a simulation of a lifestyle, a freelance mercenary for hire.
You’re Han Solo minus the Wookie copilot and bizarre love triangle between a princess and her brother. You hang out in bars to find your next job, you pilot a variety of craft starting with a “classic” model fighter that oddly resembles Boba Fett’s ship. You earn credits and build complicated relationships between law enforcement, government agencies, corporations, and various gangs and individuals.
The story starts off simple enough. The opening movie picks up the story where Starlancer left off. We see dozens of sleeper ships carrying millions of people blasting their way through enemy blockades and warping into the unknown reaches of space. We join mankind 800 years later, and they have certainly lived long and prospered. Humans now occupy a huge section of the universe – well, more like a galaxy but the in-game map says “universe”. They have named the various systems and planets after cities and states so you can go to the New York system and land on planet Manhattan, or fly to the California system and explore the Tahoe Ice Field or land on planet Los Angeles.
At first I thought this naming system was rather unoriginal, but then I was surprised to find how much easier it is to learn the galaxy when it’s based on familiar names. When I’m told to rendezvous on Planet Pittsburgh, I know where I am going instantly. If I were told to go to Planet P5-403 I would definitely be consulting a star chart.
The story gets more personal as we arrive at a space station just as it is destroyed by a mysterious and unknown enemy. Only a few survivors escape the devastating blast and Edison Trent (that’s us) is one of them. After Trent is rescued he is taken to Manhattan (the planet – not the city). While he waits for his “associate” (who happens to owe him a million credits) to get released from medical he visits the local pub. And thus begins the ongoing and often repetitive pattern of gameplay that will keep you glued to your keyboard for months to come.
Those of you who have played Privateer (and if you haven’t – WHY NOT?) will sort of know what to expect. Privateer presented a deep economic model and a huge open-ended world and let the gamer decide what to do. Many gamers got lost in this world and played for months before realizing they had never really gotten into the story-driven missions.
Freelancer is modeled on that same theory but manages to rein you in without ever seeming restricting. The first several missions lead you by the hand taking you from planet to planet or planet to space station or capital ship. This is a great way to learn the game but I did find that by doing this the designers force you into early relationships that you may not want to be in or find hard to get out of later in the game.
A good example is that by the time I was actually given “free will” to explore and wheel and deal on my own I had done so much “good stuff” that I was rated very high with the military and law enforcement but several corporations and especially the bounty hunters were really pissed at me. A few even threatened my life when I simply approached them in a pub.
Relationships are a key factor in Freelancer. There are dozens of agencies, corporations, gangs, etc. and you have a bar graph that represents your current status with each. By the time you finish the first few missions you will be a “wanted man” with the Rogues and the Junk Dealers and a few other gangs that operate outside the law. When you make a new friend you will inevitably piss off at least two or three other factions. This is made clear when hackers will offer to change your “status” with one group at the expense of several others.
The economy model is an interesting sidebar to the game, but I was hoping for something a bit more deep and worthwhile. The interface is fantastic for buying and selling commodities. When you highlight an object to buy or sell you know how much you are going to pay and it lists the top three places to sell that item and how much it will sell for. The only problem is that after 50 hours of playing Freelancer the most money I have ever made on a single transaction was about 1000 credits.
Most items have a very low variance in their buy/sell price and unless you are dealing with huge quantities it’s just not worth the effort to approach this game as “Railroad Tycoon in Space”. Even if you have a cargo hold large enough to carry large shipments most planets, ships, and space stations don’t maintain large inventories. To make things even more challenging, your weapons and repair devices share the same space as your cargo, so if you load up on 50 missiles you can’t carry as much “stuff”.
The economic system does become more valuable for the scavenging part of the game. When you engage ships in combat you can tractor in the debris after you have destroyed them. This is a great way to get random “garbage” and turn an easy profit. Most of the time you are lucky to get enough salvage fees to replace the weapons you used in the battle, but often you can tractor in missiles and repair materials for your ship, which helps ease your financial burden.
This is where Freelancer varies from the more traditional shooters. You are responsible for every part of your ship and its loadout. Every time you fire a Javelin you know it just cost you 91 credits whether you hit or miss. Every time you land your smoking wreck of a ship and it costs you 455 credits to repair you promise to be “more careful” the next time.
Of course the best way to make money is to work for it and jobs are plentiful. You can find work at just about any bar in the solar system and if nobody is hiring direct you can go to the job boards to find galactic job listings. These are generally shared between locations within a star system, but sometimes you may see “projects” in neighboring galaxies. These are all ranked with a difficulty factor and compensated appropriately based on the risk.
The mix of free roaming missions and story-driven missions seems to be about equal. You will do one or two missions for Juni, your cute Asian contact who got you back on your feet in Manhattan, then she will let you do “your own thing” for awhile before contacting you at a later time. The missions you do for Juni drive the main story while the jobs you accept on your own affect your reputation.
In the world of Freelancer, reputation is everything. At the beginning of each conversation the other person will asked to see your “card”. This is like some sort of futuristic business card that logs all of your past activities. So if you are going out and nailing all the high-dollar bounties don’t expect the bounty hunter guild to talk to you. Angry factions will also hunt you down while you are flying around in space. I’ve been knocked out of a trade lane conduit several times by Rogue fighters.
Everyone in Freelancer has a great memory. The first time you meet someone they will say something like “new in town?” or “I haven’t seen you before, are you new?” The next time you visit they will recognize you and be friendlier. There is a lot of gratuitous banter during these conversation that can get tedious after awhile but you can always tap the ESC key and get to the important information.
The story behind Freelancer is quite complex. A lot of this is because of all the peripheral stories going on that really don’t contribute to the main plot. It’s designed like the “X-Files” series where you get a piece of the big puzzle then have those random stories thrown into the mix to flesh out the characters and build your reputation. I won’t give any spoilers, but suffice to say there are plenty of twists and betrayals in Freelancer that will have you constantly trying to figure out who your friends really are.
Freelancer is huge with more than 48 star systems full of planets, ships, space stations, nebulas, asteroid fields, mine fields, and much more. Even in the faster ships it can take forever to travel from one planet to the next. Thankfully there are “trade lanes” that have been setup between key hubs around the galaxy. These tunnels span floating buoys and act as highways that allow you to travel 10x normal speed. There are also system gates that take you between star systems.
Navigating this universe and flying your ship is insanely easy and I can only hope that future game designs use this as a template for their control system and menu interface. As previously mentioned, the game plays with a mouse and keyboard, which may cause cries of shock and rage from sim-purists, but until you have actually used this amazing control system you had better reserve your final judgment.
Freelancer uses a dual mode control scheme. By default your ship flies on autopilot based on targeted waypoints while your mouse controls the crosshairs for your cannons, turrets, and missile launchers. This also allows you to move your mouse into the control sections of your HUD and pick commands to control your ship, bring up the navigation map, or access the target list. The only thing I really missed was a radar display, but after a few missions I forgot all about it. The game is designed so well you don’t even need one.
Everything in the HUD and the game display window is interactive. You can click on the name of a ship, station, or planet in the target list or actually click on the real object in the view window. When a target has been selected you then have access to a smaller sub-command menu for hailing, scanning, etc. You can also pull up the navigation map and select targets and waypoints from there. To enter a trade lane or land on a planet you merely click the portal then click the docking icon and it’s all handled for you.
With a tap of the spacebar you can enter free flight mode giving you superb control over your ship. By simply moving the mouse around your ship will follow the crosshair and you can left-click to lock targets and right-click to fire your primary guns. Additional weapons can be accessed by using their corresponding numbers listed in the lower-right display window.
You control your speed with the mouse-wheel or you can use the WADS cluster for thrusting in all four directions. You also have afterburners for limited bursts of speed and a cruise engine that lets you travel at 3x normal speed by taking your weapons offline. It may sound complicated but you will be surprised just how easy it all is to learn and master. This is one of the few (if not only) games I have played where I didn’t have to change a single command in the options.
The non-ship interface is just as good. When you are planetside or on a ship or space station you can jump to any of the critical parts of the area by choosing the icons at the top of the screen. Each location has a bar, commodities broker, parts department, and launch pad, and larger bases have new ships for sale. Your mouse cursor is quite clever in telling you what to expect when you click on somebody in the bar. There are icons to indicate job offers, bribes, information, and hacking opportunities.
My only complaint with gameplay is that things can get repetitive. Even though the reason behind the missions or the details of the job change, Freelancer boils down to shooting down ships, lots of ships. It would have been nice to do some recon, smuggling, or anything other than the “shoot everything in sight” mission model.
I must congratulate Digital Anvil on a very stable product, although after six years we should expect no less. I’ve logged nearly 50-hours without a single crash, bug, or hiccup. I instinctively search for patches and was surprised to see that they haven’t even released one. Great job!
Freelancer is simply jaw-dropping gorgeous. My system is marginally better than the recommended requirements and I was able to play this game flawlessly at 1600x1200x32 and the framerate was running at light speed. Space has never looked more beautiful, with colorful nebulas, shimmering trade lane tunnels, blinding vortexes that warp you across star systems, and some of the most interesting ship and space station models you have seen in a long time. I dare say this dangerously approaches the quality of Hegemonia, and in some ways it perhaps even surpasses the reigning visual champ.
As previously mentioned, the interface is a model of perfection and the HUD is not only functional but also informative. Targets are color-coded to match crosshair indicators and their names as they appear in the target list. Waypoints are purple, enemies are red, friendly craft are green and salvage is white. It all works in conjunction to let you play this game with reflexes and instinct rather than taking time to read and figure things out.
There are all sorts of subtle details stuck into this game. There are hundreds of locations to visit and none look alike. Bars, launch pads, cityscapes, etc. are all unique and well designed. Manhattan has to be one of my favorites with the inclusion of the original sleeper ship as one of the towers in the center of the city.
Movies range from the opening pre-rendered CG movie to cutscenes created with game graphics. They all look great and blend with the gameplay exceptionally well, but I was unhappy that if you choose to reload a game you are forced to watch the movies over again. It would have been nice to simply let us tap the ESC key to skip through these.
If I had to complain about anything it would probably be scale. My ship is pretty small; about the equivalent of a semi-truck, but when I fly close to capital ships, space stations, or bases hidden in asteroids there just isn’t that feeling of “awe” that Wing Commander Propehcy and Freespace managed to convey with their huge ship models.
The musical score is exceptional running the gamut of orchestral pieces to energetic techno rock ripped right from the Matrix. It never gets stale, boring, or repetitive and is one of the few soundtracks with enough content to match the length of the game.
Sound effects are perfection, whether it is the engine noises or the whoosh of the afterburners or the whine of the cruise engine. Lasers and missiles all make appropriate noises and the explosions are thunderous. You also get plenty of ambient noises such as music in the bars or mechanical noises of repairs going on in the repair bay.
Chris Roberts pioneered the interactive digital movie with his Wing Commander games, and even though FMV has been replaced with CGI characters and scenery, the script and voice acting take priority. Edison Trent is voiced by Ian Ziering (Steve from Beverly Hills 90210), and he does a wonderful job of creating a surly mercenary. There is so much speech that sooner or later a few stinkers have to slip into the cast, but these are few and far between and generally found in the most casual of bar conversations. Anything of importance and all of the primary characters are voiced by very professional actors, or at least it sounded that way.
My only issue with the speech was the dreary conversation that all started and ended with the same 4-6 standard lines of dialog, slightly reworded, but all easily identifiable as mere pleasantries that you have to endure to get to the text screen with that actual original content. This could have been a major complaint, but you are allowed to hit the ESC key and skip to the critical info allowing you to milk the entire bar for information in less than 60 seconds.
As with Privateer you can enjoy Freelancer long after the story is completed or even get lost in the world and forget about the scripted events. If your goal is to see how quickly you can finish this game then you can probably succeed in completing it in 30-40 hours. At 50-hours I’m only about halfway through the story, but I’m taking my time and enjoying myself.
There is also a strong multiplayer component that allows for up to 16 freelancers to go head to head in their own mini-persistent worlds hosted on your own computer. Run your own game or join another; regardless of how you get online there are plenty of people playing and you can go head-to-head or team up against a computer AI that you can tweak to match the skills of the players.
Admittedly, the multiplayer component seems more like it was added on at the last minute. The single player game is so good and so long that playing online isn’t really necessary but it does spark my interest in the possibilities of taking this franchise into an online persistent world game in the future. Of course EVE: Online may already have that niche filled.
Freelancer is a wonderful mix of shooter, simulation, RPG-lite, and adventure. While it does none of these exceptionally well, the way they are combined and the overall presentation allows this title to actually become more than the sum of its parts. Freelancer isn’t just a game – it’s a way of life.