Freelancer Boldly Goes

For fans of the spaceflight genre, freelancer is probably the most anticipated game of the year.

The title follows in the tradition of both the Wing Commander and Privateer series, and is more closely related to Privateer. This is a good thing, since Privateer II remains one of my all-time favorite games.

What was so good about Privateer II, and what shows promise in the beta of Freelancer, is the completely non-linear nature of the gameplay. You can play a good guy, taking missions that help the police or the military. Or you can become a pirate and lie in wait along the various space lanes and then blast unsuspecting cargo ships to get the salvage. Or you can take a more neutral stance, hauling cargo from place to place and playing the "buy low, sell high" game.

Like Privateer II, you are given an overall mission with Freelancer. Your character barely survives a terrorist attack that destroys an entire space station he happens to be standing on at the time. The gist of the plot is that you are an experienced pilot, but your ship and all your wealth has been lost. So you accept the offer of a junk ship in return for helping a special division of the local navy do a few missions. Eventually you can earn enough cash to purchase better weapons and a nicer ship.

Unfortunately for your character, the events that unfold at the beginning of the game won’t let go, and your status as one of the few survivors of the event mark you in many ways. It becomes obvious that unless you start to dig into the root causes of the crime, you are not going to live long. So you have the freedom of flying around space and taking various Freelance missions, but you also have the nagging overall plot to keep things moving.

Personally, I think the implementation of the overall plot is a bit heavy handed. What happens is that after you complete a mission along the main plot line, you are given some comparative freedom. Once you reach a goal however, say, making a set amount of money, the main plot reasserts itself. Your contact tells you to meet them at a certain bar on a certain planet. The problem is that the game automatically sets waypoints for you to follow. You don’t have to follow them, but they are always in your heads-up display and if you engage the autopilot, your ship will move towards them.

If you have done what I did and just formed a lucrative trade route, then you are probably going to be more interested in buying oxygen at a farm world, selling it to a remote space station and buying manufactured goods, which are then sold to a frontier world for fertilizer before returning back to the start. It takes time to learn these routes, and once I had established one, I wanted to sick to it, contact sitting at the bar or not. Privateer II never really forced the main plot onto you until late in the end game, and I liked that method a lot better.

The world of Freelancer, at least in the beta, seems completely full of bad guys. It seemed like every station I docked at would be under attack by rogues and terrorists whenever I was leaving. I am not sure why the space villains chose to constantly throw themselves at the well-armed space stations, but it just seemed like space was a bit too crowded.

Out in space, you would also often get attacked. Combat is normally quick and deadly. Like Privateer II or the Wing Commander series, to survive you have to make good use of your afterburner and your dodging skills. The controls are a bit awkward however. You fly with the keyboard and aim your guns with the mouse. So you can point and shoot at anything on screen. But it is actually very hard to do, since you have to fly at the same time, drop countermeasures and generally do a lot of things at once. The amount of hand dexterity needed tended to interfere with my suspension of disbelief when playing. The beta did not seem to have any options for joystick support, though Microsoft would be crazy to release a flight game without it in the final cut. Especially if you have something like Microsoft’s own flight stick, with multiple buttons and controls, it would make flying a lot easier.

I had the most fun with the beta when I was not flying on a main plot mission. I enjoyed taking odd jobs like tacking down fugitives or going out into the asteroid belts to fight people hidden there. Even running a fully-loaded cargo ship along the trade lanes was a lot of fun. The fact that the game looks beautiful helps. Space looks very much like I would imagine it to, with interesting phenomenon and bright stars punctuating the inky blackness. And of course all the vehicles look amazing and realistic, right down to different architectures and designs for ships from different colony worlds. The Wing Commander and Privateer series, especially the first Wing Commander, set the president that these games would raise the bar graphically. And Freelancer follows that proud tradition.

It’s worth noting however, that my personal experience with the game crashed right into a wall. After getting really far into the plot, I ran up against a mission that I feel has no business being in the game at all. There is a mission where you have to race another pilot through an asteroid field and travel through various gates at high speed. If you beat the other guy, he is supposed to give you the information you need to find another contact to talk with.

You are supposed to use your cruise engines to go through the course quickly, but your ship does not turn quickly when using cruise engines and there are A LOT of gates. Plus, the other pilot is amazing and just zooms through them. Freelancer is supposed to be about space combat and trading, and this mission is just simply out of place. It will disappoint a lot more people than just me. I can handle combat with 10 other ships, but I am no Pod Racer, which is what this mission seems to be. It’s like you are suddenly dropped out of Freelancer into another game.

I wrote into the PR folks for the game about the mission, but I’ve no idea if they changed it or not. You should at least have an out, like paying the guy money to get the info you need or something. The thing is, if you lose the race, the game ends just like you were killed in combat. Apparently your supposedly worldly space rogue can’t think of any other way to find the info he needs, or to extract it from the guy you are racing. I’m afraid if the mission stays as is, I for one will have to give the game a poor review, as I am sure a lot of people will fall into the same trap as me. I simply can’t advance, which is terribly frustrating considering I was just getting into the plot of the game when I was suddenly locked out.

Assuming they fix that odd mission, I would say that Freelancer will be one of the best looking and most talked about titles of the year, possibly for years to come. It really got my blood pumping, and I am glad to see that this most excellent format lives on. Its due out in March, so the wait is almost over.

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