The space flight genre has always been a fascinating one for most PC gamers. It is one area where the PC will probably always be ahead of the console world, at least in terms of massive universe type games that would really be too advanced for most consoles, even the vaulted Xbox probably.
Freelancer is yet another entry into this genre, and follows in the tradition of Wing Commander, Privateer and even – going way back – Starflight. Freelancer most resembles the Privateer series – Privateer II will always have a soft spot in my heart – in that you are flying around the galaxy buying goods at one planet and selling them somewhere else. Along the way you will battle pirates and other bad guys, or perhaps become a bad guy yourself.
The game markets itself as being completely non-linear, and to a point they are correct. However, you do experience a lot less freedom in Freelancer than you do with other similar games. It’s true the universe is fairly open to you throughout the entire game, at least after you are given access to the various jump gates to get between systems. But you are lead to an extent by the main plot.
You see, to purchase better weapons and armor you have to be certified in it, which basically means you need to attain a certain level before you can purchase certain equipment. You gain levels by completing mission objectives. See where this is going? There are two ways to gain levels and they alternate with each level. First, you need to make a certain amount of money. Then for the next level you have to complete some objective that is part of the main plot for the game. Then it is back to a money objective. Then you follow the main plot again.
This objective system was designed so that people could not spend weeks trading and buying the most advanced equipment before going on the first main plot mission, thus unbalancing the game. It kind of makes it unrealistic however for a game that sells itself based on nonlinear play. I mean here I am at a pirate base and they won’t sell me a gun or a ship even though I have the cash, because I have not gone on enough missions to get a new level. My thoughts on this are that if I bought the game, I should be able to play it anyway I choose. If that means the battles are a little easier because I worked to get a better ship, so be it.
Anyway, once you accept that this is how the game works, you will have a very good time within that framework.
The plot of the game is very good. You, lowly freelance pilot, nearly get killed when a space station explodes while you are conducting business inside. Without a ship, you of course jump at the first job available, which happens to be working for the police since they are willing to supply you with a junk spaceship to get you started.
Along the way various people will try to kill you and you eventually learn that someone is bumping off all the other survivors of the space station explosion. Soon even friendly governments are not all the friendly and you become more a fugitive than a hero. Slowly you learn the reasons why and have to put things right. The main-plot battles are huge and extremely challenging, and the random pirate ambushes are no pushover either.
Controlling the ship is surprisingly easy. Gone are the detailed ship controls that plague most space flight games. You won’t feel like you are doing a flight simulator in space or have to worry about things like the percentage of lift to set your flaps. Basically you just point and fly your craft. It’s very forgiving. Even when you run head first into other ships, your shields normally protect you from any real damage.
This is not to say the game is easy. Getting killed at jump points, where pirates like to hang out waiting to pounce, will be a regular occurrence if you are not careful. Sure the flight controls are easy, but you better know how to roll and loop and slide out of the way of those incoming laser blasts. Being able to put fire onto your targets helps too. In the main-plot battles, you will be doing everything from making torpedo runs on battleships to mowing down waves of fighters. Sometimes the odds will be so overwhelming you will be running for your life, trying to lose battle fleets in nebulas and asteroid fields. The combat is very exciting.
Graphically, the game is pretty amazing. I dare say this is the best-looking space simulation ever made. It’s funny too, because sometimes NPCs will comment on how pretty space is, and your character will say something like, "I don’t even notice it anymore." But you will.
The audio for the game is very good. The soundtrack is deep and haunting, much like you would expect from a space opera. One problem is that character dialog, especially the NPCs that are not connected to the main plot, are very sparse. Every shopkeeper will say one of three things it seems. If I get called an old dog one more time, someone is going to eat my blaster. Outside in space it’s not much better. You will hear "Buckle up, we’re heading to the (insert place here) system" way more times than you care to, but you can’t turn your radio off unfortunately.
Once you finish the main plot, which will take a lot of time, about 40 hours of gameplay I would estimate you are released into the universe. Finally the game becomes completely nonlinear. You can do what you want when you want, fly anywhere and do anything.
Multiplayer is a lot of fun, especially if you can find a good persistent server. There are many out there to house your character, though you will need to start from scratch. Flying around a huge universe trading and doing missions with lots of real people is a lot of fun. And fighting other people is much better than the computer AI. Here the game is a lot more fun than most multiplayer games that force you to pay monthly fees to play on a server. And in this mode, the size of the world really makes the gameplay infinite, and an infinitely good value. You should probably have a high-speed connection to take full advantage of this option.
Freelancer does not quite measure up to how it has been billed over the years of development, but delivers a solid and fun gameplay experience nonetheless. I doubt anyone will be disappointed exploring the gigantic world Digital Anvil has created.