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FreeLancer Review

GAME INFO
publisher: Microsoft
developer: Digital Anvil
genre: Simulation

MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS
PIII 600, 128MB RAM, 500MB HDD, 16MB video card
ESRB rating: T
homepage:
www.microsoft.com/games/freelancer

release date: Mar 03, 03
» All About FreeLancer on ActionTrip


When you think of spaced-based flight simulators, the single-player component usually is very big on story. You, as an intrepid young pilot, wet behind the ears, and greener than the Boston St. Patrick's Day Parade, are given a ship with which to fly a smattering of missions, fight off an essentially anonymous alien horde, and generally make the galaxy safe for...well...whomever. The problem with this formula is that once the game is completed, there was not much left to do, if there was no multiplayer - no ships to unlock, no real reason to keep playing the game past the end of the missions. So, other than for nostalgia value, most of these games leave the hard drives of gamers as quickly as they arrive - at warp speed.

Chris Roberts knew this formula well. Hell, as one of the creators of the Wing Commander series, he practically created it. So, as a pioneer, Chris set out to break the mold he worked so hard to create for space flight sims with the highly anticipated title from Microsoft and Digital Anvil, called Freelancer. The big hook about Freelancer?

Open Ended Gaming.

Say it. It rolls off the tongue.

Ooopen Ennnded Gaaaaming. It's enough to make even the softest of softcore fans salivate at the prospect.

The premise is simple. Put the player in a ship, put that ship in a bustling universe filled with intrigue, and set him loose to make a few credits and hammer out a name for himself. But the question soon arose: How can this be an entertaining single player game when all you do is trade, or run a few jobs? Well, that task turned out to be too daunting for Chris and his team, and unfortunately, certain aspects of the truly open-ended single player adventure were ultimately scrapped - along with Chris - in order for the game to actually be released some time this millennium.

The result?

What was to be a groundbreaking, mold-shattering space combat flight sim that would be the game that redefines the genre ended up as just another adventure where a green pilot is given a ship, fights off an essentially anonymous alien horde and makes the galaxy safe for (in this case) capitalism. The major difference here is that once you've done that, you can keep playing until you get sick of the game.

One of the groundbreaking changes in Freelancer was the removal of the joystick as the primary means of controlling the ship. Instead, a mouse/keyboard interface was implemented, as a means of pulling in the FPS diehards who are more familiar with a WASD layout. After installing earplugs to drown out the deafening cries of the flight sim faithful, decrying the fact that deleting the joystick makes it no longer a true flight sim, I fired the game up, and began seeking my fortune among the stars.

In the single player campaign, a terrible empire controls Earth, and war threatens to destroy the planet. In order to escape the carnage, a group of colony ships leaves the Earth in order to make a new home for humanity. Fast forward a few hundred years, and the new sectors, who have severed all ties to their mother world, now have fiefdoms of their own, based on the original colony ships they fled from - Liberty, Bretonia, Kusari, and Rhineland. The player assumes the role of Edison Trent (voiced by ex-90210 star Ian Ziering), who narrowly escapes the destruction of Freeport 7, a neutral station in Liberty space where deals are made and lives are broken every day. Trent gets quickly swept up in a cloak and dagger plot that threatens the tenuous peace between the sectors without ever really knowing what is driving the aggressive attitudes of Liberty's neighbors. Trent is soon pegged as Public Enemy #1, and, together with Liberty Security Force Commander Jun'ko Zane, he must clear his name while hammering out a living as a pilot-for-hire (and not get blown to smithereens in the process.).

The game offers an assortment of ships in which Trent can fly, falling into 2 major categories - freighters and fighters, with light, medium, heavy and very heavy classes of the latter available for purchase (some of which will not be offered until the single player campaign is completed). Trent can take all sorts of combat jobs, each one gaining points with the faction with whom he signs on. But for every action, there is a reaction - and taking too many jobs with criminal organizations will earn you the ire of the local police forces and military organizations, and conversely, staying too close to the law will result in constantly being ambushed by squadrons of fighters who prey on the trade lanes. The best course of action is to stay neutral - that way you can operate freely in any sector and never have any incidental battles that eat up your cash reserves with constant ship repairs. Also, the player can opt to running goods from stations and planets to turn a tidy profit. Of course, some of the less legal members of society will offer contraband goods to be traded for a much higher profit margin, but members of the local constabulary do take the time to scan the cargo holds of ships entering regularly trafficked areas, so be careful if you decide to trade on the wrong side of the law.

As your fortune grows, so does your level. Advancing in level allows you to take advantage of more powerful ships, weapons, and shields; as well as opening more difficult (and lucrative) jobs and increasing the skill of your computer-controlled opponents. In certain points in the single player campaign, you cannot advance in level until you complete the next story mission. A word to the wise, however - before you report to your next story contact, you may want to do a little more trading to get a healthy cash reserve going. Some story missions have no cash reward, and can be quite long and difficult to complete. You may find that the loot you pick up from your fallen foes may not be enough to keep your ship from falling apart on you, so the more cash you have going into these missions, the more likely you are to make it through generally unscathed.

The lack of joystick control isn't too terrible here. The mouse driven interface is intuitive, and the keyboard layout is such that you can easily defend yourself during the downright nasty furballs that fill the game. You can quickly plot a course through the galaxy, set the auto-navigation system, and watch as the stars fly by on your way. Also, in the event of an ambush, you can quickly drop out of cruise control to and switch to mouse-flight mode by hitting the space bar. This, of course, does take away from the more simulation-type style of play and make it seem more arcadeish, but the reality is its still a lot of fun. This may make the diehards a bit unhappy, but the lack of joystick control didn't make any difference to me - it would have been fun either way, and the fact is this game is fun.

But while it may be fun, the graphics have had to suffer a bit. This is not the best-looking space flight game I've ever seen, but it's not the worst either. The ship models are blah at best, and you really don't notice them too much - they go whizzing by too fast to really take a close look at any ships other than the one you're flying. The HUD interface surrounds any enemy ship that is targeted with a huge red box that draws your eyes away from the model to make it nothing more than a big giant bulls-eye you have to aim your cannons at. The capital ships are not much better - they resemble nothing more than giant floating bricks with a whole mess of guns on them. Of course, with not a whole lot of detail to worry about, there can be a much larger number of ships firing a much larger number of weapons on your screen with no noticeable hits to the framerate, so this is an excellent game for mid to lower range systems. The audio is much like the graphics, nothing to write home to Mom about. The only exception to this is the voice acting. Freelancer harnesses the talents of Ian Ziering, John Rhys-Davies, George Takei, and Andy Sirkis (the excellent actor who provides the voice of Gollum in the LOTR:TTT movie). They use their gifts to bring their respective characters to life, and do so admirably.

As for the multiplayer mode...ah, the game takes on a whole new meaning here. The multiplayer is essentially the entire game with the single player campaign removed. This is more like the game that Chris Roberts envisioned than anything else. The player flits about the galaxy, making money, running jobs or ferrying goods, but this time the enemy ships that are ambushing you are more likely to be player controlled than AI-based. Of course, you can group with other players for some squad based combat, and going into a multiplayer battle can be downright exhilarating. The engine, while suffering a bit for being toned down, is very good on lag (at least where I've been playing) and made me want to level up more so I could take advantage of the higher-end ships to mix it up.

So to wrap it all up, what was expected as a monumental paradigm shift in the genre of space flight games ended up as a fairly routine (albeit fun) arcade-style flyer that uses the mouse instead of the joystick, and with a pretty fun multiplayer mode. Should this game have stayed in development until something more akin to Chris's vision was achieved? The world will never know. But I do know that any game, whether it meets a certain vision or not, must be fun to stay on my hard drive. And this one isn't going anywhere for a good, long while.

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HIGHS
Lots of fun, didn't miss joystick support, very good voice acting, multiplayer is a blast;

LOWS
Graphics suffered, low monetary reward during story missions, not the groundbreaker it was touted to be.

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