Chris Roberts Back In the Game

SEATTLE - Wing Commander's creator returns to the cockpit with a revolutionary new space sim and his aim set firmly on the competition.

SEATTLE - Many games were shown this week at Gamestock, the two-day event that showcased upcoming Microsoft games exclusively for the gaming press. But the most promising game was saved for last. It was during the final minutes of Wednesday's presentation that we finally saw Microsoft's flagship game for the year 2000, an ambitious space combat game from Chris Roberts. Creator of the Wing Commander series and director of the upcoming Wing Commander film, Roberts is no stranger to deep-space dogfighting. Freelancer (the tentative title for Roberts' new game) is a vision he has held since the early days of the first Wing Commander, and it is finally coming to fruition.

Although still a year from release (Roberts says the game may ship as late as fall 2000), the game was stable enough for Roberts to give a fairly extensive demo of this " revolutionary" space combat game.

Chris Roberts has been working on Freelancer for roughly two years, and it looks impressive. During Roberts' demonstration, he outlined three goals he had for the game: to create a dynamic single-player and multiplayer world, to affect a " radical change in interface," and to integrate cutscenes and gameplay seamlessly. Although many of the most outstanding events we saw in the demo were quite possibly scripted for Gamestock, they nevertheless succeeded in illustrating Roberts' vision. Freelancer was very impressive, both in the quality of graphics and the dynamism of the world.

Players play as " freelancers" in a politically volatile universe. In the far reaches of space, four houses have established interstellar empires in contrast to one other. Each house has based its culture on ancient Earth civilizations. There is House Liberty (based on America), Kusari (Japan), Rheinland (Germany), and Bretonia (Britain). This galaxy of frontier-like justice and adventure is also home to bands of pirates and an ominous empire of aliens hovering at the periphery of known human space. As rogues in this universe, players can choose to be pirates, bounty hunters, or merchants. They can carry various cargoes between systems for profit, hunt criminals and pirates, or simply raid the trade routes. They can also be hired to protect convoys or accept special missions from mysterious individuals in bars.

As for the "radical interface" that Roberts is trying to create, it looks like it will be completely mouse-driven. The interface displays the cockpit shell, a radar grid in the bottom center, and two bars for speed and energy. When players target a ship, a grainy readout will pop up at the bottom left of their screens. This readout shows the distance to the target, any damage to the target, and a complete polygonal display of the ship's components. When players target specific subsystems of the ship, they'll see those specific targeted components highlighted in the readout.

In addition to the more intuitive and mouse-driven interface, the new flight mechanic will go a long way toward achieving Roberts' vision for a more accessible game. In the past, half of a space combat game's fun was maneuvering to get a shot at an enemy ship. For Freelancer, Roberts wants to take that part of the game out of players' hands, should they just want to concentrate on shooting at the enemy. There will therefore be pre-made maneuvers available at the top right of the screen. These buttons will allow players to put their ships on autopilot while they do the dirty work of blasting enemy ships to pieces. The maneuvers we saw included trailing a ship, going to a target, jumping to hyperspace, and strafing.

While the ship is on autopilot, players can zoom in on a target and start blasting from a distance. This zoom feature allows players to start shooting as soon as they see a target, rather than having to wait until it takes up the whole screen - at which point it has likely flown past their view (a common occurrence in some space combat games).

The game universe should be a dynamic and immersive experience. Roberts says that to add ambiance, there will be many ships occupying space with players. However, these ambient ships won't just be window-dressing. We jumped to a system where a mining company was gathering minerals from an asteroid field. This encounter wasn't at all integral to the game, but if players want to steal the resources, they can attack the mining company and take the spoils for themselves.

There will also be much political intrigue. The universe of Freelancer takes place 1,000 years in the future, when the Empire of Humanity has all but forgotten Earth. The four houses have established their respective interstellar domains in the known galaxy, creating four distinct and unique cultures. The Liberty city of Manhattan looks like a futuristic metropolis (similar to the great cities seen in the Star Wars trailer), while the cities of Kusari look like an extreme amalgam of all the city lights of Hong Kong and Tokyo. At the outset of the game, players must declare allegiance to one of these houses. The allegiance gives players benefits and access to special missions, bounties, or cargo specific to that house. However, players will also earn the enmity or apathy of rival houses.

And players can also gain the allegiance of pirates, who populate the universe with their own agendas and hidden cities. Roberts showed a pirate outpost that looked like the ultimate stereotype of every pirate hideout ever seen in movies and on TV, complete with skull and crossbones and crossed cutlass décor.

One of Roberts' stated goals was to create a sense of scale. No space combat sim has yet been able to capture the magnitude of a massive capital ship. Freelancer looks as though it may change that, with enormous space stations and capital ships that truly dwarf your seemingly small fighter. Beyond the size, ship detail was remarkable, including moving parts and highly detailed textures.

While Freelancer certainly has much in common with Roberts' own Privateer, the dynamic universe of the new game will provide a much richer experience. Roberts promised that the game will react to your actions - keep attacking trade routes and you'll cause prices to soar, and eventually, a bounty will be put on your head.

Roberts opines that the space combat sim has been somewhat stagnant over the last few years, saying that improvements had been only " incremental" since the original Wing Commander and X-Wing. By adding a more accessible interface and a more dynamic world to Freelancer, Roberts is hoping to take the genre to the next level of sophistication in a revolutionary leap rather than in small steps.

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