Microsoft is hosting cozy 30 minute demonstrations of Freelancer inside a makeshift theater in its booth. Inside, GameSpot editors were treated to a 10 minute intro movie of Freelancer, explaining the backstory of the game. After a solar system-spanning war is violently halted by the appearance of powerful aliens, humanity rebuilds the tattered remnants of its culture and finally acquires prosperity, as four ruling houses of humanity control the colonies beyond Earth, which at this time is nothing but vapor. Out on the fringe of space, humanity is expanding its territories, and there is much opportunity for intrepid people willing to push the boundaries of human exploration.
You play as a "freelancer," one of many independent pilots asked to fly missions for various interests and the four ruling houses of the game world. The game has a complex adventure game shell, with NPCs to talk to in various bars, equipment hangars to visit for new toys for your ship, and a few other places. You'll talk to various people who will give you a variety of missions, and eventually, earn money to buy better ships and better equipment. Along the way, your reputation will increase and decrease as you succeed or fail in your missions. The dynamic marketplace is also purported to be a big element of the game, as events will impact the production of space mines, agricultural planets, and more. Reportedly, even your actions - pirates you kill, cargo you plunder - can affect the economy. Of course, this dynamic marketplace is an ambitious goal, and the demo obviously was not detailed or long enough to show us whether this feature is in the game now or if it works.
Roberts says there are about 16 mission templates - cargo runs, escort missions, search and destroy - reconnaissance, bounty hunts, smuggling, and more. Then there are different variations on these themes, depending on who gives you the missions, what ships you have to destroy or defend, the cargo you need to carry, and so forth. With these combinations, Microsoft is boasting that the game has over 300 specific missions. All of these missions come through interacting with the NPCs at various bars on the many worlds and space stations.
The graphics in the game right now are uneven. There are some spectacular looking environments, like red, cloudy nebulas streaked by lightning, and icy asteroids fields with clouds of wispy vapor that stretch as far as the eye can see. These environments look stunning. Also impressive are the facial expressions on people; as they talk to you, their faces twitch and move and their eyes light up or darken to accentuate their speech. You'll see the eyes of characters wrinkle, their lips pull back for a smirk, or their eyes narrow with suspicion. This detail lends a lot to the credibility of these NPCs. However, bringing you back from the suspension of disbelief is the lip-synching, which at times was miscued. Of course there is plenty of time to fix that, and once the lip-synching is better matched to the speech, the extra facial expressions will really make the characters come to life. Some of the ship graphics also look really good, although at times, in certain conditions, such as when a ship is parked in a hangar while you shop for weapons, the ship graphics look less impressive.
Another interesting feature of the game is the interface. You will not play the game with a joystick. Instead, you control your ship with the mouse. Simulation veterans may cry foul at this apparent blasphemy, but the move to a mouse-driven interface will no doubt make the game that much more accessible for the mass market. You still need to lead your targets, but you simply move the mouse and click. You can direct your ship movement and weapons fire this way. You can also target specific parts of ships (which light up when selected), so you can disable the engines or weapons on a ship if you want to salvage it. Microsoft and Digital Anvil want the game to be that easy to play, although there are hints in the press materials to advanced equipment that requires more complex controls.
Freelancer, at this point, definitely has bouts of impressiveness, with some excellent graphics and a lot of promise in character interaction. However, there are other parts of the game that need work. But we hasten to add that the game is still a year from release and that this unevenness is to be expected; obviously, Digital Anvil will refine and polish the game before release. For now, check out these brand new screenshots of the game, which show off the impressive graphics.