Originally the brainchild of famed Wing Commander designer Chris Roberts, Freelancer has been a long time coming. The game was first announced nearly four years ago, and it has survived, among other things, Roberts' departure from the development team at Digital Anvil, a studio that he founded. On paper, the game is the supposed sequel to Microsoft's StarLancer, which was a space-based combat flight simulator in the same vein as X-Wing or FreeSpace that was released in the early months of 2000 and was designed by Erin Roberts, Chris' younger brother and creator of Privateer 2: The Darkening. But after recently having had the chance to play a nearly complete version of this long-awaited game, it's clear that, beyond sharing the same setting, these two games have little in common.
When Freelancer was first announced, it was lauded as a mouse-driven space simulator, but the game's direction has changed in those four years. Even though space combat still plays a major role in its gameplay, Freelancer is heavily laced with traditional role-playing game elements of exploration, experience, character interaction, and character development. The game takes place 800 years after the events of StarLancer. During that time, a war raged between the two most powerful houses in the galaxy: the Coalition and the Alliance. Fearing defeat, the Alliance launched five "sleeper" ships--each representing a major Alliance faction--to the ends of the universe in order to escape the wrath of the Coalition and start their civilizations anew. Now, 800 years later, the five factions of the Alliance have settled numerous star systems, and their cultures and industries have prospered. You'll play the role of Trent Edison, who, at the start of the game, finds himself to be the lone survivor on an interstellar outpost called Freeport Station, which was rocked by a mysterious explosion that claimed the lives of almost all its inhabitants. As has become par for the course with many RPGs, you're not given much background information on Edison. In fact, you initially won't even know who he is or what he does for a living, though it'll gradually become clear that your character is a trader whose job description borders on smuggling. Edison takes it upon himself to investigate the causes behind Freeport Station's destruction, and he'll come to discover that this mystery runs much deeper than he expected.
Of course, like most people, Edison still has bills to pay, and he'll need to take on numerous sorties in order to earn an income and, at the same time, progress Freelancer's plot forward. Most of the characters that Edison will meet will be on firm ground, not in the vast reaches of space. Freelancer has numerous planetary systems, each with areas where you can dock your ship, mingle with a bar crowd, shop for hardware upgrades, and browse through job listings, which serve as the game's mission log. Here, you'll find specific missions posted by the Alliance's five factions and numerous lawful, unlawful, and neutral subfactions, and depending on which mission you accept and how you perform that mission, your reputation with the other groups will change accordingly. For example, one such mission is a listing from the Bretonia Police to assist them in a raid against a pirate base. If you participate in this mission, you'll be marked as a target by the game's criminal element, and you won't have access to their job listings. However, Edison will be able to change his standing with certain factions through cajoling and bribery. Say, for instance, that you accidentally fire upon and inadvertently destroy a certain faction's ship. You'll still be able to recover your relationship with that house by bribing specific characters. Of course, money only goes so far, and if you repeatedly inflame your relationship with a given faction, then no amount of bribery will be able to help you.
In all, Freelancer will have 13 multipart missions, each of which will take you one to two hours to complete. Many of these missions will require that you go off and explore certain areas or head to different planetary systems in order to interact with a specific character, so Freelancer isn't all about combat. But combat plays a big role in the game, and experienced space sim players will undoubtedly find this portion of the game to be interesting. Unlike similar games, Freelancer has absolutely no support for joysticks--all parts of the game, even the space combat, are purely mouse driven. In space, you'll control your ship's momentum using the W, A, S, and D keys on your keyboard. These keys function exactly as they would in a first-person shooter: W and S control forward and backward velocity, while the A and D keys let you strafe left and right, respectively. Your mouse controls your ship's direction, and in the game's default control scheme, you can do so by moving the mouse while holding the left mouse button down. Otherwise, the mouse functions as a pointer to interact with your surroundings as well as your ship's HUD. Want to target an enemy ship flying in front of you? Simply click on it. Or better yet, click on its name in your contact list, which is located in the lower left-hand side of the screen. You can access every object that you run across from this list and filter them by ship (friendly or enemy), ship type, planet, base, and so on.
As you progress through the game, Edison will gain access to better ships. Freelancer has 26 different ships that you will eventually be able to buy, and each falls into one of four categories: light fighter, heavy fighter, freighter, and civilian. These ships vary wildly in size, hull strength, shield capacity, power output, speed, maneuverability, cargo capacity, and number of weapon hardpoints. The game has a total of 160 different weapons, including both energy and ballistic weapons, which you'll have access to throughout your explorations. Additionally, all of your ships will let you group your weapons into six slots of your choosing, similar to the way that the mechs in MechWarrior games do. When not locked in space combat, Edison will either be exploring and unlocking new areas or trading, which, as you may remember, is what he does for a living. Freelancer uses a unique commerce system that marks every item that you wish to sell or buy with a color that denotes its value. Green means that it's a good deal, yellow is a fair trade, and red indicates that you're about to be swindled. Interestingly, even though an item, such as an engine or a weapon, might not sell for very much at one base, it could have a lot more value for a distant outpost. You will be able to earn a good living by buying seemingly cheap items from a heavily trafficked city and selling them for a good profit elsewhere. Obviously, you'll need a freighter with a large cargo hold to do this regularly, and such a ship will leave you open to attacks by pirates or any other faction that you've managed to make an enemy of. You'll have to weigh your alliances carefully and strike the proper balance between fighter and trader in order to get through Freelancer in one piece. At the end of the day, however, the game is completely open-ended, and you can play it any way you want.
Even though it's been in development longer than most every other PC game, it seems that Freelancer is, once and for all, nearing completion. Publisher Microsoft expects the game to ship next March, and Digital Anvil will use these remaining four months of development to chase down the remaining bugs in the single-player campaign and put the finishing touches on the game's multiplayer component, which will support up to 16 players at once and will let you save your character's progress for later use. We'll have more on Freelancer at the beginning of the new year.