Gen Con 2002Freelancer hands-on impressions

We watch Digital Anvil's upcoming space-based game in action.

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At this year's Gen Con convention, we got a chance to see Digital Anvil's upcoming space-based simulation Freelancer in action. The game clearly draws inspiration from the classic game Wing Commander, and its open-ended mission structure resembles that of Privateer.

Freelancer will be an impressively large game that will let you begin your career as a freelance spaceship pilot in the relatively small Liberty system and then eventually explore about 46 different star systems in all. To make sure new players don't get lost in the game's broad scope, Digital Anvil is separating the game into two parts: base side and space side. In the single-player game, players will play through 13 different missions that they'll receive at their starting base, and the game's first mission will serve as both a tutorial and an introduction to the game's story and different factions. Freelancer will have a huge number of different political factions, including pirates, space police, independent traders, and more. But once players are through the game's first or second mission, it will be up to them to find something to do by checking missions at a local job board (much like in Privateer). Players can also get tips from local non-player characters, who may wish to barter or provide information. Or, if they're of a hostile faction, they may not want to talk at all. Players can also find equipment dealers at various bases, at which they can buy and sell items, move any equipment they happen to be carrying in their ships' holds, repair any damage to their ships, and also equip their ships as they see fit. Different kinds of ships will have different sorts and numbers of hardpoints--free slots into which players can swap weapons, shields, or thrusters for extra speed. Freelancer will offer a considerable variety of different items to equip starships with, including advanced shield packs, gun turrets, laser weapons, and homing missiles.

Once players have left their base of operations, they'll be able to explore their systems by freely flying through the stars or following established trade routes, which gives them a boost to their traveling speed. The game will also provide several handy navigation options, including the ability to let players set their ships on autopilot for their current mission's objective. Players will also be able to engage in combat, since they may be given assassination or combat missions in addition to simple cargo runs. The combat takes place in real time, and it's surprisingly easy to get into. Firing on enemies is as simple as pointing and shooting, though depending on your ship's size and maneuverability, evading enemies and returning fire on fast enemy ships won't necessarily be as easy. Fortunately, players who don't wish to do much fighting can opt to build or buy a heavily armored ship with lots of hardpoints for shield packs and then buy a few auto-firing laser turrets that will make short work of any minor threats. Regardless of whether players decide to go heavy on combat or not, any enemies they destroy will drop loot in the form of weapon ammo, shield packs, thrusters, or nanobots. Nanobots, whether scavenged or purchased, can be used to automatically repair damage to ships, though it will be preferable for most players to simply keep their shields up for as long as possible, so that they can protect their ships' hulls from actual physical damage.

Though it's been a long time coming, this simulation, which was originally being produced by Wing Commander designer Chris Roberts, is finally coming together. Freelancer is scheduled for release early next year, but for now, you can check out our previous coverage of the game.

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