Freelancer multiplayer impressions
We just received the gold version of Digital Anvil's space combat game and took a look at its cooperative multiplayer mode.
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Freelancer is just weeks away from release, and while much has been said about the space combat and trading game's single-player campaign, it's only now that we have the final version of the game in our hands that we can fully appreciate its cooperative multiplayer. The multiplayer mode doesn't include any of the story-based missions from the single-player game, but there are the same options for character progression through dynamically generated combat missions or even just plain old space trading.
Through the in-game server browser, we were already able to find a handful of dedicated servers online. The browser gives you the typical sort of server information--ping, number of players, version, whether a server is password protected, and whether players can damage each other's ships--but once you appreciate how important it is to choose a good server, you might wish it provided information on how long the server has been up and the comparative levels of players already in the game. Finding a good server is key because the multiplayer game revolves around cooperative character building, not unlike in Diablo II, but characters are stored on the privately hosted dedicated servers and are not transferable. If a private server is taken offline, you'll lose the progress you've made with characters stored there.
Since there aren't any explicitly competitive modes, the appeal of Freelancer's multiplayer is that you can group with other players to take on missions that would be too difficult to complete alone. To assemble a group, players must meet in the same part of space, usually a landmark like a space station. A group shares a single mission at a time and will evenly split the reward when it's accomplished. Since there are no save games like in the single-player campaign, there is a level of risk involved in every mission, but a group gets as many lives as there are players. Otherwise, respawning takes you back to the last station you docked at, and you lose all progress since that point.
While Freelancer's mouse-driven controls take some getting used to at first, the interface is robust enough to make it fairly easy to move about space as a group. There are a few different filters for keeping track of objects in the immediate vicinity, including group members, and the autopilot is quite capable of moving you to another object, docking with a station, or getting in formation with a moving ship. Groups can move through star lanes in formations to stay together and then quickly break off into free-flight mode as enemies approach.
In the early part of the game, missions generally involve hunting down fighters of various factions, and combat consists of dogfights between quick fighters armed with cannons, missiles, mines, and countermeasures. There are a number of equipment upgrades to choose from at space stations, and booty--from weapons to commodity goods--can be picked up in the debris of destroyed enemies. A couple of items are useful for staying alive in tough fights: Nanobots will repair hull damage even during combat, and shield batteries play a similar role for shields.
Most of the economy focuses on space stations--which is where you find missions and buy and sell equipment and commodities--but there is also the option for players to trade among themselves. But because of the relatively small size of servers--most support somewhere between eight and 64 players simultaneously--it's unlikely that deep player economies will develop. The trading window is a good way to hand items you don't need off to friends, particularly since booty picked up in enemy debris isn't distributed evenly between grouped players, and active group members may find themselves getting more than their partners. Space stations seem to have a monopoly on the critical big-ticket purchase--your ship--and some stations have a much better selection than others.
Although we haven't had much chance to play the cooperative mode yet, it seems promising. The dynamic mission structure borrows from the strengths of the single-player game, so there should be plenty of replay potential. On the technical side, the network code seems to deal pretty well with moderate pings, though there aren't enough players online to test practical player limits. We'll have a full review of Freelancer near the time the game is released, on March 4. For more details, check out our previous coverage .