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IGF 2002: Hands-onFreelancer

Digital Anvil's ambitious space sim may be closer to completion, but it still looks like it's a long ways off.


Though Microsoft had a number of exciting games on display at its International Games Festival event, one game in particular seemed to constantly draw a large crowd: Freelancer, the open-ended space combat simulation from Digital Anvil. Announced more than three years ago, Freelancer generated a tremendous amount of attention at first, thanks to its superb graphics and the ambitious design of its creator, Chris Roberts. Since then, Freelancer has missed its projected release date several times, and Roberts himself left the team when Digital Anvil was bought by Microsoft. According to Microsoft, the end is finally in sight for Freelancer--the game is reportedly on track to be completed by the end of the year. However, judging from what we saw at Microsoft's event, it appears as though there's a great deal of work that still needs to be done before the game can cross the finish line.

The framework for the game's single-player campaign seemed intact. You'll assume the role of Trent Edison, a spacefarer looking to foster his career as a pilot. What sort of pilot you become will be up to you--whether you fly mercenary missions or merely take on commodity delivery assignments as a space trader, Freelancer will offer you the ability to choose the jobs that suit your personal style. Using the money you earn from successfully completed missions, you'll be able to buy new ships (the game will have more than 20), as well as buy upgraded parts for those ships. You might also need to use your money for other reasons, such as to bribe characters into divulging important information.

The structure of the single-player campaign sounds as though it will be much like that of the classic space simulation game Privateer. There will be a main linear story branch, and you'll be able to take on certain key missions, one at a time, that will advance the main plot of the game. But you'll be able to accept these missions at your leisure--you could instead spend your time taking on randomly generated mercenary, pirate, or trade missions. These are what give Freelancer its open-ended nature. Apparently, the core story missions will be scripted.

As previously reported, you can engage in space combat in Freelancer using just the mouse, though optional keyboard hotkeys will also be available. Surprisingly, the game currently does not support flight sticks. You control the velocity of your ship by clicking on various icons along the edge of the screen, which let you accelerate, decelerate, engage in pursuit of the targeted enemy vessel, and more. You at least need to target the enemy ship manually--you fire your weapons at any point on the screen by right-clicking there. Ships can be outfitted with energy weapons and ballistic weapons, as well as other special equipment.

You cannot hire wingmates or crew to help you in Freelancer, although in some missions you will fly alongside allies. Even then, you won't actually be able to give orders to these computer-controlled pilots. This and the mouse controls are all intended to make Freelancer as accessible as possible--currently, though, the game's space combat borders on being simplistic. We did not get a good sense of what sorts of tactical challenges the game will present, since combat does not require any sort of piloting finesse.

Visually, Freelancer still looks impressive, though it's starting to show its age. The visuals look as good as those of other space combat simulations, but not necessarily better. The graphics used for some of the game's terrestrial settings are probably more notable than the graphics out in space.

Freelancer will include a multiplayer mode that allows you to create your own character and participate in the events of the world simultaneously with other players. It remains unclear as to what the specific goals of the multiplayer mode will be, however.

Freelancer has kept a low profile for the last year and half or so. The game's ambitious design has proven to be broad enough to prohibit a timely development cycle. The game is scheduled for release later this year, but we need to learn more about Freelancer's gameplay to better understand how the game itself will actually play. Stay tuned for more information.

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