When Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts announced that he was leaving Origin Systems, fans of his games were concerned that he had abandoned the space simulation genre. In 1999, those concerns were replaced with eager anticipation when Roberts announced that his next game, Freelancer, would be one of the most ambitious space simulations yet. But then Roberts left the project, and gradually several of its more innovative features were scaled down or dropped altogether while its target release date was constantly postponed. Freelancer has finally arrived, and while it's not the revolutionary title it initially promised to be, it delivers the exact combination of addictive and accessible gameplay that the genre has needed for a long time.
One of the most distinctive features of Freelancer is its control scheme. Perhaps in order to appeal to a broader audience than die-hard simulation fans, the game eschews the use of a joystick altogether and instead offers a simplified mouse-and-keyboard interface. While other space sims have allowed the use of a mouse to emulate a joystick's functions, mouse control in such games was generally a poor alternative. Freelancer, on the other hand, was designed with the limitations and advantages of that input device in mind, and as a result its mouse control works efficiently and actually enhances the gameplay.
You can opt for either a mouse-look system that steers your ship in whichever direction you move the curser toward or a system that requires you to hold down the left mouse button in order to change your vessel's direction, and you can quickly switch between the two by tapping your keyboard's space bar. The mouse control lets you direct fire at opponents anywhere in sight instead of merely those in the center of the screen, while simultaneously having your ship strafe, move backward, or charge forward using keyboard controls similar to those used to effect similar commands in most action games. It's an elegantly simple and effective control scheme that should both be accessible to simulation neophytes and satisfy fans of traditional space sims.
Freelancer consistently straddles the line between an arcade-style action game and a more hard-core space simulation. On one hand, most of the control and interface conventions of the space simulation genre have been ejected entirely or simplified considerably in order to make gameplay more manageable for beginners. There's no radar to track the positions of your opponents; there's no power allocation system to adjust the strength of your vessel's shields or weapons; and even if your mouse had a hat switch, there's no way to check what's happening anywhere other than directly in front of or behind your ship. You also never have to wait for weapons such as missiles and torpedoes to lock onto a target, and, if you have the requisite supplies, you can instantly and fully repair your craft's shields or armor with the click of a button. The default camera perspective is behind your ship, although a cockpit perspective is also available and works well.
On the other hand, while fans of traditional space simulations may initially object to its simplified control scheme, Freelancer offers the sort of free-form gaming world that such fans have been clamoring for since the original Elite and Privateer games. It's a gaming world that's truly massive and full of colorful interstellar phenomena and a wide variety of potential enemy types, and the single-player campaign exposes you to less than half of it. While recent space simulations have provided similarly expansive gaming worlds to discover, they've also required you to micromanage controls and master situational awareness in order to succeed in your explorations. Freelancer offers simplified gameplay but makes it easier for you to quickly discover the appeal of the genre's action-oriented gameplay and free-form exploration.
You can elect to enjoy the gaming world entirely as an interstellar sandbox, governing your explorations by whim, by ignoring the main storyline's missions or by playing the game's multiplayer mode. Gameplay outside of the campaign primarily consists of undertaking missions to kill the enemies of one of the many political factions represented in the game or embarking upon your own self-directed trade missions. There are dozens of outposts, planetary bases, and vessels littered throughout the galaxy, and each one will offer you the opportunity to trade in a variety of goods and equipment or undertake randomly generated missions on behalf of represented factions. Those missions lack variety or depth and generally involve traveling to a nearby location and exterminating a handful of vessels in exchange for some cash.
Successfully performing missions on behalf of any of the many outlaw, corporate, security, or military factions in the game will cause your character to gain prestige within that faction and lose favor with its enemies. Whether or not a faction likes your character will determine whether or not its ships will attack on sight and whether you'll be able to access its facilities, but it will otherwise have no lasting effect on the gaming world. If you'd prefer to become a trader and transport goods across star systems, there's an excellent interface that tracks the prices for the types of goods at every base you've visited, but the game doesn't provide noncombat missions to direct your efforts.
And there are other activities you can do of your own volition that will vary gameplay and benefit your character. You can loot passing transports, blast asteroids for minerals, or just tag along with police or military fighters and fight any outlaws they randomly encounter in their preset patrols. All of these activities vary in difficulty depending upon your location in the gaming world, and randomly traveling around will let you consistently uncover unique sights in addition to opening up new adventuring possibilities.
The single-player storyline is far more than just a skeletal framework to motivate exploration. Freelancer is nominally a sequel set several hundred years after the events in Digital Anvil's first game, Starlancer. The major powers of the Western world have lost the lengthy war that divided humankind and colonized a distant star system. The remnants of Germany, Great Britain, the United States, Japan, and the Spanish populations of Earth have established a new, prosperous society. Aside from skirmishes with a few radical political and outlaw factions, the galaxy has enjoyed a period of sustained peace as well, and distant travel is readily accessible within systems through manufactured trade lanes and between systems through mechanical jumpgates and natural jumpholes. After an outpost is suddenly destroyed, your character becomes embroiled in an involved plot that contains a few interesting twists and several artistic cinematics. While the story contains more than its share of genre clichés, it still effectively builds interest as it unfolds, aided by excellent character graphics and animation.
For a game that generally attempts to avoid stale conventions, it strangely includes some of the genre's most notable weaknesses, such as repetitive and inane wingman chatter. In fact, aside from the dialogue in the scripted campaign, conversations with computer-controlled nonplayer characters (NPCs) are terribly done--wingmen and opponents continuously bark the same handful of lines in the same voices regardless of nationality, and every discussion with NPCs at bases unfolds in an identical manner. It would be unfortunate if the generic NPC conversations discouraged you from trying the single-player campaign, since it's one of the game's real strengths.
The campaign missions are also far more complicated, and difficult, than the randomly generated faction missions. Each mission is divided into several discrete objectives, usually involving multiple treks across systems and several different confrontations. Fortunately, Freelancer automatically saves the game after each major event within a mission, so you can usually avoid replaying all but the final portion of any missions you fail. While the campaign missions are more involved than their random counterparts, your goals are still generally restricted to inflicting destruction upon your enemies, and even genre staples such as base defense and escort missions are largely absent. Occasionally during the course of a mission you'll be tasked to protect a particular ship, but you can largely ignore any such prompting without adverse consequences.
The targeting controls and ship designs are extremely simple, consistent with the game's design philosophy of keeping gameplay straightforward, but consequentially the missions lack tactical depth. You can elect to target subsystems on vessels, but doing so isn't necessary or even particularly helpful. There are only freighters and light or heavy fighters to choose from, and no more specialized craft types such as bombers or interceptors, and you can't issue commands to your wingmen let alone choose their vehicles or weapons. Deciding which ship to fly involves minimal consideration since they all travel at the same speed and aren't rated with different turning speeds, much less varying pitch or yaw rates as in more complex simulations, so there's no reason to choose a light fighter if you can afford a heavy fighter. In spite of the relative simplicity of the missions and your tactical choices, the campaign still becomes challenging in later missions, and there are several exciting, large-scale battles.
In order to reward you for your success but also keep the single-player campaign consistently challenging, Freelancer incorporates a few role-playing game elements. As you acquire wealth and complete campaign missions, your character will increase in level, and as a result, you'll be able to use more-powerful ships and weaponry. All ship armaments and equipment are also rated by level, so you need to have both a ship and character of the requisite levels in order to utilize the best accoutrements. In order to prevent the single-player campaign from becoming unbalanced by players who focus on amassing wealth and better weaponry, your character can gain only a single level before being obligated to complete the next campaign mission in order to continue level advancement.
In the multiplayer version of the game, the entire gaming world is immediately accessible, and there is no story-driven plot, and accordingly there are no level restrictions. By logging onto a LAN or Internet server, or just starting your own multiplayer server game, you can freely explore the gaming world and gain levels, ships, and equipment by garnering wealth. As a server option, you can let players fight each other, or you can disable friendly fire. You can group with other players in a multiplayer game in order to take on more rewarding challenges or just travel throughout the gaming world on your own. The server in a multiplayer game stores player information, so you'll have to play on the same server in order to retain your character level and equipment. Even prior to the game's retail release, the dozens of persistent servers that were available were freely offering a multiplayer experience comparable to those offered by massively multiplayer online games that charge monthly fees. Since the gaming world is so vast, and the single-player campaign only advances your character to 18 out of a possible 38 levels and doesn't allow players to use some of the best equipment in the game, Freelancer has a great deal of replay value beyond its campaign.
Freelancer has had such a lengthy, bumpy development cycle that it's not surprising that the game doesn't entirely manage to deliver upon its initial promise. The gigantic capital ships and structures that were demonstrated in initial presentations of the game have been replaced by much smaller counterparts. The gaming world is nowhere near as dynamic or interesting as initially promised--factions don't expand their borders, there's no dynamic economy, and the only nonplayer character activity involves security patrols and transport convoys traversing scripted pathways. Despite the game's extended development period, the graphics, music, and sound effects are all still very good, and the system requirements are very modest for a game that looks this good.
Freelancer deliberately abandons the complexity of most space simulations in order to offer a more accessible experience. It features a solid single-player campaign, simple but addictive RPG elements, and an open-ended gaming world that's enjoyable to explore by yourself or with friends. While traditional fans of the genre may prefer the additional depth of more-orthodox simulations, Freelancer's streamlined controls and simplified gameplay make it easier for you to immediately begin freely exploring an expansive star system and looting and destroying enemy factions. Some of the development team's original, more-novel plans may have proved to be impracticable to implement, but even a compromised design has been crafted into a solid game.