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March 31, 2003

Several years in the making, the long-awaited Freelancer has finally arrived. In the grand tradition of Elite and Privateer, Freelancer is an open-ended space sim which allows you to pursue whatever spacefaring career catches your fancy. Whether you prefer combat, exploration, trade, or some combination, Freelancer has a little bit of everything. Freelancer borrows many design traits from other games, at times reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto III or Diablo. Unfortunately, Freelancer seems to have picked up some bad habits as well, such as non-skippable cutscenes. Even so, these are mere distractions in what is otherwise an immensely compelling experience.

Developed by Digital Anvil (founded by the Roberts brothers of Wing Commander fame), Freelancer is set about 800 years after Starlancer. Although the story connection is only tangentially relevant, it helps to explain the star system layout and the four major spheres of influence (which are loosely patterned after four of the major surviving Earth governments). Within each sphere, there are a number of factions vying for power. Some represent the local law enforcement, while others represent corporations. There are even pirates and rogue political elements, all of which treat you differently based upon your actions towards them. Shoot up their enemies and the Gas Miners Guild will look more kindly upon you. Of course the Outcasts may not be so happy that you're blowing up their allies and will fight you at every opportunity.

After all, what would a space sim be without combat? Freelancer takes a slightly diffferent approach to space combat by completely eliminating need for joystick control. Instead, you use the mouse and keyboard to fly, in many ways resembling a first-person shooter rather than a spaceflight simulation. To fly, simply enable mouse-flight mode (by pressing the spacebar) and then move the cursor toward the direction you want to go. The further your cursor is from the center of the window, the faster your ship will turn. Firing your guns is accomplished by clicking (or holding) the right mouse button. You will then shoot a volley wherever your cursor is pointed (your guns are on swivel mounts). Blowing up enemies is as easy as tracking your target with the mouse. To use the mouse for other tasks like setting waypoints or docking at starbases, just leave mouse-flight (using the spacebar again) and go about your business.

Navigation is fairly straightforward. While spaceflight takes place in three dimensions, all of the major points of interest lie on a two-dimensional plane. Even though this may seem odd, it actually works well within the game since your map is two-dimensional anyway, and 3D navigation would probably be a real pain. Besides which, it makes it much easier to get your proper bearings and learn the trade routes between systems.

Trade plays almost as big a role as combat in the game. Thankfully, you don't need to keep an ultra-detailed list of which bases buy and sell which goods at what price; Freelancer does this for you! Simply select a commodity and look at the information window to get the corresponding trade data for all of the bases you've visited. Finding that optimal trade route can be almost as compelling as blowing things up, and shuttling goods back and forth is one of the fastest ways to improve your purchasing power.

In some ways, Freelancer plays like "Diablo in space." The RPG aspect of making money to buy better equipment is omnipresent. Instead of swords and armor, you can purchase guns and shields. Instead of health and mana potions, you buy nanobots and shield batteries. The map is even laid out to support character development. Even though all of the star systems are interconnected in a giant web, it becomes clear that the Liberty-controlled space is the newbie hunting grounds, while Rheinland-controlled space is for veteran players with beefed up ships. The campaign walks you through some of the systems and helps familiarize you with the star system layout, but otherwise you're free to wander as you please.

Then again, wandering in dangerous space can get you in trouble, particularly in multiplayer games. In multiplayer you are auto-saved at the last base where you docked, and if you get blown up, you simply respawn there (minus any cargo you may have been carrying). Occasionally you will find that you can't leave the safety of the dock without instantly getting blown up, making it all the more difficult to return to "civilized" space. This is also because nearby enemies preferentially target players instead of AI ships.. Presumably this is so the player feels like the center of attention. Unfortunately, it means a player will inevitably die a couple of times while waiting to dock or emerging from a station, as you have little to no control over your ship and become a sitting duck. It's one of the minor blemishes that really makes you wonder what the developers had in mind.

In fact, there are a number of quirks with the game. For example, Freelancer tries to create conversation variety by stringing together dialogue fragments. In theory this is a great idea. Unfortunately, as implemented, it's painfully obvious and sounds silly. It's a great idea but as implemented, it only serves to tease you with what might have been. A typical conversation runs something like this:

NPC: Hi.
Player: What have you got?
NPC: You're new here, aren't you?
Player: Yeah.
NPC: I represent [insert faction name here]. We run this place.
I might have some information for you.
Player: Let's hear it.
NPC: Here's what's going on.
[text window containing rumor or mission details]
Player: Thanks.
NPC: See you later, Mr. Trent.

Transition cutscenes like this are fun to watch the first couple of times, but eventually become repetitive and stop adding anything to the game. Fortunately you can skip them using the Escape key, or even turn them off completely.

Thankfully, the storyline cutscenes are much more interesting to watch. They are done entirely using the game engine, which actually supports good character animation. Characters employ gestures and facial animation, something that even pre-rendered characters in other games often lack. Unlike the silly dialogue in the auto-generated transitions, the voice acting in the cutscenes is quite good in no small part due to the well-known actors chosen to read the text. As interesting as the cutscenes are, they still suffer from a few quirks. In particular, you can only view them again after replaying the accompanying mission. This is actually a double-edged sword since the cutscenes are not skippable. If you replay a mission (maybe because you failed it the first time) you are forced to watch the entire cutscene again. This isn't a fatal game flaw by any means, but I still find it puzzling why the short transitions are skippable, but the lengthy storyline cutscenes are not.

The story itself is fairly standard "save mankind from destruction" stuff. After you finish with the linear campaign, you can try a couple of randomly generated missions. Essentially, you may look for freelancing jobs on behalf of a friendly faction, usually against one of their enemies. For example, the Liberty Police may ask you to destroy some Liberty Rogue ships. This is also one of the ways to earn money in the game, usually an amount relative to the difficulty of the mission. Unfortunately, the mission selection is quite limited. The majority are just "destroy all hostiles at the selected waypoint." Some missions require you to destroy a specific ship while others want you to retrieve or destroy an item dropped after combat, but essentially they all require you to clear an area of enemies. There are no escort missions, special deliveries, or exploration missions. For instance, more interesting pirate interaction would have really enhanced that side of the gameplay. As implemented, freelancing for the pirates is still limited to mere "destroy all hostiles" type missions.

Then again, missions are not essential to the enjoyment of the game, I found myself ignoring this whole aspect of the game once I had a little money. The result felt a little like Grand Theft Auto III, with the freedom to wander around and explore the world. Multiplayer exploring can really pay off, too. In fact, I found multiplayer to be quite entertaining for a number of reasons. Among other things, you can almost certainly rely upon your companions to perform better than the AI pilots. This allows you to tackle more difficult objectives, whether it be in the form of a high-level base assault mission, or a profitable trade route through the frontier sectors. Of course, multiplayer introduces a number of flaws as well. Most annoyingly, you cannot trade with other players while docked at the same station. Nor can you exchange navigation or commerce data. There also seems to be a problem with the group formations, and navigating jumpgates while grouped is troublesome at best. Players will often collide with the gate and fail to make the jump. Of course, group formation flight greatly simplifies navigation when it works properly, especially since players can only see view own navigation data.

Despite numerous quirks and issues, Freelancer manages to provide a highly entertaining gameplay experience. The single-player campaign, while short and linear, makes for a good introduction to the vast game world. The single-player experience is further extended by the sheer quantity of systems to explore, ships to fly, equipment to purchase, factions to interact with, cargo to deliver, derelicts to salvage, and rumors to act upon. The multiplayer mode also adds that extra social dynamic, making the game reminiscent of Diablo or even a massively multiplayer game. Borrowing some of the best elements from other games, Freelancer manages to overcome its flaws to provide an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. For a title that took so long to develop, I'm quite pleased with the results.

Graphics: 4.5/5.0
The Freelancer vision of space is quite scenic. It seems like every system has its fair share of interstellar anomalies, gas clouds, asteroid fields, and starbases. Even better, there is plenty of variety between any two systems, so you really do get the feeling that each location is somewhat unique. Contrast the brilliant orange hues of the Stuttgart system with the murky blue of Sigma 13. Even better, the asteroid fields all have some individual flavor, as do all of the planetary landing sites. Some of the ship designs are downright ugly, but in general the game is a visual treat.

Sound: 4.0/5.0
Despite some of the silly sounding "dynamic" dialogue, the sound is well done and enhances the gameplay experience. Transport convoys, patrols, and bases interact with each other, and the omnipresent comm. chatter helps to make the game world feel more alive. The music is non-intrusive and helps to build the ambience. The sound effects are fine, although some of the warning messages can get lost among the noisy blaster fire.

Gameplay: 4.5/5.0
The mouse-flight takes a bit of getting used to, but it works fairly well. It requires a bit of practice, and mouse skill certainly plays a factor in how well you do in combat. On the other hand, it's simple enough to make for a short learning curve. The real draw of the game is in the variety of activities that you can undertake. Even though the mission selection is dissapointingly small, there is plenty of exploring and cargo trading to make up for it.

Replayability: 5.0/5.0
The campaign is linear and not very long, but it serves as a great introduction to the vast expanse of the game universe. I began to realize that maybe only a quarter of the game world is marked on the navigation maps, and after a couple of weeks, I still haven't managed to visit every corner of the game world. Then there is the multiplayer aspect. Grouping with a buddy can greatly improve your surviveability, allowing you to explore those hard to reach sectors in the middle of pirate-controlled space. Alternately, you can get in good with the ruffians and tour the galaxy unmolested. When you want a change of pace, you can try running cargo or smuggling goods. In short there is always something new to try.

Documentation/Support: 4.0/5.0
The game comes with a 41 page full-color manual in the guise of a declassified document from the Liberty Security Force. It covers all of the gameplay basics including mouse-flight and the information displays. The middle two pages also make up a handy keyboard reference chart, and the back cover features an abbreviated list of hotkeys. The in-game documentation is also fairly through, and the campaign serves a secondary purpose as a gameplay tutorial. There are tooltips to aid beginners, although seasoned players can turn them off later. The interface makes for an easy learning curve, and the documentation is quite sufficient to cover all of the gameplay basics.. Unfortunately, the game is so immense that a strategy guide is probably necessary to cover all of the nuances of trade routes, ship and weapon types, unmarked jump holes, etc.

Summary: 4.5/5.0
The game itself is incredibly open ended. Part Diablo, part Grand Theft Auto III, and part Privateer, Freelancer borrows gameplay elements from many sources and combines them to create a game that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Despite the many quirks and flaws, the overall experience is quite compelling.

*Note: 2.5 is average


Digital Anvil
www.microsoft.com/game s

Microsoft Game Studios
www.microsoft.com/game s/mgs

Sys. Reqs:
Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, 128 MB RAM, 600 MHz processor, 900 MB hard drive space, 16 MB 3D video card, 8x CD drive, soundcard & speakers/headphones

56kbps modem or LAN, broadband to run a server

Release Date:
Q1 2003


Overall: 4.5
Graphics: 4.5
Sound: 4
Gameplay: 4.5
Replayability: 5
Documentation: 4

*Note: 2.5 is average

- Immense game world
- Open-ended gameplay
- Runs well on older systems

- Almost no variety among mission choices
- Short, linear single player campaign
- Cannot skip storyline cutscenes

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