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PUBLISHER: MICROSOFT

DEVELOPER: DIGITAL ANVIL

GENRE: HAN SOLO SIMULATOR

ESRB RATING: TEEN; VIOLENCE

PRICE: $49.99

REQUIREMENTS: PENTIUM III 600, 128MB RAM, 1.3GB HARD DRIVE SPACE

RECOMMENDED REQUIREMENTS: PENTIUM III 1GHZ, 256MB RAM

MULTIPLAYER SUPPORT: INTERNET, LAN (2-32 PLAYERS)

Three-and-a-half years ago, we boldly proclaimed that Freelancer would change gaming. Not only would it propel the space sim genre forward, but it would also push PC gaming further. Many games have been released since 1999, and while Freelancer may not shake the foundations of gaming as we predicted, it’s nevertheless a great throwback to classics like Privateer.

A Han Solo soiree

The story line itself is a passable genre piece, the kind in which the player jumps among professions like space narc, fugitive, freedom fighter, and Last Hope of Mankind. The only real story benefit is an exclusive, story-only ship. Otherwise, you can easily forgo the plot altogether and play alone in the multiplayer mode, which gets you right to good gameplay.

Think of Freelancer as Privateer 3, with hints of Diablo and Morrowind. You take on combat-intensive missions for money, buy and sell commodities for extra profit, and use the money to buy better ships and equipment. Freelancer tracks who you attack and who you help, which determines your reputation among the 50 different factions. Your reputation dictates who helps you, where you can land, and who tries to kill you.

Multiplayer presents a giant universe in which to fight, loot, and explore. There’s no central architecture like an MMO—since servers are user-maintained like BF1942—but it’s the closest we have to Privateer: Online. As fun it is to explore the single-player universe, hooking up with friends on an Internet server to explore and loot together is much better.

No need to exercise your flexor muscles with a joystick, as Freelancer sports a mouse-control interface. Adopting the familiar first-person-shooter interface (WSAD plus mouse), Freelancer makes traditional space-sim combat feel more precise and elegant. Combat can be as simple as point-and-click, or as complicated as a frantic FreeSpace 2 dogfight using hotkeys for missiles, countermeasure, mines, and tractor beams.

Millions and millions of stars

Freelancer is rife with little details that flesh out the “living universe.” Pilots here are the most talkative bunch in any space sim; they’re constantly yammering about who they’re fighting, what they’re shipping, or why they need help. While you can’t hear anyone scream, you can certainly hear everyone chatter. Luxury food and alien organisms are perishable cargo, and decay much faster if you foolishly travel through a radioactive nebula. A derelict ship hauling cargo from a military research station might carry experimental weapons not sold in normal retail outlets. In multiplayer, I saw fellow editors use different docking bays in the same station when we all landed simultaneously.

Exploration is encouraged, and is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the game. Playing the story, I went through 30 (out of 48) systems in a little more than 25 hours, with my pilot hitting Level 18 out of 40. I only flew a handful of ships, and some ships I’ve never seen before were on sale at certain dealers. One time, I found myself in a heavily trafficked system through which all the shipping companies ferry, and I decided to become a pirate and raid all the freighters there (free tip: It’s the Galileo system in between Libertania and Kusari space).

Freelancer is one of those games in which the flaws are made more prominent by its general excellence and polish. The most annoying are the miniscule mana potions—oh wait, I mean “shield batteries.” Unlike in Diablo II, these only come in dinky size. Your über-ship might hold 50 of them, but can only recharge five times. Couldn’t Digital Anvil put in more expensive batteries for the same space, so that 30 batteries means 30 heals, not three?

Despite its polish, the interface could use more work. Specific attacks on wings or engines require players to select the sub-target from an onscreen menu—except that using the menu means you’re temporarily not steering the ship with the mouse. It’s difficult to mount a surgical strike during a frantic dogfight—something a few more hotkeys could easily change.

Players who like acting as Intergalactic FedEx might be disappointed with the lack of cargo run missions. Without explicit “take item x from point a to point b” missions, players use options like “best prices” and “best path” to plot custom and profitable trade routes, and they can query NPCs for juicy rumors. Still, it would have been nice to have a defined cargo run as an option. The economy isn’t dynamic; prices for all commodities in all systems stay fixed. I personally don’t really care, but I realize some players demand fluctuating prices in games like these.

What makes Freelancer a compelling game is the sense of a living universe, vast areas begging for exploration, and the ability to hook up with friends online and start being either total bastards or glorious do-gooders together. Freelancer doesn’t necessarily advance the genre or the landscape of gaming, but it presents an extremely polished revision to a languishing genre. It’s the best Chris Roberts space sim Chris Roberts didn’t actually make, and is well worth the wait after all these years.

VERDICT (4.5): It may not change gaming, but it’s the finest space sim since FreeSpace 2 and Privateer.

Copyright © 2003 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Computer Gaming World.




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