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freelancer screen shot Freelancer
Reviewed for the PC by Kristopher Abel

ESRB Rating: Teen (13+)
Space Sim/RPG
Developed by: Digital Anvil
Worth Buying? Yes
Published by: Microsoft

VISUALS:  Gorgeous, bright, vistas of space, sleek art deco cities and ships, but lacks variety. Needs aliens. 
SOUNDS: Good voice acting with Juni and Trent. Enemy pilots are great, but sound effects are relaxed.
CONTROL: Simple and easy enough that the mouse and keyboard idea works.

+ Combat system. Universe size.
-  Limited player choices. No customization.

As a combination of space flight simulator and role-playing game, Freelancer is both an interesting and well-conceived idea, but it fails to properly tap into the kind of fantasy world we want to live in and explore.

Everyone looks more or less like they're from the same neighbourhood let alone the same planet, hang out in the same bars, wear uniforms by the same designer and fly ships from the same manufacturer. Every segment of space has the same arrangement of planets, space stations, and battle cruisers, and exploring it involves going through the same kind of warp gates and portals over and over again and getting into the same kind of battles with the same kind of enemies. It may be beautiful, intricate, and masterfully crafted, but it lacks so much in variety that it makes Star Trek look like a xenomorphic zoo.

Digital Anvil created the Wing Commander series. Here they've taken that space flight simulator and have simplified it down, down, to the point where you only need a mouse and keyboard to fly. The mouse steers and shoots, the keyboard handles speed and strafing. There's no support for flight sticks, no fancy jinking or barrel rolls, just a simple dynamic of chasing or being chased. On top of that has been built a role-playing game system similar to what you'll find in sword n' sorcery games. You have a character, a profession, a ship, and an array of weapons and technology, each of which will change and develop as you explore the regions of space, earn money and experience, and of course, go shopping.

In the single player campaign you have no choice but to play Trent (a.k.a. "Mr. Trent") a staid, monosyllabic pilot-for-hire who, after surviving the destruction of a space station, finds himself surrounded by piracy, intrigue, terrorism, and a series of jobs for the Liberty Security Force as a kind of contract police officer. While the story is in no danger of being picked up for a movie, it does take you through the process of learning how to pick up jobs, navigate the warp gates between planets and quadrants, add missile and turret systems to bigger and faster ships, and fight battles and collect salvaged goods with a partner. 

Here's the routine. You walk into a bar, chat with people for information and then choose a mission, either from the bulletin board or from a patron in the bar. Before leaving you purchase batteries for your shield, nanobots for on-the-fly repair jobs, missiles and mines for your weapons systems, and flares for your countermeasures. Maybe you'll upgrade to a better gun or even a better ship.

You'll then go to the launching pad, launch into space, follow an on-screen indicator to the nearest gate, dock through the gate, "cruise" to the next gate, fly and dock with the next gate system, "cruise" to a nearby planet or dockyard, follow the on-screen indicator for a few klicks to the encounter, chase and shoot down all of the enemy ships or weapons platforms using your thrust to avoid incoming shots and cutting your engines and spinning around to take out pursuers. When it's over you can tractor beam in any floating goods before using the map system to set-up a path back to the bar, following through the same system of warp gates and docking systems to get back. Once there it's time to pay for repairs and browse through the weapons catalog before hitting the bar again.

The universe is divided into colonial quadrants named after modern day continents. You have the Liberty sector with planets like New York and Philadelphia and the Britannia sector with planets named Leeds and New London. You'll begin by being restricted in one, fighting and exploring until your level (based on your net worth) goes up enough to earn the access codes to move on to the next sector where the enemies are harder and the weapons and ship shops have bigger and better wares.

Along with the different areas comes different factions, and as you complete jobs you'll inevitably offend and impress one faction over another, so that you will eventually become identified as being allied with one group or set of groups and an enemy to the rest.

While the single-player campaign tends to be plainly human (no aliens at all) and it does have a bizarre fascination with going through gate after gate after docking system after docking system, it is both a gorgeous and oddly rewarding experience, ideal as one of those games you can just pick up for ten or twenties minutes to quickly kill time and then walk away from. The game world is very open-ended, if you don't feel like following the story, you don't have top and can just as easily occupy your time by collecting random bounties or by buying and selling supplies from sector to sector for profit.

The multiplayer mode is disappointing. It's the single-player mode, but without the storyline. You and a bunch of friends (limit unknown) can connect via a LAN or internet connection, using Microsoft's or by running your own server using software included on the disc. The kicker is that you each play your own version of Trent. There is no customization other than by establishing yourself as belonging to a certain profession through the kind of jobs or activities you choose.

If you buy a freighter and make note of which supplies sell where for how much and use that to turn a profit - you're a trader. If you fly a heavy fighter and pick assassination missions - you're a bounty hunter. After awhile you will be labeled as such by the game's reputation system, but there's no specific class system. No clear advantage, no specific gear or ships, and most importantly, no specific look. Watching ships pass through the gate systems, it's impossible to tell who's a bounty hunter and who's a pirate.

In a multiplayer game everyone starts off at the same level and can either go off and explore on their own or group up and try to take on the bigger jobs intended for higher level players. Unless you group up, chances are you'll never come across another player again. Going to a bar, buying new parts, new ships, and commodities are all things you're forced to do alone. Essentially you meet in orbit and once you enter into the game's system of gates and planets you're off the map as far as anyone else is concerned. If the option is selected, yes, you can fight against each other, but only if you can find each other.

I also recommend you play with a group you know well as any character you create is limited to the server you're connected to. You can't take a character from one server to another, including using that character on your own server, running on your PC. Imagine playing for weeks only to discover that the person who runs the server you play on decides close his system down for good. You'll have to start all over again.

I love the idea of a role-playing game in space built around ships and turrets instead of players running around on foot with blasters and energy swords. Sadly, although Freelancer can be an excellent time waster, it doesn't reach it's full potential and we'll have to wait for someone else to come along and achieve it.


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