Can a title in development for five years deliver the gameplay envisioned at the start of the process? While many games fail miserably in their attempt at answering this question, Freelancer restores faith in sticking with something worthwhile, despite the setbacks and critics. Above all else, Freelancer is a fun, enjoyable experience that both veteran and novice players can quickly get into -- even those who have never mastered the art of dogfighting in space with a joystick. By taking a risk and eliminating that control method, the developers left themselves open to second-guessing and criticism by straying from the perceived path of a true "simulation."
Within minutes of installing and starting the game, players find themselves embroiled in a flight-combat scenario in which the act of control and maneuvering their spacecraft almost immediately becomes second nature. The mix of keyboard movement (W to accelerate, S to decelerate, A and D to strafe left and right) and mouse to look and aim, coupled with an easy spacebar toggle to initiate flight mode, is near genius. Maybe the scheme is not true "simulation" as defined by gaming experts, but it makes for a seamless and simple setup where the emphasis is on action and eliminates worry about learning dozens of controls. Finding targets near and far, locking onto them, chasing the enemy, and firing weapons is deceptively simple and extremely rewarding.
The action moves at a fast clip as players locate and approach waypoints, dock with ease at various stations, planets, and other ships, find "trade lanes" within systems, and leap to other planetary systems via jump gates. Tedious, unnecessary flying is kept to a minimum and leaves more time for the actions that define the player's character, namely, Edison Trent. The initial plot involves Trent clearing his good name and reputation by working as a freelance pilot who can fix his dilemma by accepting missions sponsored by the military, pirates, or merchants. Earning money often means flying the fine line between performing nefarious illegal acts or joining the mainstream -- bending too far in one direction will get Trent in hot water with the opposing factions and vice versa.
Nearly all space stations or planets have a commodities merchant who sells and buys goods, a ship equipment dealer who performs repairs and offers upgrades, and a bar, the main location where Trent searches for job opportunities, picks up rumors, and makes contacts for future missions. Unfortunately, the time Trent spends on the surface is one of the game's most disappointing features, in that the player has no direct control over his movements other than to click on a destination icon. Having him interact with other characters and the environment would add an extra dimension of exploration and depth of story, but the cut-scenes that advance the plot are well done. The voice acting by John Rhys-Davies, Ian Ziering (in the lead role), George Takei, and Andy Sirkis is nothing short of terrific.
Gameplay isn't restricted to plot-related actions, as the designers allow for a mix of mission-based tasks with free roaming and decision-making in a nicely balanced structure. Players can create a good or bad character based on their actions within the game -- strict do-gooders fall prey to pirates and scavengers, while scoundrels incur the wrath of local law or military groups. Missions are at the core of Trent's success, though, as he accepts mercenary or gopher tasks to earn cash for important upgrades, new equipment, or even ships. An oddity encountered later in the game is the possibility of winning a battle but losing money because ship repairs exceed the amount of booty collected. Level advancements coincide with wealth, and success leads to tougher opponents but better paying jobs.
While Freelancer's many fine points far exceed the number of negatives, it certainly isn't perfect as evidenced by some weak elements one might not expect from a game in production for five years. Engaging in only limited ship management in such areas as obtaining fuel, paying fees, or selecting commodities (trading is reminiscent of simpler management games like Gazillionaire), no hands-on character control, some predictable missions, inconsistent ship strengths in battle, and bland generalizations in dialogue trees tend to dull the experience slightly. But, compared to the utter pleasure of carrying out space-borne battles, the ease of control, and a very strong (though linear) storyline, these minor elements in no way detract from the impressive strengths of the title. Like any good space opera, the bottom line is entertainment -- and Freelancer more than delivers in that department whether you're flying freighters or fighters.
Graphics: Not a great deal of variety in the various ships and equipment, but the expanse of space is nicely depicted and the maps showing star systems, planets, trade lanes, and waypoints are clear and precise. Cut-scenes are passable, but animations are uninspired. Explosions in space and ship movement are well done.
Sound: Voice acting is superb. Explosions, weapons, and ambient sounds are above average.
Enjoyment: Being able to pilot a spacecraft with the easy, intuitive control system when maneuvering and engaging enemies in the far reaches of space overrides almost all of the game's minor shortcomings. Action and missions meld in a nicely controlled, interesting story.
Replay Value: Replay missions until done to perfection. Developing the character in any number of roles (good or bad) adds an excellent dimension to replay and space borne combat between players in multiplayer action extends the life of the game.
People who downloaded Freelancer have also downloaded:
Starlancer, Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries, MechWarrior 2 (Limited Edition), MechWarrior 4: Vengeance, MechWarrior 3, Combat Flight Simulator 3: Battle for Europe, Frontier: Elite II, Star Trek: Bridge Commander
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