Freelancer

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a game by Microsoft
Genres: Action, Simulation
Platform: PC
Editor Rating: 9/10, based on 1 review, 7 reviews are shown
User Rating: 9.1/10 - 11 votes
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See also: Simulator Games, Old School Games, Space Games

We’re not in the business of guaranteeing scores, hence the loss of a cover exclusive every now and then. However, there are a few games that you come across, an elite few, where after just a few minutes play you know you are playing a future classic. Freelancer is one of them.

First unveiled in May 1999, Freelancer was the brainchild of Chris Roberts, creator of all things Wing Commander. It was for me the best game on show at that year’s E3, the best game I'd seen since Half-Life and, more importantly, destined to become the best space sim since the original Elite. Watching him play through some very early missions, I was absolutely slack-jawed at what I saw, and thrilled by the plans Roberts had for his all-new assault on the space-trading genre. I asked him at the end of the demonstration when would the game be out? "At the end of 2001," he said. "At the earliest."

Since then, of course, Chris Roberts’ role on Freelancer has diminished somewhat. December 2000 saw Digital Anvil, the studio he founded to create the game, fall into the hands of Microsoft, and Roberts’ role since has been only an advisory one. To its credit however, Microsoft has stuck by the game, slowly and surely filling in the gaps and despite initial fears to the contrary, has pretty much stuck to the original blueprint, thanks, among many others, to the presence of Freelancer's original lead designer and now Roberts’ successor as producer, Phil Wattenbarger. Perversely, we can take some solace in the fact that Freelancer will only be a year late. Eighteen months ago it looked like the game might never see the light of day.

Postcards From The Edge Of Space

Apart from the upheaval of Microsoft's Borg-like assimilation of the team, there are many reasons for Freelancer's delay; reasons now evident having played the game for a short time and spoken at length to Freelancer’s program manager Alan Hartman.

The first thing that hits you is how incredibly diverse it is graphically. No more do we have to endure in our space games a black backdrop, pocked with white pixels and the occasional purple swirl. In Freelancer, space is as beautiful as you imagine it to be. Moreover, rather than travel through an endless tunnel of stars towards a distant nebula (knowing full well you’ll never make it), here you can cruise from one end of the universe to the other, passing through dust clouds and nomadic asteroid fields that to those who might stick to the regular trade routes appear as distant landmarks. Each system of stars -their planets, moons and man-made stations are all linked by jumpgates - but rather than have each system as a self-contained 'level’, the entire game universe is mapped as one. Hidden in deepest space, perhaps, will be secret bases and ships - the stuff of online legends - much like Elite’s mythical Generation Ships that may or may not have ever existed. Some people love that kind of thing.

House Party

But exploration isn’t what Freelancer is about, not initially anyway. Sequel to the enjoyable if somewhat formulaic Starlancer, the game picks up from its predecessor with the Alliance now divided between four main houses, each based loosely on old Earth civilisations: the morally upstanding Kusari (Japan), the technically advanced Rheinland (Germany), the capitalist House Liberty (USA) and industrial beer-swilling House of Bretonia (Blighty). Starting off in Liberty space with a basic Ford Fiesta of a spaceship and a small stack of credits, where you go from there is - in the true Elite tradition - up to you, but the main aim is, in Hartman’s words: "To become the ultimate bad-ass freelancer."

Everyone On A Mission

For those who become disorientated and confused unless they’re told what to do, Freelancer will also feature a tightly focused story, set around 13 key missions, many of which will be split up into small bite-sized chucks. At any time however you can elect to go off on your own, take on smaller escort missions for cold hard cash, trade valuable commodities between the game’s 200 planets, bases and cities or just turn on anyone who comes across your path.

"The story is linear, but the universe is wide-open," says Hartman. "We’ve been talking for all these years about building this vast universe that is just alive, but only now is it really happening: armadas, traders, the four major and numerous minor factions generating situations -where for example pirates may be attacking a naval outpost, and you can just get involved or fly on by."

The dynamics of the Freelancer universe has perhaps been one of the biggest hurdles Digital Anvil has had to contend with. Each ship has a character flying it, and each character has their own aims and allegiances with each of the 48 factions in the game.

"You’ll start knowing some of the pilots by their reputation, and in the same way your reputation will precede you," says Hartman. "You can go off in the world and just focus on being, say, a pirate, and the pirate factions may try and recruit you while all the others will hate you. You can be friends with certain factions and make enemies of others, or try and stay neutral to everyone. You can do whatever you want. You and everyone else in the game are basically on a mission."

Sound And Vision

It’s difficult to gauge just how convincing the Al is at this stage, but while we'll have to wait to test out the gameplay, the graphics have already been turning heads. The visual interface appears sleek, simple and modern, the ship and station designs are suitably varied and the sense of scale light years ahead of any current games. Most importantly, to move the adventure along, rather than boring text messages or grainy video, Digital Anvil has created a stunning character animation system featuring around four hours of actual story footage, plus all the other real-time cinematics that are generated on the fly whenever you land or go to talk to people in bars or stations to ask for information or missions. Less obvious but just as important are the small innovations Digital Anvil has forged. In a sense it all comes back to variety and focus. As is usual in space combat games, you can jump from system to system via gates, but within each system there is a network of trade lanes; high-speed ringed superhighways where ships can quickly jump between stations and planets. And like Elite’s infamous witchspace, the trade routes can be a costly way of getting about.

"The idea behind the trade lanes is to give the game points of focus," says Hartman. "If I’m a pirate I can hide out in a debris field near a trade route, shoot one of the jump nodes on the trade lane, which will disable it for a short period of time and then when ships come along they will have to drop out. I can then take out the transports and hide back into the debris field."

Privateer Plus

As you progress, building up fortunes and knocking down reputations, you will of course begin to upgrade your ship: adding weapons, restocking missiles, patching on-board tactical software -whatever you need to increase the functionality of your craft. As for the equipment and the ships themselves, not much has been revealed. Each of the four major houses will have its own trio of pilotable ships, each offering varying characteristics over their rivals. There will be around 15 playable craft in the game, none larger than a freighter. However, though we won’t be able to fly any of the large cruisers and battleships, there will be around 40 ships in total, a couple of which there may only be one or two of in the entire game. Again for Elite fans, remember to have your screenshot key ready when you chance across Freelancer's version of the Constrictor.

As for the flight model, Digital Anvil is keep ng to the tried and trusted arcade dynamic rather than going down the Newtonian route. As such the game will be simple to get to grips with, as was Wing Commander, FreeSpace and the X-Wing series. What is radical however is the control system. In a bid to bring space combat to the unwashed masses, Digital Anvil has maintained throughout Freelancer's development that the game has been designed for mouse control only. It is unclear whether you'll be able to plug a joystick in, but even if you can. the game will be optimised for mouse users. It's a slightly disconcerting development, but it does work and after some acclimatisation is a joy to use.

Open University

With its rich, detailed universe, open-ended gameplay, expansive multiplayer game and innovative control method, it’s hard not to go a little overboard on a game that promises to provide the biggest shake-up in the space combat genre for a number of years. Five years is a long time to be making a game, and there have been a few shaky bumps along the way. but (if you’ll allow me to put a personal spin on things), there is no one game that I am looking forward to quite as much as Freelancer - aside from of course the long-awaited announcement of Elite IV. If I am as impressed after 40 hours of playing the game as I have been watching it for 40 minutes, then Freelancer is well on course for a Classic score, which is about as close to a guarantee as you’re going to get.

Download Freelancer

PC

System requirements:

  • PC compatible
  • Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP

Game Reviews

It s no secret that this is one game we’ve been truly excited about ever since we first saw it. Admittedly, that was three E3s ago, but seeing it again now just shows how ahead of its time it was all those years ago. We managed to catch up with program manager Jorg Neumann for a hands-on demonstration of the latest code.

The mouse-only control interface (don’t worry, you will be able to use a joystick if you so wish) is nothing short of inspired, and takes all of three seconds to get used to. Jorg was quick to point out Digital Anvil’s reasons for making Freelancer predominantly mouse-driven. "We feel that it’s hindering the whole genre of space combat games to just have a joystick as a mode of control. The basic principle of using the mouse in combat is that wherever you can click, you can shoot." Believe us, this isn’t just a gimmick, it really does work.

The true beauty of Freelancer, though, is its ability to appeal to fans of both freeform and linear story-driven space combat sims. A massive ever-evolving universe, rammed to bursting point with pirates, traders, police and numerous factions provide all the exploration opportunities you could wish for, and plenty of chances of loot credits and cargo in order to upgrade your ship. It was quite clear that action is never far away even if you simply decide to set course for the nearest star in search of adventure.

However, do away with all of this, and there’s still a 40-hour mission-based saga to be unravelled, one which throws up numerous intriguing twists throughout its carefully crafted plot, that’ll have you guessing to the very last mission (at least that’s what Jorg told us). "We have more than two and a half hours of pre-rendered cut-scenes and the story is structured in a way so that you can get in and out of it whenever you want to," boasted Jorg before playing us Freelancer's impressive and mysterious five-minute intro.

What’s more, as you can probably see from the screenshots, Freelancer is not looking too shabby graphically either, which is somewhat surprising considering how long it’s been in development. In fact in terms of an overall package, there were few other titles which impressed us more, so just keep your fingers crossed that Digital Anvil can actually stick to this, the latest in a line of 4,274 scheduled release dates.

Freelancer, eh? Ooh, it's like someone took a snapshot of my working life and made it into a computer game. Assuming, obviously, that you replaced the filthy, commuter-stuffed tube trips into London with hurtling through hypnotically beautiful wormholes in space. Replaced sprinkling instant coffee into my eyeballs in a forlorn attempt to stay awake all night to write a two-page preview of some godforsaken Tycoon game from Belgium with dogfighting a dozen angry pirate ships in the middle of an asteroid field, swooping in and out of the rocks with the cool demeanour of Han Solo, dispatching foes with the panache of a master pilot. Replaced being stuck in a dingy pub with a sweaty marketing bore twatting on about how the shading routines in his firm's latest tediumfest are the most excitingdevelopment in vertex technology for ttre past three months, with standing in a hi-tech bar on board an interstellar battlecruiser stationed on the edge of the solar system, negotiating thousand-dollar deals with grateful mega-corporations to explore uncharted regions of space. And instead of a tepid pint of lager to divert me, there's a sexy intergalactic police women with tits the size of Sputnik to flirt with, and instead of nothing but bar nuts and a clapped-out fruity to spend my money on, there are missiles, lasers and mines to buy and fit to my sleek, ultra-cool fighter ship. Apart from all that, identical.

Previously...

I'll forgive you for being a touch surprised by all this. Freelancer is one of those titles often referred to by folk in the know as 'vapourware'. Duke Nukem Forever is a good example of the term. Been in development for years, unlikely ever to see the light of day, likely to be a steaming pile of Moyles if it ever does. Freelancer was first whorishly paraded around sniffing journalists some five years ago by the man behind the legendary Wing Commander series, Chris Roberts. He'd taken his story-dnven, space-based shooter and thrown it screaming into an Elite-style free-form world. It was going to be the best thing we'd ever seen. It was going to put his newly formed development company Digital Anvil on the map. Unfortunately, someone must have been holding the map upside down, as it then all went quiet and nothing more was heard about the project for several years.

Along the way we got a sort of interim thing called Starlancer - effectively Wing Commander all over again. Not bad, but not what we were waiting for. Then Digital Anvil seemed to implode, Chris Roberts went to Hollywood to turn Wing Commander into the really awful film it was always trying to be, Microsoft stepped in, threw a load of cash about and told the remaining team to carry on regardless. Then there was silence again.

And Now...

Now, suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, Freelancer beta code drops on the desk along with a note saying 'ready in March'. And in the tradition of all good vapourware it's going to be utter shi...

Oh, hang on, maybe not. This . intro sequence is a bit tasty for a start. Sequel to Starlancer, 4 this time telling the story of the defeated enemy of that game, the Coalition, 800 years after they blasted off into distant, unknown space to start a new life. Quite stunning piece of FMV actually. Must be hiding something. But that's just it you see. Although everyone's expecting Freelancer to be crap, from what I've played, the truth is it's going to be nearer the Classic' mark.

Rule Bretonia

So. 800 years then? Yup. and as no one once amusingly said. 800 years is a long time in space politics. The known universe is split into about five sectors, each controlled by one set of the fleeing Coalition colonists. Essentially, they break down as American, British. Japanese, German and... well I think it was Spanish in the intro, but in the game this sector seems to be a mish-mash of pirates, criminals and unexplored space. Maybe Welsh then?

Of course these factions are not called America or Japan. Each name has a 'futuristic' twist. Britain is called Bretonia, for instance, and has systems called New London. Dublin and. for some reason, Leeds. What Freelancer does really well is create a believable background universe for you to explore. Along with the internal governments of each sector, the playing field is littered with about 50 other factions - megacorporations, freedom fighter/terrorist groups, pirate clans and so on. The beauty is that they all have dynamic relationships with each other that mean you have to take a bit of care when choosing what jobs to do and for whom.

Your reputation is almost as important as your ability behind the joystick. But what do you do? Well as the name (and my rambling opening paragraph) suggests, you're a budding intergalactic odd-job man, fresh from surviving a terrorist attack on a space station that exploded along with all your belongings and the remnants of a million-dollar deal you were lining up.

Luckily, you make it to the Liberty (American) home planet and are offered a one-off job by the local police force (who also give you a clapped-out old banger of a ship). The idea is that you plunge into this dynamic universe as you see fit. following the background story along the way. trading, looting and shooting your way to a fortune in between chunks of exposition and story-based missions.

There's a lot of freedom on offer. Plenty of goods are available to trade as part of a complete (though slightly confusing) economic system. The bars on the planets and space stations are full of characters offering commissions. And. of course, there's a wide-open universe to explore and exploit.

Booty Call

Freelancer really comes alive in the detail. The universe around you is constantly on the move, there's always stuff happening - you can believe in it. Radio chatter between traffic controllers and passing cargo ships fills your cockpit while you wait for docking clearance. You can contact other ships and ask about their business. Or scan their craft and decide if it's worth a risk going for a bit of looting and pillaging. Get into a fight with pirates along a trade route and you might find yourself supported by passing bounty hunters looking for a score. Destroy an enemy, salvage one of his weapons and you can take it back to base, patch it up and have it fitted to your own ship.

There's plenty of incentive to keep going. A veritable Pandora's Box of weapons and ships are on offer - although not a great deal in the way of noncombat hardware, which is a shame. Some of the larger, more expensive ships are quite a sight to behold, and each sector has its own visual style and lists of hardware to choose from, again making the need to watch your reputation with different people an important aspect in the way you approach whole game.

Talking of visuals, Freelancer is quite the technological piece of work. Not so much photo-realism as CGI-cartoon style - at least in the cut-scenes. It's not so clear-cut in the actual space sections, but compared to the visually distinctive style seen in games such as X: Beyond the Frontier, it's very much driven by what the current 3D card technology can do rather than trying for a visual style all of its own. None the worse for it, mind you. It still looks like a million spacebucks. Just technologically generic spacebucks.

Space combat is handled in a pseudo-W/ng Commander manner. Joystick controls have been chucked out the window, paving the way for a simpler mouse/keyboard combo that, while not offering as much realism as the rest of the game (or what I imagine as realism in a make-believe far future fantasy world - though who knows, one day space craft may well be controlled by a keyboard and mouse), at least makes things simple enough to be able to throw yourself right into from the off.

European Union

All in all then, it's looking like Freelancer will pretty much be everything it was promising to be all along (minus the massively multiplayer thing, which in retrospect was probably a bad idea anyway). The action thrills of Winy Commander, the freedom of Elite, the mercenary nature of Privateer and the story quality of, well, a half-decent piece of pulp sci-fi writing at any rate.

Ah, but hang on. A tall German chap has just strolled in the office carrying a preview copy of X2: The Threat - a more hardcore space epic, but one that may come even closer to fullfilling hopes for a spiritual successor to Elite. So there's more than one pretender to this galactic throne, after all. But more about that another time. For now, all we need to know is that Freelancer is going to grab the attention of many. Not through hype, not through extensive marketing or over-excitable press coverage - it'll do it simply by being a damned fine game. Sometimes the wait really is worth it.

After surviving the destruction of the space station Freeport 7, pilot-for-hire Trent finds himself kicking around the New York system without a ship or a purpose. Our nifty playable demo, which picks up at this point, lets you guide Trent through the ensuing events, which are in fact the opening stages of Freelancer's single player campaign. You'll meet the main characters, learn a bit more about what's what in a decidedly Wing Commander way, and also get to kick some space-based butt.

Pretty soon, a group called the LSF recruit you to undertake a seemingly routine escort mission, which takes a surprising turn when some rogue ships turn up and try and take a chunk out of your ass. Once these interstellar bandits have been given their marching orders, those silver-tongued LSF chaps talk you into tracking the fleeing brigands through a field of space debris to their base. Once you've honed in on their squalid little lair, the only thing left is to provide covering fire for the LSF as they blow it to kingdom come. Then it's home for tea and buns, and a wee bit more exploring if you still feel the need.

OK, this is getting beyond a joke. Do you see us laughing? No you don't. That's because this has gone well beyond being amusing, right the way through to just being tragic. And as Freelancer approaches its fifth anniversary of development, we can only slump back in resignation, sigh, and speculate about when this space epic will finally see the light of day. Someone somewhere said March, although whether they meant 2003 or 2012 is anyone's guess.

Thankfully, the game does exist. We've seen it. With our own eyes. So calm down space combat fans, you haven't been abandoned by the great Digital Anvil just yet.

Boasting a revolutionary new control system which (and you may want to sit down at this point) actually works (steady), you'll be able to control every aspect of your ship with just a mouse. But before all you joystick pummellers out there start panicking, relax - it's a good thing. You see, they've implemented this new system to get more people into the genre, and that's only going to lead to bigger and better games in the future.

The open-ended universe will allow you to fly around the solar system at will, pursuing a myriad of occupations on behalf of one of 50 different factions, dipping into the finely crafted story as and when you feel the urge. The multiplayer side of the game promises to allow you and 15 of your mates to fly around an ever-evolving universe, and carving out a reputation for yourselves. Online of course.

We can't wait, and we're sure you can't either. But wait we must. And wait, and wait and wait and wait and... I think you get the picture. Still looks like being brilliant, though.

Hard As It may be to believe, I've actually read people criticising Freelancer (or the recently released demo at any rate) for being boring. Boring! Unless these people are regularly employed as naked lion riders, live in naturist communes with groups of frisky supermodels and list their hobbies as starting South London turf wars, then it's impossible to see where they're coming from on this.

Fair enough, you may have criticisms of this free-form space combat sim/trading game's simplistic level of combat controls, its fixed p and unrealistic economy system, the repetitive nature of the animated sequences and the annoying way pirates will always track your ship no matter who else is around. But the one thing you can't accuse Freelancer of being is boring. It'd be like having a go at Boys And Girls for being highbrow. And unless you are even less evolved than the sub-detritus of British humanity, which appears on that show as contestants (using the term human' as loosely as possible), you're hardly likely to do that.

Anyway, Freelancer. I don't think I've ever come across a game that tries harder to keep things happening around you at all times. Barely a minute goes by that you're not blasting ships from the sky, zipping from one colourful part of the galaxy to another, or becoming entangled in some malevolent conspiracy involving aliens (as every conspiracy has to do at some point these days - have you heard the latest one about Kennedy and... well, perhaps I've said too much already). If you looked up the phrase action-packed' in a dictionary, there'd just be a big picture of Freelancer. Blowing something up. While parachuting off a mountain. Nude.

So, onto the obligatory recap paragraph for newcomers. Although considering the amount of buzz being generated in website forums, on newsgroup servers and at gatherings of the Women's Institute in Burnley, you'd have to have been living in a cave for the past three years not to know anything about Freelancer. Freelancer is the latest attempt to bring Elite's style of open-ended space trading goodness to a Modern Gaming Audience.

As they are aiming their game squarely at a Modern Gaming Audience (quick, call the trademark office) there's no way Freelancer's developers, Digital Anvil, would have got away with just plonking a free-form universe on your doormat. Instead we have to suffer the almost mandatory sci-fi story (or sciffy' as my grandmother used to call them) that weaves its way through the randomly generated missions and trading routes much as a gastric ulcer weaves its way through the lining of your stomach.

Tale-Telling

Actually, that's unfair. Freelancer's story sequences are very nicely done. The introductory sequence is one of the finest I've seen in many a year, the engine-based cut-scenes that accompany your travels are extremely well scripted, edited and, yes, acted. The plot is intriguing enough to keep you going through the early stages, and the way that story missions add moments of genuine tension and nerve-shredding action to the slightly repetitive free-form parts of the game is as welcome as it is effective.

Except that it doesn't last long enough. Much like the male orgasm, just as the story starts to get going, it's all over and you're left with a strange feeling of emptiness and uncertainty as to whether you should hunt for your pants and leave, or stick around a bit longer in case this brief moment of excitement ends up somewhere more lasting. Whereas the story drives your progress in the first part of the game - your trading, bounty hunting, pirating and so on are all helping you work towards reaching each new chapter - once it's over you're left to explore the rest of the universe by yourself, free to make money however you want. Except that you can't really think of a reason why you should bother. Save that you're a graphics whore and you can't wait to discover which colour theme the designers have picked for the next star system.

More Of The Same

Early on it becomes obvious that each new planet and space station is just a slightly different version of the previous one (sometimes not even that dissimilar). A Rhineland freighter doesn't handle very differently to a Bretonia freighter. Running assassination missions for Cryer Pharmaceuticals is the same as running assassination missions for Samura Industries. Only the names change.

What Digital anvil needed to do was make the background story far deeper than it was, having it stretch on way into the higher levels, rather than peter out around level 20 or so. A quick look back at the somewhat chequered production history of Freelancer is probably enough to let you realise why there wasn't the time and/or resources to do this (Digital Anvil has been the subject of more changes of leadership than an Italian government, and Freelancer has undergone more restarts than a 100m Sprint race run by hyperactive nine-year olds after a sugar injection). But that doesn't change matters. It ends up feeling like DA made half a great game but was then forced to get it out the door before it had a chance to finish it off. Even if it did take it five years to get this far.

Freedom Is Illusory

Everywhere you look you can see the veneer of freedom, but any lengthy inspection soon shows up the abundant limitations. Enemy ships will always target you, no matter what the situation. They may be surrounded by police ships or bounty hunters, but it's always you they come after because you're the only really living thing around. Sometimes it feels like The Truman Show in space.

Running freelance missions is supposedly the driving force of the game - hence the name - with the option to offer your services to several dozen different employers. But since there's only a stock of about five mission types to choose from (the only differences being the names of the people involved and the number of enemies you face), the whole system soon feels like more of a repetitive chore than a game with infinite freedom. There aren't even any of Elite's passenger or delivery missions that at least allowed you to combine freelancing with trading runs for extra cash and variety. Freelancer constantly presents an exciting impression of a gloriously detailed universe rich in colour and variety, but it rapidly displays its own shortcomings whenever you start looking too closely. Sort of like Ant & Dec.

But, But, But

Now here's the rub. Despite all of that, despite all the ways in which Freelancer gnaws at your patience like an insane beaver, it's still an incredible blast to sit down and play. In the same way that I found myself able to look past all of Hidden & Dangerous's bugs, able to cope with Operation Flashpoint's idiosyncratic game design and able to forgive Counter-Strike's flagrant abuse by hacking tools, so too I find myself more than able to get beyond the flaws that run through Freelancer.

Somehow none of it matters. Something about it all hooks you in regardless of the manifest limitations -something makes you willing to let yourself be fooled by the paper-thin mask of completeness it wears. You may know what lies behind the Wizard's curtain but you're willing to live the lie because Oz is such a nice place to be in. There's a lot to be said for atmosphere and it's here that we witness one of Freelancer's key strengths.

Back In Kansas

As I said right at the start (well, near the start. About three paragraphs in. I know - we've been through so much since then. But I still respect you, even after the, the err... unpleasantness), there's always something going on. Even if it is the same something over and over again. Freelancer doesn't create a realistic universe for you to live in, but it does create a playable one. You never fool yourself into forgetting that it's all just a game, and the majonty of the time you'll be approaching the vanous challenges thrown at you with a gamer's eye, looking for ways to beat the game design rather than developing exciting tactics to defeat blood-thirsty space pirates. But that's no bad thing when you consider how bad Freelancer could have been, considering its history.

Even so, for a great many of you, the limitations and repetitiveness will probably be too much to get past. Which is fine. Try the demo which we'll have on next month's coverdiscs and see for yourself. If you don't think it goes far enough, then hold fast as Freelancer will more than likely be completely overshadowed when the truly epic-looking X2: The Threat finally arrives later this year. Then you'll have all the dynamic economic systems, alien worlds and realistic universes you can contend with.

Those of you that do decide to give it a go will find a game that refines the existing space sim genre rather than radically reshaping it. It has the arcade immediacy of Wing Commander with a touch of Elite's sprawling open-endedness bolted on the front for added scope. But while it captures the mechanics of both games perfectly well, what it doesn't manage to do is capture the spirit behind these classic titles.

But providing you don't mind playing a game rather than a simulation, you're going to enjoy Freelancer simply for what it is - a harmless slice of action-packed entertainment. Which, after all, in this day and age we simply don't see enough of.

It may be hard to believe but Freelancer has made it out of development. After over five years and who knows how many changes, it's finally released and is well worth the wait. Although there are parts of the game we might have liked to see expanded further, the overall experience is outstanding. From the control system to the ability to explore the universe, Freelancer successfully brings together a number of different gameplay components that can be difficult to combine. For those that have been waiting for the next decent space sim, your wait is over.

Freelancer is a space sim that takes a number of risks and manages to capitalize on them. One of the more significant risks is the control system. Based on the mouse and keyboard instead of a joystick, I had a number of initial concerns as to why this approach was chosen. Those concerns were quickly put to rest once the game got off the ground. For basic flying, the mouse does the steering and main firing while the keyboard is used for the majority of other options. In addition, it doubles up many of the commands also available using the mouse interface which allows users to select their preference. The mouse can be released from flying to interact with the interface and opens the controls up to a smooth and straightforward system. There are a number of options on the interface that can be accessed easily using this approach that a joystick wouldn't have allowed. It's surprising how well this actually works, as the your desires for a joystick-based control system will dissipate quickly once the advantages of the mouse interface are realized.

In addition to the control system, the large size of Freelancer was also a risk as most games have difficulty making the area usable and not so open ended its difficult to figure out where you are. Freelancer does a great job of different areas having unique cultures and politics so flying into a new area does keep the game from becoming stale. Even while playing through the missions, it's encouraged to go exploring to find freelance jobs with little limitation on where or how far you go.

One of the reasons the game works as well as it does is the graphics. As long as your video card and computer meet the requirements, you'll be treated to some great eye candy. Everything from ship design to explosions looks fantastic with battle damage on the ships thrown in to top it off. The audio also performs well and although not spectacular, it won't distract from the gameplay with plenty of sound effects and decent voiceovers.

For any fans of space sims, this isn't one you'll want to pass up. With a smooth control system, well designed game structure, and first-rate graphics, obvious time and effort was put into this game that will keep you occupied for some time.

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