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