I’ve spent the last four days playing Freelancer. Freelancer has this interesting thing that allows you to track the amount of time you’ve spent in the game; over those four days I spent a bit over 20 hours on it, so let’s just say right from the start that it is pretty damn playable and addictive. However, I finished it last night so that’s over and done with.

Freelancer is a space flight simulation game that’s had an impressively long development time and a varied history that has seen Chris Roberts of Wing Commander fame being involved. The game is best described as a cross between Wing Commander (a linear, storyline based game) and Elite (completely freeform). This turns out to be an excellent blend that offers a lot of freedom but gives the player an impetus to keep on going by offering excellently scripted storyline missions and showpieces.

You start off, as usual, in a ship that is basically a (barely) flying piece of crap, in the midst of a strange mystery that’s just seen you escape a space station being destroyed with just your life intact. The first few missions you take are simply to get you accustomed to the novel method of control; you don’t use a joystick in Freelancer, you use an FPS-esque mouse and keyboard combination, essentially using the mouse to ‘look’ and shoot, and the keyboard to steer and do other stuff. It works well; I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily better or worse than the traditional joystick method, but it’s a very interesting and playable alternative. Still, I can’t see myself playing X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter using a mouse and keyboard.

After the first few scripted, storyline missions, you have to take a few freelance missions before you can progress to the next storyline mission – this occurs throughout the game, and serves to allow the player to get some more experience, decent ships and weapons, and basically spread the storyline out a bit. This is a pretty good and quite clever idea, since it essentially pads the game out, but not in a blatant manner. The freelance missions you can take (and there are always many to choose from, from lots of different and antagonistic factions) are simple enough – blow people up, basically – but they are very bland. Why no escort missions? Why no delivery missions? Why couldn’t they create subquests? I see no significant reason why these couldn’t have been included, and I think they’d have improved the gameplay tremendously.

One true achievement of Freelancer is its non-existant learning curve. The developers have managed to make the game such that it offers the right level of challenge all the time; this is a good game for beginners to space flight simulations.

Another strong point is the storyline. While it’s not exactly highly original, it’s very involving and the scripted missions that you’ll take part in very often have jaw-dropping moments. I’m not going to spoil anything here, but there were numerous occasions when I thought, ‘holy shit.’ The thing with the storyline is that you are often in a situation where it seems the entire universe is against you and you have to basically run to save your life; it’s not something that you see in other space flight sim games and it’s a welcome introduction. If you watch Babylon 5, then when I say that the missions and battles in Freelancer are like those seen in seasons 3 and 4, you’ll know to be impressed. For the rest of you, the scripted missions and storyline are the best that I’ve seen in a space flight sim, and they are truly dramatic.

The graphics are pretty good – they’re not revolutionary but they do the job well. The cut-scenes and character animations (rendered via the in-game engine) were particularly well done, as was the voice acting. I was very pleased to find that my trusty GeForce 256 DDR was still up to the job and managed to prove a very respectable frame rate throughout the game. You certainly don’t need a GeForce 4 for this game.

I haven’t tried out the multiplayer game in depth, but it is very simple to set up and providing you connect to a server with a low ping time, then you should have some fun.

In conclusion, Freelancer is an extremely compelling game that’s well worth getting hold of. There are very few games these days that I bother playing through until the end, but Freelancer was one of them. You are not likely to be disappointed.

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