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Review by: Richard Leader
Published: March 19, 2003
Nostalgia can be a very powerful thing. The space epics that graced the early years of gaming left a powerful legacy that no other genre can match in terms of fan zealotry. While others may come close, they can never equal the sheer authority and credibility that sophisticated releases such as Rainbird’s 1985 Elite, Binary System’s 1986 Starflight, and Origin’s 1993 Wing Commander: Privateer brought to the table. Each presented the player with an open-ended world that existed outside the contrivance of a plot, giving participants the ability to explore an entirely different universe and to experience it in an intensely personal way, long before the massively-multiplayer online offerings of today. Now that gaming has become a much more mainstream activity, the percentage of the hobbyist community who were able to enjoy such titles in their heyday is becoming progressively smaller. As such, there is no shortage of tension between those who insist upon the sanctity of the perfection of these titles and those who believe that, while excellent for their time, the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia prevent an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.
As Digital Anvil was formed by Chris Roberts, a former pioneer at Origin, fans had high expectations that Freelancer would follow closely in the footsteps of Privateer. When it was announced that joystick support was not to be included, the name “Freelancer” became a running joke as the genre’s most devoted fanatics were the first to write it off completely and to hope for the worst: the outright failure of the product. More rancor was aroused when the demo was initially offered only to GameSpy subscribers, bundled with software that some believed to be “spyware,” with the general public forced to wait the length of a weekend, an eternity in the fast paced world of the Internet, before having the opportunity to experience it for themselves. When all was said and done, most players adapted flawlessly to the newly fashioned mouse-controls and all the furor and controversy was for naught, leaving Freelancer to sink or swim on its own merits.
Freelancer is set in the distant future, where a bitter war on Earth caused the losing faction to send sleeper ships filled with cryogenically frozen colonists out to the stars. Four vessels, representing different cultures of humanity, set out on their epic journey to the Sirius system. Nearly 800 years later they arrived at their destination and began the hard work of rebuilding a society, giving the planets of their new worlds familiar names from home. Each of these four houses has its own heritage and cultural legacy, similar in some ways to FASA’s Battletech game world, making their cities and technologies instantly recognizable: Liberty space is owned by the descendants of the Americas, Bretonia by those hailing from the United Kingdom, Rheinland by German nationals, and Kusari by Japanese expatriates. All is not peaceful, however, as the different territories remain guarded against each other and the frontier has already fallen to anarchy.
The single player campaign is set within the open-ended universe, but propels it with a much firmer grip than that of the original Privateer. Rather than nudging participants back into the plot at specific intervals, Freelancer keeps things on a shorter leash, actually taking the opposite approach by forcing players to go out and experience the virtual universe at certain points: essentially kicking them out of the plot for the moment, forcing them to increase their net-worth. This typically results in having to accomplish three to five generic missions, depending upon the level of risk the player is willing to entertain, as more difficult tasks naturally tend to pay better.
In many ways, the plot, at least initially, appears to be strikingly similar to that of Privateer. Not only are mysterious alien artifacts present, but there is also the requisite reversal of reputation, where the law is hot on the player’s heels at every step. Players step into the role of the taciturn mercenary known only by the name of “Trent.” After being bankrupted by a mysterious attack on a space station that left him without a ship of his own, he travels to planet Manhattan where he finds work with Juneko Zane, a Liberty intelligence operative. When the few survivors of the attack start disappearing, a vast conspiracy is unveiled that will take Trent and Zane into Bretonia and beyond.
The campaign comprises 13 official scenarios, although each is long enough to justify the presence of five or six separate auto-save files, making the lines between them rather arbitrary for most participants. Prior to the completion of the plot, things are not always truly open-ended as players are often denied access to jump-gates that serve to transport ships between sectors and are limited in the ships and equipment that can be purchased. Players are assigned a level based on their current net-worth, which figures in the value of their ship, equipment, and cargo, in addition to cash on hand, the sum of which is translated into a numerical value.
Most players should finish the plot at about level 17 or 18, while level 38 is the highest attainable in the game. While players will rarely be able to afford a vessel that is beyond their level, they can often scrape enough cash together to put higher level weapons within their reach, which can be disappointing as the player is not allowed to purchase them. This is made somewhat confusing, at first, by the fact that weapons have two levels associated with them: player and ship. Not only must one be of the appropriate level, the player’s craft must have an open hardpoint that supports the caliber of the equipment.
The universe of Freelancer is a large place and players have a variety of ways to explore it. While ships are quite slow under most circumstances, averaging about 80 units per second for fighters, thrusters can momentarily boost that speed by another 120, although they cannot be used indefinitely. More advanced and expensive thrusters can be purchased that drain their power reserves more slowly. For general travel, however, cruise-mode is the only way to go: power is cut from weapons, rendering a ship defenseless, but it is able to accelerate to 300. This can be useful in escapes, although pirates can take advantage of a cruise-inhibiting warhead, in place of a standard torpedo mount, to stop runners in their tracks.
Faster travel can be accomplished via a series of trade-lanes: twin portals in space that contain two one-way highways going to and from opposing destinations. These can zip players from one outpost or planet to another in a fraction of the time it would normally take. Just as ships in cruise-mode can be disrupted, trade-lanes can be jammed by pirates, bringing vessels out of warp speed and into a deadly ambush. A portal is necessary for movement between sectors, and these come in two varieties: police controlled and pirate. Policed jump-gates are circular rings that are heavily armored, requiring activation before they will open and grant a ship access. This contrivance is used throughout the plot of the campaign, where the player sometimes wins access codes to allow further exploration. However, if a hostile force is present in the area, a player’s ship is bound to take many hits before the iris of the gate is opened fully, slowing an escape. Pirate gates are simply quantum-holes in space that crackle with energy and can be freely and immediately used by anyone, however, finding them is often difficult as they are left off of maps.
Most systems have a variety of planets and at least one central star. While these are all located on a 2D plane, making for an uncomplicated universe, each is a true 3D object and entering into a planet’s atmosphere or a star’s corona is quickly fatal. To land on a planet, it is necessary to take advantage of a docking ring – two portals that manage incoming and outgoing traffic, automatically placing vessels into a queue. Not all planets are habitable, though most gas-giants have orbiting stations, repair bays, and material containers within close proximity, the latter can be smashed open by pirates and looted. Not only are all of these planets and bases open to players, but it is also possible to dock with large battleships and civilian cruise ships.
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