(Microsoft for the PC)
by Eric Johnson
Conceived and eventually abandoned by pioneering space sim designer Chris Roberts during its excruciatingly long gestation period, Freelancer is an entertaining spacebound dogfighting and exploration epic charged with resurrecting an endangered genre. Space sim’s are intense combat-based flight simulators which put players in the cockpit of small fighters and feature frenzied, skill-based, ship-to-ship combat. Varied levels of realism, impressive visuals, moderate to steep learning curves, and ambitious storytelling were hallmarks of the genre. For the persistent, the rewards were tremendous, but perhaps because of the learning curve or the need for a flight stick, interest in space sims has fluctuated and dissipated since their mid-’90s apex.
Enter Chris Roberts, enter Freelancer, which has taken the conventions of the space sim, streamlined it for mass consumption, and set it in a vast universe filled with competing political factions, corporations, isolationists, terrorists, commodity brokers, terraformers, and separatists. Set loose in this environment, one is given a lengthy and excellent single-player campaign to complete, followed up by endless hours of open-ended exploration in three dozen solar systems. A brilliant and compromised control scheme replaces the traditional flight stick with a mouse and keyboard. Instead of having fixed guns which force you to outmaneuver your opponent (ala X-Wings and Tie Fighters), all weapons are turret-based and move independently of the ship, giving you a 180º radius of fire (ala the asteroid field confrontation between Boba Fett’s ship and Obi Wan’s in Attack of the Clones). This simplifies targeting and results in a relatively shallow and sadly arcade-like fighting experience, despite the fact that it’s addictive, appealing, and fun. Random missions allow one to bounty hunt, trade commodities, perform assassinations, smuggle contraband, and engage in random acts of piracy, thus giving you ample opportunity to develop a reputation, piss people off, and engage in clandestine alliances.
Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the random missions are repetitive and rarely involve more than neutralizing a large number of enemy vessels, and there isn’t a combat-worthy ship capable of transporting enough cargo to allow you to be a force to be reckoned with and engage in trade simultaneously. For my taste, too much has been lost in translation for me to fall in love with this, but as a fan of the genre who hasn’t seen a great action-based dogfighting sim since 1999, it’s a desperately-needed dose of old school space combat that should appeal to any closet sci-fi geek with a decent computer.