Give me freedom or give me your cargo.
For years, I kept an old Macintosh hooked up for one reason: a game called Escape Velocity. It was a simple, open-ended, non-linear space exploration and combat game. The beauty of it was that you could be anything you wanted, go anywhere you wanted and do anything you wanted. If you are a Mac user, the latest version, Escape Velocity Nova, is now available, and you should go get it because you can't play Freelancer. And if you're a PC gamer like myself, you can finally take that old Mac and throw it out.
Freelancer is almost exactly what I've been waiting for. It's definitely not a hardcore space sim, opting instead for easy controls and near-arcade style combat. It has light RPG qualities, sumptuous graphics and an open universe. It's not quite the revolutionary title that was promised to us four years ago, but it's a very good game nonetheless.
Eight hundred years ago, the Coalition fought the Alliance. Nobody remembers why, but they do know that after centuries of war across the solar system, the Coalition got the upper hand. As a last-ditch attempt at survival, the nations of the Alliance built enormous colony ships and launched tens of thousands of frozen people across the void of stars to the Sirius system. Walt Disney & Ted Williams, away!
Once there, the colonists began building civilization anew, with different ships landing on different planets. It was slow, hard work for generations, but new cities were built and space lanes laid out across the system and to other stars. Expansion soon became explosive, and the wild Sirius frontier became an exciting, if dangerous, place to live. Now, different factions battle for power, everyone wants to stake their claim, and a mysterious new criminal organization threatens the safety of the whole system.
You are Edison Trent, a space pilot with a problem: Your ship and everything you own has been blown up in an attack on a spaceport. Now you must start over with a cheap little ship and nowhere to go.
Except of course, that you have everywhere to go. The universe is your oyster. You can fly absolutely anywhere, although that doesn't mean you'll survive once you get there. Mostly you're looking for work, which is plentiful. Swing by the pub on any planet or space station to catch up on the news or find a job. There's always someone who needs something transported, intercepted or blown up.
But be careful who you work for. Working for one particular faction or power (like the Navy or the Guild of Bounty Hunters) will increase your standing with them, but it will make their enemies leery of you. You just can't please everybody, and people who don't like you will try to shoot you down if you wander into areas of space that they control.
If you're determined to be self-employed, you can still do anything you want. You can fill your cargo hold with cheap commodities on one planet and take them to a space station where they are desperately needed, in the traditional capitalist fashion. You can mine asteroids and space debris, or you can stalk the space lanes, preying on weaker ships and stealing their cargo.
You'll need money to go up ranks, which allows you access to bigger and better ships and equipment, but no matter what you do, the plot unfolds the same way. Trader, cop or smuggler, you still must help the LSF (Liberty Security Force) investigate a fearsome new criminal organization called The Order. And if you don't follow the plot, you can't obtain new ranks.
While the story is done well and features some good voice acting, it feels a little forced that the LSF would even talk to me, a feared space pirate, much less seek my help. Originally, the game was intended to have dynamic, branching plots, depending on your actions. This would have improved the single player game a lot.
But you can leave that all behind and go the multiplayer route, which is where Freelancer really excels. While it's not massively multiplayer as originally intended, Freelancer allows users to host their own universes, and there are plenty out there to play in, with some that allow up to 100 simultaneous players. Like Neverwinter Nights, your character is stored on the server itself, so you should try to find one that intends to stay around for a long time.
In the multiplayer world, you can truly do anything you like, including blowing up other players. The plot is gone and freedom reigns. You can advance far higher and access far more equipment in the multiplayer realm as well. This is where the real game of Freelancer is, and it makes the single player game feel like a very long training mode.
Unfortunately, unlike Neverwinter Nights, there are no toolsets or DM controls. This makes the universe a bit like a Counterstrike map (albeit a very big one). So every server you can play on is essentially the same with the same ships, same weapons, and same planets in the same places. Only the ping and the people you play with will differ.
But single or multiplayer, you'll be impressed by the graphics. They don't seem as jaw-dropping as they did three years ago, but they have held up nicely and allow for an astonishing number of different ships and other space objects onscreen at the same time, which makes for some very hectic battles.
And the battles are great fun because the game is so easy to control. Leave your Sidewinder under the desk, because you won't need it: Freelancer was clearly made with the mouse in mind. You control your speed with the mouse wheel, and you fly where you point the mouse, then right click to fire. A monkey could do it.
Everything changes on planets and space stations, which are really just dressed up menu systems. The graphics are still nice, but you have no freedom of movement and there's no exploration. Click on the commodities trader to sell your cargo, or click on the ship outfitter to buy new ship parts. You'll never see any other players while you're planetside, which unfortunately removes a lot of the community feel you often get from multiplayer games. But while the system feels a little confined, the ease-of-use is once again fantastic.
Sound is spot-on. With some surround-sound speakers in place, space combat really comes to life. And while in the real (multiplayer) game you lose most of the plot dialogue, the short "conversations" you'll have with people in the bar are still well done, if occasionally a bit stilted.
If you're the type of gamer who remembers Elite fondly or who longs for the old days of Privateer, Freelancer is clearly the game you've been waiting for. And if you've never heard of those games and you simply wish to be a space pirate, this is your chance. Take it.