Epic but flawed.
If Bethesda can make vast worlds full of quests, adventure, loot, NPCs, etc. and stick it entirely offline in this day and age... then why can’t we return to space with the same dynamics? Freelancer is perhaps the final game to be released with this sort of setting; numerous systems to explore, commodities to trade, NPCs to talk to, and missions to take all in the name of amassing a sizable profit. Too bad the dream ends all too quickly and the single-player storyline feels, and was, rushed heavily in its second half. That, I imagine, from the whole Microsoft buyout of the developers and the oncoming reputation of Freelancer becoming nothing more than vapourware. Fortunately, it came out and it was pretty damn good... mostly.
Starting with the single-player side of things, you play the role of Edison Trent, a Bretonian who leaves his home world of Leeds in search of adventure and fortune. Unfortunately, just as Trent signs a deal netting him a million credits on a space station called Freeport 7, an unknown force appears out of nowhere and completely destroys it. Barely managing to escape on to an escape pod with a few other survivors, they arrive at the heart of the Liberty sector, Manhattan, where he waits to find out if he’ll ever get his payment. In the mean time, he takes up freelancing to pass the time and to make some extra money on the side. Whew.
The overall story begins with the destruction of Freeport 7. You gradually begin to take a central role in things as the story moves on and is told by very well directed and generally well acted cutscenes. From what I recall when I first saw these cutscenes back in 2003 I was pretty amazed at the graphics and the quality of the animations, even with the limited facial expressions. Besides the cutscenes, the vast majority of the time is spent in (can you guess?) space.
Yes, you can control Freelancer entirely using just your mouse and keyboard. The controls are extremely tight and responsive, accurate, and with an extremely minimal learning curve attached to them. There are also automated maneuvers such as Go-To, Dock, and Stay in Formation which take care of the tedious things in space.
Moving on to the combat, this is where 85% of your time in Freelancer is going to be spent... shooting the crap out of other ships. For the most part, you’ll be engaged in dogfighting with several other fighters. The weapons you can use all have varying attributes of range, projectile speed, and energy use. There are also missiles, mines, and missile countermeasures at your disposal. Of course, depending on how your fighting style is, I imagine you’d make much better use of the missiles and mines than I did. For the most part, I ignored them and I got on just fine with the combat segments of the game. It was only later on that I invested in some torpedoes for the bigger targets you face endgame.
Now, speaking of how you get INTO combat there are a few ways. The most obvious way you’ll end up fighting will be due to a storyline mission, but when you’re not on a story mission you’ll be doing your normal freelancing until amassing enough wealth to “level up” and move on to the next mission. Just getting this out of the way, there aren’t any RPG elements to Freelancer. By leveling up (which you do by amassing ‘worth’ derived from the amount of credits and the quality of your ship and its equipment) you unlock the next storyline mission and better ships and equipment to buy. That’s about it. Now, during these freelancing bits you can pretty much do anything you want. You can take missions which range from assassination, eradication, station destruction, kill’n’loot, destroy the loot etc. from job boards on planets and stations, or from NPCs representing several of the factions in the game. You can also take up piracy; there are always numerous ships in space from a faction's security forces to traders and their escorts. You can always attack the traders, take out their escorts, take the loot and make a run for it. Or, you could trade yourself.
There are several ship classes available... rudimentary ones such as light fighters to very heavy fighters, but you can also purchase a freighter for trade. Really no explanation needed here. Buy low; sell high, but you’re sacrificing outright combat ability for cargo space so you have to keep the trade off in mind.
Now, with most of the game mechanics out of the way, there are definitely some major flaws in the mix. These flaws pretty much come in the form of the game being heavily rushed in the second half. By rushed, I mean the pacing generally falls apart, the cutscenes don’t seem to be as well directed and sharp—for instance, in some scenes an NPC is moving their lips but no actual voice is being played; a voice clip which was yet to be recorded for that scene –and a lot of sudden background information on missions and events which you’d expect to be told in-game are suddenly explained in your text-based journal. Not to mention the sudden and abrupt “ending” to the story line with a lengthy epilogue entry in your journal to top it off.
Besides the story line issues, the size of the game world seems to imply that the developers had a lot more in mind in regards to ships too. There just isn’t that many ship classes or equipment to buy that you’d expect in a galaxy this big.
In the end, though, Freelancer is fun and a proper “open world” space based combat and trading game. After you finish the story line, the entire galaxy opens up to you and you can continue playing, flying from one end to the other. At the time of this writing, the online matchmaking servers have been shut down and multiplayer is unavailable. When they were up, servers could house up to 128 players and a players progress was saved on an individual server basis. Is it worth scrounging around for a copy of Freelancer? For sure. Here’s hoping for a Freelancer 2.