Freelancer is the space action game that has been in development for quite a while over at Digital Anvil. A few years back, Microsoft bought up the company and spurred development along a bit. Finally, all their efforts have paid off with an excellent game - generally, you will find the quality of the classic space sims along with great graphics and open-ended gameplay.
It would be difficult to write a Freelancer review with out a nod to the best space sim titles in PC history: Tie Fighter, Descent Freespace 1 and 2, and the Wing Commander series. Generally, these games have hit and miss sales, and they do not always correlate with how good the game is. At least with the case of Freelancer, though, the game may or may not sell well but there is some quality work in there.
I believe Freelancer uses a custom game engine, although I was unable to find any info on it. The engine works great, though, and it has quite a few features, tons of options, and manages it all with a decent Level of Detail system that keeps the frame rate high.
As it is with space sims, there often isn't much ground detail to be had, so the detail generally gets poured into the ships and special effects. Some high-resolution space backdrops are always nice, and Freelancer delivers in this aspect. While this game isn't visually stunning, the graphics are solid and the frame rate is excellent almost all of the time.
This is going to be an area where die-hard space sim veterans will roll their eyes. Freelancer offers only one control method: a keyboard and a mouse. That seems very silly and useless, but the game has been specifically designed to use the strengths of this system. Aiming is generally easier here, since you are not required to point your whole ship directly at an enemy to shoot at him. There are a bunch of keyboard commands that you will eventually have to learn, but the developers have smartly added a mouse interface for a bunch of the more obscure (yet highly useful) functions. Keyboard shortcuts are of course still there, but few of them need to be memorized.
Any way you look at it, though, Freelancer was obviously meant for consumption by the masses. The controls are easier to get into and the basic interface is simplistic. Still, the game does have a whole element of trading going on, as well as a customizable ship interface, and in this area, the interface could have used some work. The in-flight interface is both good and bad - on the one hand, the ability to look up player status, waypoint map, or inventory screens while you are flying is wonderful. Everything is accessible pretty much all the time here, which is very convenient. On the other hand, though, the actual interface is just plain ugly - the controls are big and bulky, the text isn't so hot, and the in-flight indicators for combat are not very useful. It seems like they got the whole game together and then suddenly realized they needed an interface - in short, it feels like they threw it together at the last moment.
Buying and selling gear is not terribly convenient, and switching out weapons is a somewhat complicated prospect based on the available spots on your ship to mount them. A more visual interface for your ship's inventory and equipped gear would have been very welcome here. Some people have said that Freelancer does to space sims what Diablo did to role-playing games, and in some cases that is true, but in others, Freelancer complicates certain aspects of the interface too much.
Space sims are tough games to generate good-looking graphics for. Most of the time your character winds up flying some little fighter without a whole lot of room for eye candy, and most of the ships you fight aren't much better off. Still, Digital Anvil has done a respectable job in making this game look pleasing. The backdrops for the different star systems are varied and unique - enough so that after a while can sometimes recognize where you are in the universe by the background alone.
The ships look decent with a few good and bad exceptions, and there are a ton of different types of them in the game. Freelancer doesn't really do much in the line of epic space battles where dozens of ships duke it out - the scope of the game is a little more personal most of the time. Still, there are some big ships that get involved, although they generally aren't as impressive as you would expect out of a game released in 2003. Still, when a battle takes place alongside a few installations which orbit around a planet, it looks great and runs quite smoothly. These situations don't come up all that often, but it is nice when they do.
The special effects are generally fairly impressive, although most of the weapons you get don't really throw off any huge solar-system-shattering blasts. The design for most effects is clean, though, and explosions are quite complicated and satisfying to see.
The game includes a large number of cutscenes, most of which involve your character talking about whatever is going on in the story with the people who are giving him the missions. The animations are generally pretty good here, although the mouth movements don't even remotely line up with the actual text being said. The character models are mostly quite good, although something about them didn't seem quite right most of the time. In these cases, I can usually point out what I find wrong, but here it is hard to tell.
There are a ton of stations and planets to explore as well - there are a wide range of environments you will see when you land on a planet, including huge city structures or cramped little tunnels. No, the player can't walk around in the cities or anything, but then again, that would be taking away from the focus of Freelancer.
The first thing I imagine die-hard space sim types would ask is how the combat works. Generally, Freelancer is more about getting money together to buy more powerful ships and gear than it is developing the skill to kill enemies. You will find that most of the time, you have the best equipment out in the field, and you will most likely need it - the game will throw waves of enemies at you at once sometimes, and constantly evading enemy fire may be all you can do to survive.
That being said, the combat still requires plenty of skill, although in this case it involves far fewer key presses than in previous space sims. Gone are the complex shield and energy management systems - instead, your ability to survive depends on how well you evade shots by using strafe keys to dodge incoming shots. It seems weird having sidestep keys in a space combat game, and you may find yourself never using them until you absolutely have to. In this case, it is a bit like Wing Commander meets Descent (not Freespace, plain old Descent). Another important aspect of gameplay is learning how and when to use your thrusters. Similar to an afterburner, thrusters are an integral part of Freelancer's combat in both offense and defense. The quicker one learns to use these keys, the easier the game becomes (and the more money he or she has - repairs can get expensive!).
The game starts you off in a mostly linear story-based mode where your character, Trent, becomes one of the rare survivors of the destruction of an installation. From there, you will meet up with several characters who guide you on jobs and other missions. From there, a larger plot involving quite a few factions will develop, many of them warring on their own. While things you do of your own free can affect your reputation with these factions, the story will steer you towards making quick enemies and hasty alliances - even if you were the best of buddies a half-hour before.
So if there is all this linear plot-based gameplay, why is it called Freelancer? Well, at several points in the game, the plot will be suspended and you will be required to go out and make money doing some jobs. As you might expect, everyone who ever hands out a job is hanging out at the local bar, and you can talk to people to get them, or just look up the Job Listing and pick one from there. These missions generally involve having you blow someone or something up, although the range of goals broadens a bit as you progress.
Your progress during these points in the game will depend on your dollar value - there is an amount of accumulated wealth you must achieve before you will be called again to continue on the storyline. Basically, this is kind of like a "score", as your actual cash on-hand is almost always different from the former value.
The plot itself is a fairly decent one, although I found that it gets a bit over-complicated at certain points and that some of the voice acting done in mid-flight could have been moved onto a scene in a bar or on a planet surface. It's just that some of the actual cutscenes' implications seemed trivial, while other plot elements that didn't have to do with combat were forced to be in- flight. Still, this isn't a big deal, and generally the plot is worth actually getting into.
One frustrating part of the game is that you can be allowed to further the plot when you are actually grossly ill-equipped to make it through that part of the story. Since Freelancer only requires a specific dollar amount of total value, you can have a hunk-a-junk with a cargo container full of expensive crap, and the game will tell you that you are ready for the next mission. In certain cases, you might wind up having to go back to an old save game to pick up a better ship or switch configuration of your gear.
Other than the surprise bits of extra difficulty, the game really is a joy to play. While you will no doubt travel massive distances, the game has a dense network of "trade lanes" and other portal spots to ensure you never have to spend more than a few minutes getting somewhere. On top of this, the game has a few keys to automatically fly you to your destination - it will avoid any debris for you and will make any necessary adjustments. Of course, if a fight starts while you are travelling, you will need to take the controls again - it doesn't do your killing for you.
The trading aspect of Freelancer is definitely a style of gameplay that hasn't been explored in many years. If you like, you can pick up a freighter ship and make money by hauling cargo around. As you might expect, certain installations and planets sell goods at varying prices, so there is an element of exploration in trying to get a good trade route going. Some players might find this the absolutely most boring idea in the world, and the developers seemed to understand this. You can always just pick up a combat mission instead, which is definitely more fun when you are in the mood for some instant gratification.
Freelancer does include a multiplayer mode with a system that combines a Quake-style dedicated server system with its own open-ended trade/mission setup. Players can go it alone in multiplayer to level up and get access to better gear, or work together on missions picked up from a Job Board somewhere. There isn't anything in the line of a huge massive multiplayer game here, but it can be fun if you have a collection of regular players getting together to cooperate in-game.
The multiplayer game worked well enough - lag was manageable and playing together in a game like this is an experience very different from first person shooters or Everquest-style MMORPGs. It really isn't for everyone, though, and that is something that can be said for the game as a whole. Even though Freelancer is designed to appeal to your average gamer, this will only get some of them, and will also get some of the sim gamers (most likely those who can get over the mouse controls) who love the trading element or want to coordinate some multiplayer together with friends.
Freelancer boasts a mildly impressive list of voice actors: 90210's Ian Ziering, George Takei (Sulu on the classic Star Trek series), and Andy Sirkis and John Rhys-Davies (Gollum and Gimli, respectively, from the Lord of the Rings movies). The voice acting is overall pretty good, although nothing really stands out.
The sound effects are mostly effective in Freelancer, although some of the more powerful equipment just didn't have the oomph I expected. Explosions can rock the speakers, though, which is always important for me (although not so much for my neighbors). The music is mostly forgettable here, which I've almost come to start expecting in recent games. There are a few barely workable tunes here I enjoyed, but after a while I realized how useless it was and how little it affected the game's mood at the moment. It seems like music is one of the last things a large majority of developers and publishers are willing to spend money on, which is really kind of sad.
Freelancer is a great space action title that can appeal to both the hardcore sim-types as well as some casual gamers. The mixture of both story-based and open-ended gameplay comes off with a decent effect, and while the interface could have used work in some areas, it is great in others. Throw all this in together with a fun multiplayer mode, and we have a very good - but not exactly classic - game.