It’s been an age since I did one of these, but if there was ever a time for a playthrough of Freelancer it has to be now. It’s a Chris Roberts space combat/trading game and was published back in 2003 by Microsoft after many delays. Unknown to me until recently, it appears to still have a sizable following due to a strong modding community and its multiplayer aspects. I’ll just be looking at the single player campaign though which is my primary interest in this sort of game and I’ll save the multiplayer until Star Citizen arrives.
The FMV intro sets the scene with 5 huge motherships fleeing the war on Earth between the coalition and the alliance (as portrayed in Starlancer) to find a new home in a distant system. This story is set 800 years after these events.
On starting a game, the cutscenes swap to using the game engine which is just as well since this game came on a single CD. In a scene slightly reminiscent of the start of WC4, Freeport 7 is destroyed by a mysterious group of fighters.
We then cut to a planet where my character (Edison Trent) is just landing in a rescue shuttle having survived the attack but lost his ship in the process. He establishes his hardened freelancer credentials by not showing any concern for the injured co-passenger other than the money he owes him. The camera then pans away to a guy smoking a cigarette for no apparent reason whatsoever. Expect to see him again later whoever he is.
I finally get control and have a choice of locations to switch between in more or less Privateer style. My primary mission objective, as so often the case in real life, is to find the bar. Once there, I have a quick word with the bartender who suggests I have a chat with Juni on the other side of the room.
Before that I have a look around the bar. I can read news articles which give some plot details as well as suggesting possible lines of trade. The interface here is nowhere near as appealing as Privateer 2 but does the job. There are numerous characters sat around the bar who will give me gossip if I talk to them. The way this is handled is a bit clunky as there is a cutscene with full speech but the actual rumour is done with text afterwards. The reasons are obvious but I think it would be better without the cutscene.
I talk to Juni who works for the local security forces. As luck would have it she is looking for a Freelancer and offers me an easy escort mission which I’m hardly in a position to turn down.
We head over to the ship dealer and she even throws in a free ship. It does look pathetically small when I’m launching into space but it’s free and I’m sure I’ll be flying something more impressive in no time.
The moment I arrive in space, it’s another cutscene as an Admiral arrives for a summit with the planet’s President. Before he makes it, more mystery ships arrive and blow him up. I’ve not even figured out what I’m doing yet but still get to join in the dogfighting.
This is where it all starts to get a little odd, at least for a space sim vet like myself, as Freelancer has mouse control and is third person. The way I remember it, the idea of having to buy a joystick to play a game at this time was not something most gamers would be prepared to do so this was perhaps the smart option to appeal the majority of potential customers but it does alienate people like myself to a large degree.
There are two flight modes, one where I have mouse steering and just move my mouse around to steer – this is what I’ve been using most of the time. The other uses the keyboard to turn. Since I’m using the mouse to both steer and aim, combat is basically just trying to move a mouse pointer onto a moving target. I’m not really aware of consciously steering the ship, as just following the target always steers me toward it anyway. It works well enough but it does seem like a big compromise on first impressions. However, I’ve only played a couple of missions so it may grow on me as I learn more and things get trickier.
Once space is clear, we have to jump to a new nav point to meet up with the transport we are supposed to be escorting. Jumps in this game work through a series of connected gates which I have to dock with. There is a really cool effect where you speed up and can see distant planets and stations coming rapidly nearer when in these tunnels.
I meet up with the cargo ship, head into the jump lanes again and we are of course intercepted by more pirates and have to fight our way out. I have to say that for a 10 year old game, Freelancer is still looking half decent and hasn’t aged badly at all in the graphics department. There is loads of debris floating around and a lot of colour and detail on all the ships and backgrounds.
With more ships dispatched, we run away in the nick of time and arrive at our destination planet safely. The planets use a similar ring gate system to the jump gates where I have to dock with them to land. The mouse control system here makes all this incredibly easy. I can literally select the gate, click dock and it will fly me all the way there on autopilot. About the only steering I’ve had to do in this game so far is during combat.
When I land I get to meet one of my wingmen (King) who wants me to carry on working for the security forces to hunt down the base the pirates are using which must be nearby. If I learned anything in Privateer, it was never turn down a plot mission so I accept.
I take the chance to upgrade my ship a little first. My options are limited but I buy another gun and a slightly bigger shield. I also tractored in some cargo during the last mission (dropped by some of my opponents while blowing up) which I sell off.
Mission two starts with a detour to protect a transport from another pirate raid. I just about manage this but it’s looking worse for wear by the time we see off the last of them. There is a nice (if unrealistic considering this is space) smoke effect to show the damage on the larger ship.
We get a lead on the pirate base from another pilot and discover it’s in the middle of a dust cloud. This is another chance to show off the engine as the view smoothly transforms from open space to murky dust. We have to see off a couple of weapons platforms while bombers come in and take out the main pirate base. So far the combat has been easy and I manage this without taking too many hits.
With the mission complete I head back to base and am rewarded by the game now being opened up for free play, meaning that I can take on some missions and earn a little money without following the plot. In fact I won’t even get the next mission until I earn enough money.
That’s all I had time for. I wish I could use a joystick but I still like what I’ve seen so far. I’m really curious to see the sorts of missions that will be available but it will have to wait until Thursday.