Hey, I guess this series is going to be a regular thing. So read up and be enlightened.
When I was younger, I loved games set in space. I played the hell out of Alpha Centauri and Homeworld. So I was excited when, in 2003, Freelancer came out. This title billed itself as an open-ended sandbox sort of space shooter. As the box says, YOU DECIDE what kind of guy the player character (freelance pilot Edison Trent, the blonde guy on the box) gets to be. You can run escort missions and take out enemy ships. You can ship legit goods or make way more money smuggling contraband at the risk of discovery and death at the hands of one of the game’s state military or police forces.
This game must have had pretty high production values. It looked great in 2003, and even today, 11 years later, it holds up pretty well in that department. It featured plenty of voice acting talent, including John Rhys-Davies and George Takei. It has some cutscenes that are pretty clearly just in-game action and not pre-rendered, but that’s okay with me because I’m not a big fan of pre-rendered cutscenes anyway.
Without giving too much away, Trent is thrown into the middle of a growing interstellar war. The four empires that dominate Freelancer‘s star systems have been kept from the brink by a shaky system of alliances and truces, but at the beginning of the game this system is about to fall apart. It’s World War I in space, pretty much. And you’re in the center of the action, jumping from system to system, fighting pitched battles and running tense escort missions (SPOILER: every time you run an escort mission in this game you will get attacked along the way.)
The combat is fun and the controls are great. The basic gameplay in Freelancer is just really good. It’s also fun to jet around Trent’s corner of the galaxy and discover new star systems and visit their planets and stations as they open up. The universe of Freelancer isn’t all that big, but it is interesting – if you fly off the paths established by the empires of the game, you’ll find tight asteroid fields and thick clouds of gas that are home to rebel and “criminal” factions and their bases.
The reputation system this game uses was also pretty cool at the time. As a freelance pilot, Trent has a certain level of standing with each faction in the game. He can increase his rep with a faction by running missions for them and lower his rep with a faction by running missions for a rival faction. Missions can be found in the bars located on planets and stations. In a practical sense, though, all this reputation and mission stuff only really comes into play at the end of the story mode, when you get the freedom to roam all the systems without worrying about dramatic betrayals and sudden outbreaks of war. Scripted game events will mess up your rep with certain factions anyway, and it’s near impossible to maintain good rep with certain factions given the requirements of the story missions, so it’s not much use worrying about rep until after you’ve finished the main section of the game.
Plotwise, Freelancer has a decent enough space adventure storyline, though the writers didn’t bother coming up with too many original ideas: the empires I mentioned above are basically Space America, Space Britain, Space Germany and Space Japan. That’s not really a big deal. What does kind of suck about Freelancer is that Trent, your player character, isn’t that interesting. He’s a tough pilot guy, and that’s all you can say about him. Part of this probably has to do with the fact that you can choose whether Trent is a lawful kind of guy who works with the police and military, a smuggler who trades with rebel groups or a straight up opportunist. This would be fine if he were a silent protagonist, but he’s not. Trent does talk and emote, and it seems like he’s trying to have something interesting about him.
Still, he’s just not interesting at all. This does hurt the game’s story and playability a bit because it means I don’t care all that much when Trent’s ship gets shot apart by a Rhineland cruiser. It’s frustrating, but I’m not crying for the guy or anything. By contrast, when I get Garrett killed in Thief II I apologize to him personally. Yes, I say “I’m sorry” to my screen.
This isn’t the main issue with Freelancer, though. The greatest problem with the game is that singleplayer mode gets old after a while. While the story is going, everything’s fine, but every single mission afterwards is a slight variation on “go to X and shoot Y until it explodes.” Whether it’s a straightforward “wipe out all the enemies” mission, a capture mission or an escort mission, it all boils down to the same thing. And while the combat in Freelancer is fun, it can get grating after a while. That’s a pretty serious problem as far as replayability goes.
That leaves multiplayer, which is… pretty much multiplayer. Not much to say about that, except that it adds a lot of value to the game by letting you strategize with friends and engage in dogfights with real players instead of the same old AI. There’s just one problem here – I’m pretty sure nobody plays Freelancer anymore. If you want space shooting PvP action, you’ll have to turn to EVE Online or a newer game instead.
If you’re going to play Freelancer today, the best way to make it interesting is by adding a bunch of mods. Modders have included hundreds of new ship types and even new systems to Freelancer‘s maps. The game might be worth playing just to fly around a behemoth and kill everything in your path.
Its several flaws aside, I still have a soft spot for Freelancer, probably because I played it a whole lot when it came out. It is legitimately a good game, though. There are certainly a dozen other similar games that have surpassed it, but if you can get Freelancer for a dollar or two it’s well worth it.