Saturday, 18 June 2016

Freelancer (PC)

Freelancer logo
Developer:Digital Anvil|Release Date:2003|Systems:PC

This week on Super Adventures I'm having a go of PC Elite 'em up Freelancer. I've been meaning to write about this on my site for years but other games kept taking its place in the queue and it eventually got shoved to the back burner. But I played this game to completion back when it was new and I'm hyped to finally get around to jumping back into the Sirius Sector for some simulated space combat.

The game's by Digital Anvil, founded by Wing Commander developer Chris Roberts, who's probably better known these days as the man space sim fans keep throwing money at in the hopes he'll someday give them Star Citizen. Microsoft bought Digital Anvil in 2000, a few months after buying Bungie, but Freelancer escaped Halo's fate of becoming Xbox exclusive. Instead it remained PC exclusive, which still kind of sucks for console owners. If the Dreamcast could handle Starlancer, I bet the newer consoles could've managed the sequel.

Like Star Citizen, Freelancer promised a lot of ambitious features, like a dynamic galaxy with fluctuating stock prices, supporting thousands of players at once! And then the final game had a static galaxy supporting 128 players. It supports exactly 1 player these days, as the official servers were shut down 5 years after release, but I'm sure fans are still running galaxies of their own. It's all irrelevant to me though as I'm only going to be checking out the single player.

(Click the screenshots to gaze upon them in their full 1280x960 majesty).



Freelancer installer
I always appreciate when a game dresses up its installer a bit so it's not just a progress bar. The game was never made available for digital download, so right now installing from the disc like this is still the only way to play it legit.

The thing is though, the game wouldn't start for me! Freelancer uses SafeDisc DRM and Windows 10 wants nothing to do with it. Fortunately there's an easy enough solution to that, and that's to use a No-CD exe to bypass the copy protection. This also has the side effect of meaning I don't have to have the game box lying around handy, so that can go back on the shelf.

Freelancer begins with an in-engine cutscene showing space station Freeport 7 being destroyed by mysterious ships, with just one escape pod drifting away from the blast.

The survivors are taken to Planet Manhattan in the New York system, showing that humans will still suck at thinking up new names for things even centuries into the future. Still, at least they didn't call it Epsilon Hydra III or LV-884 or something. 

Amongst the survivors is freelancer Generic Spaceguy, or Trent to his friends. He looks a bit like Star Wars hero Dash Rendar, sounds a lot like Kyle Katarn, and he's a bit of bastard. First thing he does is tell the medics to make sure the guy on the space stretcher lives because "He owes me some credits".

Space sims up to this point often had a bit of a contrast between the gameplay visuals and the pre-rendered or live action FMV cutscenes outside the cockpit, but Freelancer is all real time, all the time. The animation and direction is about as natural as you'd expect from 2003 though. It compares well to something like Knights of the Old Republic, but a bit crap compared to the motion captured cutscenes of Metal Gear Solid 2. Also there's no subtitles!

As Trent walks off somewhere a mysterious man steps into the frame, smoking a high-tech cigarette. And the cutscene ends.

Freelancer Planet Manhattan city
I get the feeling I'm meant to look for a job in the bar.

There's no need to guess which building to click on either, as I get around this place by using the five icons along the top of the screen (or by pressing the appropriate F keys). From left to right the icons are: 'City', 'Bar', 'Biscuits', 'Watchmaker', and 'Airport'. Maybe.

Oh it tells me what they do when I hover the mouse over them. The last three are actually Commodity Trader, Equipment Trader and Ship Trader. Lots of trade going on at Planet Manhattan.

I clicked the pub icon like it told me to and got another cutscene showing Trent ordering a drink in this giant cavernous bar. I'm not sure this place actually has a ceiling, and even if it does no one's ever seen it; it's lost somewhere up in the fog. The bartender points Trent towards Liberty Security Force pilot Jun'ko Zane over on the left, saying she's the one to speak to if he wants work. I don't get any dialogue choices, so Trent answered for me, saying all he wanted was a drink.

Now I get to click on people in the room to talk to them, like Jun'ko and the bartender. Hey, where did the cutscene bartender go? The guy I was talking to was wearing a blue shirt and an apron, and had a moustache.

I clicked on a guy who worked at Samura Heavy Industries, but he told me my reputation is unworthy so that didn’t go anywhere. There’s a person who offered to hack my record to make me more popular with Cryer Pharmaceuticals for a 60,000 credit bribe, but I’ve got 500 credits to my name so I passed. So I guess I'm clicking on Jun'ko then.

Clicking Jun'ko has brought me into another cutscene where Trent interrupts her conversation and drives the sinister gravelly voiced g-man she was talking with to leave. He offers his services to the LSF as a freelance pilot, but admits his ship was blown up along with Freeport 7 and he didn't have insurance. Surprisingly this is not a deal breaker, and she tells him to call him Juni if they're going to be working together.

Hang on, I think that's Commander Shepard playing Juni. Yep IMDb confirms that Jun'ko Zane really is Jennifer Hale! Though IMDb also claims that Christopher Lee's in the game, so you can't put too much faith in it.

While I'm here I can also bring up the job board (which isn't much use to me without a ship), and check out the news. Freelancer doesn't have a codex where I can read up on the game's lore and backstory, but it does have endless news stories. And I'm going to scroll through and read all of it to give myself a deeper understanding of the story!

It says here that Admiral Schultzky has come to Planet Manhattan from Rheinland to visit President Jacobi, so now we both know that.

Anyway, Juni got me a new ship! It's so damn ugly that even the bizarre statue in the background can barely look at it, but it's spaceworthy and has guns on it, so it'll do for now.

For my first mission I'll be assisting an LSF pilot called King as he babysits a convoy of food and medical supplies from Fort Bush to the mining colony on Planet Pittsburgh. Well at least they're consistent with their naming scheme. Doing this will get me 2000 credits, which is considerably more than the 500 I have now.

I thought I'd be starting off with a nice pleasant drive to Fort Bush, but a wing of Order fighters just flew over and started re-enacting Star Wars. They went straight for the Rheinland cruiser bringing Admiral Schultzky over to meet with the President, and they blew the thing up! Wow, it was lucky I read the news so I could appreciate the full impact of that.

Now I've got an earful of radio chatter, a screenful of energy bolts, and a lot of targets to pick from. Fortunately pressing 'R' selects the nearest one, as was written into laws of space sims for all time by X-Wing (maybe).

But unlike X-Wing and its kind, there's absolutely no joystick support! Instead I've got two control modes: Free Flight and Mouse Flight. Free Flight lets me use the mouse cursor to click on things like icons and space stations, while Mouse Flight uses the cursor as my gun turret crosshairs. Mouse control for space sims is a terrible idea that never works... is what I thought before trying this, but they actually pulled it off this time. My ship automatically turns to line up with where I'm shooting, so I don't have to keep picking the mouse up and re-centering it on the mat. This means lots of graceful swooping in full 3D space, but unfortunately no barrel rolls.

Once the epic battle was over everyone got back to their jobs, so now King and I are on our way to Fort Bush to rendezvous with this convoy.

Space in Freelancer is divided into star systems, most of them with their own network of floating rings, forming trade lanes. All I do is click the nearest ring and press F3 to dock, and I'm fired off down the trade lane at underwhelming speeds!

There's basically five ways of moving around space in the game:
  • Normal engines: Every ship in the game can reach a max speed of 80 (to keep things fair).
  • Afterburners: A temporary boost to 200 at the cost of (regenerating) fuel.
  • Cruise engines: A constant speed of 300 if I don't mind deactivating my weapons and waiting for it to charge up.
  • Trade lanes: Take me across the system at 999+. Ideal if I have to leave the computer for 30 seconds.
  • Jump gates: The only way to get from system to system. Except not right now, because I've been locked out.

SOON.


Those asshole Rogues deactivated the trade lane as I was escorting the convoy! Now I’ve got to fly around this debris field and keep them off the transports while we wait for the trade lane to come back up. I guess this is also teaching me how to be a pirate, seeing as disrupting trade lanes and blasting freighters seems to be a good way of grabbing cargo

Combat in this involves lining my crosshair up with the red + in front of the enemy and holding the right mouse button to spray sustained energy bolts until they eventually blow up. I've also got subsystem targeting, but it seems entirely pointless so I'll never be using that. There's no need to hit a match speed button either, as everyone's already moving at the same speed.

I haven't got a radar so I'm following the arrows around the edge of the screen instead. That red arc shows I'm taking damage, but my shields automatically regenerate after a pause so I don't have to mess around reallocating power from guns or anything. If I'm in real trouble I can hit 'F' to use some shield batteries to get a refill, so they're basically my health potions. Enemies are kind enough to drop them sometimes (plus other loot), so I tap 'B' after a kill to use the tractor beam to scoop that up.

I got the convoy to tiny Planet Pittsburgh intact, and even got a promotion to level 1 for my trouble! But in a shocking twist, King thanked the freighters for being bait and paid them as well.

Now I just have to click the planet's docking ring and hit F3 to let the autopilot bring me in (no request for landing required), then I can finally save! Not that it's been that long since the last save, as the game autosaves during missions. If I'd been freelancing though I'd very much want to get docked with something ASAP so I could bank my progress.

You know, I'm sure I've seen a video explaining why all these colonies are named after places in the US. Maybe it was at the end of Starlancer.

Oops, turns out that I skipped the pre-rendered intro by accident because the developers had put it right after all their logo animations. It's nice that at least one cutscene in this game is skippable though, as I'm stuck watching all the others whether I want to or not. Trent actually writes down everything that happens in his log (along with his thoughts on it) so I could follow the plot just fine without 'em.

The intro shows the end of the war between the Alliance and Coalition featured in Starlancer, and it's bad news for the people who beat that game as their victory was ultimately futile. The Alliance loses and has to run away to the Sirius Sector on five giant sleeper ships.

This video's not exactly HD, but it looks great. I'd watch a movie of this. Wait, I just remembered that Chris Roberts and Digital Anvil made the 'Wing Commander' movie. Never mind then.

Hey the building in the background of Planet Manhattan is one of the sleeper ships!

There were five ships, each christened after their patron nation, and they all landed light years apart. So that explains why each empire retained their distinct culture 800 years later, kind of.

Meanwhile the evil Coalition has the Sol system all to themselves now, so they can finally settle down and start doing whatever it is they wanted to do all this time. Unless you watch the alternative version of the intro found on a bonus DVD (or this YouTube link), which shows the entire solar system being wiped out by an evil jellyfish spaceship after the Alliance has gone. Alas.

Where was I? Oh right, Pittsburgh.

Seems that Planet Pittsburgh's got the full set of places to visit as well, so I'm going to follow my buddy King's advice and buy some better guns. The weapons I can get are limited by the slots on my ship, my level, and the cash I've got, but I'm wealthy enough to replace my Justice Mk Is with some Class 2 Adv. Starbeams. They’re apparently effective against positron shields, whatever that means.

I'm going to load up on boron as well while I'm here. This is the place that mines it, so there's no way it's going to be cheaper anywhere else.

Check out my awesome nav map. You think that it'd need to be 3D, but it turns out that everything in space is aligned to a horizontal plane, so there's no need!

I did another job for King and the LSF, helping him take down the Rogue base in the debris field, then they sent me out on my own. I need to gain a level before I can do the next plot mission and for that I need to earn cash.

So I've started flying down all the trade lanes in the New York system, visiting every station to check what they sell and what's on the job board. Funnily enough all the jobs in this seem to involve going to a purple waypoint somewhere off the path and destroying something or everything there.

But space travel is slow and boring, so I decided to get a stopwatch out to see how long this trip is actually taking me. It can take around 20 seconds to fly over a trade lane ring, then 10 seconds to slow down and dock with it, then another 30 seconds to ride the thing to the end. So to fly from Planet Pittsburgh to West Point takes over three minutes. On autopilot.

The game automatically calculates the best path through the trade lanes to get me where I need to go, but it's up to me to press the dock button at each of them along the way, so I can't just leave the game running and come back when the journey's done. That's pretty much unforgivable when there's no fast travel or time acceleration.

But it gets even worse when I stray from the path, as it can take a couple of minutes on autopilot just to reach something in the same grid square as me. At least it's auto-dodging the creepy weird asteroids for me, so I don't have to pay attention during the flight. Basically, I'm putting a podcast on.

This is an awesome looking creepy weird asteroid field though, especially when it's illuminated by a flash of space lightning. Sure it's not all that realistic, but then nowhere in this game is. The last time I saw a regular normal starfield was in the pre-rendered intro, and that's just because it was set in our solar system.

As soon as I got paid for this latest bit of dogfighting I progressed to level 3 and was called back to meet with Juni in the bar for more plot. It really doesn't take much work to unlock the next bit of story in this.


LATER.


I've finally saved up the cash to buy a new ride! I can only have the one ship, but that's fine as I didn't like my ugly old fighter much anyway.

Also I've finally found a room that has some reason to be as huge as it is! Though  I'm suddenly very glad the game doesn't let me walk through the planets and stations myself. They should give customers a bike to use, to save them making the long journey to the desk on foot.

Speaking of things that take forever, I'm turning off the room transitions. Every time I visit the bar or go to sell off my salvaged weapons and cargo I have to wait for the camera to pan across the room and there's no need for it at all. The game's just trying to waste my time at every opportunity!

I don't think I like any of these designs either much to be honest, though it's hard to tell when the preview window is so microscopic. I appreciate being able to spin the ship model around but I can barely see the thing! I'm not actually a fan of this UI in general really, though that's more because of the design than the layout. It's functional enough but the style doesn't really appeal to me.

This isn't the whole selection of ships in this sector by the way, as I can also go shopping on pirate bases or battleships. But the pirate bases are currently surrounded by wings of angry pirates so I think I'll just settle for the Patriot.

It's a shame the game doesn't have any of the old ships from Starlancer around, refitted to current spec. I wouldn't mind a ship that looked like a Naginata or a Shroud.


A FEW JOBS AND A NEW SHIP LATER.


Well that's confirmed that then: all the ships seem to share the same HUD. Usually I'd want a bit of the cockpit on screen too but that wouldn't make much sense when I'm flying around in third person like it's Star Fox game.

This camera angle isn't actually so bad. It doesn't really give me an advantage in combat but it does give me a good view of the ships I'm flying way too close to. The most important part of any space sim is its potential for swooping around and through giant space structures, and the game has that covered. It's just a shame I can't record replays.

Also important is the potential for moving on with the plot, and I can do that now that Juni's unlocked the jump gate for me!

Yep that looks like a wormhole alright.

So now I’m out and about in the neighbouring Texas System!

It’s pretty dull to be honest, and I still haven't found anyone who wants to give me a good deal for my boron. But the next set of jump gates are blocked off, so I'm stuck in the systems around New York, doing the same dogfighting missions to earn cash to get the next bit of plot.

At least it doesn't cost fuel to jump between systems, so it costs me nothing to explore. Well, except for repair bills and new health potions. There's transports flying between the ports doing their thing so pirates often turn up to do their thing, and I get caught up in it whether it's my business or not; space is a moderately busy and dangerous place.


LOTS OF STORY LATER.


Okay that's too busy now, too dangerous! Seems I've pissed off just about everyone in the system due to... events, and all I can do now is run for it.

You know what this is missing though? A proper dynamic soundtrack. Sure the battle music comes on when I'm in a fight, but it doesn't change to reflect what's going on. You can follow how a battle is going in TIE Fighter or Wing Commander with your eyes closed.

That red circle at the top means I've got a homing missile coming my way so I need to tap the countermeasures button. Fortunately that seems to be the extent of the game's fun with missiles, at least for now. I haven't had to chase torpedoes down before they destroy a mission critical ship, and for that I'm so so grateful.

Awesome, the ship's computer just told me that my shield's ran out too. I've been reluctant to use batteries if there's a chance I can hold out until my shields come back on their own, but I really should hit the button before they blow my wings off. That's the thing that separates me from the AI pilots after all: I'm smart enough to occasionally use the batteries I'm carrying.


EVEN MORE PLOT LATER.


Despite being all sandboxy, the game only has the one linear quest line, but the story's a bit more interesting than your typical us vs. them space war. I've gone from catching Artifact smugglers (always with a capital A), to hunting down clues that'll hopefully explain why I'm being chased across the sector by a sinister conspiracy.

I've have had to jump a lot of systems lately, and now I've found myself at...

Gotham City! Aka. New London. Trust the British to settle somewhere cloudy and raining. I love how all the planets seem to look distinct in this though, I haven't encountered any obviously reused cities.

I'm stuck in Bretonia space for a while, meaning I've got a new set of systems to explore. They're a lot like the old set though, except I get harassed by pirates more often while minding my own business. Seems like every time I leave dock they're there waiting to shoot me.

Turns out that Trent is actually from around here as he grew up on Planet Leeds, though you wouldn't know from his American Liberty accent.

At least I was finally able to shift that boron I've been carrying around the galaxy! I made like 4x on that investment, so basically the same amount I'd earn in a single dogfighting job.

The game's nice enough to keep track of prices for all the places I've visited in that box at the bottom, but it seems like everything else I've been picking up gets cheaper the further I go. I've got a cargo bay filled with shite I can't bear to part with at such terrible prices, so I've got no space left to pick up new cargo from destroyed fighters.

I nearly did well with some contraband I'd picked up though. I got it halfway to New London before I was scanned by a patrol and was ordered to drop it. Now I know how Han Solo feels.

I've abandoned my dreams of being a smuggler, but scavenging treasure from wrecks seems like a good way to make some cash. They're usually hidden off the trade lanes in hazardous space full of radiation or exploding gas clouds, but I can deal with that.

The real trouble I'm having is that my already painfully slow trip is frequently interrupted by cruise disruptor missiles slamming into my hull. They don't do any damage, but they knock me out of cruise speed so I have to stop and fight the wing of pirates harassing me. Now I don't mind dogfighting pirates, it's kind of why I'm playing the game, but they just won't let up! I end up using more shield batteries than I've picked up and boom I'm blown up by a gas pocket on the way out with my loot. I think I'm more annoyed that they're slowing me down than anything else though.

To be fair, the wrecks aren't supposed to be easy to loot. Plus they're even harder to find, so I'm using maps from the internet to save myself a few hours of searching.

I can display the enemy patrol paths to discover where hidden pirate bases and jump holes are, which is cool, but if there's clues to where the wrecks are then I've missed them.

There's another good reason I'm going after the wrecks: they're often equipped with high spec weapons I can't find in shops, and I want them. The proper story mission aren't as dull as freelancing, but they're becoming more difficult and I need every advantage I can get before starting them.

Story missions also give me an opportunity to meet interesting NPCs, like John Rhys Davies and George Takei! I don't think much of Takei's wonky space jacket but that's an awesome beard. John Rhys Davies' doing pretty well with his beard too, though I stopped looking forward to his appearances when his scenes began to have comedy music in them. Ugh.

There's a gulf of quality in the game between the characters voiced by famous actors and the rest of them, but to be honest none of them are given a chance to shine in these cutscenes. Though I do like some of the radio chatter in space between the other pilots. "Don't fall asleep on me, out here you'll get us killed," is one of my favourites, because I usually hear it about the time I'm dozing off after taking a couple of trade lanes. "I'm going to use what's left of you to grease my ship!" is a classic line too, because what the fuck man?

Here, you can grease your ship with your own corpse, weirdo.

It's hard to tell from this screenshot, but if you look at the trail coming off my lower fin you'll see I'm actually sliding sideways here. What I did is put my afterburners on full and then hit the 'kill engine' button to turn off the X-Wing-style manoeuvring and leave my ship flying through space like a bullet with a gun turret on it. If I want to change my direction of movement I just use another burst of afterburner. I'm not sure doing this is even helping at all, but it's cool so whatever.

I'm just doing whatever I can to keep myself entertained during these dogfights right now, as they're usually pretty simplistic. A typical mission in TIE Fighter will have the player flying over to different locations in the combat zone, scanning boxes, disabling ships, taking out waves of bombers etc. In this I'm just pressing 'R' and moving the crosshairs over the next target. It's slick and satisfying but man does it get repetitive.

Alright, I think 12.11 hours is long enough to get an idea of how this plays. It was long enough to me to piss off half the galaxy at least. It's a shame the reputation system doesn't give enemy pilots a hint that maybe I'm a target best left untargeted. Fear me you idiots! Or at least leave me alone when I'm going down to the shops.

Anyway I'm done.


CONCLUSION

Well that was a massive disappointment.

I mean it wasn't all bad. The mouse control works great against all common sense and the dogfighting is solid. Plus the graphics have gotten a bit dated and the spaceship designs are bizarre, but it's still a pretty game due to the fact it's set in the fantasy region of space where there's desktop wallpapers in place of starfields, and planets are so close you can fly between them in a couple of minutes. The ridiculous scale actually kind of works for the game, making each system a place that's (theoretically) possible to explore in your lifetime. Though the planets are so incredibly tiny that I'm not sure how they fit all the giant rooms and statues on them.

The story's nothing amazing, but I found the game only really came alive when the plot missions started flowing together and shit was hitting the fan. The back of the box says "Hero, pirate, merchant, smuggler, YOU DECIDE," but the freelancing became a chore I had to get out of the way before I could get back to the game. There's no side quests, no other stories going on, no activities to take part in. There's different kinds of jobs on the board but they all involve going to the waypoint and moving your crosshair over the enemies. And the game didn't even have the decency to give me experience points for this grinding!

Plus I played the game for 12 hours and I still don't understand the trading. I mean I get that you buy a commodity where it's cheap and then fly to where it's expensive to sell it at a profit, I just don't get how this is fun gameplay. Why would I want to move cargo from place to place, when going between places is the worst part of the game? At least in Truck Simulator you're actually steering the truck and you can listen to the radio. The game really needs proper fast travel or time acceleration, for the single player at least. Even a town portal would be a start! Taking control out of the player's hands for 30 seconds at a time is clearly not the right way to make games.

I came into Freelancer fully expecting to give this game one of my 'Not Crap' stars but now I'm not so sure. If you'd asked me what I thought about it at the times I was out in the galaxy earning cash I would've told you to stay well clear of the game without hesitation, but if you'd asked me while I was in a plot mission I would've said it was decent enough. The game liked to bore me to tears, then cruelly reclaim my interest

Actually I will give it a star; it successfully suckered me into playing it for hours so it's earned one. But be aware you have to be comfortable with tedium to get anywhere in this game. And maybe have a book handy.


I was going to make a joke about how if you read my articles you're already comfortable with tedium, but it's too damn hot for self depreciation so I'll just say thanks for reading, leave a comment if you feel like it!

8 comments:

  1. I love that it's a space opera with a planet called Leeds. Nothing captures the scope and majesty of the cosmos than "Leeds".

    Is Bioshock the next game?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I realized it too late but i think it is
      What's with Jack and his parent letter

      Delete
    2. Yeah the next game's BioShock. I probably made that one a LITTLE too easy, especially considering that note's one of the first things to come on screen when you start the game.

      Delete
  2. Planet Leeds? Is that the best name they could think of?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Everyone's mocking poor Planet Leeds!

      Personally I think it's a perfectly fine name for a planet. Space is really big, even bigger than Britain, so I'm sure every city has a planet, space colony, battleship or boron mine named after it somewhere. Leeds did one better than that though: the entire planetary system is named after it.

      Delete
  3. From stats screenshot, i can conclude that
    Are you leveling up by stacking money?
    Pretty weird concept especially for those (like me) who get used to RPG stuff

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, but also no. When you get enough cash to start the next mission you get a level up. Then the next level up requirement becomes 'mission' so you have to go do that instead. There's no XP involved at any point and you don't get any better stats for it... as far as I know.

      Delete
  4. I loved this game. I got the walk through guide, the game soundtrack and toys, yes you can if you look really hard get some of the ships. there was supposed to be a second game but Microsoft dropped it.
    great review, I enjoyed reading it

    ReplyDelete

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