|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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It says here that Admiral Schultzky has come to Planet Manhattan from Rheinland to visit President Jacobi, so now we both know that.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
I've have had to jump a lot of systems lately, and now I've found myself at...
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Anyway I'm done.
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.