The setting for this “space opera” game is the 23rd Century, which in a galactic time-frame can be roughly described as just before the insanity that was Buck Rogers and just after the Space Odyssey. A civil war has ripped Earth and our Solar System apart, with the losing faction, the Alliance, escaping to deep space to start over again.
And eight hundred years later, the suitably futuristically-named Edison Trent finds a testing time for himself in this remote splinter colony. He’s a mercenary who has just had his ship and cargo blown to smithereens during an attack on a space station.
Naturally Edison, the eponymous freelance pilot, is a bit peeved and seeks solace in the nearest source of hard liquor. The local space cantina, however, also proves to be a source of new ship and job… and shortly thereafter, this leads into an intriguing plot line featuring galactic intrigue and back-stabbing on a monumental level.
But with Freelancer, you can pretty much do your own thing. The main plot line can be ignored and you can zoom off around the universe exploring, picking up random missions and upgrading your ship and weapons. Not to mention trading goods “Elite”-style, or alternatively becoming a bounty hunter and scooping up the cargo of your kills. So it’s a pretty freeform game, at least in theory.
In practical terms, however, the random missions you can undertake are rather template-based. Once you’ve had the “Track down this guy, Mr X, he’s real important to us, blow his ship up and tractor in his escape pod” mission a few times, it starts to lose its lustre.
We found that following the main plot was rewarding though, with a good slice of exploring the massive universe, bounty hunting and trading fitting in nicely between the major missions. It’s also great fun planning your ship, weapon and shield upgrades while trying to balance your funds, taking repairs and restocking ammo into account.
The whole game has an excellent atmosphere, with a believable story-line, some smart voice acting and neat little touches like electronic news (i.e. plot) updates you can read in the bars you frequent. It’s a typically polished Microsoft affair.
Special mention must be made of the novel mouse and keyboard control system, which works a treat. The controls are easy to master and space combat is an all-action, heart thumping affair, particularly when it comes to the mass dogfights, with lasers and explosions streaking left, right and centre. Visually the graphics are very tasty too. A multiplayer mode has also been included, allowing you to take to the stars and try to out-trade or out-gun your pals (though the main plot missions are missing from this mode).
On the downside, some joystick junkies may find that the mouse-controlled, arcade-leaning space combat isn’t “sim” enough for their tastes, but we didn’t have a problem here. The trading system is a little crude too, but it’s functional enough in spite of its simplicity.