It's a sobering thought to remember that our planet is such a small piece of a much larger universe. We're used to seeing outer space in science fiction as an arbitrary void where people conveniently zip around in futuristic machines that utterly evade any tangible sense of the true vastness of space. It's very seldom that we are reminded that it would take tens of thousands of human lifetimes traveling at the speed of light to even reach beyond the limits of our own galaxy, that the sheer size of all that is, all that exists, is so beyond our limited perception that it can only be "known" via abstract mathematical approximation, diagrams, and enigmatic photographs of phenomena that we could never in our wildest imaginations directly experience.
Freelancer made me think about this. It made me think about it in ways that few things have. Being the most recent entry in the waning (some would say 'dead') space-flight simulation genre, it is one of the few games I've played in the past few years that let me experience a compelling virtual recreation of outer space. This was to be expected considering its legacy. It was originally envisioned as a sequel to Starlancer by Chris Roberts, pioneer of space-flight sims whose seminal Wing Commander series redefined the genre in the early 90's. The so-called "Lancer Saga" was billed as the next evolution in the genre brought to you by the masters themselves. Unfortunately, after Starlancer was released to little critical acclaim and lukewarm sales Freelancer seemed to extend on and on into obscurity until Roberts himself finally left the project as well as his newly founded company, Digital Anvil. Now, no less than six years after Starlancer's release, Freelancer has finally arrived to valiantly uphold the legacy and give the genre the adrenaline boost it's needed for a long, long time.
Like all space-flight sims, Freelancer is a game where the player controls a space craft as if they were piloting an airplane, much akin to the fight sim genre of which it is obviously derivative. Although traditionally these types of games aren't generally known for their compelling stories, Freelancer, being of the Wing Commander legacy, manages to start off with an unusually compelling premise. It begins with a recap of Starlancer's plot, detailing the final stages of a desperate war between East and West fought exclusively in outer space. The nations of the Middle East along with Russia succeed in driving America, Britain, Japan, and Germany into retreat beyond our solar system where they set up series of colonies near Sirius, one of our neighboring stars. Several hundred years have passed since then and the many peoples of Sirius have thrived unmolested, establishing a political and economic map across several star systems that reflects their ethno/national origins. The game begins when the player takes control of Trent, a recent refugee of a mysterious attack on a deep-space outpost in which he lost all his wealth and possessions. He arrives on Planet Manhattan in search of work and is immediately contacted by the Liberty (i.e. American) military to help them track down the people responsible for what they consider a terrorist attack. From there the player is given a ship, some money, and let loose to explore Sirius while gradually uncovering the truth behind the attacks as well the who holds the real power within the colonies.
Freelancer doesn't play like a normal space-flight sim in many ways. First of all, it's what some might consider "non-linear." Unlike Starlancer's military-based mission structure, Freelancer allows the player to go where he or she will and become involved in missions and conflicts of their choosing. In this sense, it has much more in common with other open-ended space-flights games such as Frontier: Elite 2 and, most obviously, Wing Commander: Privateer. The latter Freelancer owes a lot to, actually. Astute players will notice that more than a few of its elements are lifted directly from Privateer. The player can visit bars on each planet to talk to potential employers and take jobs. Doing these jobs is rewarded by cash which can be used to upgrade weapons, armor, and even buy new ships at ship dealers. Likewise the player can buy and sell a series of legal and illegal commodities which fetch different prices on different planets. Also, the player has a 'reputation' which is determined by how much he or she helps or hinders certain factions within Sirius, be they police, military, corporate, independent, or criminal. Different affiliations are what result in the availability of different jobs in bars which, theoretically, each have their own benefits and drawbacks.
Although Freelancer may seem like a complicated game to explain, it goes to great lengths to achieve simplicity, the most obvious example of which is its totally mouse-driven interface. In a wild departure from other space-flight sims the game is controlled primarily with the mouse, including space combat and navigation. While this may sound suspect, even blasphemous, to flight sim enthusiasts who like the "authentic" feeling of a flight-stick, I cannot in good conscious say anything about Freelancer's controls other than they are some of the most lucid, intuitive, and inventive examples of smart game design I've seen recently. Rather than weigh down the genre with the feeling of terrestrially based flight, it achieves a unique sense of weightlessness and comfort while sacrificing no combat precision. Most importantly, its very friendly auto-piloting system makes charting courses through space both natural and believable. More than any other game I've played set in space, Freelancer provides a compelling vision of space travel as a practical, everyday phenomena without reducing the sense of excitement that invariably comes with exploring the unknown.
This brings us to Freelancer's finest quality: its evocative vision of outer space as a fascinating, living environment. Although its hardly realistic, Freelancer's outer space is a showcase of beautiful and terrifying images, scapes, and vistas that inspire the imagination. Players can look forward to flying into a nebula and feeling it swallow them as a shroud of endless color wraps around the visible universe. They can experience the wonder and fear of seeing a lighting flash illuminate a derelict space station floating in the gloom like a silent ghost. Or, if they so choose, they can fly to the outer layer of a star and be blinded by its awesome, heavenly light. There are black holes, binary star systems, endless ribbons of ice fields: a veritably rainbow of color and light that twists, turns, and stretches across the universe. Players can look around the 360 degrees and tell where they are just by the placements of stars, planets, and nebulas. It all has a palpable sense of cohesion that, in my experience, seems unprecedented in the genre. I've never experienced a virtual outer space that seemed so poetic, that made me want to learn about our Universe and understand how such things are possible, and why I'll never get to see them.
This is why, I think, the game ultimately alienated me. On some level, I find it frustrating that a game with such a unique capacity to challenge my imagination seems content to have me run around shooting people all the time. Of course, it would be totally unfair of me to suggest that focusing on combat is a mistake amidst such an evocative space. That's not quite what I'm saying. I have no problem with the fact that the game is about combat, about zooming around the cosmos doing odd jobs for people that all inevitably involve killing some poor sot. My issue with Freelancer is that it cannot make this even one tenth as interesting as the environment in which it takes place. By this, I am referring not just to the combat itself but the social/economic/political systems built up around it to make the player believe there are taking part in believable, dramatic events. The fact of the matter is, the entire social system of the game seems utterly transparent and phony. Take, for example, the fact that the game boasts to have "unlimited" missions via a random mission generator. It sure sounds nice, but in practice they feel like exactly what they are: the same three or four missions with the names changed over, and over, and over again ad-infinitum. After taking only a handful of jobs players might as well play only plot-missions since they've effectively experienced the depth and breadth of the gameplay. However, this isn't even possible because of the game's obnoxious pacing, which requires the player to "stop" the plot at regular intervals to gain an arbitrary amount of money in order to proceed. While the plot missions tend to be at least somewhat diverting, the random ones become bothersome instantly. What makes this even more frustrating is the fact that the gameplay itself could have been so easily improved. Even with the shattered narrative ambiance of people and places being utterly random, the designers still could have (easily, I'd imagine) leveraged the existing gameplay to do many, many more things beside shoot X ship at X place to kill X person for X faction. Why not have missions where players investigate SOS's and have to save people? Why not have detective missions where players scan cargo of other ships simply to locate a certain criminal? Why not have escort missions? Exploration missions? There was really nothing stopping any of this aside from failed creativity, and it makes me wonder how compelling they thought their randomly generated content was. Do designers really think this is interesting, stuff that is obviously mechanical and repetitive? Considering how much personality outer space itself has in the game, the stilted nature of its social space proves to be very awkward in comparison.
Does this bring down the whole game for me? At first I didn't think it would, but the more I played it the less desire I had to go on. When it became clear that working for hours and hours to change my reputation would mean nothing more than a different name for the person I was killing next, my interest dwindled quickly. Otherwise there was the plot which, despite being moderately interesting, is mostly filled with wooden, underwritten characters who practically all have American accents despite the supposed cultural richness of colonies. (Maybe I'm too picky, but I say something's very wrong you're your multi-ethnic ambiance when a British policeman sounds like John Wayne.) This also contributed to the general phoniness of the social aspects of Sirius, as the one truly original story element—the neo-contemporary political climate—proved to lack any resonance.
I just can't recommend Freelancer in spite of the fact that it does many things very well. The control scheme deserves high praise, as does the evocative portrait of outer space. What doesn't deserve praise is its cloying use of randomly generated content, lack of creative mission design, and generally awkward narrative ambiance. Would it have been different had Chris Roberts finished it himself? I can't say. To its credit, it does push the space-flight sim genre forward and it will no doubt appeal to many players. This is a good thing, I think. I have no desire to insist that people reject it based solely on my opinion. However, I also have to be honest here: Freelancer just didn't satisfy me in the way I felt it should have or in the way I felt it promised to. It didn't seem to know what it really had going for it, apparently content with its limited view of what could have been, ultimately, a much larger universe.