In 1999, I was not much more than a babbling infant with no regard for sci-fi, culture or anything other than Pokemon, chicken nuggets and football stickers. Needless to say, I missed the release of what would become one of my favourite games of all time.
Before the Call of Duty barrage and before the modern-day Bethesda were churning out huge hour-eating epics, there was a small developer called Digital Anvil, run by Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts after leaving Origin Systems. As I understand it, fans were beside themselves with excitement in anticipation for his next great sci-fi epic but to their dismay, he left before it was finished... However, this did not kill production completely and after some refining - and more than its fair share of postponing - Freelancer was finally released.
So, forget open world, this is open galaxy. A single player, RPG set in a distant galaxy where there are, literally, hundreds of planets; a pre-2000’s No Mans Sky... Kinda. The ones you can’t land on, but can still learn about. You command a ship and can trade, negotiate, take jobs, upgrade, fight, dodge, explode, the list goes on; although, you are restricted to your cockpit. You do not control your character, per say, unless you’re flying. That being said, the game does not really need much of a ground element as the skies are so vast. It would be nice to have a bit of planetary exploration, but, in my opinion, this game is still way before its time.
One of the most iconic and well-developed parts of the game is the control scheme. Whilst the old-school joystick is a perfectly viable option, the game supports the more standard mouse-and-keyboard; known, usually, as a poor alternative, but here they have successfully implemented the controls to enhance the gameplay; even now, nearly two decades later. Given the time elapsed and the development in gaming, I don’t imagine I’m alone when I say that modern day mini-maps or motion trackers have saved my skin more times than I care to mention, but one of the beauties of Freelancer is that you don’t have them. There is no radar; there is no power-assignment system to get the best out of your ship, in fact there is no way to monitor anything that is happening aside from what you can see in front of you, so you’re forcefully persuaded to barrel-roll, twist, and loop your way out of trouble; it encourages a real sense of a genuine dogfight.
The arcade, sci-fi simulation hybrid is set in the Sirius system: the brightest system in Earth’s night’s sky and it does not disappoint. The expansive galaxy is home to some of the most colourful scenes I have come across in games and on the flip side, you can enter some of the darkest and most sinister voids imaginable; you really do feel lost in space. This galaxy, then, is split into four dominant houses, all vying for power through questionable means: There is Liberty of 1920s United States; Bretonia of Victorian era Britain; Rheinland of Second Industrial Revolution Germany; and Kusari of Shogunate era Japan; each with its own culture, style, pros and cons. These are the primary, but by no means, full range of allies, enemies, factions, gangs, cults, and so forth; all can be befriended and all can be made into enemies, it simply depends on how you play.
Which brings me neatly onto what you actually do in this dated Space-Skyrim. Essentially, it is up to you. If you want to be a law-defying, convoy hunting outlaw then you can. If you want to be a monopolising, avaricious entrepreneur then feel free. Personally, I prefer the role of a trustworthy, impartial mercenary for which no job is too big or too small but, a word to the wise, depending on your moral alignment, certain doors will be opened or closed as you progress through the levels, so watch your back.
The variety of ships is limited but large enough to be interesting with each one being as distinctive and individual as the next whilst staying true to the specific faction or house’s aesthetic; from the Jabba the hut-esque, sailed Kusari vessels to the militant, heavy armoured, Rheinland ships - and then we have the guns. There are many. In all shapes and sizes. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses: be it shield disruption, rapid fire, superior range, they all have their quirks. You can kit yourself out with different ones and be a flying firework display or you can play it smooth and devote yourself to a particular ‘brand’.
Not to mention the legendary weapons (they more than earn the title) that you can find within wreckages of long lost ships floating around in deep space...
Now, I won’t lie to you, the story is full of genre clichés. I mean, I like to think it pulls them off but I’m also likely to be in the minority. Regardless of this, it successfully manages to build an intriguing, albeit linear story-line around dynamic characters; the focus of which is our hero, Edison Trent; a mercenary who can come across as passionless to begin with, but he’ll grow on you; after inadvertently falling into the story, he is then subjected to massive scale space warfare, complex defence or protect missions and more than his fair share of inane, background chatter (which is actually quite entertaining... for a time.)
Whilst the game may have missed the ground-breaking mark that it had initially been set, it still holds its own. The exploration is vast and the campaign will only progress Trent to 18 of the 38 levels available, as well as have him explore, roughly, a mere 40% of the map; whether it was intentional or not, there are hours of end-game content to meander your way through before you’ve exhausted everything.
Grab a couple of cold beverages for the 2 hours of cutscenes and a comfy chair; put on some background progressive rock and bring an abundance of finger dexterity as Freelancer is addictive, challenging and some of the greatest gaming hours I’ve ever spent.