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ups: Exceptionally large and well-crafted universe; a true science fictionfeel to its plot that unfolds much like a traditional mystery; addictive trading, combat, and gameplay.
downs: The storyline, unlike the universe, does not branch; odd dialogue; sometimes steep difficulty curve.

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Freelancer Review (PC)
game: Freelancer
four star
posted by: Aaron Stanton
publisher: Microsoft
date posted: 09:10 AM Thu Mar 20th, 2003
last revision: 07:51 AM Fri Sep 23rd, 2005

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\"That\'s one of those massively multiplayer games, isn\'t it?\" my friend asked when he saw me playing Microsoft\'s Freelancer. The comment got my brain thinking (it sometimes takes a lot to do that, but on that particular night, just a tap set things in motion). Freelancer is like a massively multiplayer game, at least, it sure as heck felt like one at first. Large, expansive, filled to the brink with hundreds of different places to visit and explore, ships to destroy and purchase, and weapons to uncover, Freelancer radiates the feel of an open ended massively multi-player environment. It\'s not, however. Instead, it\'s an interesting mix of the expansive and the directed, a gigantic universe with a tight nit story that walks you down the path in episodes. These episodes (the scripted missions that progress the story) are compelling, often mysterious, interesting, and separated by commercial breaks ? stretches of the game that allow you to roam at will, accept missions for money and level up potential, and generally have your way with the world. The resulting mesh of unyielding plot and free flowing universe offers a great deal ? a touch of the unlimited, but still with a great single player experience. Freelancer is a good game that hands the player a magnificently designed universe, but the freedom that universe offers, unfortunately, is an illusion.

Freelancer is set thousands of years in the future, following the events that took place in the game Starlancer, released by Microsoft in 2000. After Earth nearly destroyed itself in a century ?long-war, five ships were sent into deep space to start again, to rebuild humanity. Eight hundred years later, you are born as a freelance fighter pilot ready to take your skills and kick the butt of whoever has an enemy that pays well. The story is told at the beginning by one of the most compelling video sequences I\'ve ever encountered, and the rest of the story plays out through pre-scripted interactions with characters you meet on various different planets and space stations. At its heart, Freelancer is a flight/combat simulator, designed to be played with the mouse. Everything in the game centers on this one element: build your ship bigger, stronger, and faster.

The meat of the game is in the form exploration and combat. At planets and stations you trade goods, buy weapons and ships, and accept missions for cash flow, but throughout the game your goal is to \"Level-up\". You do this by earning money, and you earn money through combat (you are a freelance fighter pilot, after all. Much more exciting life than the freelance writer, let me assure you). Leveling up means that you acquire enough net value to activate the next episode in the storyline. The story itself is interesting, well plotted, and well played out. Navigation in the universe is governed by one of the best-designed interfaces I\'ve ever had the pleasure of using. Combat is handled via the mouse, and when not in combat, it is very easy to use your map to lay waypoints for your ship\'s computer to fly to. Great distances can be traversed through jump gates, and as you use them you\'ll see hints of a living, breathing, independent universe with rogue pirates, intergalactic traders sharing your space routes, and military battleships. The result of such detail is quite breathtaking, and is the reason for the game\'s open and free atmosphere. It is also that freedom which can be misleading.

What is freedom? In Freelancer, it\'s a ten-minute flight to cross a single star system, of which there are many. Disembark from the space station, and you can go left, right, up, down, any direction you please. Curious about what sort of products are being sold at that far away planet in the distance? Fly to it, find out. Hopefully you won\'t be blown to bits on the way there. Is this freedom? Certainly. Become a trader, make some money, build a fortune; you\'re free to do as you please ? except, you really aren\'t. Every time you hit a level up (meaning you make a certain amount of money), the storyline kicks in. At these points in the game, you are forced to take on mandatory missions, ones that, unlike the missions you accept in the bars for excess cash, you can\'t quit once you\'re into. If you do, a prompt appears on the screen informing you that your mission has failed and asking to reload the auto-save. Try to ignore the missions, as I initially did, and many times the game will intercede. Once, when I leveled up, the computer told me that a contact was waiting on a distant planet. It automatically set a waypoint in my map, and I promptly pretended it didn\'t exist. I accepted a few missions on the side, and soon discovered that the computer no longer let me do so, because, as it said, I already had a mission. The one from the storyline. Additionally, it wouldn\'t let me set my own waypoints on my map ? the only place my computer could fly, really, was down the preprogrammed path.

Is this a problem? Not really. I\'ve already said that I think the storyline is well worth playing. I also expect that many people are now shaking their heads, bitter in anger, saying, \"What are you talking about? You have complete freedom. I mean, you can be a trader, a pirate, or a miner. Isn\'t that enough?\"

In many ways it is. However, how you play the game outside the storyline only affects who you accept missions from. Every randomly generated mission basically asks you to fly out, blow something up, and fly back. Having a bad reputation with the law enforcement just means you work for someone else instead, blowing up different ships. The name and where you hang out is really all that changes, not the heart of the gameplay ? the missions tend to look the same. When your actions don\'t really affect how the game is played, mission to mission, there is no freedom.

And what about within the story? The question occurred to me: what if I wanted to bat for the other team? The story line basically has you working hand in hand with what amounts to the police, helping capture smugglers at the beginning. What if I wanted to be a smuggler? How could I, in good conscious, help capture my brethren? Could I do anything to affect a change?

The pre-scripted story didn\'t seem to give me the option, so I performed an experiment. I turned bad. I turned real bad. I accepted assignments and then canceled them, just to piss people off (it affects your reputation). I attacked random ships at key ports and then fled the scene. I loaded my ship with missiles and heavy weaponry, spray painted swear words on other ships at dry dock (I didn\'t really), and afterward blew the gun turrets off of the jump gates and terrorized visiting ships. I was naughty a great deal of the time, jumping from planet to planet, driving down my reputation. Finally I\'d had enough. I accepted one mission, made a few thousand dollars, and leveled up. The plot kicked in. Did Zane, a passionate member of an intergalactic security force, the contact and driver of my plotline, care that I had become a terror, a scourge of the open skies?

Apparently not. She treated me exactly as if I\'d sat around and played poker with the buddies all night. Free? No, in the end, my nature was tamed, and I meekly followed the same path as every other would-be hero. What I found was that very little of my actions outside the scripted plot seemed to influence how the characters behaved toward me, and within the scripted plot, failure was not an option; the game quit and demanded you reload every time you died, turned on your teammates, or hung back in a fight. Free to go up, down, left, right? Certainly. Freedom to change my destiny? Hardly. Sure, a few people liked me less, and a few other people liked me more in the end, but the final outcome didn\'t seem to change. While you\'re allowed to become a trader or a pirate at your discretion, doing so does not open up tremendous and new possibilities ? it only means you\'re blowing up different ships during your off hours. It\'s the definition of a non-branching storyline in a package that looks to be as branching as they come.

There are a few other oddities that didn\'t affect storyline nearly as much. For example, some of the dialog is off, as if the two people in conversation are discussing slightly different topics. Here\'s an example. You arrive at a planet you\'ve never visited before. You talk to a fellow in the bar, and the first thing he says when you sit down is something along the lines of, \"I haven\'t ever seen you here before. Is this the first time to the planet?\" You say yes, it is, and then ask if he\'s heard any rumors ? a text then appears explaining that the man tells you one of your friends called and would be calling back. In short, the man goes from having never seen you before, to having intimate knowledge of your friendships. This comes from using a database of generic recorded comments, and then using them to cap both the greeting and the farewell of any conversation regardless of content. This is a byproduct of having such an expansive universe; personalized dialog for each person at every bar would have been quite complex and hard to pull off. Still, the lack is very noticeable.

Lest you think I didn\'t like the game, however, let me assure you; it is very addicting. I instantly fell in love with the atmosphere, the detail in which each galaxy was crafted, the conveyance of the shear size of the universe. No science fiction fan could ever play Freelancer and not connect it in some way to the stories painted by the greats like Asimov, Clarke, and Simak. It\'s just not ever expansive, as I originally thought it tried to be. It does, however, put on a good show of looking like it.

An experiment demonstrated the size and apparent life of the universe:

I was curious to see how far I could travel. I loaded one of the advanced saves provided by the developers, and immediately found myself lost. I was in space with a tremendously powered up ship, mighty in my ability to destroy, and I was as clueless as a newborn baby as to where I was. I checked the map. There were no jump gates nearby. I was far from even a marked outpost via regular jet engines, let alone any populated system. I considered loading a different save. No, I decided. I wanted to know how big the universe was; here was my chance. The developers wouldn\'t have just flown to the middle of nowhere and saved for you. There had to be a way back.

As I pondered, two ships passed. Without even thinking to ask permission, I selected them and dropped into formation, trailing like a ghost for several miles through a thick ethereal fog that limited my sensor visibility and left me blind. After about a minute or so, we came to our destination; a space anomaly, about the size of a large human built jump gate, glowing pink, yellow, and blue. More importantly, it was in a state of flux. Large, then small; twisted one way, then the other, like little pixie fairies dancing in a ring. I watched as the other ships vanished into the heart of what I could only think of as dangerous. \"What the hell\", I thought, and powered my engines on full, aiming towards its center. \"It\'s only someone else\'s save\".

But on the rest of the game, it wasn\'t just someone else\'s save. On several occasions I turned back from uncertain situations while playing my own campaign, marking them down in my mind as a place to return to when I had better weapons, stronger shields, and a bit more experience with the unexplored. And there is a great deal to explore. Just as in real life two people can have completely different experiences, Freelancer provides a universe in which two people could play separate games for hours (with the exception of the single player missions), and never even trespass into each other\'s space.

Simply put, Freelancer is an extraordinary and unique universe; a playground for the explorer, a market for the trader, and an arena for the warrior. While it is not a game of unlimited possibility, as I had hoped, it is a game that is exceedingly well crafted, carefully built, and very worthy of our attention, praise, and admiration. With both gameplay and story that are equally addictive, you can expect Freelancer to devour your hours of free time, providing its players with a successful and exciting romp in a living and breathing alternative universe. I find myself drawn to play Freelancer late at night when I should be retiring to bed, or writing additional reviews, or upping my score on Xbox LIVE instead. That, in the end, is the mark of a good game.