Freelancer is a fairly open-ended video game of commerce and combat in space, for PC computers running Microsoft Windows with DirectX 8. Freelancer was developed for Microsoft Games by Digital Anvil. It is extremely similar to the classic game Elite. It features both a single player campaign (which, when completed, leads into free play) and network support. The graphics and sound are rich, and varied, and the game works hard to provide a varied universe. The game is a RPG or roleplaying game in that it features character development which leads to additional abilities, and characters have reputations with different groups within the game which will determine how others react to you.
Freelancer is an amazingly deep game. You can visit 99 bases in 44 systems and still be fairly sure that there will be quite a bit left for you to do. Individual characters will remember you, and if they have contracted you for something, will remember whether or not you've let them down in the past. While the single player campaign takes you through quite a variety of locations, including some moonlighting with many of the criminal elements of the game, there will still be more systems to explore than you have visited through its course. If your reputation with criminals goes up, you will have access to new stations and thus weapons and ships that you could not otherwise buy, but using the trade lanes and jump gates can become problematic. There are of course also advantages to living within the law, such as much broader opportunities for trade. It is of course entirely possible to be a criminal on one side of the galaxy, and work for the military on the other.
The basic concept of the game is that you posess a spacegoing interatmospheric craft whose hardware loadout can be changed to suit a variety of purposes. Each craft is based on one of several basic designs, either a fighter of one of several classes, or a freighter. As you progress through the game, you gain access to bigger and better spacecraft which can be purchased, as well as access to more impressive weaponry. All the ships are about equally fast (your thruster can be upgraded to a limited extent, making your afterburner recharge faster and requiring less energy) but some ships are more cumbersome than others.
You have the option to make good use of your cargo space while traveling between planets and star systems, as the game has a simple system of supply and demand. Various locations desire and produce logically sensible goods which can be bought and sold at different ports. Any port will buy anything, but often at a dismal price. The most lucrative trade routes are extremely long-distance, and lead along dangerous routes.
Routing plays a heavy part in the game. Your ship is not capable of jumping between systems on its own, and you rely on a series of jump gates and jump holes (more or less wormholes) which connect star systems. Travel between planets (and other points of interest within a system) is handled either through your cruise engines (which push you along at a respectable 300kph) or through the use of trade lanes, which are a series of rings which accelerate and decelerate you, and let you travel at speeds in excess of 1,000 kilometers per hour. Jump holes can be used for a quick getaway, but you often travel from one sticky situation to another that way.
As for the mechanics of travel, the system used is remarkably simple. There is a star map which can be used to view an overview of all the systems, zoom down into a system, or zoom into a detail view. Anywhere in (or out of) the map, you can click on an item and get more information on it, or set the best path to it. The computer will then generate a set of waypoints to get you there from your current location via the shortest possible route. You can select a waypoint from your contact list or by clicking on it in your field of view, and then click the "dock" button. Docking with a base or planet's docking ring will make you land, but docking with a trade ring, jump gate, or jump hole will make you follow the trade route or jump through the gate or hole.
The entire game, in fact, is controlled through the use of keyboard and mouse, ala the first person shooter class of games. The idea of mouse control is central to the game's control scheme, which is primarily mouse-driven (though it is possible to control the game through the keyboard for the most part.) The interface is heavily click-driven. By default, the left mouse button selects items, and the right button fires the weapons. Space bar toggles you in and out of mouse flight mode, where the ship follows your targeting reticle. All of your weapons are mounted on a pivot, and can target people in a wide area generally in front of you. There are also turrets which can hit anyone in a slightly larger than hemispherical area above, below, or to the side of you depending on where they are mounted, and a turret view to match them.
The physics used in the game are similar to those of Freespace 2, in that ships do have considerable inertia and will tend to coast, but they still have maximum speeds. This is essentially an arcade physics model. It gives you a certain level of control which is necessary though completely unrealistic. There is little limit to how fast you can travel in space (currently we are limited by fuel, not relativity) but there is a limit to what it is possible to render at once. Since you cannot see arbitrarily far, you cannot reasonably go arbitrarily fast. Collisions with objects do little to no damage, though being shot up can kill you startlingly fast. One thing this game does have that others do not is an "engine cut" feature. This allows you to coast, and the afterburners can be used while coasting to allow changing one's direction.
There are a small handful of issues with the game's interface which I found galling, however. When leaving a jump hole, the user's throttle is set to zero, and there is a delay before you can hit the afterburners or increase the throttle. Also, your rate of fire often drops off when your machine "chokes", meaning it stutters because some part of the system is not performing to the game's expectations. This often causes your weapons to "misfire" when you need them most, such as when you have wheeled around quickly and want to shoot down a missile. Another minor annoyance is that the occlusion culling (which determines what does not need to be drawn because you cannot see it) sometimes does odd things at longer ranges, causing flickering as polygons are drawn and overdrawn, for example. This is another fine example of a game which would benefit heavily from using multires for frame rate control and as a culling technique.
One thing that will surely impress you about the game is the wide range of dialogue spouted out by various NPCs. While only the high points of the game's dialogue are prerecorded (all of the missions in the single player game, for example) there is a lot of "chatter" between various units in the game which is constantly going on. Police units will scan your cargo (and the cargoes of others) and instruct you to eject any contraband found. Stations will query units (though not you) which have entered their space and ask them their business; they will respond with who they are, and generally also where they've been, where they're going, and what they're up to. There is a great deal of variation in this speech and it becomes tiresome dramatically later than in most games.
There is also a wide variety of other interaction with people throughout the game, generally in the bars which can be found on every station and planet, in which one can get new work, pick up rumors, read the news, or trade money for reputation with various outfits. The dialogue used in the bars is pieced together very nicely and you will hear new utterances even after playing for several days.
The game's sound effects are clean and consistent, with weapon sounds which seem to match their appearance, and a variety of different noises for hits from different weapons, a shield hit or not, et cetera. The music also enjoys high production quality but I personally found it annoying and disabled it on only the third or fourth day of gameplay, as there is simply not enough variation. The music does somewhat seamlessly change when you enter combat, at least more cleanly than most games.
Freelancer features a number of excellent features for network play. The server supports up to 128 players, though the machine and network connection necessary for such a setup is probably out of the reach of most people. The server's bugginess (which generally leads to crashing) makes a server with that number of players prohibitive in any case. The game allows the creation of "groups" of players of arbitrary size (through targeting a player and pressing the invite key, default "i") which then share the reward for any missions run, and all of whom receive any messages from any group member to the group.
Networking is in fact what gives this title its replay potential (since the single player appears to be extremely linear, and it is certainly short, taking me only a couple days to complete) but unfortunately there are a number of deficiencies in this feature, and most of them appear to be design flaws rather than bugs, giving the impression that there was no playtesting done outside a lab. Most serious is a problem with "warping". In order to make a game appear smooth in spite of latency and packet loss, games use "movement prediction" techniques to determine where the player will go. Freelancer's prediction is nonexistent or heavily flawed, so in situations of even minor lag, warping occurs, where ships will move faster than they are ordinarily capable of doing in order to be put where they actually should be. Unfortunately, ships which are being warped to their proper position can still collide with other ships, and are considered to be going their actual speed during the warp. This means that due to lag, you can take more collision damage than should be possible.
Another serious issue with lag is that hits against enemy ships are not recorded. The client decides whether hits occur or not, possibly timestamping each weapon strike so they can be counted (or not) by the server later. Hits on enemy craft are often counted several seconds later under laggy conditions, but when lag gets heavy, they are often not counted at all. When lag becomes severe, enemy ships may halt in place (taking no damage) and disappear and reappear. Rather than leaving things to the client, the server takes precedence in all situations, which means that if you are on a mission when lag gets that serious, you will not be able to complete it until the lag passes. Unfortunately, the server usually crashes when the lag becomes that "thick".
Other issues which cause problems during network play include inexplicable timeouts and the game crashing when you connect to a server which has been "modded". The only way you know a server is running a mod is if the server manager is kind enough to put a message into the motd or in the server's name.
In spite of its deficiencies, this is one of Microsoft Games' most polished releases. It is an incredibly deep game with very clean gameplay, and a broad universe of "people" who fly different craft (and fly them in a different manner), act differently, and who each have their own opinion of you. The included storyline could certainly be longer but it keeps you interested for more than long enough to become comfortable flying your ever more powerful craft around the expansive universe provided. There are some small issues which make it clear that they did not do enough proofreading or that they planned to include more pilotable ships, such as a character in the single-player game stating that you can't get a ship with jump capability yet so you will have to use the jump nodes - a sentence that kept me looking for a way to get a battleship for quite a long time; Or the fact that you can only play as "Trent", locking you into a single voice and appearance, giving rise to the phrase "we are all trent".
The game apparently does something undocumented with the stock Microsoft/Fraunhoefer MPEG 1 Layer 3 (MP3) codec which will cause sound to drop out if you use any other MP3 codec. If you use another MP3 codec you must uninstall it and reinstall the original microsoft codec (which you can do with the WMFREDIST.EXE on the disc after deleting the modified one.) Microsoft released a patch which is supposed to deal with assorted networking issues but considers the use of a non-Microsoft MP3 codec an unacceptable modification to the system and disregarded it. The 1.1 patch will in fact often cause new problems with freelancer and is recommended only for servers, not clients.
If it were not for the very serious problems with the net code I would give Freelancer an 8 out of a possible 10 rating, but the best I can give it under the circumstances is a 6.