Freelancer is one of my all time favourite games, holding the dubious honor of being the first game I actually owned and being the game that introduced me to the world of space sims. Coming from the mind of Chris Roberts, Freelancer offers an open world with a wide variety of factions, locations, and ships - once you’ve completed the story that is. Said story begins simply; 800 years ago there was a great war that consumed our solar system, and the losing side (an alliance between Britain, North America, South America, Germany, and Japan) sent out colony ships to find a new home, eventually settling in the Sirius Sector. Here the four ships that survived claimed their own territory - Liberty, Bretonia, Rhineland and Kusari - the Hispania never making it completely.
You take on the role of Edison Trent, a working class dreamer who left his home planet to explore the galaxy only to have the space station he was on, to make a trade deal, get blown up, barely making it to the escape pod in time. You’re rescued by Liberty and you end up finding employment with the Liberty Security Force (sort of a cross between the FBI and the CIA) as a freelancer. Over the course of the story campaign, plot elements come together to form a sector spanning conspiracy concerning alien artifacts, sudden and complete disappearances, and a mysterious organisation known only as ‘The Order’; all of which are baiting the colonies into an all out war.
There are thirteen main story missions, broken up by sections in between where you take on smaller jobs. These sections are focused around the pilot level system the singleplayer campaign uses - you must have earned a certain amount of money to unlock new weapons, ships, etc, as well as the next story mission (you end up around pilot level 20 by the end of the story). The means ways you can earn money are varied; most bars will give you a variety of combat focused missions ranging from destroying a group of ships from an opposing faction, to killing or capturing one of their leaders, to destroying an outpost. Alternatively, you can take up the mantle of trader and ferry commodities from one place to another, or mine certain commodities for yourself to save initial buying costs.
After the campaign, you’re thrust into the wide open universe - which you’ve only explored a tiny portion of by this point -and encouraged to do your own thing, which is where the game really comes into it’s own. There are a multitude of factions that you can get work from, each fleshed out with a backstory, ship selections, base locations, allies and enemies. From the police and militaries of the houses, to the monopolistic corporate entities, to the criminals, terrorists and rebels, each can be befriended and sided with as you explore Sirius. Each player will have their own personal preferences, I myself prefer the ‘criminal’ factions since their backstories are amazingly done and they offer a big range of potential targets for destruction; others will prefer the ability to legitimately fly through ‘civilised’ space without being harassed by police and bounty hunters and some will just want to stay neutral with as many as they can and focus on trading.
There's a generous autosave feature, something modern games still need to learn.
Multiplayer works the same way as post-story singleplayer, except that you start out with a crappy ship and almost no money. There’s still a vibrant multiplayer community functioning, despite the fact that Microsoft shut down the server management system ages ago. A small mod/patch is needed to reroute the server lookup to the ‘unofficial’ server list for online play, but once you’ve got that it should work without problems (I haven’t experienced any in the 5 odd years since I discovered the patch, your mileage may vary). In multiplayer you’ll find players of every stripe, many of which are as happy to aid new players as to blast them to pieces - which is a plus for multiplayer games in my experience - and if you’re a little creative, you can find yourself running as part of a group of players tackling missions more difficult than yourselves.
Graphically, Freelancer is to this day astounding. The backgrounds and aesthetics could be considered beyond gorgeous, even if the character and ship models look dated by today’s standards. However, on the more technical side of space, Freelancer does have some issues, most significantly issues of scale (seriously, either single pilot ships are huge, or space stations and planets are miniscule), and the fact that most bases and planets are on a static 2D plane (despite your ability to move freely in the 3D space).
Anyone else reminded of Stargate?
The soundtrack is one of Freelancer’s strongest points. The music is atmospheric and unobtrusive, and the voice acting (while you can tell most NPCs are from a small pool of actors) is superbly directed, and the major NPCs are voiced by some serious talent. I mean, they got John Rhys Davies and George Takei in! The range of dialogue is great, when flying in civilised space there is no end to the various background lines between nearby ships, and in dogfights enemies will open with a number of different taunts...before quickly informing their wingmen that their ship is on fire, then screaming ‘I don’t want to die’ as they explode.
As I said above, Freelancer is one of my all time favourite games and, despite it’s flaws, I heartily recommend it. The biggest downside of that recommendation is that it’s currently hard to get a hold of, but apparently GoG is talking to Microsoft about a digital release (which I would buy solely to save time digging out the CD), so maybe this favourite of mine can find a new breath of life sometime soon.
P.S. if you’ve got the game and would like to grab some multiplayer time, let me know and I’ll happily act as a wingman.