Game review: Freelancer

12 January 2004


Jump lanes: great for gameplay Reputation just determines who pays you After a while, all the bars look the same

Well, I haven't finished Freelancer, but I forgot to back up my position when I nuked the Windows box last week. I have done about 2/3 of the game, though...

What's right:

The basic combat engine is good fun. You have some choices in ship setup (mostly, fast-light or slow-heavy weapons), and these have a direct effect on your combat capability in different fighting styles.

The appearance of space is very pretty. Unrealistic, perhaps, but attractive.

It's encouraging to see that, unlike say Crimson Skies, you're not tied to just to the plot missions - you can take on other tasks and fly freely around the place. (That's something I'd love to see in a CS-type game, which I think would be well-suited to it.)

The jump lanes are an excellent way of getting between "places of interest" while keeping the transit time down. From a gameplay point of view this makes a lot of sense - it's either that or a time accelerator, which hurts suspension of disbelief.

Sometimes ships attack other ships and neither side is shooting at you.

What's wrong:

Most of the time there's a single best option for your ship. Apart from the fast vs slow weapons, it's clear that the biggest thruster and the biggest shield are what's needed; most players I've read about don't seem to use missiles much. There's some hint that some sorts of weapon work better than others against certain sorts of shield, but this never really comes into play.

Most of the ships are basically similar to each other - apart from the light fighter / heavy fighter / freighter split, they differ mainly in the size of weapon and shield they can mount. Manoeuvreability is unchanged.

For such a large universe (47 star systems, 163 bases scattered between them) it's curiously samey. All the non-plot missions take the form "go to point A and blow up what you find there" - sometimes you have to tractor in the remnants of your opponent's ship and take 'em back somewhere, but that's really frosting. Why not "escort this convoy from point A to point B"? "Run a patrol in sector C"? "Take a passenger from D to E"? "Scan ships at point F and find the smuggler"? The plot missions vary a bit more, and indeed some of my descriptions match those, but there's not much scope for re-playing them.

There's not much to do apart from combat, either - you can trade (though the price and availability of an item at any given base is fixed absolutely - trading's entirely riskless between two places you've been to before), but unless you have a cargo ship rather than a fighter or run seriously illegal items you're unlikely to clear more than 1,000 credits per trip. That's what the "go out and shoot someone" missions start by paying you; and their price goes up as you gain levels. Even with ship repairs factored in, trading's no way to make the money you need. I don't know anyone who's bothered with asteroid mining.

The bars (where you get jobs and rumours)... you have the same conversation with everyone you meet for the first time. You can't skip it even though it runs to the exact same script (and there aren't even that many different voices). Argh! And there aren't even that many different designs of barroom.

The "planetary landing" system is a cop-out. Either give us atmospheric flight, or just say "nobody ever bothers to land, everything happens in orbit". Both of these have been done, and worked...

Every time I play Freelancer, I'm comparing it with Elite and Frontier. I will readily admit that Frontier tried to do too much; but it did it in an interesting way. In Frontier, you had fewer shiny weapons, but they were all different from each other; you had passenger and courier missions as well as "blow stuff up"; you had ships that really felt different to fly; you had flight down to a planet's surface...

What I'd do if I were redesigning Freelancer:

Keep the basic combat engine and the visuals. Keep the jump lanes. But plot some "orbit" lines on the maps, even if the planets don't move along them, just to give the impression that this isn't a totally static universe.

Have more manoeuvreability classes of ship, and probably fewer ships overall, with clear demarcation between them. Ditto weapons, both beam and missile, and shields.

Have more different shapes of space station. Yes, I know there are quite a few in there already. Make more of them unique to certain powers. Probably have fewer systems overall, so that it's easier to make them different from each other.

Have a real trade system. Vary prices, vary availabilities. Try to restrict the really obvious arbitrage opportunities in favour of more interesting ones.

Have more different sorts of non-plot mission (as discussed above).

Add atmospheric flight. Lose the docking rings.

Make plot missions relatively rare, and not all on the same plot with the same person telling you what to do. If you're going to give me an avatar (for the FMV scenes and so on), give him a personality. Lose the "plot immunity" that certain characters have - either leave me on my own in the battle or tell me that that ally's ship needs to be defended, rather than making it invulnerable to the enemy no matter how long I take to do my part of the mission.