BftP – Freelancer

I’m with the Corsairs. We run this base.

I miss you so much, Freelancer.
I miss you so much, Freelancer.

Back in March 2003, a game was released. That game was Freelancer, and in many ways it was a shadow of its promise, much like many games these days. Freelancer was envisioned as the ultimate space game – a promise so many have made and yet so very few ever deliver on. Perhaps such a promise is ultimately too ambitious. The idea was simple – a freeform space game with an additional strong storyline, in a universe of possibilities. You could become a miner, a trader, a pirate, a bounty hunter, any number of different things, while exploring a gorgeous sector of a galaxy.

The reality fell short – you could do those things, but this was predominately a story-driven game which was ultimately quite static. The pool was wide but extremely shallow. And yet it’s still one of my favourite space games ever made.

What is Freelancer?

Unknown 2 - One of the hidden systems
Unknown 2 – One of the hidden systems

Freelancer is one of the space opera games that started to re-emerge in the early to mid 2000s. It was delayed again and again, eventually releasing in 2003. The single player portion is heavily story driven. You play as Edison Trent, a freelancer who gets caught up in a conspiracy involving aliens seeking to control the galaxy. You start off in a crappy little ship with two weak and piss weapons and embark on your quest. As you go along, you’ll do missions for the (numerous) factions, trade goods, upgrade your ship and its equipment, and most importantly: explore the galaxy.

Freelancer’s galactic world is incredible. Nothing else comes close to its exploration aspect. The game has quite a bit of lore to go along with these discoveries, so many of them feel meaningful. There are numerous planets, star systems, and stellar phenomena to uncover. Nebulae hide secrets within their cloudy hearts – things like wrecked ships, space stations, or even planets. Asteroid fields can often be mined for resources. The graphics were remarkably good for the time, and the game ran fast even on modest hardware. Even today its nebulae are a sight to behold, and it got that “Space is pretty and awe-inspiring” effect down pat – the kind of feeling you get looking at Hubble deep space photography images.

Beautiful nebulae hold hidden secrets.
Beautiful nebulae hold hidden secrets.

The many factions in the game have various relationships to each other, which are more complex than “Pirate, Police, Independent.” Within the criminal cartels there is faction infighting – the Corsairs hate the Outcasts, and the Xenos hate everyone. The Zoners are neutral to everyone. The various corporations hate all of the pirates and are neutral to the police. It isn’t quite so clear cut as “These pirates like me so all of them do!”

There are many systems to explore divided across different “houses” if you want to call it that. Liberty space is the starting area and have relatively minor threats, followed by Bretonia, Kusari, and Rheinland. There are a number of other systems known as the Border Worlds and Edge Worlds, which are effectively “independent” in that they are outside state control. Some of these are just gateway systems, others are the headquarters of the various criminal cartels. Each system has its own independent arrangement of stellar features. Some are relatively banal with a single star, a few planets, and maybe an asteroid field. Others are burning with radiation, asteroid fields surrounding a neutron star, bizarre “skies” deep within a nebula, binary stars… there’s a lot of stuff here.

The story so far…

The story of Freelancer is surprisingly strong. The whole thing starts with a number of Alliance “sleeper ships” leaving Earth (and the solar system) after losing a war, heading for the Sirius Sector. These ships are Liberty (basically the USA), Bretonia (Europe, but mostly the UK), Kusari (Japan), Rheinland (Germany), and the Hispania (a mix of everyone else except Russia and China). Only the first four made it intact and became the four Houses with their sectors of space. The Hispania actually can be located in the game and the Corsair and Outcast factions are descendants from the Hispania’s colonists. The actual origin of the story goes back to Starlancer, where you play an Alliance pilot and experience the war 800 years before Freelancer – evidently, your side eventually loses to the Russian-Chinese Coalition.

Edison Trent in the centre - the protagonist.
Edison Trent in the centre – the protagonist.

You play as Edison Trent, a freelancer who gets wrapped up in a conspiracy regarding an alien artefact. Across the Sirius Sector are these alien artefacts from the Dom’Kavash, an extinct alien race that once inhabited this sector. You initially work for the Liberty Security Force with Jun’ko Zane (far right), eventually getting hold of the artefact and becoming fugitives. From here, you travel across the sector, uncovering an attempt by aliens to manipulate the sector into a war. Those aliens are the Nomads, a race created by the Dom’Kavash to protect their sector in their absence. The Nomads send parasites into human society to trigger a war between the (otherwise largely peaceful) four houses, weakening them enough for the Nomads to finish the job. You go off to stop them.

The other factions have their own storylines too. The Corsairs and the Outcasts are from the Hispania and hate each other because they suspect each other of sabotaging the sleeper ship. The Outcasts are the manufacturers of Cardamine, the illicit drug of choice. The Gas Miners Guild got into an 80 year war with Rheinland over gas mining rights, and the debris still litters the sector. What could easily be faceless corporations actually have backstories and a sense of game world presence.

Gameplay?

This is where Freelancer starts to unravel a little bit. Firstly, Freelancer was spectacularly easy to control – it used mouse fight and turret controls wonderfully, allowing you to very easily fly your ship around with a simplified flight model. You had a number of guns that drained your ship’s energy, which replenished based on your installed generator. You also had torpedo/missile launchers with ammo, countermeasure launchers, and even mine launchers. Your ship had a shield, which self-recharged or could be quickly recharged using shield batteries. It also had a hull, which could be repaired during battle using nanobots. Each ship flew at the same speed, but different ships had different hardpoints, could support different weapons, and had different turning circles. There were also different types of weapons and shields – some better at ripping through hulls or shields, some with different refire rates… there were lots of things to consider.

Space is gorgeous.
Space is gorgeous.

To get around quickly you had a booster (for a short burst of speed) and a short of jump drive to go even quicker. Travel between planets was best accomplished by trade lanes (if they were present in that system!) although hackers (or yourself!) could disable them to intercept travellers. Travelling between systems was accomplished by constructed jump gates, or via jump holes found in hidden locations.

So combat was awesome – it was pure dogfighting arcade action, replete with lasers and explosions and pilots screaming over the radio… yeah, it was fantastic. But after this Freelancer falls over a little bit. There’s trading in the game, with a long list of items to trade or mine for, but the economy is entirely static. The prices never fluctuate. Once you find a good trade route, you can keep exploiting it until you get sick of it. There’s no incentive to ever stop doing that route. You can’t flood the market. There are illegal goods which carry a risk of getting you attacked by the police forces, but they’re easy enough to dodge.

There are missions to pick up, but they all boil down to the same thing: go here, kill this, return. There are occasionally slight variations, like destroying weapons platforms or stations, or destroying cargo, but that’s about it. Sometimes doing these missions is more of a pain than a boon – it changes your faction standings quite quickly, which can lead to very hostile receptions in some parts of space.

And that’s the biggest issue with the game – it’s entirely static. It’s very pretty to look at but you run out of things to do if you’re not up to exploring the gorgeous scenery. You can do a lot of things but at some point you’ll be pulled back to the storyline or run up against a barrier. The static economy is probably the biggest issue. Oh, and you’re mostly alone. On story missions you’ll often have wingmen, and every so often there’ll be a friendly wing on a side mission, but otherwise you’re alone in your fighter. Most space stations can’t be destroyed or even damaged. You can’t change the universe, like you can in the X games. It’s beautiful, but it’s not changing at all. Without any ability to meaningfully affect the game world, there’s no real point to being a pirate. You shoot down ships, get friendly with the criminal factions, sell things at their port… and then you stop because you’re just doing the same thing over and over again.

You have no real progression besides getting a new ship or gear. It’s not like you can build your own station and fleet of ships, like you can in the X games. It’s strangely like the new Elite: Dangerous in that respect – the progression is entirely in getting a new ship or new equipment, unless you want to explore (which unlike Elite is well worth doing). Otherwise there’s nothing else to do once you’ve tried something a few times. There’s no room for your own storyline.

Role Playing and Mods

Despite lacking official mod support, Freelancer had a vibrant modding community which created entirely new star systems, ships, weapons and lore. There are Star Trek and Star Wars mods, there are mods that just expand the base game, and even more ambitious role playing mods that would push updates every week to adjust the in-game economy. Multiplayer was by far the best scene for modding – particularly the role playing (RP) servers.

You could land on most planets.
You could land on most planets.

My friend and I would come home from high school, jump straight onto the computer, and log into the Asgard sever. Supported by its own extension mod, Asgard was a hardcore RP server that we got lost on. Most of these RP servers had their own forums for sector affairs, and player factions sprung up with all sorts of motivations. We can the Strikers’ Republic, a law-bringing faction that controlled one of the Border Worlds (I forget which) near Liberty space… until we offered asylum to a traitorous leader from another major faction in exchange for weapons, sparking a diplomatic crisis in the process.

We went rogue and fought in numerous sector conflicts, in particular fighting two notorious top aces and occasionally entering truces with them. We hunted and were hunted. It was incredible. For such a static and limited game, RP servers certainly made it feel dynamic. There were better servers out there which would actually create sectors and stations specifically for player factions, and modify the distribution to reflect player-driven changes. This was where the real fun of Freelancer was to be had – RP servers were something the game was never intended to do, and yet it did.

A Mouse that Roared

Freelancer is one of my favourite games of all time. In spite of falling short of expectations, it managed to get so many things right. Even today I haven’t really encountered another game that quite captures Freelancer’s joy of discovery. It’s not realistic, but it’s a game – it’s “SPAAAACE!” not “space”. Other games feature nebulae or hidden bases, but they’re poorly implemented compared to Freelancer’s thick clouds that could be entered and exited. The rest of the game was shallow and static, but during that storyline you tended to forget more easily.

This game nails its atmosphere.
This game nails its atmosphere.

The various planets and factions and bits of story made for a compelling world that you wanted to explore. It made up for the static nature of it somehow. You wished there was more but when you were deep in an asteroid field uncovering a jump hole or a wreck, you tended to ignore it for a while. And if you got into the role playing scene, you got sucked up into your own world.

Freelancer might not have been the best space game ever made (I don’t think anyone is worthy of such a title) but it definitely did a stellar job at getting some things right. It has exactly the right kind of accessibility to give this a mass appeal, along with the pretty face of space exploration (however unrealistic) to make it appealing. It just needed to be more dynamic.

There was a Freelancer 2 planned for the Xbox 360, but little is known about it, and it was cancelled in 2006 when Digital Anvil, the minds behind Freelancer, was closed by Microsoft. Since then numerous games have attempted to capture Freelancer’s accessibility and exploratory aspects, but none have succeeded. Chris Roberts, who originally came up with Freelancer but partially left midway during development, is working on Star Citizen, which is supposed to be a spiritual successor. It’s taking them forever and seems so ambitious that it’ll probably disappoint, but who knows?

 

Until then, Freelancer shines as a forgotten beacon of how beautiful space games can be if we choose. There’s nothing else like it. Freelancer is hard to get a hold of these days, but you can still probably track a copy down on eBay.

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