Freelancer is considered one of the last classic, open spacefaring games before the genre went dormant for roughly a decade. It was released in 2003 to critical fanfare and lackluster sales, which essentially killed any hopes for a sequel. It was developed as the sequel to Starlancer, but takes place far enough in the future that playing its predecessor is optional, since both stories are self-contained. The game’s main features include a single-player story-based campaign, as well as a completely open multiplayer environment, thus staying true to the game’s title.
One way the game broke from genre conventions was that it focused on mouse-based movement and combat, instead of the joystick design that had been a staple of PC gaming until the mouse essentially replaced it. During the golden age of open space simulators, a joystick was basically a requirement, and part of the reason was that a mouse was not yet a completely standard piece of equipment. By the time Freelancer was released, the roles had reversed, with the joystick becoming an accessory, and every computer essentially requiring a mouse to operate the base user interface.
The single-player story is likely where new players to Freelancer will want to start. In the story, players take on the role of Edison Trent, a freelancing survivor of a recent attack that left Freeport 7 as free floating scrap. To get back on his feet, Trent goes to the bar to find good contracts to take for work; this is where he meets his main contact in the American-themed faction of the game. Trent takes a basic supply run job for Jun’ko Zane and makes a good flying friend, King, in the process. The story starts off as a slow burn, but quickly ramps up the pace, arguably too much. Just when the mysteries of this sector of space start to unfold, Trent finds himself more than knee deep in the events that the destruction of Freeport 7 set off. While the purpose of these story missions is mostly to give the players a tour of the space the game inhabits, as well as the faction relation systems, it also manages to tell a rather compelling story.
Freelancer is essentially an open-world space RPG, where Trent’s total net worth is calculated as his experience. Reaching certain thresholds of worth will see Trent gain a level. Doing the side missions for factions in the various stations and planets scattered around the world gives Trent the raw money he needs to buy new and better ships. The quality of the ships determines what weapons and accessories can be used on the ship, so leveling up is the only way to get the best gear. These ships are locked in different parts of the Sirius sector the game takes place in. Liberty has the weakest ships, Bretonia is the first step up, and Kusari is the next step up. The top tier of ships can be found in Rheinland, the Independent, and Pirate worlds. The actual strength of individual ship types may be different at the highest tiers.
Trent’s reputation with various factions shifts during the events of the main story, which serves to lock the players out of higher or lower level space in some cases. Because of this, missions should be taken rather sparingly, and players should fully explore the systems they currently inhabit in order to get the best ships and weapons they possibly can. Players can only pilot two different ship types, fighters and freighters. Fighters are seperated into three different classes, light fighters, heavy fighters, and very heavy fighters. Freighters only have one type of ship, and are not that useful in battle. While fighters can weave and be actively piloted during dogfights, Freighters are best turned into auto pilot while the player takes direct control of weapons by using the game’s Turret Mode if they find themselves under attack.
Graphically, Freelancer looks dated, even for its 2003 release date. It was notably made on older design technology, and delays in its production only made the graphics look further and further behind by the time of its release. The actual style of the graphics is quite well done. Each of the main factions is based on a period of history from its mother culture, with Liberty taking on the feel of Roaring 20’s America, Bretonia is based on the Victorian United Kingdom, Kusari is modeled after Sengoku Japan, and Rheinland on Industrial Germany. Given the backstory of how the Sirius Sector was colonized, these sectors of space must have felt the desire to take on what they believed to the be the most representative era of their mother cultures. The sound design of each of the areas reflects this, and is quite fitting for the game. It makes stopping for supplies and missions something to look forward to.
Freelancer is a game which is still rather fun to play. The mouse controls make it easy to pick up and play with any modern computer, and its old enough to run on anything you can grab off the shelf today. There are some graphics mods to update the look, but there seem to be a lot of dead links and dead ends for some mods that are only a few years old. The implementation of The Freelancer Mod Manager is a good way to install and keep track of these mods. It’s not required for some of the graphics mods, but it does give messages when trying to load incompatible mods.
There’s little to do beyond leveling up after beating the main storyline, but there are still some Freelancer servers that are up and running, with some population scattered across the Sirius Sector. If you just want a quick space game that tells a good story, Freelancer might be rather hard to beat in that category, as Trent’s story is a fun ride that is quite thought-provoking in the later missions. Unfortunately, Freelancer is not available to purchase digitally on any of the various storefronts that currently exist. The only options for modern players to get hold of the game is to find an actual physical copy, or find yourself flying off to the sectors of space occupied by pirates.
I loved this game at release and played it through to the end. Thanks for the review!clear=”all”>
Great game, and it is a crime that this (and Starlancer) have never been released digitally, what’s even worse is that the game is becoming harder to find online. The good news is that the space sim genre never went dormant, and some of the best space combat/trading games were released during those years, such as X2 and X3 as well as the Evochron games.
A good friend of mine introduced me to Freelancer many years ago, it’s one of my favorites and I mean to go back to it someday. Weirdly, part of the appeal was all the time we spent trying to get multiplayer mode working. Not that it’s so hard, it’s comparable to other games of the time, but we were working with modern PCs and at least one not having a disc drive, so we were making .iso files even though we both owned the game. Pro hint: there is a patch required to do this, you must plumb the depths of the internet to find it. But at this point we are like experts at lan-ing this game, need hints? PM me.
I think the game looks good. Dated for sure but the art direction was such that it aged well enough. It’s at least post- “3D is rad! let’s try try and make some games using it” era, looking at you N64.
One thing not talked up enough here is the amount of “Space Truckin'” you can do. The game allows you to go off and make your own adventure for as long as you’d want. Explore new systems, find trade routes, get the biggest freighter and transport those Alien Artifacts! Multiplayer lets you do that together, you can fly wingman in your heavy fighter to your buddies freighter. You can take on mercenary missions. Good stuff all around.
I’ve been toying with the idea of having a local lan server set up here. To help make it easy to play all those PC games I have laying about. Freelancer would be the game I’d consider as the baseline for what the server could run. Getting that done is emanate I assure you, right after all those other projects I need to do….
Chris Roberts of Wing Commander and Star Citizen fame was a big part of Freelancer. Did I tell you I’m a fan of Wing Commander and would be all over Star Citizen if I had the time?
Looks like a game I could possibly get into. I played a TON of Starflight as a kid, and this seems to have been cut from similar cloth. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d even heard of this. Outside of Diablo II and a couple RTS games, I was well out of PC gaming during this time, so it definitely passed me by. Good write-up, and thanks for bringing it to our attention.
@bombatomba: I don’t think many of these genre died, it was just an era that was transitioning from physical media to digital. Some genre that were darlings had fallen from style, and so big studios weren’t working on them as much. Games like this one and adventure games seem to have been hit the hardest. PC game sections in stores were shrinking heavily. I remember seeing stores in the mid to late 90s have a full size aisle just dedicated to PC games. By 2002 it was a small section near the end of a forgotten aisle, and it was mostly Blizzard games and The Sims for most of my stores.
Digital and the rise of indies saw these nearly forgotten genre come back with a vengeance, since publishers no longer needed to directly compete for shrinking shelf space that would only see the winners of a previous decade claim it all for themselves. About the only place I found non-mainstream PC games in this time was Gamestop, and their section was still rather small.
I did get lucky with this game, finding it complete in box for $3, and the same store had the strategy guide in the book section for another $1+change.