Blast From The Past
Freelancer didn’t set space sims ablaze, but it thrilled along the way
While it didn’t quite live up to the original vision of Chris Roberts in the end, Digital Anvil did manage to deliver quite the space drama with Freelancer back in March 2003. It follows the adventures of Edison Trent, a mercenary ‘freelancer’ just going about his business before getting sucked into a civilization-threatening conspiracy.
The strength of Freelancer truly lies in its single-player story that explores a huge portion of the game’s universe. You begin watching an attack on poor ole Freeport 7 that gets blown to smithereens out in space by unknown attackers. You find out soon enough you were aboard that station… as was your ship and most of your money. That’s called having a bad day. Poor Trent ends up a refugee now on planet Manhattan.
Curious name for a planet isn’t it? Well each of Freelancer’s worlds is named after major cities connected to their respective sleeper ships that colonized them, which also defines our major game factions. We have the very American sounding Liberty, the tea-slurping Bretonia, the Kusari of Shogunate-era Japan and the very industrial Rheinland. There is technically another but the sleeper ship Hispania malfunctioned and so its descendants became pirates – ‘space banditos’ if you will – and they happen to have the best starship fighter in the game, the Corsair!
The cast includes Jennifer Hale, John Rhys-Davies and George Takei
As Trent we end up getting sucked into increasingly crazy schemes and try to figure out what’s going on, all while trying to earn space bucks. Freelancer can be played without the story leaving you to do whatever, and that includes playing with others online, but frankly speaking without the story to follow the universe of Freelancer is painfully hollow and repetitive. At key points in the story you are forced to go do some procedurally generated stuff and you quickly realise how badly you want things to start moving again.
The story itself is what can bring you back to Freelancer after all these years as it’s quite an action romp forcing you through all of the major factions, dealing with their own dramas and getting better starships and guns. The dogfighting and general combat is all in space and real easy because it’s all mostly tied to the mouse. Even getting around space is a breeze thanks to the trade lanes, which are basically space highways you approach and hop through. There are also some pretty great space battles that include some nice set pieces during the main story.
Freelancer’s universe is solely a stage for its action-packed story, not much else
It always seemed as if Freelancer was meant to be doing more under the surface and it actually was going to before Chris Roberts’ ambitions for it were scaled back, unfortunately. It was meant to be a truly dynamic game world where factions could push each other out of systems, and the economy was meant to be affected by all the trade streaming through the trade lanes. This is why the story of Freelancer is what saves it because it’s otherwise a static, cold and impersonal sandbox. NPCs with any personality exist solely within the single-player campaign.
If you happen to have a friend play with you then things can get interesting, and we used to do a ‘diamond run’ which could get tense as hell. One of us would save up for a merchant vessel and then stuff it full of diamond at the cheapest price, while the other was strictly an escort. It was a nail-chomping journey mixing major trade lanes and ‘back alley’ wormholes to get to the best place to sell off our haul. These runs went through some seriously dicey sectors but those sweet credits were worth it for that Corsair. You’ve just got to make friends with the pirates first because they’re the only ones selling it, and they’re the same jerks trying to rob me of my diamonds. Awkward.
Where to get Freelancer today
Depending on how you look at it: Freelancer is really easy to get… or it isn’t. Basically you can’t buy the game digitally anywhere despite it being published by Microsoft Game Studios, which is hardly a rinky-dink publishing operation. The rumour is that the original Freelancer source code is lost.
You can download Freelancer from My Abandonware, except you’ve got to play around with a ‘disc image’ file to get it working, though they did explain how. You could always try to get a physical copy, but they’re almost certain to be pre-owned wherever they’re sold. Let’s hope it arrives on GOG or Steam at some point in the future.