Sunday Bits

TODAY: Take a trip into the past, only to see the far future, as we take a look at Digital Anvil’s classic Space trading simulation game Freelancer – The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan is sure to be a nerve-racking experience, which is why you’ll be needing our Getting Started guide.

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.

Getting Started Guide

The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan

We’re getting a deluge of excellent horror games recently, and one of the most ambitious is Man of Medan – the follow-up to PS4 exclusive Until Dawn, and the first part of The Dark Pictures. It’s an anthology series like The Twilight Zone, where every episode tells a completely separate story – and as games go, it’s got a few options that are new to horror adventures. Oh, and there’s the chance for grisly death around every corner too. Let’s try and avoid that, so let’s get started in The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan!

Play Alone?

There are multiple ways to experience the story of Man of Medan, with the most obvious being single-player. It’s a totally valid way to play, and you’ll get to control all the characters at various points throughout the story – although time keeps moving forward, and you won’t get to replay a section of time from another character’s perspective or anything. You get the most control of the story this way, so it’s far easier to track what’s going on – although that also means that if someone dies, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself…

Have a Shared Story experience

Do you have a friend? You know, online? We don’t, but if you do you can play Man of Medan in online co-op – which is a totally different experience. If you play it in this way, two players get to control two random characters (out of the five main characters) at a time – with no contact or knowledge of what the other is doing. Whole scenes can play out vastly differently, and once the game starts pitting the characters against each other? That could be lethal if you don’t know the game is doing it!

Have a Movie Night

Do you have several friends who might want to come to your house and have a nice time? We don’t, but if you do you can invite them round to play Man of Medan’s ‘Movie Night’ mode. Up to five people can play couch co-op, with everyone taking control of a single character throughout the entire game. There’s no split-screen though – you pass a single pad around as the game prompts you to, and can discuss each choice as a group. It’s a fun way to spend five hours!

Explore and examine everything

If you want to survive Man of Medan, you’ll need to search. There will be key information or useful items everywhere. Sometimes the information will save your life, or help you to make your escape quicker – sometimes you’ll literally find an escape route before nasty people or things get to you, but you’ll have to search for it. There are even weapons you can find if you look hard enough – but those can help as well as hinder you!

Don’t take things at face value

In games, we’re used to getting told what to do, whether overtly (“press ‘X’ to call Jason”) or subtly (a light above a door showing us the way to go). In other words, we’re basically conditioned to trust the game and its developers. So, for example, if we’re given two options and a limited time to choose, you know we’re going to choose one – instead of going against our gaming instincts and doing nothing, which may actually be the correct choice.

Man of Medan loves to mess with your head, so don’t assume anything you see is real – even if the game’s telling you to shoot the scary monster. You like shooting scary monsters in games, right? But what if… that’s not a scary monster at all!!!

You may need to play it again

You may have heard talk of Man of Medan’s length, er, including from us a few paragraphs up. One playthrough of the story in single-player took us five hours… but that’s not the end of the game. We certainly didn’t get the entire story of the freighter Medan and everything that went down there, and it felt like there were multiple ways we could’ve escaped or stopped the nightmare… or not. Try again in Shared Story or Movie Night mode, and you’ll not only get a different experience – you may get a different story too!

Hopefully we’ve given you enough to at least partly survive the horror of Man of Medan, so venture in and see if it helps! And if not… try again with other people! The best horror is shared, after all…

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