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Saturday, April 01, 2006

A Timely Review of Freelancer

Well, you can never let it be said that we don't provide timely reviews here at SRV. I recently finished the single-player campaign in Microsoft's space combat simulator Freelancer, which came out in...March 2003. Since the game is three years old and has been dissected in some detail already, I'll be lazy and just confine this to some brief comments.

Wing Commander is still the best space combat game ever done. From the epic missions to the storyline that draws you in to the desparate struggle between the Kilrathi and humanity, Wing Commander remains a certifiable masterpiece. So, needless to say, I'm a huge fan of Chris Roberts' computer games (though, not his movies...yech). When I first heard of Freelancer in 1998 or so I was therefore really interested. Then the game experienced about 1 jillion delays, and then Microsoft decided to replace Roberts as the designer after buying Digital Anvil. Reportedly, much of Roberts' design was jettisoned in the process. Would the game be any good?

The answer is a resounding yes. Considering the game's protracted develoment cycle, that's nothing short of astoninshing. There's a lot to like here, including:
  • The involving and detailed science fiction game backstory;
  • The large and expansive universe, which was also put to very effective use (and was fun to explore!);
  • The great character animations, including some impressive lip sync effects;
  • The excellent voice acting;
  • The graphics still hold up pretty well three years later; and
  • The engaging plot, which really pulled you in and gave you the feeling that you were alone against the universe and on the run.
Kudos to the producers, who took a game that could have been a disaster and made it quite good. I especially liked the beautifully interactive universe and the wrecked space vessels full of goodies.

But...the game did have some issues. Some of these have been covered by others, so I'll focus on the lowlights:

  • NO JOYSTICK SUPPORT! Whoever thought this one up deserves to be hit with a rubber chicken. I'm not complaining from the fact they made the game mouse-friendly; there's nothing wrong with that. What I'm complaining about is that the you didn't even have the option to use a joystick! This one oversight/monumentally bad decision/terrible idea/boneheaded notion was my biggest problem with the game. Talk about alienating your built-in fan base. Without the ability to use my trusty rusty WingmanForce3D, this game was significantly less fun for me. Note to the brainless executives who thought that eliminating the best peripheral device for space combat sims from their space combat sim would boost sales: Two of my friends didn't purchase the game simply because it didn't have joystick support.
  • The single player campaign was a little on the short side and felt a bit rushed at the end. Not really a complaint, just an observation.
  • I could go on for a few pages here about how the solar systems portrayed in the game were very, very, very scientifically inaccurate, but in honor of April Fool's day, I'll pass.
  • The designs of the ships were really bizarre. I guess the best thing to say here is, "They tried." The game's producers must have told their art department to take every previous space combat sim and do the exact opposite, with decidedly mixed results. To be fair, since the ships were being transported up and down by space elevators, they didn't need to be aerodynamic, and real spaceships don't really need to be aerodynamic either. Plus, they really did make an effort to give every clan a distinctive spaceship style. However, they really didn't succeed in pulling it off. Maybe I know too much about real space vehicles or got too used to Wing Commander-style ships, but most of the spaceships were visually unappealing or even offputting. My "favorite" was the ship with a cattle catcher on the front. Gak.
  • Did I mention that the game didn't have joystick support? Did I mention what a seriously stupid idea that was? Good.
Despite these minor quibbles, this is the best space sim since Star Trek: Bridge Commander. If you see a discount copy in the bargain bin or a used copy on eBay, I would heartily encourage you to snap it up.

On a side note, the fact that Microsoft didn't include joystick support in Freelancer, quit making the Sidewinder series joystics, and (if CGW can be believed) is poised to not even include joystick support in its XNA architecture has me worried. Although I find it hard to believe that they'll remove joysticks completely, especially with Flight Simulator X on the way, stranger things have happened.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review, of an interesting game.

    Timely is the word...