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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Criminally Overlooked Games: Freelancer

This is an ode to the last great space shooter.

Now, some may say that that honor belong to Freespace 2, and I agree that Freespace 2 was a great game. Transcendent, even. I'm not here to argue that Freelancer was better, since it wasn't. However, Freespace 2 came out in 1999 and Freelancer dropped in 2003. Therefore, Freelancer was the last great space shooter, and it unfairly gets forgotten quite often.

The space shooter was riding high in the 90's. We had games like the Freespace series, Elite, Tie Fighter Vs. X-Wing, and others. All of a sudden, the great flood of fantastic space games dried up entirely. The designers of Freelancer apparently pinned this disappearing act on the joystick problem.

Most early space games were played with joysticks, and it was a great system when PC games were still in their infancy. Since mice weren't always as precise as they are now and keyboards were clumsy to use, joysticks were perfect. They were precise and they made you feel like a space pilot, if that was your thing.

Over time, joysticks became less standardized and more specialized. Some joysticks would work with some games and not others. In most every game you would have to program the buttons in the joystick to the game controls, and some configurations were less than optimal. There was also a change in computer ports happening at the same time. Computers started to ditch the vestigial "game port" in favor of the Plug-And-Play USB ports that were standard and easy to use. Since most joysticks used the game port, serial ports, or other quickly-obsolete ports, joysticks were going the way of the quagga.

Freelancer hoped to point developers in a new direction using only the mouse as their guide. Piloting your ship in Freelancer was a lot closer to controlling a first-person shooter that the old, bulky space sims of yore. Combat would be fast and furious but still easy to learn.

That wasn't all that Freelancer promised. Chris Roberts, designer of the Wing Commander series, had been handed lots of money to make the definitive space game, and he had ideas. As the promises trickled out, they started becoming more incredible and tantalizing. Multiplayer battles! Thousands of players! A dynamic economy! Multiple factions that you can befriend or antagonize! It sounded like it was going to be best space game ever.

You know how Duke Nukem Forever was industry shorthand for "a game that will never, ever get published?" That was Freelancer's lot for a while. The project ended up being wrested from Chris Roberts and pushed out the door with most of the promised either neutered or cut outright. Now, Chris Roberts is producing movies like Lord of War and The Punisher. Strange, right?

If Freelancer could have delivered on all the features that they promised, it could have been the game that pushed single-player space shooters back into the limelight. Instead, the genre went into hibernation and hasn't arisen since. The sad thing is that Freelancer is actually really fun to play and shouldn't be missed.

Freelancer's story is actually pretty good too. You're one of the only survivors of a massive attack on a space colony. Why was the colony attacked? Who attacked it? It was an intriguing story told with very, very well-made cutscenes.

The graphics also still hold up, even ten years later. The textures look fantastic, the ships look unique, the effects are awesome. It plays on most modern systems. It's also pretty cheap to find. In short, if you haven't at least tried Freelancer, you're running out of excuses.

Could Freelancer have been better? Yes, it could have. If it would have shipped with all of its features, or had better enemy AI, or had a shorter development time, it may have made a bigger splash and been more appreciated. As it is, it's a great game that rightfully can be called Criminally Overlooked.