Conference Call: A Freelancer
If you're anything like Elysium and I, then you've gotten pretty bored with reading standard review format #7. It seems like reviews these days are little more than Mad Libs in which writers merely plug adjectives in front of predetermined nouns. This may be the reason that, ultimately, all anyone's really interested in is a series of arbitrary numbers. The fact of the matter is that many reviews just aren't that entertaining, and what's the point of reading amateur internet ramblings if they aren't at least entertaining. Well, we're here to tell you that reviews aren't always just boring to read. Sometimes they're boring to write as well, which is bad when you have enthusiasm for the game in question in the first place. So, with that problem at hand, Elysium and I set out to explore new possibilities of reviews. Here is what we offer.
Elysium: Hello, and welcome to the next, greatest idea we've had here at Gamers With Jobs. Today we introduce a new style of review, one that contains all the content you'd normally demand (meaning a number and some words to go along with that number) coupled with, hopefully, a touch more entertainment than you might find in the traditionally structured criticism. Instead of one review, you can think of this as two reviews blended into one and wrapped in a flavorful candy coated shell of conflict.
WeÃ‚'ve offered this format as a way to get two, possibly different, perspectives on a single game at once, which we hope gives you a better feel for the software, its faults and triumphs, and whether it is worth your precious gaming dollar. So without further ado, let me introduce my partner in this endeavor, Certis, whose point of view is, in many ways, almost as worthwhile as mine. Certis?
Certis: Yes indeed, if nothing else this will give you an opportunity to watch as Elysium verbally assaults me and hopefully talks about the game we're supposed to be reviewing once in a while. What's on tap for today?
Elysium: Well today we have Freelancer up for discussion or as I like to call it: the best game on my hard drive right now. Oops, have I given away the end of the review, already?
Certis: I guess that would depend on whatÃ‚'s on your hard drive. I have a tough time pinning down exactly what it is about Freelancer I love so much while shaking my head at some of the wasted potential it represents. Let's not get ahead of ourselves though, here's a brief pitch on what the game is all about:
Open-ended universe Ã‚"” Gamers can select to play random missions or follow the storyline. The universe is open for exploration, and the game advances based on decisions players make.
Dynamic reputation Ã‚"”The players' reputations constantly evolve as they choose their missions, make allies or enemies and succeed or fail.
Distinctive styles of play Ã‚"” Players can choose to act like bounty hunters, traders, pirates or explorers for different gameplay experiences.
Trading Ã‚"” Commodity trading turns the gears of the universe. Mining planets churn out valuable minerals while agriculture planets cultivate grain. Players must find the best trade routes in order to profit.
Compelling storyline Ã‚"” More than two hours of in-game cinematics plunge players into the mysteries of a vast planetary system. Character interaction will emotionally involve players in an intriguing and compelling storyline, giving them a sense of purpose.
Vibrant, rich universe Ã‚"” Political intrigue permeates almost every aspect of the game. Players' decisions affect the dynamic relationships of other characters, and ultimately alter the gameplay experience.
"Simple" combat interface Ã‚"” The intricacies of space combat can be mastered via a simple and intuitive mouse-driven interface.
Multiplayer Ã‚"” Players may set up their own persistent world servers or play with gamers across the globe.
Hurray for feature lists! Hurray for laziness!
Elysium: Wow, I didnÃ‚'t know we could pad our review with PR quotes just like the pay sites.
Freelancer is a solid game, with a compelling single player campaign, a smooth control scheme, interesting multiplayer components, and a nearly inexhaustible open ended structure. ItÃ‚'s also solid and stable out of the box. On top of all that, Freelancer sports countless little touches to its universe that solidify its believability as an actively populated world. In flight, police and military patrols scan your cargo hold for contraband. Pirates order you to eject your goods or face plasmic death. Trade vessels whiz past you on their own routes, relaying to you or nearby stations their destination, origin, and freight. Battles are waged for and against stations independent of your involvement, prices fluctuate, news is reported then forgotten, and life within the colonies goes on realistically.
Certis: Very true, I can't begin to imagine how much time Digital Anvil poured into the game to achieve such an incredible amount of NPC scheduling and player interaction. Little touches like haling a passing ship and getting a detailed spoken description of who they are, what they're carrying and where they're going go a long way towards making a believable universe. The idea of a world with this much depth as a MMORPG excites me in no less than five different areas of my body.
Couple this sprawling, lively universe with a compelling storyline and I dare say you may have a winner on your hands.
Elysium: Which, it strikes me, is pretty much what Digital Anvil has done. At the risk of needlessly titillating unseemly parts, the multiplayer support provides nearly that level of possibility. With servers capable of supporting a hundred or more players at a time, you can participate in an online experience that could nearly match any MMORPG. With its open ended nature Freelancer leaves you the option of becoming a pirate, a police man, or even some miserable schlep who hauls perishable goods between planets and orders Elysium to cover him for a measly stipend of a few hundred credits. Don't worry, he says, I need the money to buy more goods to make us even more money. I'll give you your allowance soon enough.
Certis: You don't get any allowance because you let pirates blow me and my cargo into atoms. You're lucky the game even let's you pilot a ship as far as I'm concerned. While it's true that technically you can have 100+ players on a server I don't know if there is a computer in existence that could actually handle the load. Of all the servers we tried, none of them gave us a lag-free experience even when we were the only ones playing on it. It's a load of fun flying around with your buddies and running missions but there isn't much point if the NPC ships you're supposed to be blowing up jump around like spastic gold fish. Let's talk about the missions for a moment shall we?
Elysium: Ok, here comes the part where Certis is going to get his tighty-whities in an unnecessary bundle, but it's actually a point I'm willing to concede, so let me be the first to say that FreelancerÃ‚'s random missions can be a little bland. Outside of the main story line, about which I shall openly gush soon, a good way to make money is to pick up a job at any local bar, either through talking with other tavern patrons, or by checking the job board. Most of the jobs are little more than search out guy X, or group X, and shoot them until they are dead. Sometimes you have to shoot someone and then shoot his cargo as well. Later in the game, you might find yourself on a base assault or ordered to disable any number of weapons platforms, and sometimes you may be given a little bit of help, but generally the concept for most of the missions is the same. I'd have certainly loved to see more variety in these random encounters, perhaps including covert missions to infiltrate enemy territory, expansive trade missions, or missions to research a distant area. At the same time I'm extremely pleased with the combat model and flight controls, and frankly I'd rather be spending a lot of that time in heavy combat than simply clicking on trade lanes. The combat is intense, and the controls, despite lack of joystick support, is solid, which means that time spent fighting enemies, guns blazing, is time spent having fun. Which makes me ask, do you not like fun, Certis? Is that your problem?
Certis: Hold on a second there cowboy, a little bland? That's like saying you're "a little bad" at Age of Mythology. The combat is fun, no argument there but doing the same type of mission over and over again is about as fun as eating cardboard. Missions are where the wasted potential sets in for me, I love what's there but I could see the game being so much more with some extra time and effort. Like you said, the combat is fun but it would sure be nice to have more variety in the missions. We can always hope for an expansion pack I suppose but that doesn't do us a whole lot of good right now does it?
Lack of mission variety really kills the long-term viability of Freelancer for me. Even though multiplayer is fun what good is it if every mission you do amounts to the same thing? BORING! Thankfully, the single player more than makes up for this little problem. Commence gushing!
Elysium: Yeah, by comparison to your paltry 'issues' the single player takes any minor complaints you might have about Freelancer, beats them with a stick and sends them home crying. You want to get on my good side? And, I know you do. Make a rich universe for me to play openly in, and then integrate into that universe a clever, complex, and engaging story. Digital Anvil has done exactly that. The single player campaign opens with the destruction of Freeport 7 where you, Edison Trent, were involved in some shady dealings. Arriving with other Freeport 7 survivors on Planet Manhattan in the Liberty system, your contact has been injured, your payment is nonexistent, and your ship is destroyed. Looking for work you run across Juni who, as luck would have it, could use a Freelancer, and spaceward you're sent to grapple with troublesome pirates. Once in orbit, however, you bear witness to an event that will shape the political climate of every system, and thus begins your long and sordid tale. As with any good story nothing and no one is quite what they seem, and you discover quickly that your associations have put you in the middle of a sweeping conflict. Each story mission not only thrusts you into some spectacular and seemingly dire situations but also weaves a narrative that escalates wonderfully from humble beginnings, and generates genuine empathy for its players.
Certis: That sounds about right. If you blaze through the single player game without really exploring the universe beyond where the plot takes you I expect most gamers would finish the game in about 15 hours. That's plenty of play time for your money without even considering the unexplored areas and multiplayer fun.
The single player missions offer you a lot more variety than you would ever hope to find taking on jobs of your own. A space race, situations where you need to escape overwhelming odds and some surprise ambushes keep you on your toes and keep things interesting as you push through the plot.
How does playing the single player mode work in such a free form universe you ask? Essentially you do a plot mission and then Juni tells you to make some money while she does her own thing. Each level requires that you make a certain amount of money and it doesn't matter how you get it. Running lucrative commodity trade routes, taking on missions in the bar or stealing cargo from other ships are all fair ways to make some cash. Once you do level up, Juni will contact you and the plot will continue on. This gives the player a sense of direction while also offering some of that freelancing feel throughout the game.
Elysium: And, on top of that, the plot missions are complex and varied, never simply a matter of hunting a single person down and transporting him to planet X, but, as Certis mentions, always full of surprises. While I did finish the campaign in only fifteen hours, as he suggests is possible, this is a result of tearing into the story like Nick Nolte into a bottle of aged Scotch. Most importantly when all was said and done I felt nicely sated; prepared to explore Freelancer's open ended nature a bit more, which was not only a viable option but an enticing one. While the campaign leads you through many of the available systems, it certainly leaves a wealth of nooks and crannies uncharted, and a rather large unspoiled chunk of the map nicely alluring. On top of that, there are plenty of planets and stations you never even approach through the plot, weapons still out of your reach, and ships left to be purchased leaving you with plenty of reasons to putz around the universe and explore. How many hours will you spend with Freelancer is hard to say precisely, but it should be significantly more than 15. Ok, down to the nuts and bolts for a moment, we should probably say something about the visuals and the sound, don't you think?
Certis: Sure I think I saw AND heard some stuff in there.
Elysium: That's terrific. Boy it's a good thing we've got you around here at Gamers With Jobs, what with all the insightful content you bring. I wouldn't be surprised to find a Pulitzer on your doorstep in the morning.
Certis: That would beat the hell out of the dead horse you're going to find in your bed tomorrow.
FreelancerÃ‚'s graphics get the job done, work horse graphics if you will. They service the game play and most anyone should be able to play at a silky smooth frame rate. The sound is a trickier issue. While the game SOUNDS good and the chatter in space is well done you will have to spend a few willpower points on not punching the screen when some jackass strings together some phrases at you in bar. Listening to the same spiel over and over again from the same tone-dead automaton will eventually drive you away from talking to NPCs on land all together. Instead, you'll just hit the job board and get the hell out of there.
Elysium: I know all about spending willpower points and potential screen violence when I have to interact with you on ICQ.
Actually, I tend to agree with your quibble. Unless you find lines of dialogue like "You must be new here. I'm Certis. I don't really run this place, but I've got an agreement with the people who doÃ‚" particularly inspired, then the bar conversations will seem stilted. And yet, it is equally impressive to me that they managed to make every interaction you have in-game be spoken. The amount of voiced dialogue in the game, that is ultimately both functional and well constructed, simply blows the mind. The voice work during missions and cut scenes are well acted, and include among the cast Ian Ziering, George Takai, and John Rhys-Davies.
Further, the music is well crafted and varied. Digital Anvil, in order to flesh out the culture of their universe, hired multiple composers to work on the soundtrack, each one dedicated to a particular colony or segment of the game. While I agree that the bar room interaction can at times be stale, and occasionally tainted by the off-hand non sequitur, it hardly sullies the whole of the aural experience. Again, I would argue that on the whole, both the sound and the visuals are well implemented, add to the overall experience, and aren't so technically complex as to keep gamers with moderate setups out of the game.
Certis: That was John Rhys-Davies? I thought it was just an actor doing a poor impression of him. Seriously.
Well, since we're already running close to six pages thanks to Sgt.Talks-Too-Much here we'd better wrap it up. Give me your overall verdict and try to keep it under ten paragraphs ok?
Elysium: You got it, Lt. Overly Critical. If I meant to hide the fact that I'm in a special kind of infatuation with Freelancer, then I did a poor job of it. Certis brings up a few reasonable criticisms about the game, and they're certainly ones I'd have mentioned on my own if I didn't have him to deal with, but they don't really affect the overall enjoyment of the game. Certainly no game is perfect, but Freelancer is in my opinion what it was always meant to be, a spiritual successor to Privateer. The much maligned mouse control is natural and ultimately the right decision. The single player story is one of the best I've come across in years. The multiplayer possibilities, particularly as solid dedicated servers come online, are nearly endless. The production value is extremely high without alienating a large number of users, and the culmination of six years work is a detailed and unqualified success. Freelancer is a 93/100 game, losing a few marks only for the lack of varied random missions and some sketchy voice work.
Certis: Despite some niggles I find Freelancer to ultimately deliver an experience you won't find anywhere else for some time to come. The graphics are smooth, the sound is good and the game play keeps you up way past your bed time. I'm going to give the game an 89/100 and pray that an expansion comes along to build on the wonderful world they've made with this title.
ElysiumÃ‚'s Score: 93/100
CertisÃ‚' Score: 89/100
The GWJ Average: 91/100