There are certain words we hear in almost every game appearing on the market lately. Dynamic universe. 3D Graphics. Immersive storyline. Almost every game I've seen in the last year has had at least one of these, if not more, somewhere on the back of the box. Yet few deliver them as well as a game called Independence War 2, as I was quite forcefully informed by one of our readers soon after I finished writing the original review. It was his opinion that I had cast IW2 in a poor light, and not only had I generated bad karma for myself by doing so, I'd probably also condemned my friends, family, and pets to years of bad luck. The only chance I had was to keep my eyes open for a game called Freelancer, which in his opinion had the potential power to redeem me. Now, while I'm perfectly aware that I am never wrong (except in one case, and that was a very rare exception), and hence stand by my review, I couldn't help but hesitate when I saw the Freelancer display outside of Microsoft's booth. Not fearing for my mortal soul or anything, I still had a little chat with the PR guy there at hand, and was impressed. Freelancer is set to provide an immense and immersive space environment for gamers like us to play around in.
With such a hyper focus on massively multi-player in the industry lately ? games that have, in the past, essentially relied on you and me to create the story -- Freelancer is heavily focused on the single player experience. With over 3 1/2 hours worth of video (the press kit claims over two hours, but the PR guy assured me it was more like 3 1/2), and a universe that unfolds differently depending on what paths you take, Freelancer promises an experience that is both cinematic, and complex. And from what I've seen, it delivers in style. Independence War 2 was good; this could be better.
Due for arrival in the spring of 2003, Freelancer aims to hit the sweet spot of space adventurers everywhere. The developers have tried hard to offer a world that doesn't limit the player, providing an accurate sense of the universe's size, yet doesn't leave us all floating aimlessly in space. What emerges is a storyline that evolves sort of like that in Grand Theft Auto 3; you have goals and missions, but you can drop out and embark on side trips whenever you feel the need for a pit stop. As you progress through the game you'll earn a reputation depending on how you behave. Take a mission from a space pirate (let's all nod our heads in IW2's direction), and you'll probably become associated with that crowd in the eyes of others. Screw that mission up, and good luck trying to get the pirate fellow to trust you again. Also, trading on a legitimate market may become a bit more difficult if others don't trust you. Suddenly, your entire gaming experience, as well as the game's outcome, will be dominated by how you play, and who you choose to play with.
On one hand, it looks like a flight simulator. On the other, you can land on planets and interact with other characters as you would in a classic adventure, and in both cases you're expected to use a mouse over a joystick. Want your ship to fly there? Then click there. Want your character to walk there? Then click there. This is much different than the standard flight simulator interface, which would have you out maneuvering another ship from the cockpit, circling around each other in a mad race to bring your sights into line with the bugger's rear end. In a game designed to be played with a mouse, it'll be interesting to see how combat is handled.
Regardless, though, your ship will be customizable, allowing you to add weapons, armor, and extra doohickeys that you'll pick up through trading and such along the way. With an AI that lives in the same universe as you, you'll never see a ship attacking you with a weapon that you can't also purchase and equip yourself--with a little bit of luck and cash.
The universe itself is vast and visually diverse. There are 500 planets in total, 160 of them capable of being landed on, 90 of which contain completely different environments. It'll be in these environments, bars and whatnot, that you'll receive your latest tasks and assignments. I asked the guy showing Freelancer off about his favorite location, and he directed the ship to the Badlands, a dark and creepy sector of space filled with debris and plagued by electrical storms. It was very cool. Great distances can be quickly traversed with the use of a warp engine and intergalactic roadmap, yet the developers have managed to still offer an experience that feels vast and limitless. That's a hard balance to achieve, and they seem to be on the right track. Freelancer is expected to offer between 30 and 40 hours of game play, and from the looks of it, will keep many of us up way past our bedtime.