Remember Freelancer? In the time between the days of Elite and the more recent times with Eve Online, there was only really one hugely successful space trading game, which also suffered from the cruel and evil crime of not beginning with the letter ‘E’.
I finally finished off this old gem recently and decided to throw out some retro thoughts.
Considering the length of time that has passed since the epic title Elite, was released on the humble Spectrum many aeons ago, there have been few titles that even approached the sort of Space trading genius that was created there. Frontier: Elite 2 was the last and truest form of the game style, with it’s classical music and many peoples and civilisations strewn throughout the galaxy.
It was in 2004 that the first real successor to this throne was released, Freelancer, a Microsoft release which transformed the bleak and beautiful expanses of the universe from the battlegrounds they had become and back to the Wild west frontier ideal that used to exist. Enter Edison Trent, blond golden-boy of Space, and only survivor of a huge terrorist attack. Stranded on planet Manhattan with only a few credits and no ship, he takes up the offer of a basic trading mission and a small fighter ship to get himself back on his feet. With a lot of trading, shooting, and a galaxy-wide conspiracy, it’s going to be a long month for Trent.
It’s a fairly straightforward, and mildly repetitive system of gameplay at work, as the majority off time in Freelancer will be spent zooming through the jump rings that bounce ships through star systems at super-normal speeds. There’s a lot of Galaxy there to explore, and while some areas are more corrupt and dangerous than others, those often yield up the best prices for your wares. At every space station or planet there will be a bar, where missions can be taken up, either from passing patrons or from a bulletin board. Trent can also buy favour with factions whom he may have rubbed up the wrong way, opening more areas up. The missions usually involve flying out to an area of open space, then engaging with 4 or 5 enemies, and can vary in difficulty and reward. It’s a good method of making quick cash, but not as much as a straight trading run in a large freighter vessel.
It’s this simplicity that keeps Freelancer fun and fresh, as there will be more than enough scope to invest in a heavy assault gunship, taking blood money for kills with wanton abandon, similarly buying a large cargo boat and filling it up with trinkets to sell at the other end of the galaxy will also net you a larger cash-pile but with a greater degree of danger. Packs of pirate ships will often lurk beside trade-lanes and at the large system to system jump gates, waiting to pounce upon the unwary and loot them of their precious cargo.
What grates slightly is the cost of upgrading ship parts, especially when the story-based segments of the game drastically limit the abilities to earn cash. Throughout the final parts of the main story, Trent is buffeted from planet to station, without any option to complete side missions and being forced into heavy combat situations one after another. This would be fine, except that the Order, you’re freedom fighting buddies, feel no compulsion in sending Trent out to lead their squadrons but still insist he pays for his own missiles and repairs; leading to the ridiculous situation where it became necessary to sell a missile launcher to the Order to afford to fix a broken wing, simply so that I could fly a mission for them.
Luckily the main quest is well spaced out throughout the game, as plot missions do not open until Trent reaches some particular levelling up value. Meaning there’s plenty of time to earn cash and buy better suited ships, the game’s final Death Star alike trench-run isn’t suited to a slow freighter, regardless of how many guns it has stuck on the sides. Additionally, the game is open ended, so once you’ve saved civilisation as you know it, there’s still the day job to go back to, and money to earn and burn. This does grow wearisome eventually, as there is a limit to the ships and guns you can buy, and when you’ve got a level 24 flying a giant armoured ball of laser guns and missiles, there seems little point in the missions and trading is just an exercise is stockpiling cash for no good reason. Happily by this point you’d likely have bored yourself silly with the single player and there are plenty of multiplayer options, assuming you can find a server these days. It’s still a bit of a giggle and the best space game you’ll find without getting plugged into EVE Online.