The single-player storyline is far more than just a skeletal framework to motivate exploration. Freelancer is nominally a sequel set several hundred years after the events in Digital Anvil's first game, Starlancer. The major powers of the Western world have lost the lengthy war that divided humankind and colonized a distant star system. The remnants of Germany, Great Britain, the United States, Japan, and the Spanish populations of Earth have established a new, prosperous society. Aside from skirmishes with a few radical political and outlaw factions, the galaxy has enjoyed a period of sustained peace as well, and distant travel is readily accessible within systems through manufactured trade lanes and between systems through mechanical jumpgates and natural jumpholes. After an outpost is suddenly destroyed, your character becomes embroiled in an involved plot that contains a few interesting twists and several artistic cinematics. While the story contains more than its share of genre clichÃ©s, it still effectively builds interest as it unfolds, aided by excellent character graphics and animation.
Your status with the various factions is affected by your choice of missions.
For a game that generally attempts to avoid stale conventions, it strangely includes some of the genre's most notable weaknesses, such as repetitive and inane wingman chatter. In fact, aside from the dialogue in the scripted campaign, conversations with computer-controlled nonplayer characters (NPCs) are terribly done--wingmen and opponents continuously bark the same handful of lines in the same voices regardless of nationality, and every discussion with NPCs at bases unfolds in an identical manner. It would be unfortunate if the generic NPC conversations discouraged you from trying the single-player campaign, since it's one of the game's real strengths.
The campaign missions are also far more complicated, and difficult, than the randomly generated faction missions. Each mission is divided into several discrete objectives, usually involving multiple treks across systems and several different confrontations. Fortunately, Freelancer automatically saves the game after each major event within a mission, so you can usually avoid replaying all but the final portion of any missions you fail. While the campaign missions are more involved than their random counterparts, your goals are still generally restricted to inflicting destruction upon your enemies, and even genre staples such as base defense and escort missions are largely absent. Occasionally during the course of a mission you'll be tasked to protect a particular ship, but you can largely ignore any such prompting without adverse consequences.
The targeting controls and ship designs are extremely simple, consistent with the game's design philosophy of keeping gameplay straightforward, but consequentially the missions lack tactical depth. You can elect to target subsystems on vessels, but doing so isn't necessary or even particularly helpful. There are only freighters and light or heavy fighters to choose from, and no more specialized craft types such as bombers or interceptors, and you can't issue commands to your wingmen let alone choose their vehicles or weapons. Deciding which ship to fly involves minimal consideration since they all travel at the same speed and aren't rated with different turning speeds, much less varying pitch or yaw rates as in more complex simulations, so there's no reason to choose a light fighter if you can afford a heavy fighter. In spite of the relative simplicity of the missions and your tactical choices, the campaign still becomes challenging in later missions, and there are several exciting, large-scale battles.
Ships will fall to pieces and catch on fire.
In order to reward you for your success but also keep the single-player campaign consistently challenging, Freelancer incorporates a few role-playing game elements. As you acquire wealth and complete campaign missions, your character will increase in level, and as a result, you'll be able to use more-powerful ships and weaponry. All ship armaments and equipment are also rated by level, so you need to have both a ship and character of the requisite levels in order to utilize the best accoutrements. In order to prevent the single-player campaign from becoming unbalanced by players who focus on amassing wealth and better weaponry, your character can gain only a single level before being obligated to complete the next campaign mission in order to continue level advancement.
In the multiplayer version of the game, the entire gaming world is immediately accessible, and there is no story-driven plot, and accordingly there are no level restrictions. By logging onto a LAN or Internet server, or just starting your own multiplayer server game, you can freely explore the gaming world and gain levels, ships, and equipment by garnering wealth. As a server option, you can let players fight each other, or you can disable friendly fire. You can group with other players in a multiplayer game in order to take on more rewarding challenges or just travel throughout the gaming world on your own. The server in a multiplayer game stores player information, so you'll have to play on the same server in order to retain your character level and equipment. Even prior to the game's retail release, the dozens of persistent servers that were available were freely offering a multiplayer experience comparable to those offered by massively multiplayer online games that charge monthly fees. Since the gaming world is so vast, and the single-player campaign only advances your character to 18 out of a possible 38 levels and doesn't allow players to use some of the best equipment in the game, Freelancer has a great deal of replay value beyond its campaign.
The blocky and relatively small capital ships are one of the game's least impressive features.
Freelancer has had such a lengthy, bumpy development cycle that it's not surprising that the game doesn't entirely manage to deliver upon its initial promise. The gigantic capital ships and structures that were demonstrated in initial presentations of the game have been replaced by much smaller counterparts. The gaming world is nowhere near as dynamic or interesting as initially promised--factions don't expand their borders, there's no dynamic economy, and the only nonplayer character activity involves security patrols and transport convoys traversing scripted pathways. Despite the game's extended development period, the graphics, music, and sound effects are all still very good, and the system requirements are very modest for a game that looks this good.
Freelancer deliberately abandons the complexity of most space simulations in order to offer a more accessible experience. It features a solid single-player campaign, simple but addictive RPG elements, and an open-ended gaming world that's enjoyable to explore by yourself or with friends. While traditional fans of the genre may prefer the additional depth of more-orthodox simulations, Freelancer's streamlined controls and simplified gameplay make it easier for you to immediately begin freely exploring an expansive star system and looting and destroying enemy factions. Some of the development team's original, more-novel plans may have proved to be impracticable to implement, but even a compromised design has been crafted into a solid game.