With the release of Elite: Dangerous and No Man's Sky, and the perpetual early access pseudo-release of Star Citizen, the space sim genre is going through a bit of a revival right now. It falls well into broader open world trend in gaming, with the descendants of Far Cry, Oblivion, Assassin's Creed, and Minecraft filling out a huge chunk of Steam's storefront. Space sims are, in a way, a particularly broad and idiosyncratic iteration of the ever-present fantasy of a game where you can go anywhere and do anything.
And in the history of the space sim, Freelancer is a key link between them and the broader open-world game genre. Delayed, misbegotten, and incomplete, Freelancer wasn't a big enough hit to make developers Digital Anvil sustainable. The indirect child of Wing Commander, a distant sequel to the even more obscure Starlancer, Freelancer did what it did by breaking with almost every rule or expectation about space sims. Its release was then followed by a nearly decade-long hiatus in big, ambitious space sims.
It was announced late in 1999, but only came out in 2003, after a long and troubled development cycle. Setting up a pattern that other space sims would seem fated to follow, it disappointed on release by not having the breadth of features that was promised during development. But from the vantage point of fifteen years later, Freelancer is a very special thing. Released a year after Morrowind, it looks a lot like another transitional step towards the open-world design pattern that would bloom in Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Far Cry 2. This is obscured by its shape as a space sim, but Freelancer does almost everything differently from other space sims.
Freelancer is small, tiny even.
Open-world space sims often use procedural generation to put some notional big number on the size of their galaxy: No Man's Sky's "18 quintillion" planets spread across seemingly countless star system. Freelancer has 50. In Freelancer, every star and planet is an authored place with its own history and role. They're much more like the towns and villages in Skyrim than they are like the relatively anonymous planets of Elite: Dangerous.
This is a very deliberate choice, and not a technical one; the original Elite of course had a procedural universe. It had to, in order to save space. Freelancer instead had hand-designed content for its entire universe, itself a technological luxury of the CD-ROM era. Coming about a year after Morrowind, it was part of the ushering in of large, hand-built video game universes that players could explore and get lost in. Every single planet in Freelancer has its own texture map, giving them all different colors and aspects. Each star system has its own skybox, and different regions of space are somewhat color-coded; it's not unlike how in Skyrim, the color palette shifts from autumnal oranges in the south, to cold blues and whites in the north.
Because of its compact size, Freelancer can feel like a toy universe. The scale of the planets and stars is comically unrealistic, with small planets being seemingly only a few hundred times the size of your one-seater spaceship. This smallness leans into the "wagon train to the stars" conceit of the space opera genre. Planets and space stations are all individual places you visit for your own purposes, and Freelancer clearly isn't interested in making each planet more than a village; it wants you to get back on your ship and fly out into space.
And that flight is so unlike other games in the genre!
Where other space sims seem to call for a flight stick as the one true way to play, Freelancer is an arcade flight sim. It's very explicitly designed around a mouse and keyboard,clearly aiming for a demographic that bought a computer to play video games, not flight sims. It recognizes that the mouse is also a perfectly fine device to represent the action of aiming a gun, so why couldn't it be used for piloting a spaceship?
Ships in Freelancer zoom around in space like WWI-era dogfighters: There's no barrel rolling or inertial turns, just simple and straightforward chase-or-be-chased. The result is space combat that feels accessible, that terrible watchword of grognards and anoraks everywhere; it lacks the subtleties of a Freespace.
But simple as they are, those dogfights are fun, fast, and punchy. It's an arena shooter in space, more Painkiller than Il-2 Sturmovik. I'm never annoyed at having to fend off pirates in Freelancer; the combat in that game is part of the fun, part of the game that I'm here for. That's more than I can say for Morrowind.
Narratively, too, it diverges from the space sim—which is so often a genre about freeform exploration, pirate hunting, and commodity trading. The sort of complex trading and economies that space sims often hinge on is harshly abbreviated in Freelancer. Prices are fixed, and a port will usually only sell a handful of commodities. RPG-style questing, usually revolving around combat, is a primary way to make money. And the best trading routes involve illegal cargo which must be smuggled, turning the trading game into a daring sequence of chases and escapes as you try to fly under the radar of the space police.
And while Elite and its kin offer faceless pilots and sandboxes, Freelancer, not only features a storyline to follow, but a clear, distinct hero for its story, too. You're Edison Trent, the (inevitably white and culturally American) "everyman" character, a sort of inexpensive stand-in for Han Solo. You get your first glimpse of Trent as he's limping from an escape pod, having just barely survived an exploded space station. "Make sure he lives," he says to the paramedics taking away a man with a head wound. "He owes me money."
Following Trent's story is the only way to unlock certain areas of the game, and this is, sadly, where the game flags somewhat. While the worldbuilding shows off a surprisingly well-thought-out take on the space opera genre that belies its deployment of some well-worn tropes, the main plot itself is convoluted and jagged, with too few reasons to get invested in the events of the story. It has to contend, like a lot of open-world games do, with a story where all of the major events fit into the limited palette of player actions; everything that happens is pretext for a space dogfight.
But of course, those fights are not only fun, but flavorful too. You hear the radio chatter of combatants in a dogfight, not unlike the NPC barks of Skyrim bandits. When you're chasing someone, they'll point out to their friends that a bogey is on their tail. And when their ships spin out, just before they explode, you hear them scream. That's a disturbing little detail to go along with the fact that all of those pirates you encounter have names that show up on your HUD above their ship.
When they die, they drop loot which you can pick up. Mostly, this comes in the form of healing items that you can use to repair your ship's shields and hull after taking damage; essentially, healing potions. Sometimes, they'll drop cargo, or weapons that you can mount on your own ship. If you like, you can go through the whole game only using weapons you scavenged off your dead enemies, in the tradition of many an RPG.
"Make sure he lives," he says to the paramedics taking away a man with a head wound. "He owes me money."
What is Freelancer, then, besides all the things it's not? It's a game about space dogfighting, but only in the same way Skyrim is a game about swordfighting. It's a game about exploration, but more in the way of Dark Souls than No Man's Sky. It's an open-world exploration game that only happens to take place in space. Consider that the "space" of Freelancer is comically crammed full of stuff. On most star systems, the main travel paths are narrow roads surrounded on both sides by forbidding fields of ice, asteroids, or space junk.
Freelancer's universe is connected by a network of jump gates and hyperlanes that let you zoom around from star system to star system. But you can go off-road, into a forbidding iceteroid cluster or debris field. Those places are essentially the dark forests of Freelancer, filled with pirate bases and buried secrets. Following the routes that pirate, bounty hunter, and scavenger ships take through the systems, you can find smuggling routes, abandoned battle sites, even hidden treasure. You can become a smuggler, dodging the space police to sell space drugs and alien artifacts at fantastic prices; you can become a scavenger, combing through the remains of battles to find useful items; you can even become an archaeologist, searching for the physical remains of the setting's backstory.
Freelancer has a whole hidden, parallel transit network connecting its star systems. By having a clearly-marked set of socially acceptable paths, it makes all the paths outside them so much sweeter and more enticing. It's built to produce the dirty little thrill of getting away with something. What sets Freelancer apart is found in that moment when a pirate base finally lets you dock, or when you scavenge powerful weapons from a lost battlefield, or when you find a space wreck of historic importance.
In that way, it's surprisingly different from something like Skyrim or Far Cry 4, where your role in the world is that of disruptor. In Freelancer, you're never waltzing into a pirate base and razing the place. You're trying to integrate yourself, not leave a trail of destruction. Places in Freelancer relate to one another in implicit ways, forming economies, networks of exchange, histories; there is a lot of careful, deliberate worldbuilding. You can visit the sites of old battles, littered with dangerous debris; in some remote ones, you might even find weapons left behind in the hulks of the dead.
If Freelancer was released for the first time today, we'd be noting that as a surprisingly Souls-like touch, with secrets hidden away in the form of dead things you can scavenge. I played Freelancer originally long before coming to Dark Souls, and it's interesting to me now to make that comparison the other way around; in truth, a lot of what I love about video games, a lot of what interests me, has percolated from my encounter with that game so many years ago. It's an important document which, with the distance of time, now looks a lot like a crossroads, pointing to paths that were taken and paths that were not taken.
Which is why it's a crying shame, by the way, that you can't get it anywhere any more. There's no GoG release, even though the game runs immediately fine on Windows 10 and fan-made patches let it run at 1080p quite nicely. If Age of Empires II can experience a renaissance 15 years after its original release, why not Freelancer?