When reviewing a game with an interesting backstory, there’s always a dilemma of how much to let said backstory influence the tone and content of your review, and how much it subconsciously influences it regardless of your desires. I always try to review a game for what it is, first and foremost, without making more of a passing mention of what it could have been. In the case of Freelancer, there’s an extra wrinkle though. Although I really don’t see the point in pondering what could have been if Chris Roberts had gotten his way with unlimited time and funding(hint: we would all still be waiting for it), I do wonder what would have happened if Freelancer was a different type of game entirely.
What I’m about to say may sound like sacrilege in certain gaming circles, but I don’t think Freelancer is all that good as a Space Trading game. Oh sure, it’s missing features like a persistent universe and dynamic economy, but even if it wasn’t, I don’t really think the game is fundamentally suited for this type of sandbox gameplay. That’s not to say that it’s bad, of course. In fact, it has probably one of the most accessible and fun combat systems of any space sim game. The controls are unique, tight, and surprisingly modern feeling(also, it’s probably the only action game I’ve ever played that feels better on a touchpad). The UI is simple and easy to understand, while providing you with all the necessary information. It manages to strike a pretty nice balance of being just hectic enough to be exciting without being overwhelming. In short, even 19 years later, moment to moment, it’s a very pleasant game to play. The problem is that all these systems are very casual-oriented, and somewhat shallow. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing in most games, but in a genre that’s repetitive by design, shallow gameplay mechanics get old quickly. What makes matters even worse is that the game’s progression is extremely linear. You need more money to get a better ship, to make more money to get an even better ship, and so on. If this was all there was to Freelancer, I doubt it would go down in history as anything but a footnote. Fun for a bit, sure, but not exactly compelling in 2022.
Fortunately, there’s more. In an unusual move for a sandbox space game, Freelancer spent a lot of time and resources on it’s story. There’s fully animated cutscenes, voice acting that was pretty high quality for it’s time, varied and fun mission objectives, and a well fleshed out, interesting setting. Almost every aspect of the game that falters in the sandbox portions shines here. The combat system is way more compelling when paired with some hand crafted encounters(even if these eventually get pretty repetitive). The linear progression fits the pacing and difficulty curve of the story like a glove. The vast, empty expanses of space that make up most of the game’s world are filled with life and interesting events. The incredibly monotone generic NPCs are replaced with actual characters. For a few hours, Freelancer feels like the game everyone dreams it could have been.
Freelancer’s narrative itself isn’t anything groundbreaking or extremely well crafted, but it’s good enough, and it gives the game the structure it desperately needs. For a game that pulls in 10 different directions, with 10 different unfinished or broken features, it feels nice to have an element that can stand on it’s own two legs. Which does make me wonder, what if they scrapped the entire sandbox portion of the game? What if they dedicated all their time and resources to polishing the main story? It would have had a less jarring ending, presumably. Maybe they could have designed more unique combat encounters. Perhaps you could even have something to do outside your spaceship, seeing how they went through all this trouble to create fully rendered planets, with detailed interiors and dozens of character models, for what is essentially the world’s most detailed menu screen and a few cutscenes. But, alas, we can’t change history. Freelancer is, and will always be, the game that was shipped to stores 19 years ago.
So, is Freelancer a good Space Trading sim? It depends on what you’re looking for. It’s certainly not the deepest, or the most realistic. It doesn’t have much of an economy, or ship customization .Much of what it lacks can be added through mods, as well as much of what you didn’t even know you wanted(even in this day and age, it’s modding scene is rivaled by few other games). But ultimately, if you’re looking for a true sandbox experience, there’s better alternatives for much less effort.