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Freelancer: ignore the story

A game that combines straight arcade shooting with space simulation should be so great that it makes you dizzy, right? Well, it doesn’t always work out that way.

Freelancer” is a space sim for gamers who don’t like space sims, and therein may lie the problem. At times a straight arcade shooter, at other times a space simulator, it is clear that developer Digital Anvil hoped to combine the best aspects of the genre into one cohesive whole. Unfortunately, they mostly created a hodgepodge that will please those who want fierce combat but disappoint those looking for something with actual depth or longevity.

The most radical gameplay decision that sets Freelancer apart from the genre is its rigid reliance on a mouse and keyboard control scheme. While other space simulators are playable with just a mouse and keyboard, most are optimized for use with a joystick or similar peripheral. Of course, most gamers do not own joysticks, so it’s easy to understand why Digital Anvil avoided such peripherals, but in doing so they may have alienated or embittered a large segment of the genre’s fan base. But once you get past the steep learning curve of the overly floaty and loose flight control, you will find an aerial combat engine that is as deep and fun as the best the genre has to offer.

The control does take some getting used to, and you’ll probably have to remap the keyboard controls once or twice until you find something more intuitive than the awkward default layout. Control of the ship is handled in one of two ways: either by holding the left mouse button and dragging the crosshairs, or by steering directly with the mouse. The first option allows access to the onscreen buttons, but the second option better matches the speed of your reflexes while in combat. Neither control scheme is entirely comfortable or intuitive, but you can find a happy medium by clicking back and forth as needed.

Between missions you’ll land on planets or space ports to make contacts in the local gin joints, purchase upgrades, repairs, or new ships, or scan the Net for information. Basically, here is where you suffer through terrible voice acting and boring, awkward control as you wait to find a new mission and return to the only part of the game that is actually fun: combat. The missions themselves are a mixed bag, some more inspired than others, but most waste little time before throwing enemies at you in droves.

The most stellar aspect of the game is the graphics engine. The space backdrops are breathtaking, and the sensation of speed is exhilarating and, at times, nauseating. The character models and ship designs, however, are unoriginal and boring. And while a story unfolded over the course of the game, I managed to tune it out after the first few cut scenes because it was never interesting, entertaining, or engaging.

Fortunately, the multiplayer version enhances the game by adding more combat and space exploration in an online setting, free of the stories that bog down the single-player version. While not as engrossing or deep as “Earth and Beyond,” for example, “Freelancer”‘s online mode is quite fun and will keep the disc spinning in your CD drive for a few extra weeks. It’s a lukewarm recommendation, but it’s a recommendation nonetheless.

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