Released: 2003
Developer: Digital Anvil
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

If there was an A-list of game developers, Chris Roberts would surely be counted among their number. His previous credits as a game designer had included work on Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (Origin Systems, 1988), but it was his masterpiece Wing Commander (Origin Systems, 1990) that launched a series of games that (alongside the X-Wing/TIE Fighter series) would define the spacesim genre for years to come. Wing Commander was followed by 4 direct sequels, and several spin-off titles, such as Wing Commander: Privateer (1993). Roberts left Origin Systems in 1996, and in 1997, Origin Systems released the final game in the series, Wing Commander: Prophecy — a good game, but noticeably missing Roberts’ defining creative influence.

Roberts cofounded Digital Anvil in 1997. For fans of the Wing Commander series and Roberts’ other games, it probably wasn’t surprising to see him try his hand at directing the Wing Commander movie, with Digital Anvil and Origin Systems as producers. Roberts had previously worked with well-known Hollywood names such as Mark Hamill, John Rhys-Davies and Tim Curry in Wing Commander III and IV, games in which his cinematic persuasions were strongly implied. Unfortunately, Wing Commander (1999), like many other films based on games, was a critical and commercial flop. Finally, in 2000, Digital Anvil released their first computer game, Starlancer.

Starlancer was well-received by the gaming community and reviewers alike. It would also lay the foundations for the story of Freelancer (Digital Anvil, 2003). Starlancer chronicled a war across the Solar System between two opposing Earth factions; the Alliance, consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Spain, France, Italy and Australia; and the Coalition, consisting of Russia, China and various Middle Eastern interests. Sadly, Starlancer was also released at a time when the spacesim genre was losing popularity, primarily to multiplayer FPS games like Unreal Tournament (Epic Games, Digital Extremes, 1999), and Quake III: Arena (id Software, 1999).

Initial designs for Freelancer were laid down by Roberts in 1997, shortly after the founding of Digital Anvil. His vision for the game was exceedingly ambitious, given the technology available at the time; ambition is a quality that Roberts has in abundance, sometimes to his detriment. This resulted in numerous delays — the initial release date was set for late 2000, then delayed to the end of 2001. The development costs were piling up, leading to Microsoft purchasing Digital Anvil in 2000. Roberts left Digital Anvil after the purchase but remained as a creative consultant on Freelancer.

Following the purchase, Microsoft Game Studios significantly curbed many features of the extravagant project and reined in development. Eventually released in 2003, Freelancer was received well, but was not the revolutionary game that gamers had hoped for. Several promised features had been cut, most significantly the dynamic universe and economy that had been promised. Freelancer was more like an enthusiast’s model train set than an actual simulation of a train network. Despite this, Freelancer enjoyed a sizeable gamer following. Players continue to release game modifications to this day, and calls for a remaster or sequel are not uncommon. With such a troubled development, disappointing release and lack of features, what was it about Freelancer that captured the imagination of so many players, and continues to do so?

By 2003, the classic spacesim genre was mostly dead — Egosoft’s X series partially filled the void for sandbox spacesims, but the fiendishly steep learning curve deterred many gamers, and it felt more like Wall Street in space than World War II. Joysticks, once a common computer peripheral, were mostly a thing of the past. EVE Online (CCP Games, 2003), while an incredible experience in its own right, didn’t quite scratch the starfighter pilot itch that gamers had been lacking since 2000, and neither did the sub-standard console releases. Freelancer was CPR for a genre on the verge of death — it wasn’t perfect, and it couldn’t last forever — but it kept the genre alive long enough for a spectacular revival in the mid-2010s. As one of the fans of the genre who survived this drought on the gasps of air provided by Freelancer, I can say from my heart that I hold a deep sense of appreciation and nostalgia for this flawed masterpiece.

I was not alone in my love for Freelancer, and it was a great game to play with friends. I recall a LAN party, where a few of us hauled our bulky PCs around to a friend’s house for a weekend of Freelancer multiplayer. This was before gaming laptops and reliable WiFi were common — a LAN party was a significant undertaking, involving desktop PCs with 20 kg CRT monitors, network switches, metres and metres of network cables, and fiddly network configuration.

That weekend was one of the best memories I have of Freelancer. For three days we played practically non-stop, exploring the galaxy, taking missions together and eventually attempting the most lucrative and dangerous trade route in the game. We were not prepared for the journey and were frequently defeated by pirates along the trade route, but working together to try and achieve that “big score” made us all feel a little bit like Han Solo. Three days of Freelancer with no sleep and little more than pizza and fizzy drink had left us exhausted, but these are the types of memories that remain with you forever.

Freelancer has given me countless hours of enjoyment over the years. The open-world, although simplistic by today’s standards, was exactly what I was looking for in 2003. Not only that, but the game was supported by a vibrant and active modding community for many years after its release (some of whom are still active today).

Freelancer’s aesthetic was very much science-fantasy rather than science-fiction. A popular style in many space-sim games at the time (and a style that continues today) was to replicate the famous NASA images that depicted the non-visible spectrums of our own Universe. Games like Freelancer took that approach to the extreme, and the result was that every region of the game’s Sirius Sector had a unique feel. Bretonia, modelled after Victorian Era Great Britain, was painted in endless shades of brown, resembling the thick smog of the Industrial Revolution. Meanwhile, Kusari space was modelled on Japanese culture, and this influence was reflected in the design of their ships and space stations. Rheinland reflected the industrialist, utilitarian German Empire, while Liberty featured an approachable modern Western aesthetic, to appeal to Freelancer’s key market. In hindsight, this stereotyping was perhaps somewhat simplistic, and even a little insensitive (unintentionally, I’m sure). However, setting that aside, it was this sharp delineation of style that gave the game a lot of its flavour. No matter who you were, every player could find a place in Freelancer that felt like “home”.

I’m yet to find a game that has managed to recapture the feeling of Freelancer, and not for lack of trying. The genre has produced been numerous titles in recent years, many of them far superior to Freelancer in their design, complexity and depth. Of particular note is Elite: Dangerous (Frontier Developments, 2014), a sequel to the game that literally created the genre, Elite (Braben, Bell, 1984). Yet none of them have quite managed recaptured the magic I felt in 2003. That’s the funny thing about nostalgia, particularly in the realm of gaming. The gamer’s experience consists of a multitude of factors outside of the games they play. For me, those factors were many — the LAN parties, a younger games industry less concerned with profit, the seemingly endless free time to play games, my increased ability to suspend disbelief — all of these factors come together to create a moment in time that lives on in memory alone.

And so, we journey ever onward to find what was left behind. I’m okay with that — after all, I love games, and I’m having a great time. Meanwhile, though they may not realise it, today’s young gamers are creating those memories that they will one day yearn to relive. I truly hope that one day, they are able to look back on the games of their past as fondly as I remember the “Universe of Possibility”, Freelancer.

At some point in about 1989 I played my first videogames on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This was the beginning of a lifetime obsession with games...

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