What is the control scheme like?
Let me answer the question that's foremost in your minds: no, there is no joystick support. Wait, don't stop reading here -- they've replaced our familiar control scheme with something that's a whole lot more impressive than any previews to date have implied. Yes, you do fly with the mouse. No, it's not a Diablo-style point and click interface. Flying and shooting still requires the same skills we've honed for twelve years in the Wing Commander universe -- you twist and turn and lead your targets just like you had your hands on a Thrustmaster. So what's the advantage, aside from being able to sell the game to a larger audience? For one, it's easy to learn -- I had it down in about two minutes, and I'm used to playing 'Wing with a three piece throttle/stick/pedals setup. The cooler aspect, though, is that you get a cursor to control your cockpit as though it were the latest interation of Windows. You can minimize and enlarge VDUs, select targets, arm weapons, use your comms and more all in a very simple manner (Your keyboard, mind you, still plays an important role -- you use it just like you would in Wing Commander... [TAB] for afterburners and so forth). Actually, the VDUs are for the most part a lot more interactive -- you can scan other ships to see what weapons and cargo they have, you can activate all your maps while flying, you can see what the name of the enemy pilot is... a whole bunch of things, all with only the mouse. Essentially, it boils down to this: the gameplay was a lot more fun than I'd anticipated.
What's it like?
Four years ago I blasted StarLancer for being 'Wing Commander in space'... and now I have to complement Freelancer for almost the exact same reason: it's literally Privateer for the 21st century. Where StarLancer failed to immitate its famous cousin in various important areas (use of characters, for instance), FreeLancer shines. It honestly seems like the developers took a look at one of those "what's wrong with Privateer 2" lists and then made damn sure not to repeat any of those mistakes. There's commerce, piracy, mercenary work, variable alliances...
The game has essentially taken everything that's great about Privateer and either duplicated it or enhanced it to a massive scale: there's a vibrant living universe with dozens of factions all of which interact with eachother. Just flying around randomly you see scores of other ships interacting with eachother -- completely separate from your own story. You can get involved and build your reputation and alliances, or you can sit back and watch the fireworks. Like Privateer... but on a much larger scale.
And exploring is fun! They've stocked space with enough interesting artifacts and locations to make just wandering around in your fighter. I spent a good hour wandering around a single system looking in on bases: things like Military Academies and shipyards that are producing battleships.
Since developers collectively decided in 1998 that space shouldn't be a big black starfield, every combat game has been either too dark (StarLancer), too bright (Wing Commander Prophecy) or just plain ugly (Freespace). Freelancer bucks that trent -- the graphics are absolutely stunning and I can't say enough about the color balance. There are bright and beautiful starfields, nebulae, laser effects and so forth... but it's all balanced to the point that it seems natural, albeit amazing. It's also expansive -- I was absolutely wowed by vast asteroid and debris fields. The entire stellar environment is interactive, too -- planets and stars are no longer distant 2D sprites, but are instead 3D spheres that you can orbit and interact with.
I was also very impressed by the ship designs: they were a lot more varied than the typical 'pointy fighters, boxy capships' that have populated fictional space of late. The ships were unique enough to, hopefully, inspire debates similar to the age old Centurion/Galaxy/Orion arguments of yore.
What about the movies?
The movies are rendered on-the-fly in a manner similar to modern console games (although the rendering is of a slightly higher calibur). It's not photo-realistic, but it's immersive in the same sense as the original several Wing Commander games -- once you've gotten into the fact that the characters are done in this style, you're immersed. The 3D sets are colorful and varied.
(Strangely, the intro was a fully pre-rendered CGI in the vein of StarLancer -- although impressive in a tried and true manner, it didn't seem to mesh with the style of the rest of the game. It's quite possible that there are more fully rendered scenes later in the game, but I didn't encounter any of them.)
Okay, then, what didn't you like?
I wasn't particularly fond of the comm system -- it isn't interactive at all. There's a comm button that you press, and if your target has anything to say they'll say it. I missed both the pointless, amusing conversations you could have with each and every passer by in Privateer and the impressive story comms of the interactive movie Wings.
Outside of actual spaceflight, I found the 'random universe' element slightly lacking. Every bartender or fixer I spoke with always had some serious advice to offer me: there weren't any false leads or bits of pointless commentary that would have made the universe feel a bit more 'real'. It also lacked Privateer's dry with -- the Freelancer universe takes itself a bit more seriously than did Origin's trading game. I'm not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing... immitating Privateer's sense of humor probably wouldn't have worked out, though it was certainly missed. I wasn't impressed by the on-planet ship arming/repair system -- it's like Privateer 2, where you pick your weapons from a list rather than actually 'see' them mounted onto your ship. You do see them there when you're in combat: you'll see the gun or the engines or whatever you bought when you're flying around... but there was a certain thrill in upgrading that was missed. (Unlike Privateer 2, selling back weapons costs you money -- thankfully. The idea that you could sell your Kravens for as much as you bought them for was silly...).
Then there's one final oddity: your player character, Trent, is voiced by 90210 star Ian Ziering... coupled with the fact that his 3D looks similar, it seems kind of like you're playing Steve Sanders in space. I'm not sure if that's really cool or slightly annoying.
How was Chris Roberts involved?
Mr. Roberts hasn't been with Digital Anvil for several years. The game credits him for 'Original Concept' and 'Special Thanks'.
Is it really coming out soon?
The build I saw was more solid (and seemingly complete) than many already-released games I've played (well, Ultima games, at least). The team members claim they're in the process of making bug fixes -- although the 'bugs' that were pointed out to me were practically unnoticable: exploding at the wrong point when you get near a star, and so forth. Everyone I spoke to seems absolutely sure that Freelancer will ship in early March... and judging from what I saw, they're right.
Yes, there is multiplayer... it's not the massively multiplayer option promised by Chris Roberts in 1998, but it's a lot of fun. The game seems to be capable of realistically supporting 30 or so players at once, with a theoreticaly maximum of 128. You play on player-owned servers a la Counter Strike, and literally have access to the entire game. You can fly missions with your friends, take potshots at people, or just play the game while others are doing the same.
From the perspective of this Wing Commander fan, Freelancer is a wonderful game. I hesitate to say that it's everything Privateer 2 should have been, since I love Darkening for its weird and wonderful style... but for all intents and purposes, that's exactly what it is. (In the interests of full disclosure, Microsoft paid for my flight, my hotel room and gave me a neat bagpack and hat. I can assure everyone that my opinions are my own, though.)