Every year or so, I think back about how much fun I had with Freelancer, only to realise you can't buy or download the game legally anymore. And that's a shame, not just because everyone could use a great space opera in their lives, but because the game's flight controls were a true marvel.
Space games of the '90s and early '00s were often characterised by tons and tons of keyboard bindings. They were closer to flight sims than they were action games, which was fine except for the massive barrier to accessibility it posed. Optical mice had come into their own, and while they took hold as the most superior input device for games, a model had yet to be found to make them truly serviceable for space sims.
But then along came Freelancer and its unique take on flight controls that, for many people, became the gold standard for mouse flight.
Over at GitHub, Freelancer modder Why485 has tried to recreate Freelancer's various nuances. Firstly, rather than treating the mouse like a virtual joystick, Freelancer uses a model that you might have seen from War Thunder. Rather than the player actually controlling the ship directly, their input determines a point ahead of the ship which the ship then flies towards, more like a guided autopilot system:
Instead of using the mouse as direct joystick-like input, the mouse cursor is used to project a point somewhere off in the distance, and the ship then automatically turns toward that point. The camera being stuck behind the ship is why it appears to work like a virtual joystick. As long as you hold the mouse to the left of the screen, the ship will continually turn left because the "go to point" is perpetually to the ship's left.
To put this in context, a demo has been released that creates a placeholder space where you can fly around to test out the controls for yourself. To further show it off - while also giving a little hope to the idea that someone might recreate Freelancer in Unity one day - Why485 did recreate his own Freelancer-style level to show it all off.
What proved especially difficult was recreating Freelancer's banking effect, where the game applies a cinematic view to the ship while the latter rolls. The difficulty in replicating the nuance with this aspect of flight alone took years to get right, but the problem has pretty much been solved. What's even better for gamers: the code is available online for any other devs who want to refer back to it for their own Unity-powered space games, opening up the door for a little piece of Freelancer to live on into the future.
If anything, this whole process illustrates just how much love can go into a single mechanic. It's a nice reminder of the passion and effort people have to put into fundamental elements that isn't always apparent, or appreciated quite as much as it should be. At least not until you try and build it yourself, anyway.