Modder Spends Years Trying To Remake Freelancer's Flight Model

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.


Comments

    Freelancer was such an amazing game. It is a real shame you can't get it legally anymore. Other games like the X series just can't seem to capture what made Freelancer great.

      The X series has always been more of an older sim style model, though. Different power fantasies.

        True enough. Freelancer felt more accessible over the X series but it wasn't as in-depth. I recall there was a mod that allowed you to play an always online server that added other earth inspired nations and new ships like the French.

          That's the Discovery Freelancer server. Up till late 2017, i was a member of the community there but the latest crop of developers, admins and a particular clique had control and basically started wrecking the place with dumb decisions. I'm not sure how it is today but i wouldnt be surprised if there's barely a community anymore.

          A lot of people left the community after that or just lurked but didnt play anymore.

      I still have a shrink wrapped rerelease of this game in my cupboard. I was right in to the space sims, especially Decent: Freespace, Wing Commander and Privateer. Not sure why I never got around to playing this.

    Oh man, do I miss doing engine kill drifting maneuvers in this game.

    Freelancer was great for controls - I know a lot of people demand newtonian flight physics but Freelancer was just fun and easy to play. I'd kill for a Freelancer game except with a dynamic universe - if they could use its flight model and UI and take the dynamic world and fleet command of the X series, I'd probably never play another game.

      Basically explains how Star Citizen raised their early buckets of cash. I know that's why I backed the Kickstarter.

    One of the few space combat games where it didn't feel necessary to just stop your fucking engines and spin in circles like a stationary turret to be able to deal with enemies efficiently and not have it be stupidly fucking tedious...

    >only to realise you can't buy or download the game legally anymore
    So if its literally not possible to buy anymore is pirating it still "illegal"

      Unfortunately yes.

      You'd be hard pressed to find somebody who thinks it's actually unethical or immoral though. Just one aspect of copyright law that badly needs to be revised.

        that is certainly a bit odd then.
        But yes i agree its absolutely not in any way unethical.

      Illegal - technically. Will you be charged for it? Not a chance.

      I spoke with a Blizzard employee via Live Chat a while back. I was trying to find a way to buy the original Diablo - my original CD had been scratched into oblivion from overuse (due to being played regularly since about '96), and I couldn't find it in any online store and there wasn't an option to buy it directly from Blizzard.

      The guy suggested I look on ebay, then did a quick search himself. The cheapest copy he could find was $60 - at which point he told me to pirate it because that price was ridiculous.

      So yeah - if even the company employees are suggesting piracy, I doubt you are going to be pulled up for it.

    I really don't understand how MS has not capitalized on the Space Game resurgence and given us a Freelance HD. Then again, I am not even sure who owns the IP any more.

      I always say that if there is any game that's begging for a remaster/HD, it's Freelancer.

      That, and C&C Renegades.

      My money is on Chris Roberts having the IP. I seem to recall the Star Citizen page having a museum link to older games that he'd worked on and it was in there but that was years ago now.

      Totally on board for a Freelancer HD remake. That and TIE/X-wing games in a current gen engine would be amazing.

        He doesn't, unfortunately. The IP was always owned by microsoft, and even if it wasn't, Chris Roberts wasn't even still working at Digital Anvil when the game released.
        It has been a dream of the modding community for the last decade to gain access to the source code, but CR himself has come out and said that there isn't a copy left in existence that he is aware of. A real shame...

          Given that Chris left before Freelancer was finished, I doubt he has any claims to it. Hell, Star Cit is his first game since Freelancer.

    This sounds like how the old Quake Rally mod controls worked

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