One of the greatest things about Freelancer was that I was once the game ended, I was desperate for more things to do.
Like a great film or TV show, it’s better to leave the stage when you’re loved. That was the case with Freelancer, a space epic that was really an action-centric game with just enough Privateer trappings and worldbuilding to tie it all together.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Freelancer lately, as I work my way through Rebel Galaxy Outlaw‘s planets and systems. It’s easy to compare the two games, since Rebel Galaxy Outlaw has a full 3D flight model instead of the original game, which was more like Black Flag in space.
Rebel Galaxy‘s weakness was the early, punishing grind. Like all the great space classic, you started with a genuine heap of shit, a bucket of bolts barely capable of travelling at sub-light speed, let alone jumping between sectors. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw starts the same way. You play as Juno Markev, who calls in her last remaining favours with a casino baron to get off the ground again.
You know how it plays out from here. Juno’s forced to take basic cargo missions, low risk mercenary runs, and trading simple goods back and forth. Much of the mission structure is borrowed from Rebel Galaxy, too. You’ll get an offer that takes you out of the system, but you can’t make the jump without a warp drive. Or you’ll be asked to do an escort run that you have no hope of succeeding, but you won’t know that until you try the run a couple of times.
So you hunt down some commodities, go through a few landing transitions (or spam Q a lot, since that skips the whole process if you’re playing with mouse and keyboard), and whittle away the hours.
I’ve been playing the game on and off for the last couple of weeks, in between smashing out Control and occasionally checking in with WoW Classic, and as the days have gone on I’ve found myself trying to rush through missions faster and faster. My initial experience with the game was thrilling, coming close to the experience of a modern Freelancer or, more realistically, Wing Commander: Privateer.
But what Freelancer did so well, while still enabling the merchant-or-mercenary progression paths through the main story arc, was that it kept things moving along at a reasonable pace. There was the occasional moment where the game wouldn’t progress because you hadn’t earned enough money or advanced far enough quite yet, but those breaks in play were also an opportunity for you to explore anomalies on the map, visit new sectors, upgrade weapons and shields, and you could always do all of those things before pursuing the next story mission.
With Outlaw, you often can’t do the next story mission until you’ve spent at least an hour or two trading, doing escort runs, or doing strings of monotonous jumps from one sector to another until you’ve got the scrap for that extra power generator, which will give you the reactor power necessary to juice those extra shields and keep those pulse/laser guns firing.
But the cost for all of that is … basically more than every ship in the game. And there’s no point buying a new ship if you can’t upgrade to the next tier of shields/armour/power: Enemies in-game have near-perfect accuracy, so being able to absorb the first few rounds of enemy fire is almost always more crucial to your success than any manoeuvrability mid-fight.
Rebel Galaxy was carried by a banging soundtrack, and Outlaw double downs by adding more songs, more stations and even a raft of “streamer friendly music” for those on Twitch or YouTube. There’s enough of a variety there, from an almost Cowboy Bebop-esque jazz and classical station to heavier rock and something approaching space EDM. You end up missing out on half the music though: once you get past the 10 hour mark, most of your time is really just jumping through one gate to another, occasionally sending comms to enemy rebels asking them politely if they’ll back off (which, more often than not, they always do).
The balance between giving the player a huge galaxy to explore and actually incentivising that exploration is tough, though. It’s not helped by a lack of simple tools on Outlaw‘s end. You can see the output and desired commodities for each planet once you’ve visited them, but actually checking the prices is a slow process where you hover over the planet on the map screen, and then wait several seconds for the planet to cycle over. You can’t check the markets for planets you haven’t visited — warp drives are a thing, but an intergalactic stock market apparently isn’t. So to get the rudimentary amount of info you need on Galaxy‘s economy, you have to do a fair bit of travelling and junk missions just so that planet is recorded in your database later.
It’s a grind. It feels like a grind, and after about a week of slowly working my way through, shifting minerals and goods from one side of the galaxy to the next just so I could afford the next ship upgrade, I started to resent the whole experience.
It’s not the Freelancer experience I hoped for, although I’m not finished with the game yet. I’m holding out hope that the final missions will have some kind of grand, Return of the Jedi-esque space battle. I’m still undecided whether I want to spend the rest of the game predominately as a trader or more as a nimble, ruthless pirate. I just hope that final journey, whatever path I decide, is more of a sprint than a marathon.