Thursday, 3 May 2012

Dead In Seconds 6: Freelancer's Blues

As regular readers of this blog will know, I get a lot of enjoyment from playing computer games, these days on my laptop.  I particularly like games with a good story and an imaginative approach.  The thing that exasperates me most is not being able to progress in these games as I am simply destroyed very quickly.  In particular I hate it when your computer-controlled opponents have advantages that you do not and so the conflict is imbalanced.  I feel that your character or country or tank or whatever should have the same abilities and chance of success as an equally equipped opponent.  This is often not the case.  In addition, too many games seem designed with the target player, even at the Easy setting, being someone incredibly adept at pressing six keys simultaneously, responding faster than a computer can and being able to see into the future.  I have wasted a great deal of money down the years on games in which I am wiped out so quickly that there was no point in buying the game.  Repeated attempts to progress advance me no further and I am left feeling inadequate just when I am seeking escape from constantly being told I am inadequate in real life.

In the past I have wondered about me going on about computer games which may be a decade old, imagining that most readers would at best only have a dim memory of them.  However, with Steam and even more so Good Old Games which Yammerhant introduced me to back in February of this year, much of what I have to say again becomes relevant.  Today's focus is on 'Freelancer'.  This is a game which involves you playing Trent a space trader in the distant future, moving between different planetary systems settled by the Americans, British/Irish, Japanese and Germans.  Such games have a long heritage going back to 'Star Trader' (1984) and of course, the famous 'Elite' (1984) on the ZX Spectrum and slightly more recently 'Wing Commander: Privateer' (1993) available for PCs (you can buy this off at the moment).  Like these earlier games 'Freelancer' works on the concept that you get a spaceship, you fly between a range of beautifully imaged planets and space stations buying and selling so that you become richer and can upgrade your ship.  You can also pick up missions from the various bodies in the different systems whether they be police, the military, bounty hunters or big corporations.

The variety of different settings, how the planets are shown even how the stores and bars on each planet look pretty different is a strong point.  A weakness is how few voice actors are used.  You can interact with a range of non-player characters of different nationalities with them all sounding like the US actor David Schwimmer.  There are only a few voices that sound British, German or Japanese.  The styling is quite fascinating especially for the Bretonnian (British) and Liberty (American) police and military with the Bretonnians wearing the red jackets and pith helmets of British forces in Africa or India in the 1860s and the Libertarians looking like members of the 7th Cavalry of the same era.  The Rheinlanders (Germans) resemble 19th century German politicians, only the Kusarians (Japanese) look like they are up with the times, wearing outfits that seem to have come from 'Blade Runner'.  The planets tend to look like these styles though the Liberty planets' cities look like contemporary San Francisco and the Kusarian ones very much like Tokyo or Los Angeles of 'Blade Runner' in contrast the Bretonnian ones are either heavily Gothic in style or look like an archetype of a 19th century mill town in northern England.

There are lots of items to buy and sell and a total of 48 systems to explore.  The prices do not change, so if you find a good deal shipping from one part of the galaxy to the other you can guarantee that you will keep earning.  You can also make money by undertaking the missions, usually capturing or eliminating pirates or revolutionaries.  This not only gets you cash but raises your reputation with the different authorities or corporations.  In addition, destroying the criminals you can use your tractor beam to scoop up cargo or weaponry which you can sell on.  Frustratingly in each nation's region you can only buy one of four ships: two types of light fighter, one type of heavy fighter and one type of freighter.  The craft look great and show the particular weaponry you select to buy on the images.  When damaged the graphics show this, sometimes your craft even on fire.  Whislt you can put on different weaponry and defences, again these are pretty limited by the level you can reach.  You raise through the odd levels through generating a certain level of wealth but you can only progress through the even levels by engaging with the storyline.

Though there is quite a lot of freedom to advance, you keep being dragged back to the linear story about a conspiracy in Liberty space involving the trafficking of alien artifacts and this is where the problems begin.  You start in Liberty space but soon become a renegade dragged into battles by a former commander in the LSF - Liberty Security Force an armed intelligence service.  These battles are ridiculously hard to even survive in.  There is so much crossfire from vessels far more powerful than your own that the only solution is to skulk around the edges; if you are directly targeted your shield and hull is literally stripped away in seconds and you are told you have failed.  If you do the sensible thing and flee then you lose as you are deemed to be a coward.  Even buying the best ship with all the defences I could, I have repeatedly go through these scenes again and again just to find the one occasion when I can survive and get to the next stage of the story.  Between phases of each part of the story you often have no chance to repair your ship or replenish your weaponry so you have to hope you can tractor beam in some shield batteries from the debris in order to stay alive.

I guess you could say that the set-piece battles need to be exciting.  However, having to listen to the cut scenes again and again and again to get a chance to try to survive once more gets very tedious.  However, this is not the only element of  'dead in seconds' found in 'Freelancer'.  The other problem is simply flying around trying to trade.  It is right that if carrying cargo you get held up by pirates trying to snatch this.  In some cases you can outrun them.  However, as you progress they gain cruise disruptor missiles which stop you escaping and your anti-missile flares seem unable to shake them off.  You can battle it out with the pirates and stand a real chance of winning and even scooping up valuable debris.  What is frustrating is that you can be leapt on anywhere.  When out in open space at least you have a chance to fight back, the problem comes when you are about to dock with station or go into one of the in-system trade lanes (these zap you across wide distances within a system a little faster but can be disrupted by pirates) or especially trying to go into inter-system jump gates.  Often you find the gates have some ahead of you and you are stuck in a queue whilst five or six pirates pummel your ship with laser weapons and missiles.  Even worse you emerge from a gate to find yourself under such attack before you can even ascertain the direction you need to head in to reach the next base.  The autosave returns you to emerging out of the gate so you just die and die again.  You must keep saving every time you stop at a base otherwise you will find your plans of making a profit are set back a long way the moment you take off.

'Freelancer' is a really engaging game.  Sometimes flying long distances with a cargo can get tedious, but the visuals help ameliorate that.  The key trouble is how difficult it is to simply get from one base to the next without being wiped out.  It is frustrating that you can become immensely wealthy and yet cannot buy a ship, weaponry or defences that make you even marginally safe among the packs of pirates.  You are limited in how many shield batteries (these repower your shield when it is damaged) and nanobots (these repair you hull if damaged) you can carry.  With the shield batteries even when you move on to a better ship you gain little as each repair uses more batteries the higher the level of the ship.  Thus even at level 10 you can still be eliminated in seconds  just as was the case at level 2.  Any revision of the game should reduce the sheer number of pirates hanging around the gates so at least you can advance a little without being blown apart.  There should also be greater freedom to move onto stronger ships and weaponry and especially defences as soon as you can afford these, so at least you can raise yourself to a level that you can trade without being killed again and again and again on a single flight between two locations.  There will always be an imbalance as you always fly alone and even in the set pieces you are incredibly out-numbered and your allies are pathetic; your opponents always come in groups, never less than two and often of five or six, so the odds will always be difficult even if you were not limited in how you can equip yourself.  Once again poor game play balance has spoilt what otherwise could be a stunning game.

The title of this posting was influenced by the song 'Smuggler's Blues' (1984) by Glen Frey, a song that inspired an episode of the 'Miami Vice' series shown in 1985 and featuring the singer.

No comments: