by Marty Demarest
Once the winter holidays have passed, the entertainment industries settle into a holding pattern. With any luck, people have become so addicted to attending movies, buying CDs, and playing video games that they'll continue to shell out dollars for substandard products in order to fill the void left in their lives by the demise of quality entertainment. Of course, there are a few bright spots. Since video games often take so long to fine-tune, a few potential blockbuster games are often delayed, frustratingly, until after the holidays.

But most of last year's anticipated titles hit store shelves on time, and so, aside from the usual sports titles and a few excellent releases from Nintendo, this spring has been slow for the video game industry. One of the few hyped-then-delayed games to be released is Freelancer from Microsoft. Unfortunately, its extensive delays hinted more at intractable problems than quality assurance.

It's refreshing to discover, then, that Freelancer is not only good, but that it represents a welcome trend in computer games. So many titles aim at adding variety to proven gaming formulas by ratcheting up the complexity. Freelancer, however, strips away layers of complexity from an already established form of gameplay.

Freelancer is a spaceship combat game that puts players in the flight boots of a lantern-jawed freelance pilot who finds himself enmeshed in a web of galactic politics and rebellion. Imagine life as Han Solo before he met Luke Skywalker and you've grasped the story. Players have the options of customizing their ships as the game progresses, and of nominally controlling the story line. While there are always battles to wage, the players get to decide which sides they will aid. The game even gives players a push online. When playing the game solo, players can only progress so far; in order to advance to the higher levels and earn better ships, gamers will have to venture into Internet play.

Controlling flight in three dimensions has always made space combat something of a specialist's genre. But the developers of Freelancer have wisely opted to simplify the controls. No joystick is required, just a mouse and keyboard. Rather than deflate part of the game's fun (the alien experience of flying a spaceship), it makes the whole thing more accessible. Freelancer is a game that almost anyone can enjoy.

Publication date: 04/23/03

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