"Hi there, don't know you, are you new here?"

"Yeah, kinda."

"Oh well, then, I work for the Liberty Police. We don't run this place, but we have a sizeable stake in its operation."

These are the first few words that I always remember when I got into Microsoft and Digital Anvils new 'Freelancer' game, the space sim that is set to top the charts and blow away the competition? Or is it? Well from first glance you might think it's nothing special, but you'd be so wrong. Freelancer is an incredibly addictive piece of software that has to have the best Multiplayer game element of any on the market now, or back a good few years ago.

And I'm not saying this, as some of you might think, because Microsoft have shoved huge piles of cash into my paws. I'm saying this because I've had a blast of a time playing with my mates over my Cable connection and sometimes my small LAN at home. Freelancer should really be the sequel to Starlancer, and I can't make my mind up if it is or isn't. It's set further into the future and references some of the elements from the Starlancer game in the very slick CGI intro.

You are Edison Trent, who's a pretty cool customer himself, not too arrogant and not too brash. He's a kind of cross between Han Solo and James 'T' Kirk but without the stilted dialogue and the wigs, he's got a sense of morality but in the end he's a Freelancer so he'll pretty much take any job - but when the going gets tough, Mr Trent starts to change his tune, and as the excellent story unfolds - things become less clear cut and more grey to misty.

Trent is one of the survivors of the 'Freeport 7' disaster and as such is left without a ship and without a way to make money. But you're not left out in the cold for long, for an opportunity lands your way in the form of Junko Zane - the slinky boss of the Liberty Security Force, and you're soon flying for them doing the first of the game's story missions. But that's enough background, because Freelancer has a wickedly large background and a pretty engaging storyline, I'm not going to say anymore.

So let's talk about the all-important word 'Gameplay' here for a moment and then we'll move on to eye-candy etc. Gameplay is pretty straightforward and fun, especially if you like blasting lots of ships with various types of guns, the story as I said before however isn't and twists and turns like a fighter, trying to lose a lock-on from a missile. You can either follow this story or you can take a break and go and follow your nose, the deeper you get into it, the more you want to play the story to its conclusion, or at least I felt that way. I found it highly compelling and one of the better stories for this type of game; it perked my interest right away and wouldn't go amiss in an episode of Babylon 5 at all. And from me, that's a high compliment. But as I said, remember that you can go off and work for who you want, there's no real set path - apart from if you want to advance in rank and get better equipment and ships, in singleplayer you have to eventually come back on track and play the story missions.

There are at least 30 ships you can fly, around 50 or so in the game in total that you can encounter.

There are 40 Star Systems in Freelancer and at least 150 places to land where you can get jobs, learn rumours and generally talk to people. And there are a lot of people, at least 2000 Non Player Characters from 50 factions. According to the blurb and I haven't had time to explore it fully, there's a whole coherent virtual economy with over 3000 trade routes, and to be honest I can fully well believe it.

Back to Gameplay...Freelancer is a game that's played via keyboard and mouse, it might take a while to get used to for those folks who love to waggle their joysticks, but when you're used to it - the whole thing is pretty intuitive and I found myself enjoying it far more than a traditional joystick orientated game. Nice one DA. The Controls are simple and they won't take a degree in quantum physics to understand, you'll find that in no time at all, you're using the short cuts or the GUI that's built into your ship's HUD.

You see the left mouse button allows you to engage free flight mode and move the ship around on screen, while the right mouse fires the currently selected weapons. Let go of the left mouse button and you can move the cursor to any icon on your HUD interacting with it, to call up a new screen or engage the ship's various functions. Once you get used to this, you'll be coherently piloting your ship from place to place and just relaxing, unless you're in a battle or something, which are never relaxing things to be in.

Freelancer's control system has to be one of the quirkiest and best out there for this kind of game, and when you marry the simple flight dynamics into the equation you end up with a winner. The game is easy to play but hard to master, some folks have said it's too easy. I personally found that it went from too easy, to too hard sometimes but an intelligent auto-save during main plotline missions saves much frustration in the long run.

You can also save on a planet, or station, which again allows for a much greater degree of freedom and significantly less frustration than say, I-War2 which I enjoyed, don't get me wrong, but compared to this. I-War2 loses hands down, Freelancer is a much more open and much more in-your-face kind of game. There are a number of functions on your ship as I mentioned before and each one can quickly be accessed by a short cut key or a click on the corresponding icon, some of these functions are very useful - such as the dock function, or the formation function, which allows you to enter formation with any ship in the game. Someone going somewhere and you're bored, why you can just click on their ship and enter formation with them. Should they get attacked en-route you can help defend the convoy, I'm not sure if this helps your rep in the Universe so to speak, but as part of a coherent attempt to create a living environment, it sure feels as though it does.

There's so much to discover in Freelancer, so much to mention that I'm bound to leave some of it out. Because it so reminds me of the good old days of Elite, where you were your own master and you didn't have to worry about anything except yourself. Sure the main plot kicks in from time to time in this game and drags you along with it, but you never once feel 'railroaded' or 'forced' along the path, thanks to the supremely effective story and Universe that's been created.

It truly is alive, and as you ply the lanes, fighting, earning money to upgrade your ship and various items you own. You'll find that you often come to respect the other pilots around you, especially those in the main story. If a hero dies, you'll feel the loss much more than other games, they feel like real people out there with you, the dialogue and story helps this a great deal. As you haul in a new piece of cargo from a downed Pirate ship, you'll get the feeling that you're actually making a difference out there and cutting the scum of the galaxy down in turn.

And boy will they 'hate' you for it. Each faction has a general feeling towards you; some start out as downright hostile, others friendly and others don't give a damn about Edison Trent and what you do. Be that, as it may, you're bound to do something to alter your reputation in the Universe and it will change, and the results are often unexpected. You start out as an enemy to the Liberty Rogues, but you could eventually become friendly with them, especially if you start attacking police ships that are attacking them. It's all about winning friends and influencing people, and if that fails, turning them into glowing space dust. Better reps with various factions can be bought from 'Fixers' in bars and they cost through the roof though, and to be honest I don't care enough about my rep with the Rogues to fix it at all, they will pay for what they did to my paintjob!

You can fight, you can be a daring space pirate, which isn't easy and involves a fair bit of setting up. You can also throw away your fast fighter for a slower and more gun-heavy freighter, allowing you to trade and protect yourself. Equipment can be upgraded at the various docking stations, planets and the like. Better guns, better shields and various bits of tech for your ship. It all costs money and in the singleplayer game, you need to make more money to advance in rank. Believe you me, it's worth it as well, for the higher rank you are...the better ships you can buy and the better guns you can own, and heh, it's all about having a good mix of heavy and light guns out in the big black.

Some guns do less damage, some guns do more, and some only do shield damage. If you have a better ship, you can fit more guns and so on. The current vessel I have at the moment has six guns and at least one of those is a rapid firing shield damaging nightmare, two shots with it and their shields are virtually gone. Then the massive impact from the other guns kicks in and you watch the red hull bar vanish into a little black box, finally the ship explodes in a glorious pyrotechnical 'BOOM' that has you going 'YES' and punching the air rapidly before taking another target down.

Ok, enough on gameplay, trading, upgrading and the like. Let's get into the Freelancer look and feel. Yes, I am glad to say, it looks gorgeous and feels wonderful. It's full of some of the oddest and quirky ship designs in the game industry and doesn't suffer at all from it. What I would love to see is an old favourite made by a modeller make a comeback. I want to fly a Cobra MK III damn it, they rocked. The graphics in Freelancer are excellent, they boast an impressive array of polygons and visual effects, space itself is gorgeous and the insides of various dust clouds and nebulae have to be seen to be believed, still shots do not do them justice.

You can see your pilot and you can watch the guns swivel on their ball-joint mounts, as you ply the lanes looking for your next mission. But what really sets Freelancer apart from the rest of the competition out there is the audio, not only is the music engaging, reactive and pretty nice, it's also a thumping good beat to battle to. But wait, it's not the music that makes Freelancer even better, it's the audio, and while the whole game oozes classic sci-fi zaps and crackles with the best of them, the true genius is in the chatter from the various pilots, stations and bases out there. You can listen to a number of conversations as people are questioned about where they're heading and what they're carrying. This all adds to the atmosphere and brings the Universe alive once more, and it does it supremely well, there are a few quirks with the dialogue at times as the system doesn't quite get it right, but overall it's an ambitious and excellent attempt at recreating a busy space born society.

It uses a modular dialogue system so certain parts are always added at a slightly slower rate, sometimes this causes a stutter in it, but you can blame that on FTL communication interference if you're as sad as I am. The same can be said for the dialogues with the various NPCs, which do change depending on a number of different factors - including reputation and if they remember seeing your face before. Usually they'll give you a little snippet of information or a mission; sometimes they're there to advance the story. It's all good and it all builds to bring us closer to our dream game, and if Digital Anvil are reading this...combine this with on foot gameplay like the PS2's Getaway married to Freelancer as it stands, but with laser based weapons and true exploration and you'll crack it.

Before I wind down, there's one other element I'd love to discuss and this is where the game really makes it for me. Multiplayer, yeah, it's packed to the brim with the best in Multiplayer action and for no extra cost. No pay-2-play here folks, just good old 'Start your own server' or 'Join' someone else's. But wait, there's more, because this isn't crappy Deathmatch gaming here, no, it's true Co-Operative gaming in the Freelancer universe, where the 30 odd ships are available to purchase and you can explore to your hearts content, mapping out the 40 odd Star Systems and Co-Operatively playing alongside people online as well as across a LAN.

The singleplayer storyline has been stripped out of FL MP and you're left with a working space environment that's different every time you play. Your character is stored on the server and under a unique id. You can run your own server on your host machine, boot up FL and play together on that. Or you can have a machine that's just a server; it's up to you. And the client backend is excellent, allowing you to kick and ban players who cause trouble, set a limit, password and the usual thing you expect from a quality production such as this.

Players can also join Groups which can play missions Co-Operatively, sharing profits and group lives, once you're out of Group lives the Group is broken, but fear not. Death is only a respawn away, and the fun keeps on going. With the option to trade equipment and cash with other players, this game really has it all. The chat system could do with a bit of work, but otherwise it's perfect and it is the best non-pay-2-play MP you'll ever have the chance to play.

There's nothing quite like going online and seeing a large freighter flanked by three fighters and knowing, they're not NPCs but they're fellow players in the game world. Join up with them, form on the freighter's wing and jump trade-lanes together, if they're attacked, they might appreciate the help. Most often or not the folks of Freelancer MP are a nice bunch.

There are so many things I want to say about this game, but I'm kind of running out of space. The last thing I'll mention is the AI, which varies between pretty cool and pretty abysmal. Thankfully, if a bunch of ships is battling with you, they'll tend to keep out of your line of fire and do their best to keep you out of theirs. Thankfully mistakes with the ship's AI happen, few and far between, but the flight computer will sometimes send you aiming at a planet or bouncing off a station, the quick thinking amongst you will cut to manual and manoeuvre out of the way. These are minor niggles and not big game breakers, so FL is the top space sim in my book and I look forwards to perhaps buddying up with some of you on a server out there.

"Stay safe, and keep one thing in mind. If you lose concentration out here, just for a second, you're dead."