Despite some mild flaws, an absolutely superb game that everyone should try
Despite some people writing this game off as an elite clone, Privateer is groundbreaking for its atmosphere and pace alone. The storyline is good enough (I finished and was amply satisfied), but it is the open-ended nature that is so perfectly scaled. The game is initially difficult for the novice, but once it is mastered it proves the perfect fusion of rewardingly tough enemies and player-favouring odds.
The Wing Commander universe isn't exactly the same in this game as in the rest of the series, but rather you occupy the newly chartered "Gemini sector". However, the presence of Confederate and Kilrathi forces, actively opposing one another, is reassuring enough for the WC veteran. There are also hundreds of planets and stations throughout the sector, varying from the agricultural farm worlds to asteroid-occupying mining bases, luxury pleasure planets to hidden (really, they aren't identified on the nav map) pirate installations, and even a few unique, especially cool places like the sector capital, New Constantinople.
Visually and audio-wise, the game is amazing for its time. The musical score holds a particularly special place in my heart, and it suits the grim Gemini sector to a tee.
The game isn't perfect. Considering its age and quality, most of the little problems are forgivable in my opinion. These include the generic nature of planets and bases, the pointlessness of some features (like barmen, although they're great for atmosphere) and the unbalanced weaponry (go for Tachyon cannons every time).
However, one area that I guess is seriously skewed are the different lines of employment you can pursue, and the pilotable ships that reflect them. The game boasts your ability to be either a merc, merchant or pirate, and that's fair enough. But profitability is balanced, and for a merchant to achieve a fortune equivalent to what a merc might, it could take five times as long. Some might think that's fair - choose a quiet life, make a small buck, but the fact is a merchant is still having to fight off masses of pirates, retros and (if you're foolish enough to trade within the frontier systems) Kilrathi. A pirate on the other hand, has far more chance of making dough if they decide to pursue a life of smuggling, but there are far more militia and Confed in settled Gemini space than pirates, plus you'll still be facing the retros (and possibly Kilrathi depending on how many 'good guys' you've wasted).
Reflecting the merc/merchant problem are the available ships. The games offered four pilotable ships - three that can be bought and the one you begin with. Yet there is no competition between them... you will want the Centurion if you're to have any chance of success. Sure, if you're a merchant you can go for the Galaxy (don't even think about sticking with the starter Tarsus ship), but it's weak and relatively unarmed and just not dog-fighting material (which you'll have to do whatever you are). And the Orion's fun, but certainly not a serious choice. You'll probably own it at one point, but only because it's cheap.
Finally, the games is a bit difficult for the uninitiated. However, after getting to grips with it (I'd hazard a guess at anything from half an hour to two hours), you'll be exploring the Gemini sector in eager anticipation of your next mission or encountered. A word of warning though - the story steps up the difficulty quite significantly and I wouldn't approach the first "fixer" in Detroit until you own at least a heavily outfitted Orion.
The Bottom Line
Basically, despite the negatives, Privateer's great. Don't be put off by the lack of ships, the amount of freedom available is still staggering and simply cannot be countered. The storyline is fun, if not a little linear, but be warned that it is tough and that you should be prepared for some massive battles. But if you like the genre, or simply fancy something a little less object-orientated, then this game is one that I can recommended whole-heartedly. It's definitely up there in my top five all time favourite PC games.