IMHO, there aren't any recent space combat games with really good characters.
There's also mods that get rid of the Diablo-like difficulty system, so with that you can have a fairly good free-roaming universe.Freelancer with the no story mod. (it opens all the jumpoints, all the factions are neutral and you can buy anything if you collect the money)
I would say that vanilla Freelancer is okay, but it's much better if a person can find a mod that suits their tastes and go multiplayer with it on one of the decently-sized servers. While the communities aren't as numerous as they used to be there are still teams out there who are pushing the game as far as they can. I won't suggest any of them in particular since that's just not the right thing to do, but I will say that the game reminds me a lot of Privateer.
I've played it for two years and as far as I've seen some of the mods outright suck and others turn it into something that resembles an entirely revived (and better) game. Some focus on PvP, others converted the game to another franchise, and the best generally find new, creative ways to advance the plot (since it didn't exactly have much depth to it in the first place). Throw in a balanced group of mercenary, police, pirate, and trading clans and it's all good imho. All biased of course since I really worked hard to reap the fruits of my labor... but until a new WC title comes out for PC it's what I'm sticking to. Of course, in all seriousness there isn't really a best game I would think so much as a game that best suit a given type of person.
Yeah, hell, there's so many TCs out there that make games into things that are barely anything like the original game, and mods can have some really innovative things.That's one of the great things about PC gaming: Mods. Even for people who don't like multiplayer much, there's plenty of awesome mods for a lot of great games.
I really loved Nexus: The Jupiter Incident. Even though you are not a fighter pilot, you do control larger ships and fleets. The Fleet control is good, the eye candy is beautiful, and the story is compelling.