Freedom Force Review
Developer: Irrational Games
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 300 MHz, 96 MB RAM, 16 MB video card, 31 MB HD space
Greetings, freedom-loving citizens! It is another fine spring day in 1962, and Earth is under assault by the sinister alien forces of the Domain. Our verdant, innocent globe is the sole remaining outpost of liberty in a universe controlled by the despot Lord Dominion and his powerful weapon – Energy X! Rather than setting his overwhelming legions to plunder our planet, Lord Dominion plans to toy with the unsuspecting human race by using Energy X to grant superpowers to the cruelest, most vile and base examples of humanity so he and his minions can cackle maniacally as the planet's populace destroys itself!
Mentor, a noble creature hailing from the alien armada, in a fit of conscience, escapes Lord Dominion's attack fleets with the entire stockpile of Energy X. Shot down in space, canisters of Energy X rain down upon Liberty City, a booming metropolis on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, granting superpowers to Liberty City denizens, noble and corrupt alike. Led by Mentor, our alien benefactor, and Minuteman, an aging patriot who labored on the nation's atomic weapons program, Freedom Force unites newly-made heroes fighting for righteousness. With the Freedom Fortress in Liberty City as home, the Freedom Force must repel the alien siege and face even more sinister and destructive forces that threaten our way of life.
Follow the Freedom Force through multiple issues (adventures) of tactical combat against supervillains and powerful creatures as they protect the innocent and defend the wicked. Freedom Force includes a heroic single player campaign and a multiplayer mode in which two to four players can battle it out with their favorite heroes.
Freedom Force takes a campaign of tactical combat scenarios and wraps it neatly in the charm of the 1960's "Silver Age" of comic books. The result is a game in which you aid the forces of righteousness and patriotism in a lighthearted battle against powers bent on destroying the entire planet. Every portion of the game oozes the nostalgic feel of a bygone era in which communism and organized crime were the ultimate foes (barring alien invaders and megalomaniacal extra-dimensional antagonists), violence necessitated balloons filled with words like "Biff!" "Pow!" or "Ka-Foom!" and nearly every sentence demanded the use of exclamation points!
Is Freedom Force fun for those of us who don't follow comics? Absolutely. The comic background provides a surprisingly rich setting which requires minimal exposition to create an evocative, mythic ethos for battles of heroic proportions. Everything from the colorful costumes to the hackneyed aphorisms (such as Minuteman's "Right makes Might!") to the constant apocalyptic threats makes Freedom Force a charming arena in which to level buildings, kill giant ants, and "Whack!" gangsters with the occasional lamp post. I, personally, never read comics of this era, and I still found the plot, setting and dialogue made me smile. Interviews with the development team have established that Irrational Games was working to stay true to the voice of the original comics of the 1960's. While the voice may be absolutely faithful, a post-cold war, 21st century gamer can only see every element through a filter of irony that makes the game come off as supremely tongue-in-cheek. Either way, true-believers and kitsch-hunters alike should find something to enjoy in Freedom Force.
Fundamentally, Freedom Force is a game of combat with just enough story to tie together a long sequence of battles. Several heroes join Freedom Force during the campaign, each with a cut-scene revealing his or her secret origin, and with varied powers and weaknesses. Characters range from freedom fighters Minuteman and Liberty Lad to the southern belle Alche-miss, the alien Mentor, the hot-tempered El-Diablo with powers of flame and flight, and the melancholy Man-Bot. Each hero or heroine has a unique voice, and powers and weaknesses that befit their personalities and manner by which they were elevated to superhuman status. I strongly recommend playing through the campaign once with just the built-in heroes. Villains and their minions often have critical weaknesses and using the pregenerated characters will ensure that you have someone available with the skill or powers to complete a mission. More importantly, using the built-in heroes provides a better sense of continuity, balance and epic story. Story and continuity are improved because Freedom Force's comic-book plot revolves around the pre-made characters. Balance is superior because it is easy to make (accidentally or intentionally) characters that overpower the game and breeze through the missions. Prestige allows you to bring in new teammates, and experience is gained by existing teammates to improve their skills. Allowing civilians or buildings in Liberty City to come to harm will cost prestige points, and limit your options for recruiting additional heroes, while defeating foes and completing objectives improves the prestige of Freedom Force.
A major strength of Freedom Force is the incredibly flexible character generation system. Using an in-game interface, it is possible to create almost any conceivable hero with any mix of powers. Using relatively simple out-of-game tools, it is even possible to create skins so that your custom hero will look as good as your artistic skills can manage. For the less technically or artistically inclined, a tremendous variety of custom skins can be downloaded from the internet for your personal use. The ability to create heroes with customized powers and appearance means players can insert their alter-egos or favorite childhood heroes into the campaign. This lends the campaign some replayability, as your own characters can lend an entirely different tactical solution and emotional appeal to the journey through the game, even if you have already completed the story once using the built-in characters. The character creation system is splendid in its variety and flexibility, but is not for the faint-hearted. Expect to spend some time and experimentation before you can make characters that reflect your true intent.
The combat is truly tactical, in an attractive, destructible environment. Nearly everything can be picked-up, thrown, destroyed or (if necessary) cowered behind. When you take into account all the special power effects such as mystical hypnosis and energy beams with tremendous knockback, as well as vast sweeping attacks from wielded traffic lights and the effect of thrown vehicles, combat is full of complex, tactical options. Moving your hero over slightly might mean that you can batter a second thug by pushing a first thug with your repulsion ray, or might allow you to hit a whole group of thugs with that thrown taxicab. The city is also full of innocents whom you must protect from harm, so be wary of attacks with area effects. Perhaps the greatest joy in Freedom Force comes from collateral damage. Anything can be destroyed. If you are willing to restrict yourself to built-in heroes in the campaign, revel in the destruction that you wreak (but only in the name of freedom). The few prestige points you lose by knocking down the corner of a building with an obstinate thug won't prevent you from recruiting nearly any pre-built heroes, and you can easily complete the game without recruiting anyone on "normal" difficulty. Prestige points only come dear if you are trying to recruit powerful custom heroes. As an aside, you will find your custom heroes easier to include if they have prestige values of 5,000 – 10,000 points, with fewer points available to spend early in the campaign.
Freedom Force is lighthearted and entertaining, but has its own heroic weaknesses. Although I enjoyed the music tremendously (especially the "Nuclear Winter" music), I found the voice acting flawed, and variable in quality. The failing was not in the cheesy dialogue, but in the hollow delivery. It felt as if the voice actors could have given considerably more to their lines, and while occasionally easy to ignore, it sometimes broke me out of the living comic-book experience. There were a few other, noticeable bugs. It was necessary to restart a mission because The Ant, an insectile egghead, burrowed beneath the ground to secretly travel by tunnel, but could not resurface. It is also possible to build a custom character whose powers will not show up as options when you right-click in the tactical combat screen. Most aggravating is the quality of Liberty City drivers. Cars in Liberty City (that are not parked) continue to drive about to their mundane destinations, with near-total disregard for superhumans standing in the street. While the cars will sometimes slow or stop if your heroes occupy road space, they will equally often run down the defenders of liberty and justice, in an anti-vigilante frenzy. Man-bot was regularly run down by drivers with criminal road rage, suffering as many as four damaging hits from a single car. I once even lost prestige because a driver hit an innocent pedestrian across town, far from the action. My heroes may have stopped dinosaurs and alien invaders, but they are not fit for traffic duty.
The single player campaign is a rich, enjoyable experience, but the multiplayer game falls far short of its potential. While the incredibly rich character creation system has a rough built-in balance in the form of prestige values for each character, there is no way to ensure a robust balance for such a complex array of powers. Inevitably, there are optimized strategies that transform multiplayer into a game of number crunching rather than of lighthearted super-combat. Multiplayer is still fun when competing against a friend with some ground-rules established. It also offers an arena in which to resolve those age-old disputes: "Can The Red Scare really defeat The Hulking Blob?!" Unfortunately, at this time, play against strangers has devolved into duels between 30,000 point single heroes with flying, incredibly powerful beam weapons, and invulnerability to seemingly everything. Also, as a game in which matches rarely top a minute in length, the game desperately needs an in-game browser. An external matching service can seemingly take eternity to find a game which is over almost instantaneously.