Rejoice, True Believers, for the day is ours. The dastardly and nefarious "Superhero Curse" has been broken at last. It had long been bemoaned that, in spite of reported attempts by numerous respected design studios, there just weren't any good superhero games for the PC. While a few fine console releases have come from publishers such as Activision and Ubi Soft, Crave's Freedom Force is the first honest PC game that lets the player truly feel the role of a superhero in a comic book world. Yet this review is about something even better. It's about a game that is original, accessible, challenging, and fun. The high quality of Freedom Force surpasses its content and context. The title has something to offer gamers of many interests -- real-time strategists, squad-based tacticians, and action-oriented role-players, as well as comic book geeks. More than a PC superhero game that turned out to be good, this is a great PC game that happens to be about superheroes.
Indeed, Freedom Force is completely and unmistakably about superheroes. From the characters and cut scenes to the manual and menu screens, the whole game is done in the fashion of the 1960s comics it honors. Presentation is excellent, consistent and appropriate all the way through. Dialog is full of villainous epithets and righteous clichés. The storyline is recounted in the stilted, overly serious tone of comic book narration. Missions begin and end with alliterative, adjective-laden stanzas that mimic perfectly the absolute and ultimate urgency of each new comic book chapter. Characters are introduced through suitably low-tech "Secret Origin Of..." movies that perform like crudely animated comic book panels. It all works. Every aspect of sight, sound, and story is presented in a style that lovingly and accurately imitates a Silver Age comic book series.
So the game makes players feel as if they are in a comic book. But does it really allow them to feel like the heroes of the story? When we take off Freedom Force's colorful tights and flowing capes, we find a mild-mannered but solid action strategy contest. The secret identity is that of a third-person squad tactics game. A large part of the fun is in figuring out how to use the different super powers of the heroes in the best way, together, to neutralize threats and accomplish mission goals as quickly and safely as possible. Freedom Force offers Baldur's Gate style unit control in Commandos type missions. Superheroes, super villains, and simple citizens all act and react in a true real-time flow, but the action can be frozen at any time. When the game is paused, the player can give or change orders, check the current status of nearby enemies, and even look around the map for hidden power-ups and alternate routes.
When the game is un-paused, the world instantly returns to life. Player characters begin to execute the orders they were just given, enemies continue their own independent actions, and the background bustle of city life resumes in stride. While the ability to pause and reassign orders at any time may take away some of the intensity found in traditional real-time tactics games, it adds engaging aspects of strategy. The Freedom Force team's cooperative efforts require creative planning and split-second timing that can only be accomplished by pausing the game to give direction. The single-player missions are designed on this account. As orders are given to each hero in turn, the player must be able to visualize what all of the other heroes and villains will be doing and when they'll be doing it. Resume play and the hero characters will immediately go to work, but their various speeds and reaction times can lead to unforeseen disasters, like collateral damage or even direct friendly fire. The challenges posed by the game's clever scripting and crafty AI make it rewarding when a carefully orchestrated attack is successful, even if it took five minutes to set up and only a few seconds to play out.
The player controls a team of up to four superheroes through missions set in various detailed, three-dimensional, comic book locations. Along with the many powers of the heroes, the game's deformable environments also play their part well. The brightly colored urban scenes can be viewed from nearly any angle. Characters can sneak through alleys and take cover behind cars and walls. Heroes who fly or leap tall buildings will discover distinct advantages in surprise attacks from above. Most of the hundreds of objects on a mission map can be thrown, wielded, incinerated, or otherwise destroyed. Accidentally toss a taxi into the side of the hospital and watch the building crumble to the sidewalk. Though there are many different ways to solve a given mission, there are many different ways to fail as well. Often on the spot, players must devise good strategies and tactics for a great variety of situations. Sometimes it's better to try a full on assault, storming through the front doors of the bad guy's hideout. Other missions demand more finesse, best conquered through recon, stealth, and timing.
General strategic themes do emerge, however. Most players will eventually learn to favor certain heroes over others, simply due to their own personal playing styles. While each character has distinct powers, different abilities often produce similar enough effects. Need to temporarily neutralize a group of thugs? In a pinch, the Ant's "Ultra Sonic Squeal" should to the trick as well as Mentor's "Mind Blank" or Liberty Lad's "Stun Grenade." It's not crucial to choose exactly the right team of heroes for each mission, but it is wise to pick a good mix of stealth, speed, and brute force. There are six different damage types and various enemies are resistant or vulnerable to different combinations of these. El Diablo's "Tongues of Flame" is devastating to the Ice Queen, but does no harm to the fire-resistant Red Sylph. Red Sylphs fall quickly under Microwave's radiation beam, however. The Freedom Force is most formidable when the diverse powers of its squad members are used in harmony. The heart of gameplay is in commanding the squad to do just that.
Freedom Force is a fine game and it's shortcomings are negligible, but it's also a novel game that's bound to leave players wanting just a little more. There is no mini-map, which may help make individual scenes feel more intimate but makes navigation more cumbersome. Also regarding the interface, there are no "destination markers" to show where characters will move when the action is resumed (as in Bioware's Infinity Engine games), so the player must keep track of each hero's orders with no graphic reminder. There are technical glitches, but these are very few and minor. Most of all, fans of Freedom Force will cry out for some sort of scenario editor. Since part of the reason the missions are so fun is that they're so well scripted, it's bittersweet once they're finally figured out and solved. Some sort of amateur mod tool, or even a random mission generator based on the multiplayer game, would be greatly appreciated in a future Irrational Games Freedom Force release.
The character system is structured like that of a complex role-playing game, with lots of statistics, interrelated resistances and vulnerabilities, and new powers that can be purchased when heroes gain enough experience. The team begins with an alliance between just two characters and more join gradually as the story progresses. Some new heroes come to the team as part of the scripted missions, while others are drafted from a pool of independent super-powered inhabitants of Patriot City. The Freedom Force team earns Prestige Points for completing missions. It takes more of these points to draft the more powerful characters. Players can also create custom characters, whose Prestige costs are determined by their strengths and weaknesses. There seems to be a good balance in the system. Whether on the scene or monitoring from the Freedom Fortress, each member of Freedom Force gains experience for every successful mission, so the player is encouraged to draft new heroes as soon as they're affordable.
All of this draws one into the game. The player cares about the noble team and its super-heroic members. Anyone who ever enjoyed the Justice League, or the Fantastic Four, or even the Superfriends cartoons will instantly recognize where Freedom Force is coming from. These heroes are new to us, however, forging new legends, and part of the appeal is in the game's episodic structure and grandiose story arc. Individual missions are short and defined, but each ends with a melodramatic cliffhanger that tempts one to keep playing, just to see what happens next. The far-fetched story works because the player feels like a part of it. The game succeeds by letting the player earnestly believe in its superheroes, the way a nine-year old boy does when the latest issue of his favorite comic book hits the newsstand. The meticulous planning may discourage the action fan, and the exorbitant storyline may initially dissuade the die-hard role-player, but both will find familiar elements and enjoyable new challenges in this well-built game. Those who do like Freedom Force at first will soon grow to love it.
Graphics: Characters are detailed, well proportioned, and nicely animated. Super powers produce impressive visual effects. Map types are limited, but maps are large, abundantly populated with objects and NPCs, and they look good at any angle or distance.
Sound: Nice crashes, good super power sounds, and wonderful voice acting. The music is catchy but unobtrusive, with a fine variety of songs. The ominous Nuclear Winter theme is an unexpected delight.
Enjoyment: The game creates an authentic comic book world and puts you right in the middle of it. The fate of Patriot City, the planet Earth, existence itself rests on the broad shoulders of your team of super-beings. Save the universe -- "For Freedom!"
Replay Value: The roller-coaster storyline and new characters draw the player along, so the campaign just isn't as exciting after the first time through. The custom character creator is great, but what we really want are custom mission tools.
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