True believers team up to defeat freedom's all-time greatest enemies, in this real-time tactics sequel from Irrational Games. If the original Freedom Force was an homage to the "Silver Age" of superhero comic books, this follow-up pays tribute to the "Golden Age," when comics writers were inspired by Allied efforts in World War II and the most common villains were the Nazi soldiers of the Axis powers. Fans of the original Freedom Force will reunite with favorite heroes, such as Minuteman, El Diablo, and Mentor, who become embroiled in one of Nuclear Winter's nefarious schemes and are whisked back to Europe at the height of the war. Here, they must join with new Golden Age allies like the rocket-powered Sky King, the gadget master Black Jack, and the beautiful, swordstress Tricolour, to defeat a conspiracy of evil that transcends time itself.
Although its bright colors and comic-book backgrounds are instantly recognizable to fans of the original, Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich runs on a new version of the Gamebyro graphics engine, which can produce more vibrant lighting and special effects. The single-player game is still designed to be a thought-provoking adventure -- demanding keen tactics and pause-able at any point -- but the game's artificial intelligence has been enhanced by giving characters default attacks they'll automatically perform against nearby foes if the player doesn't issue direct orders to them. This addition also aids player-versus-player battles, and some of the most dramatic improvements are seen in the sequel's multiplayer modes. Unlike the bland, random-map skirmishes that were available in the original, the sequel's modding tools are designed to make it easy for players to create their own story-lined battle settings, complete with customized objectives and characters. These gamer-made scenarios can be played and traded online.
While good writing, art design, and presentation are no substitute for solid gameplay fundamentals, if you take a good game and wrap it in an appealing package, the entire game ends up becoming much more than the sum of its parts. Irrational Games clearly understands this concept, because Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich, the sequel to 2002's Freedom Force, is a classic example of it. What do you get when you take really solid squad-based real-time tactical gameplay and wrap it in a well-written, well-designed send-up of Silver Age comic books? You get an incredibly fun title that's a joy to play.
For those not familiar with the Freedom Force series, the basic gameplay is rather simple. You control up to four different superheroes in a fully 3D world viewed from an isometric perspective. Each hero has various abilities at his, her or its disposal and players use these abilities to battle a variety of super villains (and their legions of disposable henchmen) in missions ranging from a battle at a Cuban missile base to invading a secret bunker in the heart of Hitler's Berlin.
Taken purely as a squad level strategy title, Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich more than holds its own with any other similar game out there. The game includes an amazing number of superheroes to play with, each with their own set of well balanced powers, abilities, and weaknesses (and if the included heroes aren't enough, there's a great set of tools that let players build their own). While the AI isn't the toughest I've ever faced, it more than holds its own at the higher difficulty levels. In fact, as players get farther into the single player campaign, the selection of heroes and the judicious use of their powers become very important. It isn't by any means a hard-core strategy simulation, but casual gamers expecting to just use basic powers on an enemy will get their clocks cleaned on a regular basis.
In fact, if there's one complaint I can lodge against the game, it's that the biggest change to the strategy component doesn't actually work all that well. In the original game, superheroes didn't do anything without specific orders, which meant that you could be busy with a battle in one corner of the screen while other members were getting killed out of your sight. Now heroes will defend themselves using non-energy using powers when they get attacked. In practice, however, players still need to micromanage their characters, since your characters' defensive AI can be summed up as "If you get hit, keep punching until you die."
Of course, micromanagement of your heroes is the game, so this isn't as big a complaint as it seems. Given the ineffectiveness of the defensive AI, though, I'd much rather have had a behavior control that would allow me to give default orders to characters. Some of the support superheroes like Green Genie and Quetzalcoatl are simply too fragile to take more than a few hits - particularly in later missions where the opposition gets pretty intense. I'd have liked to be able to tell them to scram the moment someone takes a shot at them, or perhaps automatically use a healing spell if someone falls below a certain health level.
The other complaint I had was the puzzling lack of a mini-map. The game does an excellent job of pointing out mission objectives using red and yellow arrows as well as character dialogue. There's also an "objective" screen that's available at any time. That, plus the relatively small map sizes means that players will never feel lost during a mission. Only when your team has to break up to hit various objectives or chase after fleeing enemies does this become a problem. Without a mini-map, though, it becomes very difficult to get a good strategic overview of the battlefield or gauge distances between teammates. That means that you can have situations arise where a hero gets hit and his teammates are too far away to cover them. There are at least two missions in the campaign that are tougher than they need to be because of this missing feature.
The interface is basically unchanged from the previous game, which means it's quite easy to give heroes orders, even in multiplayer where there isn't the luxury of being able to give orders while paused. That lack of a pause feature, though, means that multiplayer games are a bit more frenzied and RTS-like than the semi-turn-based feeling of the game's single-player mode. This is less a criticism, though, than acknowledging stylistic differences among gamers. Players who are looking for a more contemplative game won't be as pleased with the multiplayer offerings and should stick with single-player. As an old RTS hand, though, I found it quite easy to switch my play style in multiplayer and had a great time with it.
If the basic strategy portion of the game was all there was to Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich, it would still be worthy of attention. What really puts this game over the top, though, is the absolutely brilliant package the strategy is wrapped in. Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich is an affectionate satire of both the 1960's Silver Age and 1940's Golden Age comic books. The game does much more than merely make fun of those eras, though. The writing and storyline manage to generate some sympathetic characters and a plot that, for all its campiness, hangs together pretty well --or at least as well as comic book plots ever do (I'm looking at you X-Men!).
Freedom Force vs. the Third Reich begins in 1963, about a year after the end of the first game. The world is safe for the moment, but even as we speak, nefarious nogoodniks are up to some evil shenanigans. Some dastardly devil has altered the flow of time, allowing the Nazis to win World War II, and it's naturally up to the Freedom Force to travel back to 1942 and put history back on course. That, unfortunately, is about as much as I can tell without spoiling some of the surprises.
Without going into plot details, though, I can say that the developers have hit virtually every clichéd comic book note in the universe, presenting them with just enough tongue-in-cheek to avoid the very bombast they're poking fun at. The dialogue in the game is priceless. How can you not smile at Mentor crying out "By the Rings of Rexxorr!" whenever something even slightly surprising occurs? It helps that most of the voice-actors doing the dialogue manage to inject just the right mix of seriousness and silliness into their performances. Particular standouts include the dead-on Sean Connery impersonation done by Man-'O'-War and the Jimmy Stewart-esque tones of new hero Sky King. There were a few false notes -- I wasn't particularly impressed with the actor who voiced Mentor -- but by and large, the voice-acting is spot-on.
From a purely technical standpoint, the game's new engine is a most welcome overhaul. While the game recycles a lot of the artwork from the first Freedom Force, the environments that superheroes fight in now look much better. Buildings and streets have much more detail than they did before, and the game's new physics engine, when combined with a reduced prestige point penalty for property destruction, mean that battles now destroy a lot more of the surrounding landscape. More destruction means more fun!
The game also boasts superlative art design. All of the game's visuals, from the fonts on the main menu to the stills used during cut-scenes, immerse the player into the world of 1960's comic books. That, however, remains unchanged from the previous game. What really stood out for me this time, is how the style of the game shifts when the game leaps back to the 1940's. Rather than the thick lines and bright solid colors of the Kirby era, the game's design and palette shifts to the thinner, more angular lines and muted colors of Alex Schomburg and other World War II-era artists.
The game's music also deserves a special mention. In short, it's great. The various tunes that play during the single-player campaign manage to find just the right balance between emotional heft and pure cheesiness. Some of my particular favorites were a "jungle" themed piece with grunting ape sounds that plays when you first meet the monstrous Kill-a-Rillas and German beerhouse music that made a great goofy counterpoint during a mission in which players have to rescue some classic literature from a Nazi book burning. In fact, when one considers the subject matter, that particular piece does an excellent job of keeping the game's tone light and cartoony.
When the original Freedom Force came out, it broke a long "superhero videogame curse" that once plagued this industry. With the sequel, Irrational Games once again proves that they're a developer to be reckoned with. Are there deeper, more complex strategy games out there? Sure. There are very few games, though, that manage to take great gameplay and merge it with the kind of sheer exuberant style that brings a big goofy grin to your face that never leaves you while you're playing.
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