Freedom Force

ICJ 12/18/2002 

Cursed! Like The Scarlet Witch's Filthy Mutant Ovaries!

I am the Green Goblin, you are all Ned Leeds, Arnold Donovan, Jason Macendale and/or Roderick Kingsley

It was a long time coming, but the PC superhero game curse is finally dead. While the cancellation of Agents of Justice was the most recent and frustrating manifestation of the curse, things hardly looked good on the PC when superhero games did get around to shipping. First Star's CGA Superman game gave you two, count 'em, two of the big guy's powers at a time to run around with, but the powers would change based on the level and what the programmers felt like implementing. The Questprobe games were frustrating even for text adventures, and all ended up featuring some impotent space queen called the Chief Examiner. Separation Anxiety and Spider Man & The Sinister Six created a one-two punch that made everybody want to get back to their clone saga comics, and the recent "meta" scene in Max Payne where Max is wondering if he was really in a graphic novel due to the constant, endless mewling of his dead kid was so ridiculously bop that it should have killed off any chance of a decent comic book game even getting pitched for the next ten years. 

So, a tactical role-playing superhero game like  Freedom Force just existing was a nice surprise, really.

1960 -- 1969. A Quiet Time for Computer Games.

The game starts with a revelation that the Earth is the last free planet in the universe. If you find your eyebrows arching up towards your beret at that premise, well, take heed, you dirty fucking beatnik: Irrational decided to start the game out in the 1960s, where commies were responsible for all the evil in the world, and not John Ashcroft. The alien revolutionary known as Mentor decides to go slumming for a bit and clue everyone down here that alien oppressors are on their way -- Lord Dominion is looking to complete his little collection of enslaved worlds. At this point in our history, eventual responsible nuclear powers like India and Pakistan were only capable of hurling rocks, frogs and feces at one another, so it looks like the ultimate frag tally for this one is going to be slightly one-sided. Fortunately for all of us, Mentor arranges for canisters of Energy-X to be air-dropped all over the populace, thus creating a wide array of superheroes... and supervillains, natch.

The game's cut scenes are presented through Jack Kirby-style comic renderings that look like they were put together by someone taking more art direction from his bottle of Safeway Brand Discount Vodka than anyone who has picked up a comic book in the last ten years. But of course, it's supposed to look like that, to match the feel and style of the game. Nobody who drew comics in the sixties concerned themselves with such things as perspective or proportions, and Irrational absolutely nailed that look for this game. Through those cut scenes, we are introduced to the game's protagonist -- former nuclear scientist and present-day codger Frank Stiles. Frank's career was rubbed out by the commies, and after getting the treatment from some Energy-X, he undergoes age regression and gains superhuman strength and stamina. He becomes "Minuteman": the stereotypical living embodiment of Truth, Justice and the American way!

Sadly, the lack of a Marvel license prevents Northstar from making an official appearance.
...Well, except for all the homoerotic undertones -- though the only person with cheekbones anywhere near as high and chipmunk-like as Frank Stiles just happens to be Julia Stiles, don't be getting any ideas that Frankie eventually reproduced over the years or anything. Not unless one of the side benefits of the canister of Energy-X that dropped upon him involved the elusive super power of gay breeding -- our adventures with Minuteman depict a guy that has a propensity for skulking about dark alleys, the regular creepy propositioning of other male heroes to join up while in their civilian guise, and someone who gets himself a boy wonder partner whose own powers are activated by taking some "fluid injection" from Minuteman himself. The Minuteman's hinted-at lifestyle choice is kind of odd for the time period, but still, if we are going to cut The Sims: Hot Date some slack for not enforcing stalking laws, Zork for not enforcing breaking and entering laws, and William Shatner's Tekwar for not enforcing shooting-people-in-the-face laws once your gun is holstered, we can probably cut Freedom Force some slack for not having a populace that demands stringing up Minuteman for his lax compliance with those paranoid post-McCarthy sodomy laws.

Say It Ain't So, Plas!

"But Guy... do you want them breaking heads that could have been yours to bust?"
After learning of Minuteman's origin, you're placed in Patriot City and given a chance to practice talking to people and lifting street lights out of the ground. After the training level, you're then immediately treated to the worst level in the game, "O'Conners." I don't quite know if this is an Irrational trademark (the very beginning to System Shock II sucked as well) or what, but the first level of Freedom Force doesn't give you the slightest hint as to the fun you'll eventually have. You're told to sneak around so that some thugs don't sound an alarm, but such subtlety is a skill that you really never use again in the game. More, when initially playing through you're going to want to get every last prestige point so that you can recruit stronger and more charismatic (sorry there, Minuteman) heroes later on. It's extremely frustrating to see your opportunity to grab those points evaporate, because some local muscle pulled an alarm.

Things immediately pick up after you slog through that opening level, however. Frankie's cold-war nemesis gets turned into the supervillain now known as "Nuclear Winter," and Mentor and el Diablo start accompanying Minuteman on the missions. With the game no longer having a problem with you kicking the shit out of every piece of scenery on the screen, you really get a sense of how deliciously "plastic" the game's levels are -- if your guys are strong enough they can bring down buildings, pick up and toss cars, wield streetlights like Louisville Sluggers and generally make a mess of the neighborhoods you're defending. There are a few missions throughout the game where you need to protect a specific building and ensure that it does not crumble, but otherwise you are free to make a mess of the canvas presented to you. As a player, realizing this after the first level's mixed messages was rather freeing. There's no consequence to practically leveling the city in most levels, and it's to the game's credit that no such restrictions usually exist.

Solid tactics definitely help, however. None of the built-in characters are tanks at first, and all are balanced fairly well. There's a good mix of offensive and defensive heroes, and picking the right lineup for a given mission is something you'll need to consider. The game will force you to take certain heroes towards the beginning, but you're on your own with the decision making in the last fourth of the game.

The Gang's All Here!

"The Thing! Is his dork as orange and rocky as the rest of him?"
A few levels in, you'll have had some new characters automatically "drafted" into your squad, but you'll also be able to recruit those of your choice if you have enough prestige points. You're not limited to recruiting the characters that Irrational provides, though -- after grabbing some skins off the net you can add some DC and Marvel heroes to the game's database, and choose them with your points instead. And, it should be said, through the use of a cheat code, you can take the pressure off getting every last power-up and add to your prestige point total so that you can recruit whoever you please. But keep in mind that with great power comes great responsibility! It may seem like a great idea to have the Hulk, the Thing and the Tick join your little group by level six, but the game is going to be a pushover if you do that. More, as you're able to upgrade your custom characters just as you can the built-in ones, you don't even need to have every last gadget and power immediately represented in your custom hero.

It's really worth nothing that the enormous amount of variety you have in creating (or emulating existing) heroes is an absolute blast. Special effects come in all colors, shapes and sizes. The game allows you to create the tactical squad you always wanted to see: I was able to go on missions with Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Ice and Fire (from the old JLA books) or have the Soviet Super Soldiers kick some ass with Die Fledermaus. Fuck the superhero curse -- since the last batch of missions have no scripted hero requirements whatsoever, you're able to play with any lineup you like (well, limited to four characters, but still). There's plenty of support for projectile, beam, direct and area attacks to go with melee, and it can all look rather "genuine": if I've got Quagmire running around using his muck power, it looks like muck. If Speedball is knocking people down, there are bubbles everywhere. It's all selectable through character creation. The devs obviously grew up in a comic-friendly household and were well aware of the shortcomings various other superhero games had.

The Community Support is Great, Except For All The Comic Nerds

Irrational has proven to be good on their word when it has come to supporting the game post-release. While the only glitch I ever saw came from a lone lock-up during a level load (an isolated, non-repeatable incident, even) they have addressed other problems and made good on their promises. There was a bug in one of the hero meshes that stopped Batman-esque cowls and Wolverine-style claws from displaying properly. They fixed it. We all wanted a level warp, not having originally anticipated that, they released a zipfile with save games in place for each level. There was a mission editor promised -- they delivered it. (It's possible to essentially make your own add-on pack to the game, with scripts, text, sounds, new 3D models, and so forth... just outstanding.) The community support has been strong as well. Virtually every well-known hero and villain has a skin available for download. Many, many fringe characters in the realm of published comics are represented as well. (In fact, I'd say that every A-list heroes and heroines is currently represented, and nine out of ten fringe characters have a skin floating around out there as well. And I honestly don't say that simply because I brought a career second-stringer like Vanguard into the mix, comrade.) Fan-created mods, missions and skirmish-type danger rooms are also out there to grab and install. Scripting is done in Python, which is a great choice when it comes to choosing something powerful yet approachable.

What's The Verdict?

Freedom Force should really appeal to two sets of gamers -- those that have been dying for a solid comic book game, and those that are simply into tactical combat. By any measurement it's a solid, stable and stylish game that never takes itself too seriously, all while being great to simply look at, listen to, and to customize. It's going to be in the running for game of the year in a lot of places. Really, the only negative aspect to this game is that the profits will allow EA to feed on babies for another quarter. Freedom Force is good enough to have you justifying that maybe there's just something to the taste of sweet babyhide after all.


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