Freedom Force

Review by Mike Phillips
June 2002

Are you the sort who channel-surfs past CNN in order to watch the Justice League on Cartoon Network? Still have your Marvel comics stored in the closet? Seen the Spiderman movie more than once? Then you've already played Freedom Force and are far more enlightened than me.

I had serious trepidation over buying Freedom Force—even the box looked like it should reside next to Spongebob Squarepants: Operation Krabby Patty. Freedom Force is a comic book–styled superhero game, for heaven's sake. It would surely be fun for kids to play, but no well-adjusted adult should give it a second glance. I loved comic books as a youth, but I also had a fascination over staging battles with my GI Joe dolls, and both are a distant memory now. Okay, maybe on rainy days when I can't play outside, I do get out the GI Joe dolls, but that's not my point.

Eventually I caved and purchased Freedom Force, fully expecting to give it a brief glance before throwing it on my "I'll finish it when Hell freezes over shelf" ... right next to Jekyll & Hyde. What I got is easily the best game I've played in quite some time. Freedom Force is fun, period! For anyone who suffers from my antiquated ways of thinking, get over it and buy this game already. Irrational Games has crafted something that will appeal to everyone, and as a bonus it just oozes polish—it's the little things that will lift this title into classic status long before it disappears from store shelves.

Installing the game gives you an idea what a treat you are in for. Several comic book covers are displayed featuring the heroes and villains that you will be meeting while playing the game. The covers have an aged, read look to them, a fantastic touch. The people behind this game thought of everything.

The opening intro provides an explanation of how Frank Stiles, an average citizen of Patriot City who was working on the Manhattan Project long ago, gains his super powers. An alien ship drops several canisters of Energy-X on the city ... because Lord Dominion wanted to rule the Earth ... and, well, Mentor kind of foiled his insidious plan by ... then the evil Mr. Mechanical enters the picture ... but then the Timemaster runs amok ... Forget about it, I'm not going to spoil the story. The plot is very well conceived even though a tad bizarre, as it should be considering the nature of the game.

The graphics aren't anything special, but in no way am I implying they've been beaten with an ugly stick. We're talking comic books here, folks—they don't have to be cutting-edge. If you are expecting bump-mapping, cell shading, or even trilinear filtering, you won't find it. What you will find is a very crisp, detailed, alive, 3D world with automobiles and citizens going about everyday activities.

Virtually everything can be interacted with in some fashion; buildings can be destroyed if you so fancy. Every citizen will reply to you, although in most cases only a few offer any valuable information beyond a scant canned sentence or two. Objects such as cars, mailboxes, traffic lights, street lamps, etc., can be thrown or wielded as weapons against foes. Pedestrians often cross streets in front of speeding cars, and obviously that's a bad thing. Again, the attention to details elevates this title to something special.

Cutscenes are something to be Marveled over (pardon the pun). These cutscenes are comic books in action. When a new superhero is introduced in a mission, at the end you are treated to vignette as to how he or she acquired his/her powers, how those Energy-X canisters affected his/her life. The legendary Jack Kirby obviously played a major role in the inspiration for this game, and I'm sure he would be proud of the effort.

Sound is where Freedom Force really shines. The voice acting is some of the best I've ever encountered in a game. The cast members accepted their roles with an incredible degree of professionalism, as campy and over-the-top as the roles were. This group grabbed their parts and ran with them; they lived them—how refreshing in a computer game. I'm compelled to mention the narrator by name, Ian Vogel. If one conducted a nationwide search for someone to fill the narrator role, I doubt if anyone could pull it off with more aplomb than Mr. Vogel.

The music is also something that can't be described in printed word. Each level has its own score, and the music is mostly sung, with a baritone, foreboding chorus. How someone could sing "Nuclear Winter" as if it were going to be a Grammy contender is beyond me, but they did it, giving another aspect of the game a polished, finished feel.

The game is played from a rather indescribable perspective. In most instances the game world is viewed from something resembling a 75-degree isometric view, until you zoom the camera in; then it's more of a standard third-person, over-the-shoulder view. The camera control definitely takes a while to get used to, but I can't think of a way it could have been handled any better. When viewing the game map from a distance, buildings, trees, etc., get in the way of the action. Quite often, in order to fight an enemy you have to zoom in and get up close and personal. Using a scroll wheel mouse is the best way to accomplish this. When you zoom in, said obstacles become transparent so you can view the action transpiring behind them. It's very disorienting at first, yet with a little practice it becomes effortless.

Undoubtedly everyone who plays Freedom Force will have a favorite character. Mine happened to be Man o'War, not because he was the best to go into battle with (he was a useless laddie), but rather because of the outrageous remarks he makes. Stephen Russell (who provides several voices in the game) does a Sean Connery impersonation that is hilarious. I often found myself pausing the game, hoping to regain some semblance of composure before I continued playing. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Mr. Connery should embellish the work of Stephen for all it's worth.

Humor is a very subjective matter, but if you happen to get some chuckles while watching Batman (no, not those recent imposters—I'm talking about Adam West, the Batman), you'll be doubled over while playing Freedom Force. The dialog and plot give new meaning to tongue in cheek.

Ah, the gameplay, you ask. Irrational Games refers to it as a tactical RPG, and, well, it is, sort of. By no means is it your standard Dungeons and Dragons kind of RPG, although the basic structure is present, in a limited fashion. Before starting a mission you have to choose your party (squad, team, or whatever name you prefer). Each mission has both primary and secondary objective(s). The secondary objective(s) are optional—they are there for you to gain prestige points, which in turn can be used to recruit new members to the FF fold. Primary objectives must be completed in order to advance, and depending on your success rate these determine how many experience points are gained. Experience points are used to "level up" team members upon completion of a mission.

During missions, there are various Energy-X canisters lying about. The flavors include power, health, experience, and prestige. It's a good plan to search the entire game map for these canisters before completion of the primary objective. A side note: the game's initialization file can be easily edited to add bonus characters, change the zoom factor (which I highly recommend), or enable the console so cheat codes can be used if necessary.

Does it seem complex? It is, but the first level of the game serves as a tutorial, replete with an explanation of most aspects provided by Mr. Vogel. Beyond that, mouseovers are used to give a text explanation on options screens. A thorough reading of the manual is imperative to understand the finer points of the game, such as creating a custom character. Speaking of which, the manual is a sixty-page document that covers everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask about Freedom Force. It would have been further icing on the cake if the manual had been printed in color, but I'm just being nitpicky.

The good news for point-and-click fans is that the game can be played using only the mouse. Keyboard shortcuts make things much easier, but they aren't needed.

If multiplayer is your thing, it works flawlessly out of the box. You choose your characters and have at it with other gamers on differing maps. Hosting a game couldn't be any easier, or if you want to join a game, meeting other players can be accomplished using GameSpy Arcade, which is included on the disc. I must confess that I'm not a multiplayer lover, but this game has me warming up to the concept.

Want skins, meshes, wallpaper, or have a question about the game? A game-dedicated forum can be found here if you need tech support, strategy advice, or just want to offer an opinion. Feel the need to do a little modding? An editor is available for download here. Tutorials are available to ensure designing your own levels is as painless as it can be.

Further good news from Irrational Games: Freedom Force is designed to be a trilogy. While this game takes place in the early 60s (the Silver Age of superhero comics), the sequels will traverse the 70s to present day, offering much "grittier" subject matter. An expansion pack is also being considered.

Of course I have some complaints—my inherent desire to whine. The save game utility is the most confusing I've ever seen. There is a quick-save/quick-load option that works fine. But your hard saves are stored alphabetically—no thumbnails, no date and time, just alphabetically. It makes figuring out where you left off quite a chore; I'd love to know why the programmers did this. It's a very disturbing flaw in an otherwise excellent game.

The traditional methods of adhering to particular characters and leveling up as quickly as possible don't work well. You may find your favorite characters unavailable for some missions, and doing battle with weak characters can result in restarting the game from scratch. Not much of a complaint, but I'm trying my hardest to find anything to bitch about.

Odd tech bits and stuff: For whatever reason FF was a bit unstable (a few random crashes) for me while playing it under 98SE. On the same system with the same drivers, ME handled it with no problems. I also briefly played it under 2K, and it ran smoothly with no problems.

In an age where you thought everything has been done before, along comes Freedom Force, shattering genre lines, daring to do something different, and instilling fun for all ages into a game—you can't ask for anything more. Grab a copy now, because it just doesn't get any better than this. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts; Crave Entertainment
Release Date: March 2002

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows XP/Me/2000/98 (Windows 95 and Windows NT not supported)
300 MHz Intel Pentium II or AMD K6-2 processor (600 MHz or faster Intel Pentium III or AMD Athlon processor recommended)
96 MB RAM (128 MB or more recommended)
4X CD-ROM/DVD-ROM drive (16X recommended)
31 MB free hard disk space
16 MB Direct3D capable video card (32 MB recommended)
DirectX 8.1 compatible sound card (Environmental Audio capable sound card recommended)
Keyboard
Mouse

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