|You'd think that putting together a decent superhero game would be an easy home run for most game developers. Considering that we're at play in a world that gives us games about everything from pirates to Jedi to Fremen, it's surprising that more game houses haven't tried to reach out and capitalize on the interest in superhero titles -- with something that isn't tied to a recent movie release, anyway. And yet in recent memory, the only standouts were Agents of Justice and The Indestructibles, both failed experiments that never made it to market. |
Fortunately, Irrational Games and Electronic Arts have finally stepped in to fill the void with Freedom Force, a bright, colorful and occasionally hilarious tribute to the Silver Age of comics. And thankfully, it delivers on all the promise of its genre.
The game centers around the origin and struggles of the eponymous Freedom Force, as they do battle against the invading forces of the bizarre Lord Dominion and his underlings. Rather than destroying the Earth outright, Dominion decides to infuse some of humanity's greatest villains with the power of the mysterious Energy X, and then sit back to watch the destruction. Apparently the last decent example of his people, a shadowy figure named Mentor -- aghast at Lord Dominion's plans -- steals all of the Energy X that he can and flees towards the Earth, hoping to save the human race by building his own force of super-beings.
Instead, Mentor is pursued and shot down high above the Earth's surface. As Mentor's craft tumbles towards the ground, canisters of Energy X tumble out and rain down upon the unsuspecting citizens of Patriot City, granting fantastic powers to both the potentially heroic and the ambitiously evil, and setting the stage for the action.
The entire backstory is told through comic-book style cutscenes, rich with bizarre Jack Kirby-flavored art and appropriately cheesy voice-overs. This sets a tone that carries throughout the game, as missions are delineated through surprisingly well-detailed cover art, and major chapters in the plot are highlighted by the origin stories of the game's central heroes. All of them are entertaining, and maintain the light-hearted and slightly quaint feeling of Silver Age Comics: Minute Man, the game's wink-and-smirk tribute to Captain America, happily decries his foes as enemies of freedom and never hesitates to identify evil with Communism.
The clean, comic-style art carries over into the gameplay, as well. Characters are bright, sharp and wonderfully detailed; the environments are equally vivid and imaginative, ranging from the bustling streets of Patriot City, to subterranean temples, to the deck of an aircraft carrier that's been locked into the ice of a frozen harbor. Best of all, just about everything in every scene is fully interactive, making superheroic battles all the more interesting. Those of you who have fantasized about throwing mailboxes at your apartment building until it collapses into a pile of rubble can rejoice, because Freedom Force lets you make your dreams come true.
Even with the wanton destruction aside, the actual gameplay is still lots of fun. The game borrows much of its interface from a blend of real-time strategy and turn-based combat, which works pretty well for most of the time. Players can select from up to four different heroes in an active group, right-clicking on their target for options like ranged attacks, area of effect attacks, movement orders, or interactions. Portraits of the current group sit at the bottom right-hand side of the screen, with health and energy bar indicators to keep players up-to-date on just how much more punishment their heroes can take, and how much more they can deal out.
The bulk of the game is spent in wide-scale battles with a wide variety of enemies -- super-powered giant insects, demolition robots and tommy-gun-toting thugs are only a small sample of what Freedom Force faces in its adventures. To contend with this, players can build up a team with an enormous variety of heroes, some of which are automatically assigned to Freedom Force, others of which can be purchased with Prestige Points won through successful missions.
Plus, between battles, players can also spend experience points on their roster, boosting existing powers and purchasing new ones. The truly adventurous can even dip into the exhaustive character editor, which allows players to build their own heroes. Based on six standard statistics (strength, speed, endurance, agility and energy) and enhanced by more than 60 different attributes, player-designed characters can be purchased right along with the pre-packaged ones, and are free to do battle alongside central figures like Minute Man or El Diablo. As if that wasn't enough, Freedom Force also offers a super-power generator, which offers almost countless possibilities for freaky, Energy X-powered mayhem.
There are a few unfortunate drawbacks, however. While the enemy figures are gifted with surprisingly clever artificial intelligence, Freedom Force is sorely lacking -- your heroes will very happily stand and be pummeled into unconsciousness without ever lifting a hand in anger. Without player guidance, the heroes are completely helpless, which can sometimes be annoying, especially when moving across a large map. There's no greater frustration to be missing one of your heroes when you finally arrive at the scene of a battle, only to scroll back across the map and discover your missing hero under the wheels of a taxicab.
Character control can also be an issue when battles become particularly hairy. More than once, Freedom Force requires players to split their parties in two in order to battle simultaneous threats coming from different directions. Aside from the AI problem, it also gets to be a pain switching between heroes by moving to the corner and clicking on their portraits. This is mitigated by the fact that the action can be frozen at any time by hitting the spacebar, but in later missions, it can get to the point when the entire game is being played on pause.
As well, I experienced some graphical glitches that ranged from simple clipping problems to failures that would plunge the game world into darkness, as well as some sound incompatibilities that would re-set my speaker settings every time I loaded the game.
That said, these are minor complaints about a very entertaining title. I haven't even made mention of the musical score, which includes everything from ‘60s guitar riffs to a booming Russian choir singing about nuclear winter, or the goofy-yet-authentic dialogue that peppers both the in-game action and the between-game cutscenes. In fact, from start to finish, Freedom Force is a slick, colorful foray into the world of comic book action, and most certainly one of the most unique titles of the year. For fans and newcomers alike, it's definitely worth picking up.