Freedom Force / Irrational Games (2002)

Cryptic Studios' Verdict:
Oh, shit.
Jack Kirby's Verdict:
I have been properly homaged!!
My Verdict:
The superhero curse is dead, gone and buried. Long live Freedom Force. 

Game Information

Game Type:
Squad and mission based tactical combat. 
Author Info:
Irrational Games previously released System Shock II for the PC. The Lost is available for the PS2.
Test System Specs:
(Played this one both on my old system and the new one:)
P3-750, Voodoo3, 384MB RAM. 
P3-800, Geforce4 4400, 384MB RAM
Similar Games:
X-COM I, II & Apocalypse, Jagged Alliance I, II & Deadly Games. 


If you've got any interest in either superheroes, comic books, or games like X-COM you need to get this game. Keeping in mind that it's attempting to capture the flair that Stan Lee and company used to huck their comics with in the 1960s, of course. Freedom Force has the same kind of attitude towards its writing that Max Payne did: both are attempting to be very specific genre pieces. I'd say that Freedom Force certainly does a much better job of it than Payne, however, as we get the feeling that FF at least knows when it's being silly. Comic books are different things to different people, and I feel it only fair that I can just as easily get behind a comic where five guys are beating the hell out of five other guys (so long as it's depicted with some use of tactics, dialogue, or meaning) as I can with one free from dudes in tights altogether. I mention that so as to get whatever biases I have out in the open, as this game definitely leans towards the former brand of product. 

The game starts with the premise that Earth is the last free planet in the universe. As the timeline for the game is the 1960s and it therefore precedes both the DMCA and Slashdot nerds who bitch constantly about the DMCA, the premise of a free Earth is at least in that respect and at that time a believable one. The character of Mentor decides to go slumming for a bit and clue everybody down here towards the fact that the fashion of the season will soon be the leather choke collar and rock-pick accessory -- Lord Dominion has his sights set on planet Earth. At this point in our history, of course, eventual strong and responsible nuclear powers like India and Pakistan were still throwing rocks and frogs at each other across their borders, so it would look like the ultimate frag tally is going to be something like Lord Dominion 4,000,000 - Earth 0, except for the fact that canisters of Energy X are dropping on earthlings, turning them into super heroes... and, yes, super villains as well.

The game's cut-scenes are told through Jack Kirby-style comic renderings that look like they were put together by someone who learned Adobe Premiere by asking his bottle of Safeway Brand Safeway (C) Vodka for advice on how to run the app. But then, it's supposed to look like that, to match the intended feel and style of the game. And what the hell. It works, that I can say. The previous high score in the style department was Tass Times in Tonetown. It only took sixteen years but somebody finally surpassed it. Through those cut-scenes, we soon learn that one of the guys who ended up being affected by Energy-X was former nuclear scientist and present-day codger Frank Stiles. Judging by the shape of his ultra-deformed cheekbones my initial suspicions that  he would go on to spawn similarly-mutated actress Julia Stiles would seem to be correct. But then again, as Minuteman, (Frankie's superhuman code-name ) we are shown that he has a propensity for skulking about dark alleys, propositioning other heroes to "join the team" in their civilian guise, and get himself a boy wonder partner whose own powers were activated by taking some "fluid injection" from the Minuteman himself. 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 a gun is holstered, we can probably cut Freedom Force some slack for not strining up Minuteman in the 1960s for his lax care towards sodomy laws.

(The calling out of Minuteman as some kind of dark-alley-skulking pedophile deviant is an obligatory part of every single Freedom Force review. They enforce this now, so I did the best I could and took a shot at Shatner in the process. Believe me, I'm doing my best to rail against these kind of unfair restrictions -- hell, we're all obligated to mention Reginald Denny when the GTA3 reviews go live as well. It's really a pain in the ass.)

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. The world is deliciously "plastic" -- if your characters are strong enough they can bring down buildings, pick up and hurl cars, wield streetlights like Louisville Sluggers and generally make a mess of the city you're defending. It's all in good fun, though. There are a few missions where you have to be ultra-safe and make sure that a specific building does not crumble, but otherwise you are free to go. Realizing that was rather freeing. At first, I did admittedly play the game with kid gloves, not wanting to hurl chunks of the scenery in my attempt to keep the city clean. But after getting into the swing of things I embraced the mindset of Lamprey from the Squadron Supreme limited series of fifteen years ago: when looking at the devastated city I left behind while popping aliens and super villains I could only say, "So I'm a sloppy fighter. So what?" 

The first few missions in the game introduce you to the founding members of the Freedom Force team. El Diablo has on over-the-top West Side Story thing going on. Man-bot appears to be, in origin, a kind of cross between the Hulk and the Thing. From there you'll have a few characters "drafted" into your group, but you'll also be able to recruit them if you have enough prestige points. You're not limited to recruiting the built-in characters, though -- after grabbing some skins on the net you can make up your own DC and Marvel heroes and place them in the game.

And that's really where Freedom Force shines. The enormous amount of variety you have in creating (or emulating existing) heroes is fantastic. Special effects come in all colors and sizes. It allows you to create the tactical squad  you always wanted: I was able to go on missions with Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Ice and Fire (from the old JLA books) or have a couple characters from the superhero text adventure I made a few years back (specifically, the Holy Avenger and Johnny Hollywood) kick some butt with Minuteman and Guy Gardner. There's support for projectile, beam, direct and area attacks to go with melee, and it can all look rather genuine: if I've got Quagmire using his muck power it looks like muck. If I'm running around with Speedball knocking people down, there are bubbles everywhere. The devs on this one obviously grew up in a comic-friendly household and were well aware of the shortcomings various other superhero games had.

Unfortunately, the game is over a bit too quickly. The only real negative for this game is that there is no real "skirmish" stuff placed into it. In X-COM, there are stretches in the game where you can fight aliens and simply build up your characters. So long as you do the country-juggling necessary to keep your funding, you can spend an indefinite amount of time doing that before getting on with the plot. Freedom Force is much more tightly organized and plotted.  Each mission more-or-less logically follows the one that came before it. While I think this game is a classic, it'd be other-worldly if there were times where the plot went on hold for a bit and you simply managed the "trouble alert" and had to assemble a squad to take down (custom?) villains that went out on a mindless rampage. But while that's a design decision that Irrational didn't make, they opted to go with one just as defensible. And hell, after years of meandering games that have nothing to say and no direction, seeing something like this come along is quite welcome. 

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 daresay that with all the A-list heroes and heroines represented and the stream of skins being steady, the fringe characters will soon be 95% complete as well. And I don't say that simply because I personally brought a career second-stringer like Vanguard into the mix.) Fan-created mods, missions and skirmish-type danger rooms are also out there to grab. 

The game itself is gorgeous to look at. You can play at whatever distance level you like. To put it this way -- every football game ever made in the last five years has, in their commercials, close camera angles that are only used during a paused replay. Depending on how close to the action you want to get, you can have the camera almost at ground level in this thing and still be able to play it. If you prefer a Warcraft II level of distance overhead you can do that, too. 

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 into tactical combat. While I may be singing this thing's praises a bit too much, as I am a fan of both camps, it's by any measurement a solid, stable and stylish game that never takes itself too seriously in moving the action, all while being great to look and customize. Excel -- ah, I promised I wouldn't end this review that way.

Oh, to hell with it. How often do I get a chance to use this in an appropriate context? Excelsior!!!


Simple Rating

It's going to be in the running for game of the year. The only overtly negative aspect to this game is that the board of directors at EA will be able to feed on babies and puppies for another quarter based on the profits.

Story / Plot Quality

It can be cheesy, but not horribly stupid. It fully understands where it's coming from, and what influenced it. The plot proceeds in a logical manner. There's even some character development, especially among Man-bot and the Alchemiss. 


It's a big city out there... for you to poop on! One of the most plastic games ever made.


Admittedly, a hell of a lot better on the Geforce than the Voodoo3. The scenery looks just like a late 50s, early 60s Anytown, America. And the artist doing the Kirby riff has to be incredibly talented, because but-nobody is growing up drawing that way from the get-go. Props to him.


Battle sounds would occasionally repeat when the game is paused. Oh, and if you select a "voice" for a custom hero, there's an annoying amount of hard-coded stuff. If you happen to, say, have the main character in an old game of yours use the "Liberty Lad" voice, the character will be saying, "Liberty Lad, ready" when in fact his code-name is "Holy Avenger" and not "Liberty Lad." 


As mentioned, one bump for me. I recall some users on some video cards having some problems on the forums, but Jesus, if you're going to play games on your PC it doesn't take that much time to figure out what the de facto standard card is. It did run much, much slower on a Voodoo but to the game's credit it never crashed during play.

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