Every now and then seemingly every development team on Earth will become obsessed by something glittery. They'll crowd round it and make hubbub noises, before dashing back to their design coops to create their vision. For a slice of the last decade the obsession was rudimentary NPC squad control. Every game was at it whether it needed it (Brothers in Arms, SWAT 4, Republic Commando) or not (Half-Life 2, Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault). Freedom Fighters, however, did it best.
Sent out to die in the retail wilderness by EA, its only offspring the ungrateful and degenerate pairing of Kane and Lynch, let us take a moment to commemorate the all-too brief life of IO Interactive's New York liberation team. As we recall those heady days of Commie-baiting let's wrap our ears around this too. It's what they would have wanted. Composer Jesper Kyd, this was your finest hour...
Freedom Fighters was a slice of alterno-history mayhem. It's the tale of a New York plumber (no, not that New York plumber) who becomes a modern resistance hero as Soviet forces hunker down in Brooklyn. It's a scenario well covered before and since, most recently in Modern Warfare 3, but IO's matter-of-fact approach and sincere love of cultural stereotyping still makes Freedom Fighters sing.
Chris, the all-American hero, is a muscly type who runs around with a wrench - raising the Stars and Stripes over the buildings he liberates with a Tea Party zeal. Then, in the Red corner, a sultry Russian propaganda news-lady provides somewhat biased commentary on his activities, while an angry Russian general pounds about the place looking like Zangief. On top of this meanwhile, throughout the running and gunning, amazing Russian choirs bark and trill. It's so over-the-top it could be a Red Alert third person shooter.
The joy of the Freedom Fighters squad system was its simplicity. You built up charisma through the destruction of Stalinist mission objectives or through revolutionary side-salads like POW rescues, which would in turn create extra slots for your entourage. You'd approach them on the street, ask them to join and from that point they'd be buzzing around you like McCarthyist satellites, popping bullets into anything wearing a foreign-issue helmet.
Through the over-the-shoulder view they could be sent off into danger, or politely requested to guard a certain area with a button tap. Sure, they had the brains of excitable labradors - but, unlike excitable labradors, they were at least predictable in what they got up to. Yes, they'd often run headlong into trouble emitting brave-sounding barks - but after a few forceful taps of the 'heel' button they'd always find their way back to you. Thinking about it, the fact they never got distracted by smelling each others' bums was a minor miracle.
As your tally of comrades built up to a heady 12 you'd be firing your charges off in various different directions to act as bullet sponges while you got up to some serious heroism through flanking, alternate routes or doing a weird jump/grenade-throw move. In this frantic melee there were genuine, tactical approaches that had to be engaged - planned troop movements amidst the hilarious ragdolls. When you stood on the battlefield with a post-combat glow, however, and surveyed the number of accusatory red crosses hovering above the bodies of the fallen you'd start to feel positive guilt. Even more when you realised you didn't have enough health packs to get everyone back on their feet...
Freedom Fighters' missions also had a wonderfully organic feel to them, often containing side missions that would knock out a line of enemy defence on a parallel map. Take out a helicopter pad in the Harbour, for example, and it would remove a hovering death menace from a nearby rumbling train line. Take out a warehouse that's been marked as housing for enemy troops and patrol cars will stop rolling around a nearby map to drop off fresh Ivans to get in your way. It was a beautiful way of making your game feel fresh and personal, while simultaneously allowing for a neat save system whenever you came across the manholes that gave you access to other Red hotspots.
It's this underground network, your base in the sewers of New York, that gave the game its most brilliant and ingenious moment. [Decade-old spoiler approaching]. Every sequence of objectives was followed by the soulful drift of a resistance raft into a vast underground chamber, with no poo visible. Here you could resupply your ammo and check out where you'd be heading next. The pace was relaxing and the musical score slow and pleasant. Almost deliberately slow and pleasant...
On one occasion, out of nowhere, your safe zone is discovered - you're sold out by a traitor amidst your ranks. As you re-enter your base enemy soldiers start sprouting from the side-tunnels. It's an elegant and unexpected move that routs you from your accustomed level-by-level procedure and genuinely adds a feeling of, well, genuine freedom fighting. I've always dreamt of a playing a game in which you play a cog in the machine that goes on to take down an autocratic regime through resistance-fighting - a 1984 where Winston wins, essentially. Freedom Fighters (alongside Half-Life 2 and Little Big Adventure) almost nailed it.
It's sad, then, that IO Interactive would go on to exchange the bright, breezy and cheerful approach of Freedom Fighters for the Kane & Lynch litany of f**ks. It seems clear that a harder edge was deemed necessary, and as such two men who looked like angry geography teachers were drafted in to carry the torch of future IO third-person shootery. The squad command dynamic, meanwhile, seemed to die out in Dog Days - replaced instead by blood in the teeth and bits where you and an enemy would fire at each other from two sides of the same box.
I'm not immune to the pleasures of Kane & Lynch, but I will say that this drift towards grit, darkness and endless swearing is a damn shame. Just as it is everywhere in gaming. Freedom Fighters proved (albeit admittedly not at the tills) that silly shooters could still have heart, depth and substance. Our fallen comrade must forever be remembered.