Third-person action - it's synonymous with "bleh". If there's one thing this generation of consoles will be remembered for it's foisting endless desperately unoriginal concepts on the poor old third-person action game, which these days basks like a pruning octogenarian in the glare of RTS and FPS style wheel reinvention. Hitman creator IO Interactive is attempting to work against these unwanted staples of the genre with its latest project, Freedom Fighters. It's third-person, it's mostly team-based and it's dripping with mindless gun-based slaughter. So far, so 'me too'. Except� it's good!
Radiation ruling the nation
In an alternative past at an alternative conclusion to World War II, the Soviet Union dropped an A-bomb on the Nazis and started taking over the world. Fast-forward to the alternative present, and Britain has grudgingly joined the Communist block, there are nuclear missiles pointing at the US from all over the place [makes a change -Ed] and the Red Army is forcing itself upon the Americans, starting with an invasion of New York.
Naturally, a good number of US citizens aren't terribly happy about this, and a rebellion is rising against the Soviet occupation. This is where you come in as a freedom fighter - ta da! Chris Stone is an ordinary New York plumber whose brother has been mistakenly linked to an anti-Soviet resistance group and subsequently detained for 'questioning' while on the job. Cue an instant transformation, as Chris Stone becomes... Bicycle Repair Man! Well, no, but we're still not sure where Chris manages to get his quite incredibly adept commando smarts from, as he belts a Soviet guard over the head and pilfers his rifle, heading off in search of his brother. It must be something in the water over there.
Freedom Fighters is quite the departure for IO Interactive, previously famous for the lovely Hitman titles. At its most basic level, it's a gung-ho third-person action shooter that has you pummelling your way through wave after wave of Red Army troops, and at its higher levels it's a gung-ho third-person action shooter with a very basic command interface thrown in - think of a fast-paced Conflict: Desert Storm and you're some of the way to understanding what it feels like.
What stood out more than anything in IO's previous work was its ability to craft some of the most beautiful, delicate and detailed scenery we've ever encountered, and Freedom Fighters sidles up and slots in just nicely alongside the developer's previous games despite the consoles lending the scenery a slightly chunkier and more robust feel. Actually, it wouldn't be surprising if this was by design, since FF is about as far removed from Hitman's tip-toeing, cheese-wiring antics as you can get.
First of all, there's the body count. Hundreds will die, and that's not including the work of your fellow rebels. Then there's the sense of panic as you run between points of cover in the shattered New York streets, attempting to find a way around the wall of resisting Soviet troops entrenched in the middle of the road. Then there's the impression that the sheer sight of the dilapidated city leaves you with as you make your way through flaming shells of buildings, diners turned ammo stores and movie 'theatres' turned prisons.
So IO has done a sterling job of setting up a believable and atmospheric alternative reality. The impression of a conflict is ever-present, particularly when you climb out from your sewer base to embark on a mission only to hear fierce gunfire already rattling in the streets. Turn a corner and there it is - beneath billboards and streetlights and amongst abandoned cars and trucks, another battle for a tiny chunk of the city is raging, waiting for you to join the fray.
But you wouldn't get anywhere without a little help from your friends, and this is where the game's "charisma" and command systems come into play. By fulfilling certain mission objectives, Chris' charisma meter gradually fills up. Every time the meter reaches its peak, he is granted the opportunity to recruit one extra freedom fighter into his little posse. Eventually, once Chris has levelled up enough in the charisma stakes, he'll be walking around town followed by a human arsenal. Well, we only managed to get about four pals on our side during our short time with the game so far, but it looks as if you could have a squad of up to about six members.
Commanding your buddies couldn't be much simpler, and it works on a basic three-button system of defend, attack and regroup. As an example of how it works, a single press of the attack button will cause one troop to advance and attack targets in the direction that you're facing. Hold the button down, and your whole group will advance and attack. There are no particular talents distinguishing one rebel fighter from another, so it's quite possible to quickly disperse your troops around an area and have them form a quick and effective assault from all sides.
Of course, once we get into commanding team-mates their AI comes into question, so it's just as well that Freedom Fighters' rebel alliance isn't the bumbling army of idiots we come to expect from every team-based 3D shooter since Daikatana. They will effectively use any cover available to them (including crates, small lumps of rubble, pylons, pillars... anything you'd expect troops under fire to use really), and they will advance and retreat as necessary. They will act without orders should they need to - to stave off an ambush for example - and they provide cover for each other and you as you would expect. The enemy troops act with similar bravado, and you'll need to race headlong into a wall of lead every now and then if you don't want to end up staring at a Red Army standoff. Luckily the game forgives and even encourages this kind of 'to hell with the tactics, just shoot the bastards!' play.
Naturally, there are casualties of war but Chris is handy with a medikit, as well as a wrench and a shotgun, so the opportunity is there for you to revive your team-mates at any time should you be able to make it to them without dying yourself, and should you have enough medikits left to bring them back into action.
Dashing through bumpy and curvy (rather than sharply angled) streets and fighting for your comrades is made all the more exciting by the game's Hitman-plus visuals. Each level is a fairly large mess of rubble and half-destroyed and burning buildings, and lots of stuff blows up very impressively. Top of our list of Fun Things To Do In Freedom Fighters so far is to let a gaggle of Soviets run past a parked car, pepper the car with bullets holes and then watch from behind a broad grin as eight bodies are propelled through the air like rag dolls. Tip: this also works with red oil barrels.
The amount of variety in the texture work and architecture is immediately impressive, and the variety is increased further with the employ of some nicely realised weather effects and Hitman-esque twilight. What's more, we played both PS2 and Xbox versions and one wasn't particularly distinguishable from the other - in fact, the only thing we'd say we preferred would be the controls on the Xbox pad, but we're sure this is just down to personal preference. The audio side of the game doesn't really seem up to the quality of the rest of the game sadly, but was obviously incomplete in the preview code we've got, so judgement is reserved for now.
Freedom Fighters is shaping up to be another sleeper hit for IO, and we think you'll be more than a little surprised should you get your hands on a copy come September, as long as you're not expecting a deep, involving adventure. It's got guns, lots of guns, and has made a few people go "Cool" and "Wow" - including us - and we're praying that it can sustain our interest for the duration.