Freedom Force is something of an anomaly in the Irrational universe. For a company whose games have tended to brood on the dark side (System Shock 2, The Lost, Thief, even Tribes Vengeance gets fairly grim at times) the wholesome nature of Silver Age comic heroes seems a bit at odds. The team's boundless creative energy and passion for their product was evident though and the first game became a hit with critics and gamers alike.
But behind the scenes Irrational were being pushed by publishers EA to release the game swiftly, and consequently some aspects of the first game were underdeveloped. The follow up, Freedom Force Vs The Third Reich, can be seen as something of a redress, aptly righting previous wrongs for the sake of justice.
Chief among these enhancements is a hugely expanded multiplayer mode. The first Freedom Force was limited to deathmatch with a set of default characters, and the lack of an in-game browser meant sessions had to be found by switching in and out of Gamespy. With some 400 fansites spewing out custom heroes and begging for a decent multiplayer experience Irrational have seen the potential and gone all-out to cater for the online crowd this time around.
As well as fixing the obvious problems by adding an in-game browser and the ability to use your own custom-made heroes online, FFvsTTR introduces something Irrational are calling Story-Based Multiplayer. This works something like a simplified Neverwinter Nights adventure. Groups get together to play co-op 'stories' that are more in tune with the single-player structure of the game as opposed to being arbitrary punch-ups. 12 of these stories will ship with the game (and Irrational may release more official ones online) but the idea is to get the community building their own. To this end FFvsTTR will ship with a comprehensive toolset that should allow even the newest of mapping newbies to put together a working map in no time. Although we didn't get to see these tools in action, we're told they will work on a 'bolt-together' point-and-click basis with would-be mappers dragging and dropping buildings, scenery, enemies and objectives onto the map from a selection of menus. Those wishing to create more varied and complex missions will be able to access the underlying scripts too. Once you've set the scene and added your own custom heroes you can package the whole thing together along with a JPEG 'Comic Cover' and distribute the mission online as a downloadable comicbook adventure. We can see the faithful, playable, reproductions of classic comic sagas now...
So they've sorted multiplayer out, what about the single-player side of things? Here too Irrational have recognised the failings of the previous game and attempted to put things right. Where there were blocky boxes for buildings before there is deformable architecture now complete with 3D interiors. Subtle dynamic lighting adds a whole new level of visual punch, especially at night when people start throwing cars around and swinging lamp posts like baseball bats.
AI has seen some major improvements too. In Irrational's own words managing team-mates in the first game often became "Adventures in babysitting" with you having to fight with your heroes rather than have them fight for you. AI controlled team-mates are now much more sensible with their power management. No longer will you return to an AI character to find they've used up all their energy overkilling a minor henchman leaving nothing for you to use on the big Arch-Villain. Powers are now divided into four categories numbered 0 to 4 that correspond to the amount of energy needed to use them. AI will only use 0-cost powers automatically, ensuring they have plenty of oomph left when you take control of them.
But of course the most important thing in any comic is the story itself! In true comic book tradition FFvsTTR is a continuation of the saga, revisiting characters from the previous game and weaving new ones into the tale. The fresh inspiration for this new episode comes from the Golden Age of comics as opposed to the Silver Age heroes of the first Freedom Force. For those without the metallurgic comic ken, the Golden Age is your Forties 'Rocketman' era. Without wanting to spoil the story we'll just say that something's gone Alchemiss with the space-time continuum, causing the present day to be overrun with X-Energy powered Third Reich Nazis. Of course the best way to fight Nazis is with their contemporary superheroes so the Freedom Force seek out some Golden Age counterparts to join the good fight.
Among these new/old characters Eurogamer readers will be amused/offended to see some painfully voiced Europeans. From the obese, operatic, Italian arch-villain Fortissimo to bungled British gadgeteer Blackjack, we're talking Van Dyke levels of mishandled mouthery here.
While we're talking voices, it's interesting to note that many of the characters are voiced by the devs themselves. At first that sounds a bit cheap, but when you hear the Irrational boys happily barking out catchphrases during an interview you see that no hired-for-the-day voice actor could get the characters as right as the men who've spent months creating them. There's a closeness; an integrity to the development studio that can only be a good thing. FFvsTTR has that labour of love feel about it.
That 'Pet Project' vibe is a double-edged sword though. FFvsTTR may not be enough of a step forward for some people. It still feels very much like an attempt to remake Freedom Force the way Irrational wanted it to be from the start, before EA rushed it out the door. That's no bad thing if this is your first encounter with the series, as you'll be getting a polished, perfected title that on it's own merits looks very good indeed. But whether there's enough new material to persuade Freedom Force veterans to part with their cash again remains to be seen.
For more on Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich, take a look at our interview with Ken Levine here.