Version tested: PlayStation 2
Riffing somewhat from current events, Freedom Fighters sees an irked young patriot defending his country against an invading superpower through a campaign of guerrilla warfare. Perhaps disappointingly, developer Io Interactive doesn't explore the underlying irony of the premise - that Russia has invaded America to "liberate" Americans from their corrupt capitalist rulers - to any significant degree, preferring instead to frame the player's actions with comedic news broadcasts, predictable NPC dialogue and stirring Russian music.
Perhaps even more disappointingly, the developer doesn't attempt to exploit the possibilities of a tactical guerrilla warfare game set in a familiar urban environment - the streets of Manhattan - preferring instead to assemble an accessible third-person action game stuffed full of respawning identikit communists and simple "get to the flag" objectives.
With all this in mind, you're probably pondering the score at the end of the piece. It's an unlikely scenario - under-developed concept meets watered down tactical action title and breeds well-paced, addictive action game which is likeably similar to loads of other games you've played. But that's what's happened.
Watering The Tree of Liberty
Although this wasn't borne out so well on the PC version we reviewed recently, where the blend of WASD/mouse control, first-person sniping option and a lack of auto-aim demanded precision of the player, Freedom Fighters is a game about blazing your way through swathes of commies with reliable trigger-men backing you up. If you stand around hoping to blast enemies from unassailable vantage points and then swoop in to hoover up dropped ammunition, you're going to get nowhere fast. The communists will bus in reinforcements via APC and you'll be out of bullets - after all, you can only carry one rifle-sized weapon, whether it's a shotgun, machine gun, sniper rifle or what-have-you.
Central to the game's success is what can only be described as the best team-mate AI ever. In Freedom Fighters, your character is able to recruit a number of fellow freedom fighters - well-tooled allies who will follow you if you've built up enough charisma - and direct them to attack units/scout ahead (triangle), defend a position (circle) or follow your point (square), and these guys are not only competent, but actually very effective, seeking and then ducking out from behind cover to take on enemies, responding quickly to your instructions, and working their way around levels without any sort of hindrance.
Anybody who ever played Daikatana or any of a hundred other games with rubbish path finding and generally incompetent team-mate AI will be able to appreciate comrades who clamber over scenery to reach you via the most direct route, know how to negotiate cluttered bars and battlefields, watch out for explosive drums, and even take up opposing positions instead of standing on each other's toes and running into each other's bullets. All the while you're busy firing on the run and moving between burnt out army trucks, overturned yellow cabs and machine gun-toting pillboxes doing much the same. We never once had to go back and untangle compatriots - a genuine first.
With clever team-mates and a clever team-building system (with more freedom fighter "slots" appearing on your HUD for each feat of charisma-building bravery you perform, like rescuing POWs), Io has a strong backbone for a decent third-person action game, and it doesn't waste it by culturing a pasty-faced gutless teenager around it. Instead, it has crafted a game engine that looks great but doesn't boil down to a slideshow every time 50 fighters and a mixture of vehicles make it onto the screen, married it to a series of increasingly explosive but also increasingly diverse mission locations, and built in a simple system of cause and effect.
Each new area in Freedom Fighters is a ferocious battle, and many have consequences further down the line. At one point for example, you're encouraged to blow up a bridge on an important supply route, because doing so will greatly diminish the influx of troops from surrounding areas. But you don't have to. It's a question of courage. And perseverance. Because the resistance uses the sewer system to get around, the only safe house (and, thus, quick save point) is a sewer hatch, often meaning a long trek back to where you were if you can't marshal your forces to overcome the Red Army faithful.
It helps that the environments are not only believable but fairly well constructed, too. Although there is an overuse sometimes of the same prefabricated enemy outposts and a recurrence of bricky textures, the overall look of the game is polished, smooth and distinctly urban. Streets are broad, littered with vehicles and munitions, and buildings are objects rather than world box walls, often forcing you to keep an eye on windowed silhouettes. Although the game relies on that Hitman 2-style smooth third-person look, it's closer in style to TimeSplitters 2, with chunky, ragdoll enemies and sprawling vistas of dipping streets lined with abandoned cars and debris. It pushes the PS2, with its fiery Molotov cocktails and massive headcounts, but not to breaking point, and although to the untrained eye it looks pretty basic, after a while the subtleties and polish shine through. There's even a widescreen mode.
However Freedom Fighters is by no means perfect. The control system is typical third-person fare, with movement and camera mapped to the analogue sticks, but there are some confusing oversights. You can't reconfigure the controls, for example, and with the relatively vital first-person aiming view on the notoriously frustrating "click in" L3 button, versus the less important and toggleable crouch function on L2, you're bound to come acropper once or twice due to control issues.
You'll also have to click the right analogue stick and simultaneously spin it to change weapon or inventory item. Although this quickly becomes routine, it can cause problems - dying because you couldn't select the right side lower diagonal health kit in time when the D-pad sits completely unused on the other side of the pad seems idiotic. Surely mapping preferred items to D-pad buttons wouldn't have been that much of a stretch?
And to round off, we're also a bit upset by the lack of a sensitivity option. Despite letting you invert both the vertical and horizontal axes, you can't adjust the speed at which your fighter's crosshair zips around the place in first-person, and - having revisited TimeSplitters 2's excellent digital/optical zoom-style approach to targeting this weekend - this is another irritation.
We also found the multiplayer mode rather boring, although to be fair it does try to be different. We couldn't work out why multiplayer wasn't in the PC version when we reviewed it earlier this month, but now we sort of get it - each player would have to be sending nine characters' worth of trajectories, positions and so forth instead of just swallowing it all piecemeal from a central server. You see, instead of four players deathmatching to their bland, unfulfilled hearts' content, Io has tried to sculpt something slightly different, with more than a passing nod to DICE's Battlefield series.
Up to four players can compete on two sides - obviously the Americans and Russians - and each player can recruit a legion of freedom fighters to help. The goal is simply to capture the flag at the centre of the level, which takes a few seconds of attention to do (rather like planting the bomb in Counter-Strike), and protect it until the team's clock has run down to zero. When the flag changes hands, the other team's clock runs down instead, and yours gradually builds back up.
It's a tug of war, in other words, accentuated by cleverly positioned stationary machine guns which rip through flesh like cheese wire, forcing you not only to capture the central objective, but also master these gunnery outposts - which also serve as spawn points for fresh recruits. In this sense, Io has beaten off one of the genre's most depressing problems, by making camping thoroughly difficult. You will need to camp the flag to keep it, but if you do then your enemy can race around and quickly take over machine guns, point them at the middle and then try and lure you into standing tall enough to take a bullet in the bonce.
However despite this noble attempt to liven things up, we got bored of Freedom Fighters multiplayer for the same reason we got bored of UT Domination. It's a certain type of fun, and looks very clever on paper, but it's actually rather boring and repetitive, and each round takes ages to complete.
Red Ones Go Faster
So then, with Red subs sinking in the Hudson and the stars and stripes flying from Liberty Island, the console version of Freedom Fighters doesn't stack up much higher than its PC counterpart. But although the controls could do with tweaking and the multiplayer doesn't hold much excitement, it's still fundamentally entertaining. It's an odd concoction, built around an idea we'd love to see developed further than it is here, but thanks to some genius AI, enjoyable level design, simple objectives and underlying black humour, it works.
7 / 10