Freedom Force Reader Review
Isn’t it interesting how a few minor differences here and there can completely alter a game’s commercial prospects? Whether it’s the speed and efficiency of a multiplayer matchmaking system, the option to invert one’s control system or the length of time that passes before the first enemy may be engaged and dismembered, a slew of seemingly inconsequential components of a video game’s structural body can truly mark the difference between eternal nirvana in Scrooge McDuck’s mountainous pool of cash and the last-ditch struggle to pay off the mortgage on your semi-detached bungalow on the outskirts of Tipton.
This fine line between glory and relative anonymity is epitomised by Freedom Force, released in 2002 by Irrational Games. Part real-time strategy and part role-playing adventure, Freedom Force bears a loose resemblance to another frantic, character-based mash-up, a little-known creative property known as The Sims. Let’s have a think about this. Both games offer their respective players a tantalising degree of power over the destinies of a group of miserly puppets, all of whom stand submissively in line to do the bidding of their almighty masters at the keyboard’s helm. More importantly, though, both have a tendency to administer that obligatory slap to the player’s face by brining along a plethora of the infuriating frustrations that come with the responsibility of managing a squad of AI-operated minions, often rendering one’s efforts to bring spiritual enlightenment or dystopic doom to the target game worlds futile as one’s holy commands are systematically carried out moronically and disobeyed entirely.
The difference, however, comes in the settings of each game. The Sims, set in a residential hotbed not unlike your own ramshackled cesspit you call your home, offers a variety of options with few lasting consequences. Yes, you might neglect your in-game family members and cause them to feel hopeless and unloved, but the worst that’ll happen is that they’ll set fire to the kitchen or urinate on the floor. Besides, they’ll cheer up once you install a pool table in their living room or get rid of the urn filled with the ashes of the relative you starved to death because he kept antagonising the neighbour whose pants you wanted to get into this week.
That’s not quite the case with Freedom Force, though. Forget the trivial urban qualms of the normal folk here; this game puts you in charge of a team of superheroes, each equipped with the dynamic, entrancing powers needed to save the world from the powers of evil. However, with such great power comes great responsibility, and with such great responsibility come the consequences lacking in the comparatively idyllic world of The Sims. Make a mistake there and you’ll have to deal with an annoying, yet rectifiable, setback, but mess up in Patriot City, the setting of most of Freedom Force’s skirmishes, and the world will crumble. Not only that, but your pride as a seasoned pro gamer will be crippled, forcing you to humbly lick your wounds as your poor strategy is punished for the umpteenth consecutive time.
I think we’ve established that Freedom Force isn’t exactly the most forgiving of games, then. As the traditional commander/overlord/power-crazy sod, it’s your job to command a rag-tag squad of superheroes, each simultaneously blessed and cursed with the powers granted to them as a result of their exposure to a curious power source known simply as Energy X, through the rigmarole of the urban chaos forged by a wealth of similarly corny misfits hell-bent on ushering in a new dawn of tyranny and oppression. Although most of the game is set in the typical metropolitan hotspot of Patriot City, Freedom Force occasionally takes you on brief tours of your adversaries’ secret hideouts, which, in typical comic book fashion, convey every ounce of subtlety possible for colossal, sprawling fortresses armed with laser turrets and presumably bedecked in the words, “This is not a secret lair”, spelt out in a bold luminous font. Regardless of the setting, however, the goals tend to remain relatively uniform, often adopting the well-trodden formula of “take out henchmen; locate main boss; bludgeon main boss to death with blunt objects; protect civilians if you’re feeling a tad sentimental”.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of mission structure, at least as long as the game’s interface and AI mechanics can adequately support it. Of course, beginning a paragraph like that can only mean one thing: Freedom Force doesn’t quite get the job done. With the common hoodlums normally positioned at various strategic vantage points around the level map, it’s often sensible to split up your team of as many as four heroes in order to best utilise their talents and suppress their respective weaknesses. Again, this should be straightforward logic for even the most casual fan of the strategy genre, with everyone with a shred of common sense knowing that engaging one’s ranged specialists in a fisticuff trade-off with a skinhead armed with a baseball bat is likely to yield unfavourable results, as is the idea of leaving your melee warriors exposed to a flurry of long-ranged enemy projectiles. No, sir; you’ve got the think tactically to master this game, exploiting the strategic advantages lent to you by the environment and the defensive formations employed by the enemy forces. Or perhaps I should that such an approach ought to work were it not for the typical AI-dependent flaws that typify so many games in the strategy games of this era, and which threaten to sour the entire experience and pollute the air with a putrid chain of profanities in one fell swoop. When you’ve separated your squad members in an attempt to thin out the numbers of the resident baddy’s hired goons, you’re faced with the unenviable task of having to micromanage each and every one of your worryingly fragmented teammates as they struggle to find the shortest, most sensible path to their target locations, often fumbling mindlessly into traps and getting mown down by the very enemy you were so desperate for them to avoid. And that’s not all. Commanding a hero to attack a group of foes seems easy enough on paper, but the task becomes exponentially more taxing in the all too common instances in which they happen to miss and proceed to politely refuse to administer any further attacks until you specifically command them to do so, all whilst they’re taking a sound hiding from the local English Defence League members at chucking-out time. When you’ve got four different team members brawling in four different areas of the map, it hardly seems fair to have to spoon-feed instructions to each and every one of them without trusting them to use some of the initiative they might have picked up at superhero school, but, evidently, user-friendliness was seen as a weakness during the Irrational creative meetings.
Following the occasionally ambiguous goals can be a pain in the proverbial grapefruits as well. One particular mission burdens you with the task of having to demolish an enemy’s merchandise warehouses in order to lure him out of hiding, all whilst taking away vital experience points for damaging civilian structures. This might make sense in theory, but the frantic nature of the game’s necessary micromanagement makes it difficult to distinguish between the two, a quandary made all the more troublesome by your squad members’ frequent tendencies to miss their intended targets and lay accidental waste to the city council’s new multi-million dollar commercial district. It all makes what should be a relatively simple, engrossing experience a frustrating exercise in trial and error, giving the game an element of challenge that feels cheaper than it does rewarding.
It sometimes seems appropriate to write off a game with so many irritating little quirks as a complete waste of time and forget all about it, but Freedom Force’s shortcomings are made even more agonising by the fact that its production values, from its attractive comic book art style to its fittingly cheesy voice work, are as anything you’ll find in the gaming market. Every hero boasts a unique back story, each told through a montage of stationary comic book scenes, complete with a set of marvellously bizarre, over-the-top plot devices, detailed to perfection by a suitably dramatic and unconvincing narrator. Just imagine Max Payne’s cutscenes with none of the bleak grittiness and a double helping of self-parodying sci-fi nonsense and you’ll get a decent idea of what we’re dealing with.
The ludicrously enjoyable sense of madcap fun also spreads into the missions themselves, with the narrator returning at the end of each level in order to bring in the obligatory “What happens next? Find out next week, same Bat Time, same Bat Channel” reference as the scene fades to an ominous black. The heroes themselves can often be heard spouting equally genre-specific gibberish, with such nuggets as “Right makes might!” and “Fried bad guy coming up” ringing through the air as they prepare to wallop another wrongdoer into sweet unconsciousness.
The game’s RPG elements, though minor in the grand scheme of matters, are also welcome additions to the experience. Depending on how you allow each mission to play out and how much attention you pay to your secondary, non-essential goals, varying levels of prestige points may be earned upon the completion of each level, allowing you to level up your team members and allow them to acquire new perks and powers. There’s also the option to create your own hero from scratch, or perhaps I should say “from the ground up” if I want to utilise pretentious PR speak. Customisation may be considered old hat now, but the added element of creative freedom afforded to players in 2002 was a pleasing extra component of a solid narrative experience, even if it was admittedly a tad superfluous and superficial as far as the main plot was concerned.
Freedom Force is a particularly difficult game to recommend to any stringent enthusiasts of any particular gaming genre, if only because it’s so different from almost everything else that came before and has come along since. Hardcore strategy nuts will probably lament its lack of base-building tactics and backward AI as adequate reasons to let it sail by unnoticed, whereas those familiar with such micromanagement free-for-alls as The Sims might well grow concerned by the game’s lack of open-endedness and strict abidance by its narrative flow. I suppose, then, that Freedom Force might be worth a look if you’re the kind of thrifty, unsociable tosspot like me, who will play anything if it’s cheap and looks pretty. The game can be downloaded for a measly few pounds, euros, dollars or jumping beans, depending on which part of this miserable planet you inhabit, and is worth around the dozen hours of your dwindling life it takes to see it through to its conclusion. If not, you could always save your small change and buy a sandwich, but that would just be sad. That is, of course, unless it contains bacon, in which case I can’t argue with your decision.