The Western world seems to experience an almost seasonal obsession with everything superhero, and you'd be hard pressed not to notice the enormous success of the new Spider-Man movie and all its associated merchandise at the start of the summer. It proves that the utterly fantastical powers of a supposedly everyday civilian versus an evil threat of some sort is still a highly profitable idea, and Irrational Games appear fully aware of this, having put a good couple of years work behind their comic book opus Freedom Force.
Taking place in the fictional Patriot City during the height of 1960's American superhero fanaticism, the game begins with the birth of a crack team of superheroes led by the Captain America spoof, Minute Man. An unknown and apparently unstoppable alien species has conquered every planet in existence, and all that stands in its way is Earth. The evil race's power lies in their ability to harness Energy X, a substance which imbues anything that comes into contact with it with great power.
Apparently the alien commander was feeling particularly creative when Earth's number was up, and so instead of just blowing it away he decided to release canisters of Energy X into the atmosphere, the plan being that humans are all so power hungry that they'd end up destroying themselves as they began to understand how to harness their new skills. As well as the miscreants of Patriot City getting their hands on this mysterious Energy X, so too did the power pass to some of the kinder souls, which is where our hero Minute Man comes in, and our quest to rid Patriot City of evil begins.
Power... Flowing... Through... Body...
You're eased into the game smoothly by a tutorial system that informs you exactly how to control Minute Man, and how to utilise his skills and the environment as you proceed through the mission. The learning curve is very gentle and doesn't demand much from the player to start with, only pitching you up against a few enemies who put up a tiny amount of resistance. By the time this is over, though, you're pretty much set up for the rest of the game.
Your first set of missions take place in the streets of Patriot City and put you up against every day thugs on a crime spree. A Grand Theft Auto-style directional arrow ushers you towards your next target, which usually takes the form of a club-wielding goon. Your options of how to tackle each situation are varied even at the start of the game; you could either sidle up to the miscreant and bop him on the head with your fist, or if there's a couple of them you could use your "Strike For Freedom" move, which provides a sweeping attack on multiple enemies.
However, your approach can be a lot more creative with the utilisation of pieces of scenery - cars, trash cans, benches, tables, water towers, ventilation ducts and even lamp posts and traffic lights can be flung at enemies or used to club them round the head. Eventually it becomes clear that Minute Man isn't powerful enough to take on the evil forces alone though, and as the story progresses you meet more and more heroes who are able to join you in battle. Once a new character joins your team, you're treated to an animated comic book style back-story as to how they got their identity, soundtracked by a typically cheesy Batman-style voiceover.
There Goes The Neighbourhood
Fights become increasingly busy later in the game, with up to four characters under your control against a legion of evildoers, ranging from common thugs to giant velociraptors and mutant ants. The consequences can be hilarious as your heroes charge through the streets and across the rooftops, flinging pieces of Patriot City around with reckless abandon. It's possible to virtually flatten the playing area, as pretty much everything, including buildings, can be knocked to the ground given enough punishment.
Of course, superheroes aren't superheroes without a collection of devastating powers under their belt, and there's definitely no shortage of these in Freedom Force. Each character starts off with a standard set of fairly weak attacks and defences, but new powers can be bought and upgraded with experience points gained during missions. This is where the RPG aspect of Freedom Force comes into play, as each character is hugely customisable, enabling you to form characters to serve specific purposes - bumping up Mentor's mind control attacks, for example, can render a crowd of adversaries defenceless and open to a large scale firebomb attack by El Diablo, taking care of multiple enemies quickly.
The strategy of effectively utilising your team's skills as a whole unit instead of concentrating on your favourite character becomes an integral part of the game later on as the enemies you come up against employ more devious tactics, forcing you to use multiple character skills in tandem. It can be tricky in stressful moments to really manage each team member simultaneously though, and so occasionally sheer luck and slightly faltering AI can have more to do with success than actual strategy.
The wonderfully stylistic visual and sound design is what really makes the game stand out, almost distracting you to the point of ignoring the game's shortcomings. Patriot City is lovingly modelled in an unusual but not off-putting simplistic style, and character models and skins are wonderfully detailed. The icing on the cake is the deliciously over-the-top special effects, as enormous explosions, laser beams and energy waves tear the city apart around you. And if you're not happy with what's on offer, it's entirely possible to create your own superheroes, villains, super powers and a city for them to skirmish in from scratch with the downloadable editors.
I'd imagine that had Freedom Force lacked the variety of environments, characters and sheer possibilities for customisation, I would be giving it a far less enthusiastic appraisal. However, the relentlessly amusing missions, tongue-in-cheek humour and fabulous special effects are more than enough to keep you hooked, if only to see what else there is to be found and thrown at you.
Freedom Force manages to blend action, strategy and RPG elements fairly seamlessly into a consistently interesting and entertaining game. The future looks bright for the title with a burgeoning community behind it, and although it isn't really a factor in this conclusion, it will seal the future of an already enormously fun and deserving game. UK Release Date - now available