You may find it surprising that we're reviewing the PC version of Freedom Fighters first, but for some reason it was the first reviewable copy that we got our hands on. No matter though, because the beige box version of Io Interactive's third-person squad-based shooter is surprisingly solid - and the familiar WSAD keyboard and mouse-based control scheme works as well if not better than its console counterparts. Having enjoyed ourselves with preview copies of the Xbox and PS2 versions, we decided it was worth writing this one up as soon as possible. After all, the Reds are marching on the land of liberty, and although some of us might find that wholly understandable, it's a battle you're probably going to want to fight whatever your hardware.
Fighting the good fight
On the other hand, it is worth noting right from the off that followers of Raven Shield and other similarly heavyweight tactical shooters will be disappointed by Io's arcade approach. Although it is a game about leading like-minded freedom fighters into the breach against an overwhelming Communist onslaught, you're limited to three commands - regroup, attack and defend - and, apart from pointing your rebel troop in a specific direction with the mouse, the focus is on action rather than planning. As such, weapons automatically reload during quiet moments, enemy troops are regularly shuttled in by APC to meet you and the body count is ludicrously high. Oh, and it has a storyline that even Hollywood would probably baulk it.
Delivered with a mixture of sinister and comical cut-scenes taken from "SAFN" television broadcasts, and a Red Army of stereotypical Russian accents, Io's take on events following World War II offers an unlikely but enjoyable premise in which the Russians dropped an A-bomb on Berlin to end the war in Europe, and subsequently absorbed most of the globe - including, most recently, sections of South America - into a worldwide crimson empire. At the start of the game, New York plumber Chris and his buddy are arguing about the likelihood of a Red invasion as they head to an address in Brooklyn, only to discover shortly after arriving that the Russians have in fact seized New York and much of the United States and started broadcasting messages celebrating the American "liberation" from a corrupt Western government.
Enraged by the capture of his homeland and the incarceration of a fellow plumber, Chris lashes out at a Russian soldier frisking residents outside the Brooklyn apartment, and catches the attention of a moustachioed freedom fighter who leads him to the sewer system - which acts as a hub for the resistance movement to access various sections of the city. From this dingy location, Chris can tool up with weapons, chat to fellow rebels and move between levels.
Stars and stripes
The structure of the game is really quite simple. The goal of the resistance is to recapture New York piece by piece, which means vanquishing Soviet control of areas like the Post Office, Police Station, Harbour and so on, each of which has been requisitioned and reinforced by the Red Army for various reasons. By fighting his way through urban environments slaughtering Commies with stolen assault rifles, shotguns, grenades, Molotov cocktails and other goodies, Chris can gain access to and plant C4 in key areas to cripple Soviet supply lines and infrastructure, rescue important captives, and also replant the stars and stripes to reclaim each area - and end the level.
These areas are clumped together and often certain objectives in one area (planting explosives to destroy a sniper-infested petrol station, for example) require Chris to do something else first in another area (in this case, steal some C4). Fortunately Chris has a map showing numerous manhole covers that he can open with his trusty wrench, and each of these sewer access points allows him to quick-save his progress (with full saves available between levels) and move to an adjacent area. Ultimately though, activities generally boil down to moving through areas shooting soldiers until Chris and his merry band reaches the local flag pole and tears down the hammer and sickle.
Recruiting armed help is a matter first of building up the charisma bar - by supplying health packs to wounded citizens and fighters, and performing feats of outstanding bravery. As Chris' charisma and reputation improve, he's given more and more NPC slots in the top left of the HUD, and by walking up to a fighter and pressing E, Chris can easily recruit his services. From here, he can direct fighters to attack a target (by pointing at it and pressing 2), defend the current position (3) or regroup on him (1), and these chaps are not afraid of getting their hands dirty. In contrast to what you might usually expect from NPC AI, they seek cover and vantage points intelligently, fire on enemies making use of any handy machine gun nests, and follow you without ever snagging on some unexpected piece of scenery. Even better, recruits don't die, they just fall in combat and require medical assistance, leading you to weigh offloading a medical pack against your own chances of survival without it. In short, Io's implementation of NPC warriors is almost faultless - if it wasn't for a few cases of trying to shoot enemies through walls, pausing on open ground and the lack of a "where are you?" command to locate downed comrades in need of medical attention, we'd give these rebels a universal thumbs up.
On the other side of the fence, the Communist AI is equally tough but a bit short sighted. Troops will rush for cover when they hear firing, but at a certain distance they don't seem to notice anything, let alone see you ploughing lead into their comrades. They're also remarkably robust, with some absorbing scores of bullets to the chest and midriff before going down in a textbook exhibition of ragdoll physics. They do go down quickly if you happen to pop them in the head, but maddeningly the accuracy of everything bar the sniper rifle is extremely questionable. Even squeezing the right mouse button to aim down the sights sees bullets scattered everywhere - even from the pistol - and in a PC game which lacks the auto-aim of its console cousins, you really don't expect to see that.
Certainly you end up using more bullets than is strictly economical, and with fairly irregular quick-save points, dying and having to restart a level because the game sent your bullet a few pixels astray can be incredibly frustrating. It would be just as well if you always had the sniper scope in reserve, but Chris can only carry one heavy weapon at a time - be it assault rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, etc - and so these warm full metal jackets of increased long range accuracy are too few and too far between.
But niggling flaws aside, the combat is engaging and intense, with troops dashing all over the place to try and run you down and pesky sniper and machine gun emplacements requiring skill to overcome. Although almost universally industrial, environments are well realised and modelled, and see you racing through the streets of Manhattan using abandoned cabs and burnt out tanks as cover, with some memorable scenes as Chris and entourage storm a hotel lobby, popping up from behind desks to fire on troops as they come running down a massive staircase; or attack a helicopter pad, ducking the Russians' suppressing fire to gun down sneaky soldiers clambering onto the roof to flank them.
Of course at the end of the day Freedom Fighters is not much more than a good, solid arcade shoot 'em up. After the initial pang of interest in the story, it quickly becomes something of an excuse for guerrilla warfare on the streets of New York, and although it's mindless fun in the same vein as something like Brute Force, in the absence of fantastical ordnance and Halo-style vehicles with which to romp around the city, it does become quite samey after a few short hours behind the sights. A bit more distressing is that despite the inclusion of up-to-four player split-screen action in the console versions, the mighty PC release is limited to one man and one man alone.
In fact it is disappointing that Io hasn't spent more time improving the PC version over its siblings. Compared to other console-to-PC ports we could mention, it's almost bug-free, with only a few clipping issues and the odd invisible snag at the top of a staircase. However although the Hitman-derived technology looks very smooth and runs like Teflon-coated shit out of a shovel on our test rigs, even at the highest levels of detail it's more of a nice-looking low-end Xbox release than a sharp PC title. Think of the PC ports of GTA3 and Vice City and you get the idea - technically competent, but not altogether stunning. Which is a shame, because so many of the foundations are there - excellent character animations, for both the living and the newly deceased; real-time weather effects and smoky streets with limited visibility; seasonal changes to the environment, and mission settings which actually fit the state of the story - at a certain point, Chris the "Freedom Phantom" becomes a liability in daylight, so missions start to take place under the cover of darkness. Still, seen up close, the slightly too angular bodies and environments tell their own tale.
Nothing like a little Brute Force
Truth be told, we've seen and heard some disapproving takes on Io's freedom-up and we can understand their criticisms. Ignoring problems inherent to the PC version, the backbone of the game is still well worn. However we're willing to give it the benefit of the doubt - and recommend it above similar arcade shooters like Brute Force - because it's not too hard, it has a certain charm, it lets you take things on in your own way (as a commander or a commando), and it isn't afraid of pushing the old-fashioned arcade challenge of getting through a level without hitting F6 every ten seconds. Fun, frivolous and worth a look, but console owners may want to wait for our take on those versions.