Freedom Force is a tactical role-playing game involving superheroes and super villains. That means, right away, it has two things going for it. Very few tactical role-playing games are published each year, and almost no superhero games have been published -- ever -- and so Freedom Force is about as unique a game as you’re likely to find. But developer Irrational Games didn’t stop there; they didn’t make Freedom Force a gimmick game and then hope to cash in at the bank. Instead, Freedom Force has entertaining gameplay and a nice graphics engine, and it’s even well written and well acted. In short, Freedom Force was one of the best games of 2002 (it was released way back in March), and it’s even better now that it’s seen two patches and Electronic Arts has lowered its price to under $15.
The main storyline behind Freedom Force involves an alien named Lord Dominion. He and his race had been going through the universe, conquering planets as they went, until they finally found Earth. But rather than just going down and conquering Earth normally, Lord Dominion decides to sprinkle “Energy X” canisters around the planet, so that humans will gain extraordinary powers and end up destroying themselves. However, another of the conqueror race, Mentor, decides to foil the plan and put the Energy X to better use, but during the ensuing struggle the canisters fall randomly all over Patriot City. Some of the people there become energized and decide, with Mentor, to form Freedom Force, while others decide to use their newfound powers to enhance their life of crime.
And so you find yourself with superheroes and super villains, and a wide variety of each. For example, Freedom Force has the likes of Minuteman, who whacks people with Patriot, his special staff; El Diablo, who uses fiery attacks, including flaming fist and inferno; and Eve, who is proficient with a bow and arrow, and who can hypnotize people with a kiss. Freedom Force even has access to Mentor, but, oddly, he’s one of the weaker superheroes, with a few mind-affecting spells and little in the way of direct-damage power. In fact, there are so many superheroes included in the game (16), not to mention the custom superheroes you can create on your own, that you’ll need to play through the game two or three times just to try everybody out.
The super villains are also interesting. As you play the game you’ll face off against the likes of Nuclear Winter, with his ice trooper and ice queen minions; Mr. Mechanical, with his robot army; and Déjà Vu, who can make multiple copies of himself. Unfortunately, Freedom Force doesn’t develop much of a story, and going through the game’s 22 missions is pretty much a matter of facing one super villain after another until you reach the super-est of the super villains and end the threat. But, luckily, the villains are distinct and varied, and so just wondering what weird and unusual things you’ll see next will draw you through the game.
The game structure to Freedom Force is similar, at least in the broad strokes, to other tactical role-playing games (like Fallout Tactics). You have to progress through a linear series of missions, and, for each mission, you’re allowed to take four superheroes along. Mission objectives range from rescuing captured superheroes to thwarting bank robberies to taking down super villains, but, in one of the game’s (bad) quirks, the experience you gain for each mission is fixed. The superheroes who go on the mission receive 300 experience points (and maybe find experience canisters as well), and the superheroes who stay home in the Freedom Fortress get 200 experience points. So the way you’re ranked for each mission is with “prestige points.” If you meet an objective or defeat a minion, you receive prestige points; if you allow a building to be destroyed or a civilian to be knocked out (nobody is killed in the game), you lose prestige points. The problem is that while experience points let you upgrade superheroes, prestige points only allow you to recruit superheroes -- and you don’t even need to do any recruiting to win the game! Hopefully, if Irrational Games makes a sequel to Fredom Force, they’ll figure out a better way to evaluate mission performance.
The actual mission gameplay to Freedom Force is fairly action-oriented. Freedom Force isn’t a game where you set up ambushes or stealthily root out evildoers; you pretty much rush from hotspot to hotspot, vanquishing enemies as quickly as possible (and thus there’s a strong bias towards flying heroes with ranged attacks). Luckily, you can pause the game at any time and issue orders, which helps when the game gets hectic -- and which also helps to make up for a so-so interface. For some reason there isn’t a mini-map available to help you visualize (or move around) the mission areas, some superhero skills get hotkeys while others don’t, and the camera control is awkward. But the pause feature makes it easy to work around these control problems, and so they end up being more of a nuisance than anything else.
What really makes Freedom Force fun is how interactive its world is. Most of the missions take place in Patriot City, but cars and buildings aren’t just things that get in your way. You can pick up cars and throw them at your enemies, or grab a light poles and use them as weapons, or demolish buildings and hope the rubble lands on the bad guys. You can even throw snowballs around. Plus, objects break apart, adding even more detail. Hoods and wheels fly off cars when they crash, signs break off buildings, and boulders shatter into smaller rocks. Everything in the world comes into play, and that just adds to the enjoyment, as well as the strategic options, of the missions.
And if all of that wasn’t enough, Freedom Force sports a nice graphics engine. The graphics might not be as detailed as you’d like, but they’re colorful and show what they need to show, and, possibly best of all, the game runs smoothly even on older computers. Plus, the between-mission cinematic sequences are well written and well acted, and the background music is pretty good, making Freedom Force one of the more polished games I’ve played lately.
So, overall, Freedom Force is definitely a game you should try out if you like strategy games or superheroes, or if you just want to try something different. The game doesn’t have any serious weak points, it’s fun to play, it’s polished, it’s inexpensive, and it might take upwards of 30 hours to complete -- and that’s if you only play though the single player campaign once. There just isn’t anything about Freedom Force not to like.